Alternative medicine and its discontents (1 of 2)

May 3, 2012

Regarding "Aberdeen looks to feather its nest in a field dubbed 'pure quackery' " (News, 26 April): I am alarmed by this article for five good reasons.

First, it seems to misrepresent the long and honourable tradition of academic work being funded by charities or private benefactors. There are thousands of bona fide university programmes enjoying the benefit of support by such interested parties. Useful sums of money are often bequeathed to universities by people with sincere reasons for promoting research into, say, homeopathy, religious intolerance or solvent abuse. Whatever the field or subject, to describe the University of Aberdeen as "feathering its nest" by considering a donation from a trust fund for research is jaundiced.

Second, the article gives scant regard to universities' ability to organise objective, methodologically sound and potentially informative research. Aberdeen is quoted as saying that the mooted chair in "integrative health care and management" would need to be a qualified doctor and an experienced medical researcher. Those are the qualifications of Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, who makes the "pure quackery" jibe. They do not entitle him to anticipate the results of forthcoming work on any subject. (And with that title, one would have expected a more professional interest in the field.)

Third, there are many doctors and other healthcare professionals who prescribe and recommend Iscador (mistletoe extract) because they have experienced good outcomes with patients. There is evidence that it is a gentle cytotoxic agent that works well in some circumstances. Surely we should welcome more data about how it works, when it works and what it can achieve for cancer patients?

Fourth, the article might have sought comments from acknowledged experts in this field. For example, doctors at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine in Great Ormond Street routinely administer Iscador and monitor outcomes. Why not invite a response from Peter Fisher, its clinical director and director of medical research? He knows more about the subject than Ernst.

Fifth, for years complementary and alternative medical systems have been repeatedly pilloried and vilified by the mass media in a fashion that seems grossly obsessive, even ideologically violent. Ernst may be professor of complementary medicine, but a more accurate title would be "professor for the promotion of scientistic medicine". I think Times Higher Education should be careful when it represents his views and - in the interests of fair reporting - should always cover the countervailing arguments, even if (perhaps especially if) they are contrary to the dominant culture.

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