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Book review: ‘Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial’
Craig Aaen Stockdale
10 Jul 2009

“Dedicated to HRH the Prince of Wales”

Wait a minute … What?

My mood sank. What sycophantic nonsense was this? Surely two such great promoters of rationalism and empiricism as Doctors Singh and Ernst couldn’t be – I whispered the dread word - monarchists? I sighed heavily and read on, determined at least to hear what they had to say about one of Prince Charles’ favoured topics, alternative (or complementary) medicine.

It was anything but complementary.

In almost 300 pages Singh and Ernst demolished the Big Four of alternative medicine. They concluded that acupuncture is simply a powerful placebo, its reputation bolstered by downright fraudulent research and faked public demonstrations of its “effectiveness”. Homeopathy is dismissed as merely expensive water, backed by a theory that borders on the lunatic. Chiropractic Therapy appears from the evidence to be pretty much useless for anything except back problems, but more disturbingly is potentially lethal. Finally, that most inoffensive of alternative treatments, Herbal Medicine is judged to be a disastrously unregulated and potentially dangerous step back to the Dark Ages for medicine.

Come on, I hear you say. Nobody ever died from taking a herbal remedy. Really? Tell that to the thirty-odd people who died in the 90’s from the form of kidney failure that became known as “Chinese Herb nephropathy.”

All of which confused me greatly in light of the book’s dedication to that great proponent of alternative medicine, HRH the Prince of Wales.

That is, until I reached the last chapter, which begins with a quote from our future king:

“It makes good sense to evaluate complementary and alternative therapies. For one thing, since an estimated 1.6 billion pounds is spent on them, then we want value for our money.”

A noble sounding sentiment. But is this sentiment as noble as his opposition to genetic modification and advocacy of organic farming – an industry from which his Duchy profits to the tune of 6 million quid a year? Is Charles’ interest in The Truth, or in… well, his own interests?

Charles is a longtime supporter of alternative therapies and has worked hard to place them on a footing equal to conventional medicine. In a letter to the Times, quoted by Singh and Ernst, Charles says:

“In 1997, the Foundation for Integrated Medicine, of which I am the president and founder identified research and development based on rigorous scientific evidence as one of the keys to the medical establishment’s acceptance of non-conventional approaches.”

It is clear from statements like this that Charles’ Foundation is not interested in the truth, but is lobbying for the “acceptance” by the medical establishment of alternative medicines. The Foundation has published leaflets, distributed to every British GP by (believe it or not) the UK Department of Health, advocating alternative therapies and suggesting that they have benefits equal to or beyond those of conventional treatments. Singh and Ernst condemn the booklets as “propaganda” and point out that they simply state that alternative means are “used to treat” certain conditions, thereby avoiding any discussion over whether such treatments are actually effective.

In 2005, the Prince’s Foundation published a report by an economist, Christopher Smallwood, stating that:

“The benefits to the economy of a wider application of successful complementary therapies … could run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Suffice to say, in the medical and scientific establishment, this raised a few eyebrows. Unfortunately, as Singh and Ernst argue, the report was flawed at its inception by asking an economist, not a doctor or even a scientist, to assess the potential “benefits” of alternative medicine. Smallwood assumed that alternative medicines did what they said on the tin – an assumption totally at odds with the scientific evidence, which effectively invalidates his report before it even gets started.

Richard Horton, editor of the respected medical journal the Lancet replied to the Smallwood report in no uncertain terms:

“The idea that homeopathy can replace conventional treatment, as the Prince’s report suggests, is absolutely wrong. Not one shred of reliable evidence exists to support this incredibly misjudged claim”

Singh and Ernst outline more examples of the Prince’s meddling. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency recently took the outrageous decision to allow homeopathic remedies (read: expensive water) to make claims on their labels regarding their “effectiveness” based not on clinical trials, but on homeopathy’s own criteria of “provings”. Singh and Ernst suggest that the Prince, who wrote several letters to MHRA members the contents of which are a closely guarded secret, influenced this wholly unscientific and irresponsible decision.

