Archive for October, 2008

More musical trivia: The Alt Health Guru

October 16, 2008

In which Dr Aust again falls back on (semi-second hand) musical facetiousness.

Regular readers will by now have noted my admiration for the immortal Tom Lehrer. Well, not literally immortal, but as he turned eighty earlier this year he is doing pretty well.

“The Old Dope Peddler”, recorded in 1953 on the album Songs by Tom Lehrer, is one of Lehrer’s simpler songs. The other day it occurred to me that it was just the thing for a lyrical makeover in the Bad Science cause. You can listen to the song here, and I suggest you do before you read the adapted lyrics.

I do apologise, by the way, for the rather similar subject matter between this one and “Woo is all around” – which was already probably one song too many. However, the combination of the start of the University term, various work-related writing projects with imminent deadlines, and Junior Aust engaging in a guerilla campaign of relentless psychological warfare (4 year olds are good at this stuff – she is annoyed because we have temporarily had to withdraw her DVD-watching privileges) has left me too frazzled for anything more serious.

Anyway – to business.

Tom Lehrer often introduced his songs with a spoken intro, and the one for this song doesn’t really need any changing:

“You are no doubt familiar with songs about the old lamplighter and the old umbrella man and the old garbage collector and all these lovable old characters who go around spreading sweetness and light to their respective communities.

But it’s always seemed to me that there is one member of this happy band who does an equally splendid job, but who has never been properly recognized in song or story.  This is an attempt to remedy, at least in part, that deplorable situation.”

When your aches and pains are griping,
Comes a fellow everyone knows,
It’s the Alt Health Guru,
Spreading joy wherever he goes.

Every breakfast time you’ll find him,

On a TV sofa somewhere near

With some supplements to sell you

Getting rich by tickling your fear.


He gives the kids free samples, [spoken aside: “fish oil”]
Because he knows full well

That today’s young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow’s worried well.

Here’s a cure for all your troubles,
And a nice profit from your distress.
It’s the Alt Health Guru,
With his pricey New Age Ha-a-pi-ness

[Plink plink]



A year of Virtual Spleen

October 2, 2008

In which Dr Aust once again can’t think of anything useful to say, but muses randomly on a year of (not very regular) blogging.

Amazingly, Dr Aust’s Spleen has now been in existence for a year.

Well, a year and ten days, actually. The blog opened for business on Sept 22nd last year with Patrick Holford’s mentors and inspirations – but who are they exactly? and the obligatory “About me” entry Hello World – Dr Aust goes live. At the time I was quite pleased when the latter started attracting comments – proving that somebody appeared to be reading – although it turned out that almost all the comments were from one person, the indefatigable “Ephistopheles” (or “Minus M” as I prefer to think of him/her) who still turns up occasionally offering to buy my soul.

Talking of which

– does anyone know what the most is that a soul has fetched on E-Bay? There have been so many attempts to sell souls on the online auction sites that it can only be matter of time before such an auction is the subject of a Hollywood movie, if it hasn’t been already. The plot, obviously, would be that the Devil really was one of the bidders. Sort of a “Virtual Spartacus slave market meets Bedazzled thing”.

I seem to remember that various British students who had tried selling their souls online struggled to get more than around £ 15, which wouldn’t even buy you five pints of student-grade 5% throwing lager where I live. One Oxford undergraduate was reported to have raised £ 67, which sounds a little better. Probably enough for a meal for two at the Petit Blanc Oxford Brasserie, if you go early and don’t order any wine. There certainly seem to be more lucrative ways for (at least some) students to make money, if you believe the British press. Though come to think of it, who does?

I also read somewhere that E-Bay were not accepting any more listings for souls, or for body parts. Rather more interesting is the legal question of whether, in law, you actually can actually sell your soul or not. It is currently not legal to sell your kidney in the UK, for instance, though I know of at least one Professor of Medical Ethics who thinks it should be. But your soul… hmmm. One for a real lawyer like Jack of Kent, perhaps.

More navel-gazing

Anyway, after that metaphysical meander, back to the Dr Aust’s Spleen anniversary. I am mildly amazed that I have managed to grind out 30 posts over the course of the year, or an average of five every couple of months. Given my usual inability to finish anything (a perennial topic of discussion in my Performance appraisals at work) I am quite proud of having kept going for a year.

Of course, a post roughly every twelve days isn’t much. Science Nerds’ Ring Leader and Super-Quackbuster Ben Goldacre manages at least his weekly Guardian column, despite having a proper job and a schedule that would put me in an early grave inside a year, and the guys over at manage a rate of production that leaves me utterly staggered. I met one of the gang a month or so back at the Nature Network people’s Science Blogging event, and he told me that there was a broad expectation that bloggers on would post 2 or 3 times a week. A week!

Another academic characteristic observable in the blog, apart from slow production, is a tendency to waffle on. It’s not just me – lots of much more eminent scientists have the same problem. I had one Head of Department – now an FRS, no less – who was renowned for talking so much in meetings that winding up before the three-hour mark was generally held to be impossible. The same man was once memorably characterized by a friend of mine as “A bloke who starts five or six sentences for every one he actually finishes”.

What I am trying to say is that the tendency to 2000-plus-word Über-posts is not unique to Dr Aust. Honest. This also explains why I could never have been a journalist. Journalists get a lot of flak in the Badscience Blogosphere (including here) but they do have to be able to write quickly and concisely. Academics, in contrast, are allowed the luxuries of time (sometimes) and words (at least on their own blogs, ha ha).

