Oh, joy. His Royal Quackiness will be gracing us with his presence in March

Oh, goody. Here’s something we didn’t need here in the US. While Australian skeptics have successfully been rallying to put a stop to a series of lectures from American antivaccine activist Sherri Tenpenny, we’re going to have to put up with a far bigger name in quackery showing up right here in the good ol’ U. S. of A. I’m referring to His Royal Highness, the Quacktitioner Royal, Prince Charles, the next King of England. Yes, in March he and Camilla will be here on a four day tour that will include a trip to Louisville to give the keynote address to a symposium on health and nature on March 20. Here’s the press release:

At the request of the British Government Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall will make a four day visit to the United States of America from 17th – 20th March 2015. Their Royal Highnesses will undertake a broad range of engagements to promote the UK’s partnership with the United States in key areas such as sustainability and climate change, creating youth opportunities, encouraging corporate social responsibility and promoting historical and cultural links.

Their Royal Highnesses will mark major anniversaries in American history as they visit the nation’s capital, Washington DC, on the 17th, 18th and 19th March. On Friday 20th March, Their Royal Highnesses will travel to Louisville, Kentucky where they will highlight the work being done by members of the local community and charitable organisations to protect, preserve and promote the health and well-being of the people of Louisville through community cohesion, clean air and food literacy initiatives.

Now here’s the weird thing. I’ve done a bunch of Googling, and I haven’t yet been able to find a news story that specifies what, exactly, this symposium in March in Louisville is. Who is organizing it? Who else will be speaking there? All it’s referred to is either a “symposium on health,” or an event where he and Camilla will highlight food literacy, sustainable growth, and efforts of local community organizations to protect the health of the people of Louisville. I found this quite odd. For Prince Charles to visit anywhere in the US is a really and truly a BFD, and any organization that landed the Prince of Wales as its keynote speaker would be expected to be bragging about it and publicizing it.

Then I came across this article on The Daily Beast by Nico Hines entitled ‘Witchcraft’ Believing Prince Charles to Lecture U.S. on Medicine, and this is all I could find out:

The event in Kentucky is being organized with the support of Democratic governor Steve Beshear, the mayor of Louisville and the Owsley Brown Charitable Foundation, which was set up in honor of the former chairman of one of the great bourbon companies–his son-in-law Matthew Barzun is the U.S. ambassador in London.

So this explains much. Barzun likely knows the Prince due to his role as US Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Not surprisingly, I don’t know much about Barzun, but I was amused to see his travails (and, admittedly, his good humor) over his ill-fated attempts to learn to speak some Welsh. What is clear is that Barzun must be at least somewhat susceptible to the blandishments of England’s Quacktitioner Royal, as evidenced from this story from November:

On 15 September, while President Obama was meeting with his advisers in the White House and deciding how to unleash the world’s most powerful military machine on the Islamic State in Iraq, his ambassador to Britain, Matthew Barzun, was spending the day in a field in Gloucestershire, learning about nitrogen-fixing plants and the dangers of sub-clinical mastitis in cows’ udders. The reason was simple: Barzun was visiting Prince Charles’s organic Home Farm. Wearing boxfresh Hunter wellies, Barzun picked his way around some cowpats to take a close look at a field of organic red clover. He snapped a photo on his smartphone.

For the past 34 years, the farm has been one of Charles’s chief passions. It has become the agricultural embodiment of his beliefs about everything from the natural world to the globalised economy. On winter weekends, he can be found – wearing his patched-up tweed farm coat – laying some of the farm’s hedges to keep alive one of his beloved traditional farming techniques.

I get the feeling from this article that Ambassador Barzun must think that what the Prince is doing with respect to agriculture, at least, is a good thing, and maybe it is. Unfortunately, as has long been documented by a cadre of UK skeptical bloggers, such as Le Canard Noir, David Colquhoun, and Edzard Ernst, the baggage that comes along with Prince Charles’ environmental activist is activism in favor of quackery, in particular homeopathy.

Indeed, it’s impossible for me not to note that Edzard Ernst recently published a book entitled A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoire of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble. It’s an accurate summary of his life; for Ernst started out as a proponent of “complementary and alternative medicine,” believing that rigorous science would validate many of its treatments. He turned out to be wrong about that, but he did the right thing and went where the science went, becoming in the process one of the most prolific and persuasive critics of alternative medicine. As a result he came into direct conflict with Prince Charles, who was known for doing whatever he could to promote homeopathy and “complementary” medicine, as described by Hines:

Earlier this year, Prince Charles was accused of using his position to gag one of Britain’s leading academic critics of alternative medicine. Professor Edzard Ernst said he was treated “like shit” by officials at the University of Exeter after a complaint about his conduct was made by Prince Charles’s office.

”Prince Charles’s attempt to silence me, it seemed, had been successful,” wrote Ernst, who describes the Prince of Wales’s medical views as “quackery.”

Ernst said ”the most unpleasant period of my entire professional life” began in 2005 when he criticized a draft report into alternative medicine that had been commissioned by Prince Charles. The report said complementary medicine was cost-effective and should be made available through the National Health Service.