Singh and Ernst are also critical of the Prince’s advocacy of Gerson therapy for terminal cancer patients, a treatment that involves strict diets and coffee enemas. This “therapy” is discredited and considered highly dangerous, to the point where it can only be practiced in private clinics in Mexico. Professor Michael Baum, a cancer specialist responded to the Prince’s statements regarding Gerson therapy with barely contained fury:

“The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth.”

Ouch.

Prince Charles is not a doctor, or a scientist, in the same way that he is not an architect. Whether you agree with him regarding alternative therapy or not, it is constitutionally unacceptable for him to attempt to influence health policy in any way. He has stated his desire to be more “politically active” as King, so perhaps under his reign we can expect more doctors to begin prescribing aura cleansing for our terminal cancer or the body parts of endangered animals as a fertility treatment.

In conclusion, Singh and Ernst’s ironic dedication of their book to Prince Charles reflects the fact that medical researchers all over the world have done the very “research and development based on rigorous scientific evidence” for which Charles asked and the results are far from likely to result in its “acceptance” by “the medical establishment”. By calling for more research into his beloved alternative medicine, Prince Charles has shot himself in the foot. Perhaps some reflexology will ease the pain.

This is a guest post by Republic supporter Craig Aaen Stockdale.

Views expressed in guest blogs do not necessarily represent the views of Republic.

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This entry was posted on Friday, July 10th, 2009 at 9:52 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Comments are now closed.

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17 responses so far > Add your own

  1. dave godfrey

    ‘…a powerful placebo, its reputation bolstered by downright fraudulent research and faked public demonstrations of its “effectiveness”. ‘ This sounds familiar.

    I’ve recently read this book, and the fact that Simon Singh is currently being sued by British Chiropractic Association (http://www.simonsingh.net/ for details) stops me from recommending it. However, the chapter on homeopathy provides for some really shocking reading, as the claims made for this particular form of alternative medicine are amazing. However, the fact that homeopathic remedies are being promoted in a supposedly advanced 21st century country shouldn’t really come as a surprise considering we still have a monarchy.

    Did anybody see the Dimbleby Lecture this week? Personally I couldn’t stand the thought of listening to Mr Charles Windsor prattling on for so long, so I have avoided it. But I presume he made some putty-sharp observations based on his vast experience whilst relying on his amazing intellect.

  2. Craig Aaen Stockdale

    Dave,

    Simon Singh is being sued by the BCA precisely because the legal path is the only avenue of assault left open to them, having thoroughly lost the scientific battle. Far from stopping people from reading his book, this outrageous move by the Chiropractic lobby should encourage it. A campaign to support Simon Singh and to keep libel laws out of scientific debate has been set up (here: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/333/) and the petition has already attracted around 15,000 signatories.

    The threat of legal action is a barrier to academic discourse and cannot be allowed to stifle debate. I encourage everybody interested in alternative medicine, or Prince Charles’ interest in it, to read what Singh and Ernst have to say.

  3. James Gray

    This also relates to my blog about “The Prince’s Charities” the other day. Most of them are in effect pressure groups. The total FOI exemption for royal documents that Brown announced recently seems designed to stop journalists (and, of course, citizens) discovering the extent of his influence.

  4. dave godfrey

    Craig: Thanks. Mine is one of the 15,000 signatures.

  5. Marjory Smith

    What shocked me most about this was Charles’ advocacy of coffee enemas for cancer patients. I’ve not got 40 years of study and 25 years of research like the cancer specialist who is so furious with him, but every instinct in me screams out that would be fatally poisonous.
    This sounds like an excellent book, I just hope the truth will out. I’ll be signing the petition too.
    I recorded that lecture and got home before it finished but I couldn’t stand it when I switched it on – a woffling, milld-mannered, sheep-faced, sheep-brained, plundering wolf and a lot of idiots sucked in to sitting there soaking it all up, though a lot of them looked pretty bored by then. I just deleted it. I refuse to assault my heart, soul and mind with his verbal poison, any more than I would poison my body with his quack remedies.

  6. Rob Shorrock

    How are they actually funded?

  7. James Gray

    @Rob

    In the case of the Foundation for Integrated Health it’s donations and – yep, you’ve guessed it – public grants. It was awarded a three-year £900,000 grant by The Department of Health “for its work in supporting the regulation of complementary therapies”.

