Monday, 30 March 2015

A Scientist in Wonderland - Edzard Ernst ****

 The thing that rather puzzled me when I first came across Edzard Ernst's book A Scientist in Wonderland was the remarkable difference between its British and German titles. The British title clearly refers to Ernst's adventures in the sometimes bafflingly twisted world of alternative medicine. But what to make of Nazis, Nadeln und Intrigen (Nazis, Needles and Intrigue) for the German version? The reason is simply that the book comes in what are effectively two distinctly different halves, and each title majors on one of these.

If I can reverse the order, I would not hesitate to give the second half of the book five stars. It describes Ernst's 20 year tenure as Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter. This what made Ernst's previous book, Trick or Treatment, co-authored with Simon Singh, so definitive. What is quite remarkable, in a way, is how much Ernst achieved in this time, as the scales were definitely weighted against him. He describes how, when he first started, practitioners of alternative medicine were horrified that rather than simply looking for ways to justify their practices, he actually intended to put them to a scientific test. In a later chapter, somewhat provocatively titled 'Off with his head' Ernst describes his (indirect) run-ins with Prince Charles and his Foundation for Integrated Health. I knew HRH was very supportive of CAM, but I hadn't realised the effort he has put into trying to get public money spent on it (not to mention his potentially profitable sidelines like the infamous Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture, which features in the book at some length).

In the end, perhaps the most shocking thing is the way that the university, which had in Ernst's group a superb scientific group with an excellent publishing record, seems to have systematically reneged on financial agreements and even set up a postgraduate 'Pathways in Integrated Health' course, funded by a homeopathic manufacturer, that would be working entirely against the message from the scientific work being done by Ernst's group. Ernst can sometimes come across a little angry in his Twitter communications - after reading this book it's easy to understand why.

The first half of the book is quite interesting - particularly seeing the world through immediately post-Nazi German eyes and following Ernst's unusual progression as a would-be jazz musician to become a medical professor. I was distinctly surprised at some of the revelations about goings on in the Austrian medical school at which he held a professorship. But despite the Nazi enthusiasm for alternative medications, I still don't think that the German title really works. Ernst clearly detests the abominations of Nazi science, but  there is no suggestion that this leads to his attitude to alternative medicine, which was commonplace in Germany when he grew up, and which he initially pretty much accepted as normal. It's this opening section that pulls the book down a little: it is, without doubt, an interesting memoir, but hasn't got the bite and real fascination of the second section.

For anyone with an interest in alternative medicine, as an enthusiast or someone who believes that it is scientifically flawed and needs to be exposed, this is an essential book. Ernst's experiences at Exeter set the mark both for what can be done and how the forces of darkness can work through the establishment to oppose scientific investigation. Despite being rather expensive in paperback, all in all this is a highly recommended little book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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