Ernst provoked fury at Clarence House by describing that conclusion as “complete misleading rubbish.” Sir Michael Peat, Charles’s principal private secretary, wrote an official letter of complaint to Ernst’s boss claiming that he had been wrong to criticize the report before it was formally published. Ernst would ultimately take early retirement and his department was closed down in 2011.

This is one reason, among others, I admire Edzard Ernst. He must have known that directly and harshly criticizing a draft report commissioned by Prince Charles was perilous to his career. The Prince is, of course, a very powerful man, and he’s shown before that he doesn’t take kindly to criticism of his beliefs. As Ernst himself relates, it’s not surprising that Charles is so deeply into quackery, because the Royal family is “famous for using homeopathy and other doubtful treatments while they are healthy, and for employing the very best conventional medicine has to offer as soon as they are ill.” Also, the young Prince Charles went on a journey of “spiritual discovery” with guru and guide Laurens van der Post into the wilderness of Kenya. van der Post was described after his death by a biographer as a “a fraud, a fantasist, a liar, a serial adulterer and a paternalist” who “falsified his Army record and inflated his own importance at every possible opportunity.” A believer in vitalism and derided by many (correctly, as it later turned out) as a charlatan, he nonetheless became an advisor to Margaret Thatcher, and, as Ernst describes, a spiritual advisor—guru, even—to the young Prince Charles. It was also his belief in vitalism, apparently transmitted to the young Prince, that provided the “crucial link to alternative medicine,” given that so much of alternative medicine is based on vitalistic beliefs.

If you want an idea of just how far down the rabbit hole of alternative medicine, “complementary” medicine, or “integrative medicine (or whatever you want to call it) Prince Charles is, just check out this article he wrote in 2012. It’s full of almost every alt-med trope you’ve ever seen me deconstruct over the last decade. He even descends so far as to criticize medicine for treating “only the symptoms,” urging doctors not simply to “treat the symptoms of disease, but actively to create health and to put the patient at the heart of the process by incorporating those core human elements of mind, body, and spirit.” Then he writes:

To achieve this – and there are many who support this – I would suggest that medicine may sometimes need to become less literal in its interpretation of patient needs and more inclusive in terms of what treatment may be required – in other words, to understand how symptoms may often simply be a metaphor for underlying disease and unhappiness. It is also vital, it seems to me, to recognize that treatment may often be effective because of its symbolic meaning to the patient through effects that are now being increasingly understood by the science of psychoneuroimmunology.

In short, I suspect it will always be a struggle if we continue with an over-emphasis on mechanistic and technological approaches.

“Symbolic meaning”? Symptoms “may often simply be a metaphor for underlying disease and unhappiness”? Medicine should be come “less literal in its interpretation of patient needs”? What the hell does that mean? Certainly it doesn’t sound too different from quackery like the German New Medicine. He even trots out the “best of both worlds” trope about “integrative medicine”! Basically, the Prince’s “post modern medicine” does truly seem to argue that science is just another narrative.

Even worse, the Prince has been known for practicing what he preaches, even trying to sell it to the masses, once promoting Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture, which is a food supplement combining artichoke and dandelion that promises to “rid the body of toxins while aiding digestion.” In response to the introduction of this product, the Prince faced unprecedented criticism for peddling quackery. Simon Singh even accused him (correctly) of only hearing the science he wants to hear. Ernst has called him a snake oil salesman.

But what about the Owsley Brown Charitable Foundation. Oddly enough, it’s hard to find much out about this foundation, although this link lists most of its recent grants, and they don’t have much, if anything, to do with medicine, but rather more to do with the arts.

As I was perusing various links, I also found out:

Kirby Adams of The Courier-Journal reports that the symposium will be held by the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, chaired by Christina Lee “Christy” Brown of Louisville, who is one of four board members of the England-based Sustainable Food Trust. Her son, Owsley Brown III, is one of three board members of the Sustainable Food Alliance, the trust’s U.S. partner.

Now it makes more sense. Prince Charles has addressed Sustainable Food Trust functions before. Also, the Sustainable Food Trust appears to have a bit of an anti-GMO bias (or at least a problem with interpreting science). For example, when the GMO “pig study” came out, the Sustainable Food Trust Chief Executive, Patrick Holden characterized it as “another in a series of recent studies that have identified negative health impacts in animals consuming GM crops,” comparing it to the “study by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini and colleagues in 2012 which found high rates of cancer and other problems in rats fed GM maize for two years,” concluding that “there should be no further moves to introduce GM crops into the UK, or GM food into the human food chain until these issues have been fully investigated by independent scientists.” Of course, the Séralini study and the pig stomach study were both absolutely awful studies whose conclusions were, to say the least, not supported by the data. When Séralini managed to find another journal with low enough standards to publish his study again after it had been retracted, the Sustainable Food Trust approved. This is not the first time such bad science was presented credulously.

No wonder His Royal Highness of Quackery has agreed to deliver the keynote address.

I suppose I can hope that he’ll stick with history and sustainable agriculture without spouting off about his favorite quackery. After all, it’ll only be four days that we in the US have to put up with Prince Charles. My poor fellow skeptics in the UK have to put up with him all the time and could well have to put up with him as their king.