  8. Richard Wells

    ‘…a powerful placebo, its reputation bolstered by downright fraudulent research and faked public demonstrations of its “effectiveness”.

    I take it that this applies to the Royals?

  9. Alan

    As much as I loath Charles’ interventions (on the basis that he is misusing his power and acting unconstitutionally), I sometimes wonder if, by doing so, he is actually doing us a favour because his activism is more likely to make people think about the injustice of the monarchy. It can be said of the Queen that she is \inoffensive and wields no real power any more anyway\, however, Charles is going around offering his (often controversial) views willy nilly and cannot deny that he is using his position to give weight to his opinion.

  10. Jaf

    ‘Charles uses his position to give wieght to hiis opinions.’

    Well, he world have to. If the Dimbleby Lecture was anything to go by, his understanding of science is seriously below the average, which, let’s face it, isn’t a particulary highly set bar.
    I watched the sycophantic introduction and a few minutes of the lecture, but for the sake of my blood pressure had to turn off when he started spouting about how science separates us from nature. What nonsense! Science shows us that we are part of nature, and not a specially chosen ‘spiritual’ being, but merely apes, related to everything else that lives on this planet, and not the product of sky-fairy magic. Science shows us evidence of what works, and what doesn’t. Science is that which still works even if you don’t belleive in it.
    If we can’t (yet) elect our future Head of State, could we at least demand an intellignece test?

  11. Tim Sharp

    I work in healthcare (The NHS) and I can assure you all that unpicking causality in health outcomes is very complicated and as Jaf puts it so well has nothing to do with sky fairy magic (I have just come from a research meeting where we encourage young clinicians to research interesting and important topics at a very high standard). The problem is that Charles’ whole agenda is based on the past (ie; where the monarchy belongs) and looks suspiciously like a nostalgic campaign to kid the gullible into clininging on to practices which don’t stand up to the kind of evidence base that we require in healthcare. I find the thought that the department of health have given the ‘charity’ £ 900,000 simply obscene.

  12. Steve Smedley

    Too many people, and I think Charles Windsor is one of them, think that science is just another faith-based system of belief where one person’s opinion, no matter how loopy, is just as valid as another.

    Charles simply cannot come to terms with the fact that there may be people out there, really quite bright people, who have bothered to study a scientific discipline in depth for many years and may actually know more about the subject than he does.

    In the scientific community, unlike other walks of life, you earn the right to be listened to in the public arena by your own personal record of achievement and your reputation, not by who your mother happens to be. Scientists submit themselves to peer review, and don’t surround themselves with sycophants.

    So, Charles, a few words of advice: it is better to say nothing and be thought a fool, than open your mouth and confirm it. If I want medical advice I’ll see my GP.

    Also, for an excellent discussion of alternative medicine, the placebo effect and medical trials I can recommend “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre.

    P.S. I have a PhD in chemistry, you have a 2.2 in anthropology. I think I outrank you.

  13. Tim Rogers

    How do we rationalise the following report on the treatment with homeopathy of 2.4 million Cubans?

