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Professor Edzard Ernst: A Career Built On Discrediting Natural Health Science?

By PAUL ANTHONY TAYLOR

Professor Edzard Ernst, a retired German physician and academic, has recently become a prominent advocate of plans that could potentially outlaw the entire profession of naturopathic doctors in Germany. Promoting the nonsensical idea that naturopathic medicine somehow poses a risk to public health, Ernst attacks its practitioners as supposedly having been educated in “nonsense”. Tellingly, however, given that he himself has seemingly not published even so much as one completely original scientific trial of his own, Ernst’s apparent attempts to discredit natural healthcare approaches are largely reliant instead on his analysis or review of handpicked negative studies carried out by others.

Images: By Luiyo [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons / By Geyson Garcia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Previously promoting himself as the UK’s “only professor of complementary medicine”, Ernst was essentially forced out from a post at the University of Exeter in 2011 after publicly attacking Prince Charles over his support for natural forms of medicine. Clearly embittered over this incident, Ernst claims the Prince’s ideas about alternative approaches to healthcare amount to “quackery” and has publicly derided him as a “champion of anti-science”. As it turns out, however, the philosophies of Ernst himself are hardly beyond criticism.

Ernst now also featured on the NT2 website!

Peddling the old claim that supplementary vitamins just create “expensive urine”

Still peddling the long-disproven claim that taking supplementary vitamins just creates expensive urine, Ernst essentially asserts that in developed countries the vast majority of the population can easily obtain sufficient amounts of micronutrients in their daily diets. Arguing that Americans are wasting billions of dollars on nutritional supplements, he seems to hold the draconian view that natural health products “should have no place in pharmacies”.

Two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling disproved the claim that taking vitamin supplements results in "expensive urine" over 20 years ago.

But for someone who claims to be a man of science and an expert in alternative medicine, it seems odd that Ernst openly identifies with so-called “skeptic” organizations that disparage natural approaches. A regular speaker at skeptic-oriented conferences, Ernst seems utterly oblivious to the fact that groundbreaking scientific discoveries are invariably made by people with open minds who test their theories by carrying out their own original experiments. With skeptic meetings tending to be attended by representatives of the scientific orthodoxy who believe pharmaceutical-based approaches are somehow evidence-based, it is difficult to avoid concluding that Ernst’s mindset is stuck in the deadlocks of conventional medicine and that he essentially thinks saving millions of lives is, at least in part, dependent on carrying out more drug research.

Promoting nonsense about science?

It is sometimes said that you can tell someone’s character by the people they associate with. If this is true, then Ernst’s acceptance in 2015 of an award promoted and sponsored by the so-called ‘Sense About Science’ organization arguably speaks volumes. Describing itself as “an independent charity that challenges misrepresentation of science and evidence in public life”, over the years Sense About Science has received financial contributions from the likes of AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, among others. Unsurprisingly, therefore, far from encouraging critical thinking, just like Ernst himself the philosophy of Sense About Science is decidedly mainstream. Its 2013 publication on drug side effects suggests that, far from looking for alternatives to pharmaceutical-based approaches, its philosophy is essentially just to accept that all drugs have side-effects and to advocate that we should weigh the risks of harm against their (supposed) benefits.

Close examination of Ernst’s articles also reveals that, in his understanding of the pharma industry, he is either highly naive or utterly deluding himself. An article published by him on the Spectator Health website in December 2016 is particularly instructive. Claiming that “a natural alternative to conventional medicine is an illusion”, it asserts that “if the treatments in question were effective, they would be part of medicine and thus stop being an alternative.” An almost childishly simplistic analysis, this completely fails to take account of the fact that naturally occurring molecules such as vitamins cannot be patented. In other words, there is no financial incentive for drug companies to promote them as alternatives to their multibillion dollar patented chemical drugs. As such, the non-patentable status of naturally occurring molecules means their continued availability as healthcare therapies represents a threat to the trillion-dollar per year sales of the pharmaceutical industry.

While Ernst desperately attempts to dismiss such facts as ‘conspiracy theory’, Dr. Matthias Rath has had first-hand real-life experience of them. The following is an excerpt from his 2003 book, Why Animals Don’t Get Heart Attacks…But People Do!:

On June 2, 1990, I sent a summary of the discovery that heart attacks and strokes are — like scurvy — the result of vitamin C deficiency to Professor Jürgen Drews, head of Hofmann-La Roche Research Worldwide and a member of its executive board.

Hofmann-La Roche is the world’s leading manufacturer of vitamin C raw material. Hofmann-La Roche executives realized immediately that my discovery would boost their international demand for vitamin C and create a multibillion dollar market for it and other vitamins. In order to get further information from me, the executives of Hofmann-La Roche signed a confidentiality agreement and invited me to represent the new understanding of heart disease at their global headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. However, Hofmann-La Roche decided not to promote this medical breakthrough, despite the fact that they acknowledged it as such. The reasons they gave to me in writing were that Hofmann-La Roche did not want to finance the dissemination of this understanding of heart disease for all their competitors, and they did not want to compete with other in-house pharmaceutical drug developments, such as cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Ignoring the scientific evidence

In his support for plans that could outlaw naturopathic doctors in Germany, Ernst is seemingly trying to pretend that literally tens of thousands of studies supporting the health benefits of micronutrients don’t actually exist. In the internet age, however, anybody can now visit online medical libraries such as PubMed and read the scientific evidence for themselves. When doing so, among many other things, they can learn about an evaluation of 18 clinical studies with over 240,000 participants which documented that high vitamin C blood levels resulted in a 38% reduction in the risk for stroke. They can also read how vitamin C is effective against cancer, particularly when applied intravenously.

Online medical libraries such as PubMed contain tens of thousands of scientific studies supporting the health benefits of micronutrients

Whether Ernst pays any attention to these and other studies is obviously up to him. He should understand however that any effort to deprive people of access to natural health approaches can and will have legal consequences. People harmed by such restrictions will inevitably ultimately demand that those who deprived them of their access to such therapies should be held to account for their actions. When the time comes, trying to defend his record as the UK’s “only professor of complementary medicine” would probably not be advisable.

9 November, 2017