PalMD has a nice post up at denialism blog reviewing a recent NYT article on a foundation run by DKNY’s Donna Karan donating $850,000 USD to Beth Israel Medical Center to study the combination of Eastern and Western healing methods. PalMD has the details but he then gets into an area about which I am rather passionate: the incredibly low scientific-based bar that is allowed by journalists and hospital administrators for individuals to be considered “experts” in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
As the good doctor notes of one such expert:
Other than his standard medical qualifications, I’m not sure why this guy has anything special to offer a cancer center. If it’s pushing strange supplements, homeopathy, or cranial-sacral therapy, well, perhaps the cancer center isn’t interested in being modern any longer.
When I started teaching about herbal medicines vs. Rx drugs from natural products I was blown away by how quickly CAM people and the MSM began to consider me an expert. The CAM people deserted me when I gave a fact-laden critical analysis at one of their annual tradeshows about ten years ago (I haven’t been invited back since), but some people in the MSM still turn to me because they can count on valuable commentary.
I don’t believe I’ve ever written about this at Terra Sig in the past but University of Exeter’s Dr Edzard Ernst wrote a terrific 2006 editorial entitled, “CAM Pseudoexperts,” in his review journal, FACT: Focus on Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Ernst appropriately skewers these CAM pseudoexperts although he did not go quite far enough, IMHO, to communicate that journalists should have a more critical eye when seeking out and interviewing such individuals (although the audience was not intended to be journalists):
I have to admit, I occasionally get irritated by some of the so-called CAM ‘experts’ that so vociferously dominate our field, but more often these people amuse me. Virtually all fields of medicine are driven by healthcare professionals and scientists, but CAM is different – it is an area that is driven by consumers. It also is an area where, relative to mainstream medicine, scientific knowledge is still in its early infancy. These important differences have many far-reaching implications, and one of them is that almost everyone seems to be an ‘expert’ in CAM. . .
. . .The personality of the pseudoexpert merits detailed psychological analysis. It helps, I think, not to be too intelligent. This makes it easier for the pseudoexpert to fall victim to his or her own powers of persuasion. The result is often an almost religious belief of the pseudoexpert in the correctness of his or her assertions. One cannot readily disprove a religion and those pseudoexperts who mistake CAM for a religion cannot even conceive the possibility of being wrong. Not all pseudoexperts, however, are true believers nor are all of them stupid. Some are highly motivated by strong self-interest. These are the ones who tend to be addicted to the limelight of public interest. If you read the Sunday papers and follow how some health writers promote certain treatments, you probably understand what I mean. One does not need to do an awful lot of research to find that some of these pseudoexperts are motivated by financial rewards. For others the attraction lies in the prospect of fame or power. Attractive positions and distinctions wait for those who loudly and unscientifically promote what the government of the day or other VIPs want to hear.
I apologize in advance to Dr Ernst for such extensive quotation but his Focus on Alternative and Complementary Medicine doesn’t get the distribution it truly deserves (free text TOC here). This article is now a standard component of my handouts whenever speaking with journalists about natural products and the distinction of this science-based field from herbal medicine.
In fact, Dr Ernst: you should really start a blog.