The importance of being Ernst
Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, has always struck me as a sweet and mild-mannered German teddy bear of a man, yet the quacks hate him with a passion that makes them look even uglier than they are already. It’s no longer a surprise to me that quacks ignore the science and prefer instead to vilify their critics – they don’t have many proper arguments, after all. But it was a bit of surprise that someone sent me a link to a post on the ironically named ‘Truth Will Out’ blog entitled, Edzard Ernst is a fake-3. As that post is a particularly vacuous attempt at character assassination, I assume it was sent to me so I could give it the treatment it deserves.
The writer is one Chris Holmes, a hypnotherapist and author of a self-published book about nicotine. Edzard evidently winds Chris up so much that he spent some 2,000 words (and that just on part 3) huffing with resentment and pushing a monstrously fallacious argument, which amounts to this:
P1. To be a professor, you must be a “qualified expert”;
P2. To be a qualified expert you must have professional experience as a practitioner;
P3. There is nothing that says Edzard has ever been a professional CAM practitioner;
C1. Therefore Edzard shouldn’t be a Professor of Complementary Medicine.
I’m sure anyone who can get all the parts of their brain working together as a team, can agree with P1 and can see that P2 is arrant nonsense; it follows that P3 – whether true or not – is irrelevant and that the conclusion and all the bluster that accompanies it is false. (In fact, in his book Edzard mentions that he is “an insider who practised medicine for many years, including some alternative therapies,” but this doesn’t suit Chris Holmes’s purpose so he disregards it. If he can’t find the hard evidence with Google, then it can’t be true.)
To anyone who can’t see that P2 is nonsense, I guess with a big weary sigh that I’ll have to spell it out for you. First, here’s a question: do you think that a Professor of Theology or of Comparative Religion isn’t properly qualified unless he’s done a stint as a bloody vicar?
Here’s Chris Holmes’ killer argument:
The least they would require, if they were looking to find the ideal candidate for a Professor of History – for example – was that the person was at least an historian. Any Chair in the field of Mathematics, naturally you are looking for a mathematician.
The fundamental flaw in Chris’s argument lies with his unstated premise that CAM is an academic discipline. History, mathematics, philosophy, and all the various branches of the biomedical sciences are established academic disciplines. Complementary medicine – like religion – is not. Complementary medicines – like other quasi-religious beliefs and practices – are phenomena to be investigated academically. This is why the Chair was created in the first place and why the Peninsula Medical School’s Department of Complementary Medicine’s stated objectives are:
• To conduct rigorous, inter-disciplinary and international collaborative research into the efficacy, safety and costs of complementary medicine.
• To be neither promotional nor derogatory but to struggle for objectivity.
• To promote analytical thinking in this area.
Now, given that the stated objectives are neither to teach the practice of nor to deliver any CAM therapy but, rather, to investigate scientifically whether they are of any benefit, what real advantage would clinical experience of delivering, say, acupuncture, bring to the role? Is the idea that an acupuncturist would be better able to design clinical trials or survey systematic reviews better than somebody who only held a Chair in a biomedical science? Given their penchant for cherry-picking poor quality trials, I’d say the idea that your typical quack can meet the all-important requirement of objectivity, is a pretty much a non-starter. As for the notion that a CAM qualification equips one to conduct scientific research into any CAM therapy…anyone who’s read any of David Colqhoun’s posts exposing the content of these courses, will find that suggestion screamingly funny.
As Edzard himself says, good quality evidence can only be obtained if
well-trained scientists (rather than CAM enthusiasts with a mere veneer of science to hide their biases) conduct the research.
The suggestion that, just as CAM therapies should be delivered by professional CAM therapists, so scientific research should be left to professional scientists, might not seem particularly controversial but it sent Chris Holmes scurrying for the stupid pills. Here’s his response:
Oh, really? That’s assuming that even well-trained scientists might lose their scientific objectivity if they have any enthusiasm for what they are studying, is it? Tell that to NASA. Or is it just a swipe at CAM enthusiasts particularly, a sort of Catch 22 that if you are a CAM enthusiast you cannot possibly be a well-trained scientist?
(I know – the stupid, it burns!)
No, Chris, it isn’t assuming that “well-trained scientists might lose their scientific objectivity”. The assumption is that well-trained scientists will retain their objectivity, whatever their enthusiasms. Edzard neither states nor implies that a CAM enthusiast can’t be a well-trained scientist; he will have read studies led by such people and perhaps marvelled at how even well-trained scientists can conduct trials that are badly methodologically flawed. (Fortunately, most well-trained scientists understand the need for replication and peer review and some are even prepared to admit sometimes that they get things wrong, as did Klaus Linde, whose 1997 homeopathy meta-analysis contains the most cherry-picked sentence in the history of homeoquackery, much to Linde’s dismay.)
