07 November 2011

A right royal quack?

Prince Charles has a history of pushing bad science and unfounded health remedies. So why was he invited to speak on climate change at one of our foremost scientific institutions?


Prince Charles has a history of pushing bad science and unfounded health remedies. So why was he invited to speak on climate change at one of our foremost scientific institutions?

Not everyone gathered in front of University of Cape Town's Jameson Hall on Saturday was there to hear Prince Charles. In fact, representatives of Quackdown, handing out pamphlets titled "Right on climate - but a right royal quack", were present precisely because they didn't want to listen to Charles – not on UCT campus, at any rate.

Eduard Grebe of Quackdown explained their stance to me.

HRH Prince Charles ascends Jameson steps to deliver his speech. (Olivia Rose-Innes) 

Olivia Rose-Innes: Why shouldn't Prince Charles speak on climate change? He has no qualifications in the field himself, sure, but his speech on Saturday was informed by some of the world's most reputable scientists, including those from UCT's new African Climate and Development Initiative. Shouldn't we be glad high-profile celebrities are helping spread the environmental message?

Eduard Grebe: All leaders should be encouraged to speak on climate change – as long as what they say is informed by the science. We're not saying Prince Charles shouldn't speak on climate change. We're saying he's not credible on scientific matters, because he is a prominent quack who has seriously harmed the public understanding of science over the years through his support for unscientific quackery. It's not appropriate that he be given a platform by a scientific establishment such as UCT.

Furthermore, his position of prominence derives from hereditary privilege, and one could question whether an African university should be endorsing that. There are many prominent and much more credible leaders UCT could instead have invited to speak on climate change.

Olivia: Can you give some examples of his “quackery”?

Eduard: He has been a prominent proponent of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) for years, despite the absence of scientific evidence to support its use. Specifically:

  • In 1993, he established the Foundation for Integrated Health, which has disseminated some dangerous disinformation, for example in its Complementary healthcare: a guide for patients, which suggested that homoeopathy is a treatment for chronic conditions such as asthma; eczema; arthritis; fatigue disorders like ME; headache and migraine; menstrual and menopausal problems; irritable bowel syndrome; Crohn's disease; allergies; repeated ear, nose, throat and chest infections; urine infections; depression and anxiety. Some of these are very serious disorders that require medical treatment, not magical medicine that supposedly works through water retaining a "memory" of extremely diluted substances. Homeopathy is entirely implausible and entirely ineffective at treating any of these conditions.
  • The Prince's Foundation commisioned the Smallwoord report into CAM that, among other things, erroneously and dangerously suggested homoeopathy is a cost-effective treatment for asthma – against all scientific evidence (such as that contained in a Cochrane systematic review of the evidence).
  • The Prince's Foundation bizarrely appointed a former writer for an AIDS denialist magazine, Boo Armstrong, as its Chief Executive in 2010.
  • Perhaps most egregiously, the Prince's company "Duchy Originals" has sold quack remedies under the "Duchy Herbals" brand, including a "Detox Tincture" containing artichoke and dandelion and promising to help "eliminate toxins and aid digestion". One of the UK's most respected experts on alternative medicine, Edzard Ernst of Exeter University (now retired), branded the tincture "make-believe and outright quackery".

Olivia: Do you think his association with the environmental cause could potentially do it harm?

Eduard: I believe it could. When good policy positions (like strong collective action to curb carbon emissions) are promoted by cranks without credibility, reasonable people may be less inclined to adopt those positions. If I were an environmental activist in the United States, I wouldn't recruit a prominent "birther" (those who claim President Obama was not born in the US) to help promote my cause, because that person lacks credibility among reasonable people. This is essentially what UCT did. And that is why we put out our pamphlet under the headline "Right on climate – but a right royal quack".

- Eduard Grebe in conversation with Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, November 2011.

Eduard Grebe is a PhD candidate in the AIDS and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. Read his article on Quackdown: Why is UCT hosting a royal quack?
The aim of Quackdown is to inform consumers and patients about untested and implausible health-care claims. It is a joint project of the Treatment Action Campaign, Community Media Trust and several individuals. It is currently edited by Nathan Geffen, Marcus Low and Catherine Tomlinson.


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