Thursday, December 30, 2010

Edzard Ernst and Herbal Remedies

In today’s Independent there is an opinion piece by Edzard Ernst, on the need for less opinion, at least as far as herbal remedies are concerned, specifically “Edzard Ernst: We need less opinion and more scientific research” on Thursday, 30 December 2010 (

Having read a great deal of Ernst’s work and writings, I came to the conclusion, some time ago, that in much of his field of supposed expertise, he is, more or less, completely clueless.

The comment I contributed to the discussion in the Independent is as follows:

Edzard Ernst is, regularly, ready to give his opinion, sometimes based on “science” from his point of view, even though much of that science is seriously flawed.

The description of my own Healing modality in “Trick or Treatment?”, the book he wrote with Simon Singh, contains double figures of errors on a single page. When I questioned Edzard Ernst about such matters on his own Blog on the “Pulse” website, he, essentially, ran away. As a so-called Professor of Complementary Medicine who professes to know about my modality, has supposedly researched it and pontificates on it, he turns and runs when asked questions by someone who knows the subject, has years of experience of it, plus half a century of involvement with science; a combination that is clearly too much for him.

I do not claim to know other parts of the CAM field in depth, unlike Edzard Ernst and the semi-instant expertise of Simon Singh who went from zero to an “expert” in about two years. In practice Singh has not a clue what he is talking about and Ernst is little better.

Unlike Ernst, Singh and many others, I do at least have an appreciation of the history, principles and thinking behind many CAM modalities as well as a strong science background. Applying science to them would be advantages in several ways. Unfortunately the science usually applied is often rubbish. Because he understands so little that even my non-scientific Healer colleagues could, immediately, see the flaws in his research. The supposed mechanism of placebo is related to the self healing abilities which are natural too us. Many non-mainstream methodologies, including spiritual healing, specifically encourage, apply, “set in motion” an individual’s self healing abilities. Hence, Edzard Ernst essentially proved that Spiritual Healing did not work because Spiritual Healing was not better than Spiritual Healing, or placebo did not work because placebo was not better than placebo. Ernst made the basic error of assuming that the procedure he chose to act as a placebo really was a placebo.

From what I have read of Ernst’s work, which is fairly extensive, I doubt that his expertise is much better in other areas, including that of herbal medicine.

How many other professors are utterly clueless about a significant subject in the field they claim to profess, particularly one on which they have pontificated and given strong opinions?

There are many fields of endeavour that depend heavily on experience, both on a personal basis and the “handed down” variety. That is certainly true of my own profession of engineering, which is less than 20% science in content. If we applied the evidence based approach in purely the science sense, as opposed to the generality of evidence, the world as we know it would not exist. There many are areas of engineering where “evidence based” in either the straight scientific sense, or “randomly controlled trial” sense is impractical, ridiculously expensive, or simply not there, not available, unattainable. That is the difference between living in the real world and inhabiting the amateurish theoretical scientific world of Edzard Ernst and his acolytes.

Similarly, there are many other matters in which handed down experience, group and/or society experience is valuable, including herbal traditions.

Besides, how come that from a health point of view, herbal remedies are to be considered not safe unless proven to be safe, whereas mobile ‘phones and similar are to be considered safe unless proven unsafe? Such inversions of the proof of safety are very common in our society and seem to have a strong correlation with vested interests.

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