Teach medical students to be critical, says Ernst

Medical students must learn to think critically, an academic physician who became the first professor of complementary medicine has warned.

January 20, 2015

Speaking at a press conference today to launch his book A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble, Edzard Ernst criticised the omission of critical thought classes in medical schools.

“In Exeter, I don’t think medical students learn how to think critically and that is the most important task because knowledge in medicine changes very fast and so you need that tool of critical thinking,” he said.

Professor Ernst retired from his position as professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter in 2011.

His final years at the institution were marked by an internal investigation by the university after the Prince of Wales’ private secretary claimed he had breached a confidentiality agreement on a 2005 report into the cost-effectiveness of funding alternative treatments on the NHS.

After “13 months of hell”, Professor Ernst was acquitted but his funding soon ran dry. The university sought a successor to his professorship when he retired but failed to find a suitable candidate.

Professor Ernst admitted that “colleagues” used to say he was too critical in his research into alternative medicine, but he remained adamant that there was no such thing as being overcritical.

He said: “I feel that nobody takes critical analysis really seriously who works in alternative medicine research.

“In my view none of the centres which specialise in that sort of job are critical enough but that does not mean they are not good researchers.”

He added that journals of alternative medicine are “riddled with bias”.

Despite being labelled as a “quackbuster” in the media, Professor Ernst stressed that he does not disagree with all forms of alternative medicine.

He explained that he once published a whole list of alternative treatments that the NHS might consider funding, including acupuncture.

Professor Ernst said acupuncture releases endorphins in the brain and therefore may be effective in treating pain, but added that it must always be established first if these treatments work.

On integrated medicine though, he remained critical. “Mixing apple pie with cow pie is not a good idea,” he said.

Read our Book of the Week review of Edzard Ernst’s A Scientist in Wonderland

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Reader's comments (1)

I hate to disagree with my friend Edzard Ernst, whose work (and book) I admire enormously. But I fear that acupuncture too is no more than a myth -a theatrical placebo, http://www.dcscience.net/2013/05/30/acupuncture-is-a-theatrical-placebo-the-end-of-a-myth/

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