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Data-free discussion: Ernst | Ted Wragg | Laurie Taylor |
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Here are collected a few things that made me laugh.

This article was written by Edzard Ernst, professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, in Focus on Alternative and Complementary Medicine (FACT), Volume 6 (2) June 2001 101

In praise of the data-free discussion. Towards a new paradigm

Edzard Ernst

Editor-in-Chief of FACT and Chair in Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, 25 Victoria Park Road, Exeter EX2 4NT, UK.

Eight years ago, when I decided to go full-time into complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) research, I was a narrow-minded and short-sighted man! Narrow-minded because I had been under the impression that data are an essential element in any scientific debate and short-sighted because I failed to realise how efficiently one can expand one’s mind if only one manages to overcome science’s obsessional insistence with data, facts and evidence. Today, after attending about 300 conferences on CAM, I have learned an important lesson and realised the true value and enlightened bliss of data-free discussions, meetings and other debates.

Their advantages are multifold. First, they are far less tedious. Under the old paradigm, one had to prepare, research, read and study for every presentation. Some speakers had to spend days, even weeks or months preparing a single lecture. The new CAM paradigm has made this so much easier. No more time-wasting preparatory work; one can now walk straight into the middle of the action and be part of it. The time thus saved allows one to extend one’s scope of topics almost ad infinitum and to attend even more meetings and data-free discussions for the benefit of everyone.

Second, data can be frightfully intimidating and non-egalitarian. In the past, those with knowledge had a distinct advantage over those without. Under the data-free paradigm, all can join in and all are equal The less you are aware of the facts, the more light-heartedly you can go to work. Data are ever so patronising; they weigh you down and limit your freedom. Data-free debates, in contrast, can be such liberating fun!

Third, data do get in the way of our real aims in life. Data-free meetings are much more practical if you really want to achieve something quickly. All you need to do is to invite speakers who vaguely agree with your own views, let them talk at length and finally reach a groundbreaking, barrier-crashing consensus. If you want to be absolutely sure to succeed, invite a few VIPs to nod their wise heads along the way. Who on earth would dare to disagree with a consensus? Data-free discussion can be immensely productive.

Fourth, under the old paradigm, one set of data often opposed another set. Unavoidably, controversy ensued, people became emotional and in the end someone got hurt. Not so with data-free events! Where there are no data, there can be no disagreement. Here is the energy that will truly heal the medicine for the New Millennium. Data-free discussions provide the true basis for ubiquitous peace, love and happiness.

I, for one, am convinced -the bad old times when scientific meetings focused on data and evidence must be over once and for all. This is particularly true for CAM. The last thing we want is the slaying of our beautiful hypotheses by some nasty, ugly facts.

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Ted Wragg (1938 – 2005)

Professor of Education, University of Exeter.

Ted Wragg was rather like the Laurie Taylor of secondary education, a voice of sanity in a world of burgeoning management-speak. Here is a taste of his writing (from the Guardian, 3rd December 2002).

“This free market has generated a whole new breed of employee, especially in further education, the Bid Writer. In education nowadays the pen can be mightier than the chalk. Bid Writers are a special breed who can weave together and launch back at policy wonks all their own buzzwords, with the deadly accuracy of a guided missile, sending them into the sort of sustained ecstasy that loosens both critical judgment and purse strings.

“This synoptic overview summarises the operational strategy for delivering the procedural and content objectives to a world-class standard, within the parameters delineated in Annex A of Initiative 374B, glob glob, oodle oodle, turge turge.” Wonderful. Give that school a few hundred grand.

Worthwhile policies graft seamlessly on to schools and eventually become their own. An ephemeral policy is merely a headline grabber, a wheeze, demeaning to both begetter and recipient. Who needs a physics teacher, when among today’s most highly esteemed pedagogues are wordsmiths who can deliver world-class meaningless bollocks to order?”

This sort of “bollocks” will all be entirely familiar to anyone who works in a university. We are indundated with it too. Awash with buzzwords and untested wheezes, apparently designed to making life uncomfortable for those who try to do the research and teaching on which the reputation of the university depends. Try this example, from a recent document.

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Laurie Taylor

Wragg, sadly, may be gone, but Laurie Taylor continues to hit the mark, week after week. This is an extract from the Times Higher Education Supplement, 16 December 2005


University of Poppleton

Once again, it’s time for some of the university’s movers and shakers to select their Books of the Year.

The Vice-Chancellor

There’s not been much time for reading (or indeed thinking) in the past year.I did, however, particularly enjoy a little book I picked up at the Bookshop sale. Its precise title escapes me, but it told the story of a middle-aged man who fails to recognise the benefits of the community in which he resides. Instead of identifying with its mission statement, he persists in pursuing a selfish, individualistic path and ends up having an illicit sexual relationship with a close organisational colleague.

Fortunately, there is a happy ending. Following an intervention from Human Resources and a slightly overdramatised episode involving large rats, he realises his mistakes and re-commits himself to the ongoing strategic plan.

Highly recommended for our less research-active colleagues!

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These definitions are taken from A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997). by Michael O’Donnell.


“A valuable ally in achieving a ‘cure’ and a dangerous enemy in assessing it”

He quotes Sir Peter Medawar thus.

“Exaggerated claims for the efficacy of a medicament are very seldom the consequence of any intention to deceive; they are usually the outcome of a kindly conspiracy in which everybody has the very best intentions. The patient wants to get well, his physician wants to have made him better, and the pharmaceutical company would have liked to have put it into the physician’s power to have made him so. The controlled clinical trial is an attempt to avoid being taken in by this conspiracy of good will.” (From Advice to a Young Scientist, published in 1979.)

Clinical experience

“Making the same mistakes with increasing confidence over an impressive number of years.”

Knight starvation

“Affective disorder that afflicts senior doctors . . . A progressive condition that deteriorates with the publication of each Honours List and, in longstanding cases, can produce serious erosion of judgement and integrity.”


“Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.”

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Two definitions of lawyers

Dice, n. Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly the wrong one. [Bierce, Ambrose, The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, 1967]

The duty of an advocate is to take fees, and in return for those fees to display to the utmost advantage whatsoever falshoods the solicitor has put into his brief. [Bentham, Jeremy, The Elements of the art of packing as applied to special juries, 1821]

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