    A preliminary report by the authors of a Cuban Study that used homeopathy to prevent Leptospirosis in 2.4 million Cubans.
    Homeoprophylaxis: Cuban Experiences on Leptospirosis
    Dr. Concepción Campa, Dr. Luis E. Varela, Dr. Esperanza Gilling, MCs. Rolando Fernández, Tec. Bárbara Ordaz, Dr. Gustavo Bracho, Dr. Luis García, Dr. Jorge Menéndez, Lic. Natalia Marzoa, Dr. Rubén Martínez.
    “The Finlay Institute is a centre dedicated to development and production of vaccines; we also bring our WHO qualified facilities for all homeopaths and homeopathic medicine. The Finlay Institute acts as supporting institution for research, production and development of high quality homeopathic products. However, according with the social objective addressing prevention of infectious diseases, we are focused on homeo- prophylaxis as strategy to attenuate the impact of preventable diseases on developing world, the ones that need it the most.
    Thus, development and evaluation of nosodes, appears to be our main approach to fill up the breakthrough on current conventional strategies based on vaccination. Similarly with vaccination interventions, massive applications of prophylactic nosodes give rise to a greater impact on population health compared with individualized therapies. In addition, the easy administration and low economics resources needed, become this alternative really suitable and accessible for developing countries and almost the best for emergency situations comprising epidemic outbreaks and natural disasters. The Cuban experiences of massively administrated nosodes supports it use as promising solution to confront epidemiological dangerous situations.
    On October November 2007, three provinces of the eastern region of Cuba were affected by strong rainfalls causing floods of big areas and several damages to sanitary and health systems. The risk of leptospirosis infection raised extremely dangerous levels with about 2.4 million of peoples exposed to potentially contaminated water.
    Considering this situation, the Finlay Institute prepared a leptospira nosode 200 CH using 4 circulating strains and following international quality standards. A multidisciplinary team travelled to the affected regions to conduct the massive administration of the nosode. Coordinated action with public health system infrastructures allowed the administration of a preventive treatment consisting in two doses (7- 9 days apart) of the nosode to about 2,4 million of people (4,8 million of doses). The coverage of the intervention rose up to 95% percent of total population of the three provinces at risk.
    The epidemiology surveillance after the intervention showed a dramatic decrease of morbidity two weeks after and a reduction to zero of mortality of hospitalised patients. The number of confirmed leptospirosis cases remains at low levels and below the expected levels according with the trends and rain regimens.
    A reinforcing application was given after the hit of the hurricane IKE but using the nosode diluted up to 10 MC. Strict epidemiologic surveillance is carried out on this province. Up to date result will be presented.
    The results supported the design of new strategies for leptospirosis control. This experience could be extended to other diseases and other countries. The Finlay Institute is offering our facilities and specialists to spread this alternative to all regions needing emergent alternatives for epidemic control and prevention.”

  14. Phil Thompson

    @James Gray.

    In the case of the Foundation for Integrated Health it’s donations and – yep, you’ve guessed it – public grants. It was awarded a three-year £900,000 grant by The Department of Health “for its work in supporting the regulation of complementary therapies”.

    *Speechless*

    I mean, Jesus wept. More money well spent, then.

    @Jaf.

    “I watched the sycophantic introduction and a few minutes of the lecture, but for the sake of my blood pressure had to turn off when he started spouting about how science separates us from nature.”

    I couldn’t stomach watching him. I’m glad I didn’t because as somebody who found small-time fame in both Scientific and New Age communities for making electronic music out of Chaos Theory (the math of Nature) these comments would have made me want to throw a brick at the TV.

    Science seeks to understand (and represent) Nature and everything else, and it indeed shows us that we are part of it in microcosm and macrocosm. Charles clearly has little understanding of either – but what do we expect from someone who cannot be disagreed with?

  15. Phil Thompson

    P.S.

    It was, of course, Religion that elevated Mankind above Nature. And Darwin who exposed the lie.

    So Charles is obviously well qualified to be “defender of faith(s)”.

  16. Phil Thompson

    @Tim Rogers.

    “The risk of leptospirosis infection raised extremely dangerous levels with about 2.4 million of peoples exposed to potentially contaminated water.”

    I think the key word there is potentially. Perhaps the people took care not to be exposed to contaminated water? In that case the study would have shown the same result even if the nosode had no effect. And there was no control group? Hardly scientific, then.

    “The number of confirmed leptospirosis cases remains at low levels and below the expected levels according with the trends and rain regimens.”

    Expected by whom? Perhaps the estimates were incorrect?

    “Considering this situation, the Finlay Institute prepared a leptospira nosode 200 CH using 4 circulating strains and following international quality standards.”

    I’m not an expert in this field but it seems to me that’s nearer to vaccination than homeopathy. Are we saying “strains” are equatable to Bach flower remedies, for example?

    I can actually see how homeopathy might potentially be beneficial in cases such as treatment of allergies. By gradual exposure to increasing amounts of a substance the body can build up a tolerance for it. But that’s a far cry from proving that a drop of rose oil in water or coffee enemas can treat cancer.

  17. Tim Sharp

    @ All I agree with lots of this – to paraphrase Asimov (quoted by Richard Dawkins I think) -Science is not a belief system it is the best bullshit detector we have.

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