Imagine the not too distant future. You book an appointment with your GP, as you have had a persistent and bad headache for a while now, and before you talk to the doctor, you are encouraged to see a number of in-house ‘experts’ who take your pulse on your wrists and feet, examine the patterns in your irises and look at your tongue. You are given a cinnamon paste to rub on your forehead and then advised to see the in house osteopath. The osteopath uses his special sense of touch to realise that your headaches are due to an old ankle injury and encourages you to sign up to several months worth of ‘manipulation’ to sort the problem out.
If you are lucky, your headaches will clear up anyway. If you are unlucky, and have a serious medical problem developing, you are now several months down the line without a proper diagnosis.
All this has been possible because the new GP commissioning rules have allowed much more freedom for GPs to provide services that their patient base ‘demand’. And the demand is being fuelled by the powerful influence of our future head of state, Prince Charles. Indeed, the vision I have written above is explicitly set out in his new book, Harmony.
Max Hastings wrote an astonishing article in the Daily Mail yesterday saying that Prince Charles was ‘too dangerous to be King.’ Hastings identifies Charles’s almost messianic belief in various issues and his need to speak out as being a great threat to the role of the monarchy. Whether Charles is right or wrong – it does not matter, the institution of monarchy must be respected for what it is and not what it says and does, argues Hastings.
But, as is quite clear in Harmony, Charles is very wrong about a large number of things. And his inability to engage with criticism, combined with his desire to lobby for change through the powerful role of his office, make him exceedingly dangerous.
Harmony is a full frontal assault on enlightenment values. It explicitly argues that we must return to a more intuitive, spiritual and ‘natural’ way of viewing the world and we should be treating with high caution the ‘mechanistic thinking’ of science.
The book is a New Age manifesto that champions the key themes of this movement: a belief in the superiority of ‘ancient wisdom’; the innate goodness of Nature; the rejection of empirical knowledge and reason, and the superiority of faith, intuition and spirituality.
And as with so many other New Age writers, whilst rejecting science, he uses Quantum Theory to justify his position,
Despite the incredible leaps that Quantum Mechanics and Particle Physics and the lessons on the inter – connectivity of matter they so readily offer us, it still appears odd that many people seem not to have a knowledge of these things.
Whilst begrudgingly acknowledging that science may have some uses, he sets out to undermine science as an arbiter of truth,
The language of empiricism is now so much in the ascendant that it has authority over any other way of looking at the world. It decides whether those other ways of looking at things stand up to its tests and therefore whether they are right or wrong. [emphasis as in original]
Science has excluded our “spiritual relationship with Nature” whatever that means and has stopped us using intuitive views of nature,
Even many people in the West fail to recognize that so much modern science is not simply an ‘objective’ knowledge of Nature, but is based upon a particular way of thinking about existence and geared to the ambition to gain dominion over Nature. The way in which this has happened has a lot to do with the numbing of our vital inborn or ‘inner tutor’, the so-called human ‘intuition’.
His arguments are childlike in their approach: “How can you explain love?” He sees scientists has claiming to explain everything and shutting people out of their spirituality. And he accuses scientists into misleading us that science can explain everything – a straightforward strawman. Science, for Charles, is what is stopping us from returning to living in harmony with nature – the theme of the book. His vision will not happen because, as he says,
[It] is hardly likely to happen as long as scientific rationalism continues to turn people away from any form of spiritual practice or reflection by perpetuating what seems to me to be a widespread confusion.
It is therefore no surprise to see Charles call for a greater role for quackery in public health.
Indeed, the book makes the greater public funding of pseudoscientific medicine his explicit aim –although, of course, he prefers to talk about ‘complementary’, ‘integrated’ and ‘holistic’ medicine.
He argues that,
healthcare budgets could make more use of alternative approaches. Whenever that are made available there is always good take up.
He uses the Duchy model village of Poundbury in Dorset as an example of what he wants. The private women’s health clinic in Poundbury, run by Michael Dooley, offers a range of quack treatments, including acupuncture, reflexology and craniosacral therapy. Prince Charles tells us that there is also a professional homeopath available. Dooley specialises in infertility treatments. There are no good reasons to suppose these superstitious treatments have any specific effects on fertility and, indeed, lots to believe it is all plain nonsense.
