A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble by Edzard Ernst
|A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble by Edzard Ernst
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: A very readable memoir of a man born in Germany who became a Professor at an English university and found himself on the wrong side of Prince Charles. Very readable and highly recommended.
|Date: January 2015
|Publisher: Imprint Academic
|External links: Author's website
Professor Edzard Ernst was born in Germany not long after the end of World War II and grew up with guilt about what had happened in the years before he was born as well as an insatiable curiosity - with the two not being entirely unconnected. He also developed an attitude of speaking his mind - as an early challenge to his step-father about the death of six million Jews in the course of the war proved. In his teens he wasn't determined to become a doctor - he had a hankering to be a musician - despite the fact that it was the family business, so to speak, but came round to the idea and practiced in various countries before settling in Exeter as Professor of Complementary Medicine at the university.
I've always been doubtful about complementary/alternative medicine, feeling that it was rather like religion - fine if you had faith, but with troublesome undertones - and I picked up Professor Ernst's memoir, keen to see what an academic and skilled research scientist would make of something which excited so much passion amongst its adherents. I'll confess to being just a little nervous as I opened the book - Imprint Academic have a solid reputation for the 'academic' nature of their books (as you might have guessed) and they don't always make for easy reading for the layman.
In the event I needn't have worried. Ernst isn’t just an academic - he's also an accomplished writer and skilled communicator. He puts over some quite complex ideas without resorting to jargon and I felt informed without ever struggling to understand, despite being a non-scientist. I was pulled into the story of his life and read most of the book in one sitting, so keen was I to find out what happened.
So, how about my scepticism with regard to complementary medicine? Well, I was delighted to find that Ernst saw the chair as a wonderful opportunity to expose these treatments and therapies to the cold light of rigorous scientific testing, in much the same way as it would be applied to mainstream drugs. This seemed only logical to Ernst but not to supporters of complementary medicine who felt that the treatments and therapies should be taken on trust (or faith) and that he should have extended that trust to the treatments.
Ernst was determined that he would not be swayed from what he felt to be right and refused to accept the woolly thinking that plant-based drugs are benign and would do no harm. (Hemlock, anyone?) It wasn't simply a matter of whether or not the treatments worked - but that people could well be taking these treatments in preference to ones which would work - and, in some cases which could save their lives.
Supporters of complementary medicine are quick to accuse 'Big Pharma' of denying the efficacy of complementary treatments to protect their own profits, but they have a big gun on their own side in the form of Prince Charles, who has been outspoken in support of complementary medicine. Ernst stays just this side of being vitriolic about the views and actions of the Prince of Wales, but makes clear that the Prince's advocacy of alternative treatments and therapies could cost lives if they prevent people from obtaining appropriate treatment for serious illness. I was left relieved that the Prince would eventually become monarch rather than the head of government. (If you'd like to read more about this subject in relation to Prince Charles, we can recommend Ernst's Charles, The Alternative Prince: An Unauthorised Biography.)
I was impressed by what Ernst had to say and the way in which he said it. It's one of the obvious drawbacks of a memoir that you only hear one side of the story, as I would love to have heard how others might have refuted what he had to say - purely in the interests of rigorous scientific enquiry, of course. I'd like to thank Imprint Academic for sending a copy of the book to the Bookbag.
Another medical memoir which we've enjoyed recently is Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. If you're more interested in animals, we think that you'll appreciate Never Work With Animals by Gareth Steel.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble by Edzard Ernst at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble by Edzard Ernst at Amazon.com.
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