The Daily Mail: An Apology

Those of you who have read my last blog entry might be under the impression that I believe the Daily Mail is a deeply ignorant and offensive paper that panders to its bigoted readers’ prejudices and does nothing but promote its right wing individualistic nonsense. Furthermore, I may have left the impression that the Daily Mail is little more than a conduit for alternative medicine fraudsters who use the rag to promote their deluded and dangerous wares through a credulous and uncritical science editorial policy. I may have given the impression that I was gloating about how the paper picked up all three Quackometer Awards for Quackiest News Source, News Story and Journalist.

Well, today, the paper disproves any of these slurs by printing a rather enlightening piece about Professor Edzard Ernst, entitled, “Complementary medicines are useless and dangerous, says Britain’s foremost expert“.

The Professor is a real Professor, with a chair at a real, accredited higher education institution, with real academic degrees and a long list of research publications in real peer-reviewed journals. He has, however, trained in many complementary therapies, but is now embarked on a thorough evidence-based evaluation of the techniques and their claims. His summary is basically that a bit of acupuncture may work for some pain (but not through woo meridians), massage is good and some herbal stuff may be effective. Everything else is pretty much useless and even dangerous.

Not surprisingly, his approach and conclusions do not go down too well in the woo community. Evidence is to the homeopathist, reflexologist and reiki master as kryptonite is to Superman. Reason is to the crystal therapist, chiropractor and nutritionist as water is to the the Wicked Witch of the West.

So it is no surprise that Professor Ernst is attacked, or more commonly, totally ignored by CAM practitioners. If mentioned at all, the Professor’s work is condemned as being irrelevant to the sorts of ‘holistic’ treatments that health charlatans engage in. It is a widely held belief in homeopathic circles that double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trials cannot be used to test the efficacy of their sugar pills. No substitute is offered as an alternative test measure – the homeopathist is quite happy to sit in the dark, in an anecdote rich smog and an evidence free vacuum, and use this canard to deflect away the negative results that come out of good, controlled trails. And a canard it is. As Professor Ernst is reported to say in the article, “You need to think a bit more – it’s a challenge”.

The sad thing is that not much thinking is really required. For a trial to be effective, all you need to do is blind both the practitioner and patient as to whether the ‘real’ sugar pill or a dummy pill is being taken. Let the homeopathist do whatever they like in their ‘complex intervention’ (long expensive chat), let them prescribe whatever combination of identical sugar pills is required to create the ‘individualized treatment’. Just make sure that the dispensing of the actual pills is done through some sort of randomised, coded and blind procedure. This is surely not beyond even the wit of a homeopathist. In order to believe that such a trial would be ineffective, you would have to believe that the critical part of the homeopathy magic is in the actual physical handing over, from therapist to patient, of the content-free tablets – nothing to do with tinctures, succussions, dilutions and like-cures-like.

So, anyway. Why did the Mail publish this? If I was to get all conspiratorial, I would say that the Mail publishes such stuff knowing exactly how its readers will respond. The Mail tends to dislike experts and authorities, people who can dispute their nonsense with well reasoned debate. Maybe the Mail knows that its readers will just see Prof Edzard as just another out-of-touch, ivory tower elitist idiot. The readers ‘know’ that their woo-of-choice works and so the only conclusion is that this guy must be just out to spoil their fun. It is a pity that this article is not allowing comments on it at the moment as we could test out if this near the truth. Or maybe it is much simpler in that there is no real science editorial policy and that they will just publish anything that makes a good story regardless of its origin, accuracy or reliability.

Anyway, one thing I am quite proud of is that the Quackometer News Scanner did not pick up this story, despite is being riddled with alt med terms. This is what that the quackometer has to say about the piece,

0 Canards.

This web site has more quackery than my village pond. It is full of scientific jargon that is out of place and probably doesn’t know the meaning of any of the terms. However, the black duck can spot a fellow sceptic!. The site is highly sceptical in language and is debunking. It also looks like this site is trying to sell stuff. Buyer Beware!

I am not going to argue.

Update – 13/12/06

Looks like my prediction is correct. The readers backlash has started in the comments section of the article.

Some highlights so far:

  • Individuals should be free to judge for themselves the effectiveness or non-effectivenss of any therapy. We do not want or need authorities ‘protecting us’ at every turn.
  • what we need is to preserve our freedom to choose what works for us.People have to become aware that our rights are eroding and refuse to accept it. Debate about the safety of natural medicine is ridiculous in light of the large number of people who die from drug side-effects.
  • Often times prescription and non-prescription medicines do more harm than good.
  • The popularity of homeopathy and other natural remedies is pretty strong ‘evidence’ in itself
  • I’m not quite sure what this man hopes to achieve by such arrant nonsense. Indeed it is he who is irresponsible. Why, I wonder does he feel the need to make such a controversial public announcement?
  • However, from my own experience, it would appear to me that there is absolutely no doubt that alternative medicine, along with the appropriate lifestyle changes, can make a major impact upon the health of those who choose to follow that path.
  • Why is it that Professor Ernst et al never make any mention of thousands of allopathic (scientifically formulated) drugs that poison, kill and destroy many peoples lives every day?
  • Wonder if something’s happening in the allopathic world that the heat has to be taken off them and placed onto complementary medicine?

Blah blah blah.

On this theme…

4 Comments on The Daily Mail: An Apology

  1. You might like to know that the Mail has actively screened out comments supporting Ernst. They ignored mine, and also my next one challenging them about selective posting of comments. Others have reported the same. It was clearly a set-up.

  2. I suggest you engage on the Daily Mail message Boards. Don’t be rude. Don’t ridicule others. Just be reasonable and gently challenge the various myths there. You will be banned very quickly!

  3. I'm noticing a similar trend towards comments being oddly pro-homeopathy. The comments in the following story seem to overwhelmingly support homeopathy:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-451908/Homeopathy-worse-witchcraft–NHS-stop-paying-it.html

    They're citing the usual canards, such as a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry, quantum physics, and a wheelbarrow full of anecdotes. Yup, why won't people just listen to the physically impossible claims of homeopaths?

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