Charles, naturally, defends his favourite quackery, homeopathy. And he tells us that defending homeopathy has been ‘a very frustrating business’. Indeed, he is quite aware that scientists are telling him that homeopathy is a ‘trick of the mind’ and that the pills are just sugar. However, he resorts to using the ‘it works on animals’ canard to defend homeopathy. Charles introduced homeopathy to his Duchy Home Farm (now supplying Waitrose through the Duchy Originals brand), and claims his staff, who ‘had no views either way’, reported animals getting better. Charles, despite his dislike of reductionist science, then asserts there are trials of homeopathy supporting this view and so he says “I wonder what prevents the medical profession from considering the evidence?”. Charles believes if it is a trick of the mind then he must have “some very clever cows in my shed!”.
Now, lets leave aside the fact that it is illegal for anyone but a vet to prescribe and treat sick animals. Also, I have no desire to dispute the intelligence of his cows. However, the herdsmanship, intelligence and knowledge of his farm management must be called into question. Charles and his staff are falling for the common fallacy that the placebo effect is all about the mind genuinely tricking the body into getting better. In fact, placebos deceive by creating beliefs and expectations that are then reinforced by natural processes such as variation in symptom severity, the natural course of illness and biases such as confirmation bias and misinterpretation of coincidence. The tricks are going on in the minds of his farm staff and not in the cows. Scientific trials of homeopathic treatment of cattle are not conclusively positive either and marginal results are used by homeopaths to mislead people into accepting its legitimacy.
Osteopathy also appears to be a favourite of Charles. He tells us that osteopaths have a special skill of touch by which they can diagnose problems of imbalance in the body. He describes how an osteopath might relate an old ankle injury to recurring headaches and then use the manipulation skills of the osteopath to restore harmony to the body. Its all utter nonsense, but somehow the rhetoric of osteopathic wellness resonates with his New Age views.
And most bizarrely, he tells us that ‘in consultation with experts’ that ancient diagnostic techniques of examining the iris, ears, tongue and other parts of the body, can pick up subtle clues to illness that modern technology misses. He says that modern technology is missing out on the medical wisdom of thousands of years in relying on its reductionist approach and not taking a ‘holistic’ view. He appears to be quite convinced that an Indian Ayurvedic approach to medical diagnosis can improve the reliability of modern medical techniques.
Now, such diagnostic techniques are often used by quacks to tell customers they have a made-up problem, like an imbalance in chakras, blocked chi, a subluxation, a vitamin deficiency and so on, and that their herbs, supplement pills, massage and diet are the way to cure it. When the patient eventually gets better (as people do, for a wide range of illnesses), the quack can claim success for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Charles also makes the mistake of thinking most of these techniques have roots in ancient cultures. For example, iris examination, or iridology, was invented by a Hungarian called Ignatz von Peczely in the 19th Century who noticed that an owl with a broken leg had a mark in its eye. He therefore concluded that looking for marks in the eye could diagnose illnesses in other parts of the body. Such techniques, such as iridology and reflexology, despite being relatively modern western inventions have been co-opted back into ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ and can be found on the High Street with authentic looking ancient Chinese medical charts.
It would be nice to sit back and laugh at the absurd beliefs of this crank. However, Charles is no ordinary crank. He has direct access to government ministers and is prolific in his letter writing to them. He directly lobbies the Health department about these beliefs and he has the capacity to greatly reward those that comply with his wishes. And coupled with his reported dislike of criticism, he has great capacity to undermine not only public health, but the entire standing os science within government.
The poet Ben Jonson said, “They say Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.” The Prince’s ability to surround himself with toad eating flatterers means that his absurd views of medicine cannot be directly challenged. But I fear this is a Prince that needs to be thrown from the saddle of quackery, otherwise we can expect huge damage to the role of science within public life.
You can read the Introductory Chapter to Harmony here.