Actually Chris Holmes goes further than decrying Edzard’s supposed lack of qualification. On Planet Holmes, Edzard is dismissed as “a pathological skeptic with a mere veneer of scientific objectivity,” and bewails his “17 years of over-zealous CAM-bashing posing as objective scientific enquiry using the badge of the university to give it credibility”.
It’s amazing how many people there are shrieking with indignation at what must be the most transparently stupid canard their tiny minds can come up with: ‘Altmed works and if the science doesn’t show that it’s work, the science is wrong and the scientist biased.’ As there is no danger of Chris Holmes letting us in on which of Edzard’s hundreds of papers he thinks isn’t objective and how it fails to be so, his unflattering description of Edzard can be disregarded as the mindless rant of an embittered ignoramus who wouldn’t recognise scientific objectivity if it sat on his face and sang Hello Dolly.
What I find fascinating are the more inventive canards people come up with in order to smear the character and impugn the motives of Edzard and of skeptics in general. First Chris gives us the usual one that
he doesn’t give a toss about the public, that is just a pose. He is, and always has been attacking Complementary Medicine with all the relentless determination of the self-righteous zealot, whilst turning a blind eye to all the sufferings and damage caused by so-called “evidence-based” medicines.
To this Chris adds his own eccentric twist
if Ernst really did have public interest at heart, and simply didn’t want valuable resources spent on things that (he says) don’t work, then he would happily agree with the Truth Will Out call for Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) to be dropped by the NHS on the grounds that the long-term results are clearly no better than placebo (see Evidence section of this site).
Chris Holmes doesn’t have a clue what Edzard thinks or knows about NRT yet he proclaims that Edzard
seems quite happy for valuable resources to be squandered on drug-company products that don’t work, kill people or half-kill them..(which) seriously undermines Ernst’s credibility”.
I’ve lost count of the number of times the ‘no credibility’ ad hominem has been flung at just about every high profile skeptic by just about every no-profile quack. Undermines his credibility in the eyes of whom? Some jumped up quack of a nicotine-denialist? I’m sure we’ll all lose loads of sleep over that.
The argument that ‘if you don’t speak out about the evils of orthodox medicine, you don’t care about the public good’, is as common as crabgrass even though it’s a red herring repeated by those who really don’t care about the public good. Let’s face it, if they cared about the public’s well-being, they wouldn’t be attacking people who expose worthless therapies and the charlatans who promote them and they wouldn’t be defending therapies that that are biologically implausible and scientifically unsupported.
I’m reminded of the bunch of desperado chirotrolls who hang around Zeno’s blog whining that if Zeno was really motivated by concern for the public, he would be attacking osteopaths as well! Here’s my favourite:
The “osteopathic lesion”sounds much like subluxation to me…This goes to show how vexatious this attack on the chiropractors really is and begs the question why was osteopathy never mentioned in Singh’s article in the guardian,why did he choose to single out the chiropractors?
Is there a link between Singh, Ernst and the osteopaths (or is too much of a conspiracy theory idea)?
The answer, of course, is that that Simon’s article was written for the ‘chiropractic awareness week’, which was an initiative of the British Chiropractic Association. But don’t you just love the idea of Simon and Edzard being in cahoots with osteopaths to discredit chiros? LMAO! Equally revealing are the nasty comments directed at Zeno by several chiros who repeatedly accuse him of sycophancy, bigotry and discrimination because he’s currently focussing on the quacks whose representative body decided to make a lot of noise and draw attention to themselves, rather than having a go at some other bunch that were content to fly under the radar. In order not to be accused of bigotry and discrimination, Zeno should be a broad-minded democrat and attack everyone equally, it seems.
Which brings me back to Chris Holme’s blog post and his motives in writing it. The post is a load of cobblers and I suspect Chris Holmes knows it is and that’s why he resorts to hyperbole and falsehood: puff out a thick enough smokescreen and you’ll divert attention from the painful fact that 17 years of academic research funded by someone who was keenly interested in CAM has unearthed negligible benefits. And from the equally painful facts that Edzard co-authored a fascinating and accessible book about it and that his co-author, Simon Singh, has had the temerity to stand up to a bunch of quacks aka the British Chiropractic Association, who thought they could bully him into shutting up, but who have instead succeeded far better than Simon did in attracting public attention to the bogus claims made by their members.
It must be so, so scary for those quacks who have for years been happily promoting bogus therapies for which there isn’t a jot of evidence to see what is happening to chiropractic and homeopathy in this country – the phrase “loss of credibility” springs to mind, funnily enough. But what quacks like these are too stupid to see is that ignoring the totality of available evidence while attacking the character and motives of their critics, doesn’t do much for their credibility either.