Edzard Ernst and the Half-Quack Prince

When we contacted Edzard Ernst about the disgraceful interview in the Telegraph, we were presented with the opportunity to do a full interview. It was very interesting and a bit alarming…

As you may know, Edzard Ernst is the first Professor of Complementary Medicine, and more or less retired, two years prior to the official age of retirement. To understand the reasons for his early retirement and some of our questions, we need to look back a few years:

Edzard Ernst became professor for Complementary Medicine in 1993 and has built quite a reputation as a man of science and as a researcher. But in 2005, things took a rather strange turn. Economist Christopher Smallwood, personally commissioned by Prince Charles, claimed a lot of money could be saved applying CAM treatments. Unfortunately, this position was not supported by evidence. Not in the least! Edzard Ernst called it “complete, misleading rubbish.”. To cut a long story short, Prince Charles’ private secretary complained about Edzard Ernst who became “persona non grata” at his university.

Mr Ernst had been promised further funding, but all fundraising died down at that time. (This is actually quite an obvious development, since most CAM institutions apparently do not want real science to have a look at their methods) He had been promised the university would match initial funding of his unit, but this did not materialize. The unit was not able to keep all employees. He was informed the unit would be entirely dismantled after his retirement.

And so he negotiated. The deal: Immediate retirement and getting re-hired part-time for a year to help find a successor. The unit was not to be shut down.

Professor Edzard Ernst officially retired in May. We did not like that kind of horse-trade, but if Professor Ernst is fine with it, it is fine with us, too. The world is complicated, and so be it. The only part of the bargain we truly liked was that Professor Ernst may choose his successor. Well, at least this is what we assumed when we started asking…

But let’s get started with the interview:
Professor Ernst, when you started examining these methods scientifically, did you expect to meet such massive opposition or did that come as a surprise?
Lots of things were very surprising to me: that alternative medicine practitioners in the UK are often anti-scientific untrained non-medics, that so many of our results turned out to be negative, that there was so much public interest in my work, that alternative medicine enjoys royal protection in Britain etc, etc. The fact that I soon came under increasingly bitter criticism from the enthusiasts was, of course, a result of all this.

Most “alternative professors” practice Cargo-Cult-Science. Why does critical approach seem to be so unusual?
Yes, most if not all of my colleagues use science as a drunken man uses a lamppost – for support and not for illumination. I have come to the conclusion that this is due to them being primarily advocates of alternative medicine and true scientific scrutiny comes at a far remote second or third place.

In which way could this be improved?
One would need to make sure that critical scientists are appointed, for instance, by looking closely what any candidate has previously published. If it is mostly poor science or promotional pseudo-science, the person should be disqualified.

Do you agree with the way your results are being communicated?
I am often misquoted from both sides of the divide. The Telegraph article, for instance, claimed that I am against all alternative medicine. This is not true; I am against all ineffective or unsafe treatments, and that is very different.

You are compelled to a state of “retirement” now, as a result of the éclat with “Prince Charles”. (Smallwood report)
Was there any reaction by the Prince (or someone from his environment) after you called him a ‘snake-oil salesman’?

I offered to go in order to save the unit. My med school is now looking for a successor. Previously I was told that they will close the unit on my retirement. When I called Charles “snake oil salesman” there was no reaction from him or his entourage at all. I did not expect a reaction.

So, you are looking for a successor; do you believe he will have an easier life? Or do you think Prince Charles and his ilk will also try to throw a spanner in his works?
It depends what he/she will do. It would be easy to have it easy in that position; either one does very little or one does only stuff that upsets no one [such as surveys] or one does some basic research that is not so relevant to the public or one avoids all publicity – there are many ways.

The reaction of Charles and other enthusiasts of bogus medicine will depend on the work of my successor and the public image it receives.

Are there promising candidates for the position yet?
I have not yet heard of any.

How much freedom do you have in choosing a candidate? Can you choose/decide freely?
Sadly, I was only involved in drafting the job description. Everything else is out of my hands. I offered my further assistance but the offer was so far not accepted.

ERRM. Half a second. Wait.
What the …??? We understood the deal Professor Ernst made to save his unit, but so far we were under the impression that he will choose his successor!

We winced and mourned the loss when Professor Ernst retired (even when, in an interview, he said he was over the moon with that solution; that he feels exhausted, feels the scars from the many battles). We felt the loss. And now once more, we feel very strongly about the issue at hand!

Dear University of Exeter, to whomever it may concern, do not forget you (probably) have the only real chair of alternative medicine in the entire world (the entire world!), the only position respected by the scientific community and not just by quacks and royal half-quacks. Please, pretty please, do not gamble with your reputation.

Professor Ernst, can the public assist you in any way? Is it possible for us ordinary citizens to help your unit in any way to continue work same as before the éclat?
Public support will be a crucial element whenever controversies arise. I had lots of it – despite all the flack.

This answer is too diplomatic for our liking!

We know there are lots of supporters of Mr Ernst and his fantastic work out there, fighting an eternal battle against the overwhelming degree of lunacy in the world; therefore we would like to encourage all of you to join this fight, too. You may think it is premature, the university of Exeter should be given a chance. Certainly, but once they have taken a decision, it will be too late. We have to take a stance now and proactively defend this chair.

Let’s tell the university that we, the public, will not accept a quack or mediocre scientist in that position. While he/she will not be able to fill the gap, he/she has to be a true scientist! We will accept nothing less!

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