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Is Prince Charles Overstepping His Role By Promoting Alternative Medicine?

Prince Charles is a big supporter of “natural” medicine, which in practice means unscientific and ineffective medicine. He has no particular expertise in this area, and there is absolutely no legitimate reason why he should have any influence over the practice of medicine in the UK. But he is the Prince of Wales, and he has chosen to use that celebrity to promote CAM.

Prince Charles has also recently been criticized for his credulous support for medical nonsense. The Telegraph recently reported that Simon Singh, co-author with Edzard Ernst of Trick or Treatment, and exposer of CAM pseudoscience, spoke about Prince Charles at the recent Hay Festival in India. Singh had some sharp criticism, including:

He only wants scientific evidence if it backs up his view of the natural treatment of health conditions…

We presented evidence that disputes the value of alternative medicine and despite this he hasn’t changed his mind…

Singh’s point is that Prince Charles is ideologically “fixated” on CAM and natural remedies, and this fixation trumps science and evidence. This seems to be true, and is not surprising since the psychological evidence suggests that this is how most people operate most of the time. We are all subject to confirmation bias and a host of other biases that cause us to hold and defend our ideological beliefs against disconfirming evidence. It takes a  certain dedication to the process of science and evidence to overcome these innate emotional responses.

I would argue that being in an influential position, like the Prince of Wales, and actually using that influence to advocate for a certain position, comes with it the responsibility for due diligence – to make sure that the position you are supporting is valid.

In 1993 Prince Charles founded a Foundation for Integrative Health, whose mission is to explore:

“how safe, proven complementary therapies can work in conjunction with mainstream medicine”

The statement is very revealing – the Prince wants to show how CAM works and can be integrated. He does not want to explore if it works. This is not a subtle difference or quibbling about word choice. This represents a fundamental flaw in Prince Charles’ approach to the issue. Scientific evidence is a means of backfilling justification for beliefs he already has, not a tool for understanding the world and figuring out which medical interventions are safe and effective.

The Prince is not just an advocate for CAM in the UK, he appears to actively and effectively lobby for its promotion, or at least removal of science-based standards that would stand in the way of abject quackery. David Colquhoun reports on Prince Charles’ lobbying of the MHRA:

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is an executive agency of the Department of Health). It is roughly the UK equivalent of the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in the USA.

The MHRA has just betrayed the trust placed in it by the public by allowing untrue claims to be put on the labels of homeopathis and herbal treatments, apparently under pressure from the government and the Prince of Wales, as described below, and here. This caused such outrage that the MHRA was censured by an annulment debate in the House of Lords, it also caused condemnations to be issued by the many learned societies, most of which you can read at the links here. For example, Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal College of Pathologists, the Biosciences Federation (which represents 40 affiliated societies), the Physiological Society and the British Pharmacological Society.

Prince Charles has also meddled in the career of Edzard Ernst, the only professor of complementary and alternative medicine, who has published over 1000 articles examining the evidence (or lack thereof) for specific CAM claims and modalities. Again David Colquhoun reports:

A letter was sent from Clarence House to the vice-chancellor of Exeter University, Steve Smith. The letter alleged a breach of confidence by Ernst. Having been sent a draft of the Smallwood report, Ernst was so horrified by the scientific standards in that document, he felt obliged, in the public interest, to speak out about it. Ernst was contacted by a newspaper, which had a copy of the draft, and described the initial findings as “outrageous and deeply flawed”. He added: “It is based on such poor science, it’s just hair-raising. The Prince … also seems to have overstepped his constitutional role”

Ernst was essentially let go from his position, but is now back working part time.

The Prince of Wales is not only a supporter of dubious health products, like homeopathy, but sells them as well. His Duchy Original Detox Tincture is a classic bit of snake oil.

It should be noted that we in the US have our equivalent of Prince Charles, or at least as close as we can get. Senator Tom Harkin has been as meddling and effective an advocate for unscientific medicine in the US as Prince Charles has been in the UK. Harkin is largely responsible for DSHEA, a terrible law and a gift to the supplement industry. He is also the power behind the NCCAM, which has funneled billions of dollars into researching implausible health claims and products, with little to show for it except a few studies of herbal remedies that are useful only in providing evidence for lack of effectiveness. Harkin is the source of as many embarrassing quotes as Prince Charles. Regarding the NCCAM he complained:

One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. I think, quite frankly, that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.

We see here the exact same mentality as the Prince – the purpose of spending billions of dollars of tax payers money is not to find out if highly implausible methods work, but to demonstrate that they do work. Harkin does not seem to know how science works, and gives no evidence of caring. We find out which treatments work by designing studies capable of showing that they do not work. Only when a treatment passes through several well-designed studies do we begin to accept them as evidence-based. Harkin apparently wants his pet, the NCCAM, to spend our money to prove his highly dubious and unscientific ideology to be correct.

There is a lesson here in the appropriate relationship between politics and science, and the harm that results when that relationship is abused.

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

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