Tuesday 19 June 2018

Book Review - SCAM: So-called Alternative Medicine

Keywords: Homeopathy, alternative medicine
Title:SCAM: So-called Alternative Medicine
Author: Edzard Ernst
Publisher: Imprint Academic
ISBN: 978-1845409708

‘SCAM – So-called Alternative Medicine’, is the follow-up book to ‘A Scientist In Wonderland’, Edzard Ernst’s very readable memoir. That book, reviewed here previously, Ernst told the story of how he came to be the first Professor of Complementary Medicine in the world. It was a post that was greeted enthusiastically by those who were true believers in homeopathy, healing crystals and other forms of ‘alternative medicine’. These true believers assumed that anyone taking on that role would be like minded. Unfortunately, Ernst decided that he was a scientist first and foremost and that his job meant applying the scientific method to the extraordinary claims made by practitioners. The fall out reached a peak with a very public falling out with Prince Charles and trouble for Ernst from his own university. It’s an interesting story well-told in the first book.

In this book Ernst is continuing the work that got him into so much trouble. Here he outlines how these various alternatives seem to work – their common features, imperviousness to evidence, the magical thinking and conspiracy theories that believers use to counter the lack of evidence. For example, many alternatives claim that much of contemporary medicine also doesn’t stack up and hasn’t been tested vigorously in clinical trial. While there’s a smidgen of truth there, Ernst points to the evidence that in conventional practice 80% - 90% is evidence-based (and includes the reference so you can look at the original paper itself).

While the book lacks the narrative from the first – after all that was a memoir – it does run over some of the elements of his own experience in battling with Prince Charles. It’s a book that is informed by long experience talking to people who really do believe in homeopathy and so on. Some of the people who peddle this stuff really do believe it and have the best of intentions. But there are some very cynical, mercenary people who are driven entirely by selfish reasons to exploit vulnerable people when they are sick. But perhaps, as Ernst suggests here, there’s a third group – people who convince themselves and make a nice living at the same time.

Overall this is certainly an interesting read – with plenty of useful information with which to counter fraudsters and fakes. There’s even a section on how to set yourself up as a charlatan – yep, you too can claim to cure cancer, fight dementia and tackle bad breath.

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