The thing novice bloggers most dread, I suspect, is that absolutely no-one will read their work. While we are all writing mainly for ourselves, it is comforting to think there are at least some readers out there. That is why commenters are so welcome. Anyway, I am pleased to report that some of Dr Aust’s posts do get page views. The most read, by some distance, remains my famous friend Count Dracula’s Endorsement for Antioxidants, though both Drinking water – or bathing in it- can be deadly (not) and Journals of alternative medicine – insufficient scepticism = cargo cult science have done pretty well too.

Now, the basic WordPress stats do not distinguish whether this is however-many different readers, or merely the same regulars dropping back repeatedly to see if there are any new comments. I’m sure you can get fancy stats plugins that do this analysis, but I think I prefer to remain uninformed. I’d like to be able to pretend to myself that it really was a hundred people, rather than admitting it was one of ”She Liger’s” aliases clicking the page every day to see if I said anything new about Prof David Colquhoun.

Another of the pieces of advice bloggers are given to build readership is to “post regularly and often”. Fat chance. Looking back over the year, I notice there were some particularly long hiatuses last Autumn. After Holford’s mentors and inspirations, it was mid-October before I finished Journals of alternative medicine and its somewhat repetitious Part 2 follow-up. And after that there was a whopping 15-week break in transmission until service resumed at the end of January with the beginning of my 4-part mini-series on Water-Woo. Main explanation is that Autumn is my busiest teaching period of the year, but I must try and plan ahead this year and have some stuff on the blocks.

Now, given my famed inability to finish things, it is a fair bet that there are some half-finished posts in the files. So perhaps I will see what can be disinterred for the Autumn. Plus there are those topics that I mentioned during the year as possible subjects, but never got around to writing about.

I notice, inter alia, that I promised, but never delivered, a post on “acid foods”

(a classic Nutritionista line – too much “acid food” is bad for you, disturbs your ”delicate pH balance” etc etc, so you must “alkalinize” the body by eating their daft special diet)

And I also said at one point that I would write something about the:

In vitro / cells in a dish / daft extrapolation fallacy”

– the one that goes “This magic herb does something to cells in a dish, so of course it must cure diabetes / cancer / arthritis / the flu”.

Yet another topic I never got around to was the Arizona Reiki rats, though that was covered rather well by Emily at the Rattitude blog. And then there was “Non-existent energy field therapies”, or the perennial topic of “Why some real scientists embrace the Darkside”. There was also more to say about Patrick Holford’s “mentors” that didn’t make it into the original blog-inaugurating article.

Science or snarking?

One further trend I think I can see over the year is an increase in snarkiness. When I started I did think I would try and blend science explaining in with the snarking, but I have the feeling that over the last six months or so snarking has become rather dominant. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, because explaining science is my day job, it is less attractive as an off-duty blog-hobby. Or perhaps it is simply my blog persona trying to become the snarky Private Eye writer I once dreamed of being when I was a kid.

Herbal diarrhoea

I also meant to do, but never did, a post on a mad herbal concoction that one of the medical students turned up. As a physiologist / pharmacologist / recovering biochemist, I am interested in the biological actions of chemicals, including natural products. Natural products are unambiguously the original source and original inspiration behind much of our drug armoury. The subject of drug-hunting in the natural kingdom even has its own name – Pharmacognosy – and there is a good blog about it over at, Terra Sigillata.

However, just because something is a natural product does NOT mean it is better than a “nasty Pharma drug”. Or even that it works. (Errm… you need testing to tell you if something works). But that doesn’t seem to bother the Herbalistas and assorted AltMed phytophiles.

I am continually amazed just how many nutty herbal remedies there are out there. I thought I’d heard of most of them, but in just the last 24 hrs I have read about two that I had never run across before. One is the Kaloba cold cure that Le Canard Noir just covered:

“Kaloba is an extract of the geranium Pelargonium sidoides, and has been “used by Zulus for hundreds of years””

Ah – ancient healing wisdom. Doncha just love it.

While another – which in an interesting piece of niche marketing seems to be targeted at athletes – is the “Siberian Ginseng” (Eleutherococcus senticosus, since you ask) discussed by GP blogger the Northern Doctor here.

Hmm. You couldn’t make it up. There really is just so much Alt.Reality about. I am reminded of indefatigable surgeon-blogger Orac, who started a regular weekly Alt.Reality feature that he called ”Your Friday dose of Woo” After a whole two years worth of hard-core debunking – “104 heapin’ helpings“, as Orac would probably put it – the tide of nonsense shows no sign of abating.

Of course, this is not altogether surprising, in the sense that no “Woo” ever actually dies out. Sub-varieties occasionally go into hibernation, but almost all eventually reappear, while new splinter versions, and marriage-of-two-woos hybrids, are continually spawned, and slightly older brands get re-badged. As American medical blogger Pal MD neatly put it a while back:

“Of course, there never is any truly “new” woo—it is all recycled and renamed in order to separate even more sick people from their money”

Which means, at least, that there will never be any shortage of things for Dr Aust to harrumph about. Or, if you will allow me to sign off with a gratuitous flaunting of that Latin O-level I took more years ago than I care to remember:

Nugae* longae, vita brevis.

[transl. So much nonsense, so little time to rant about it.]

Anyway, thanks for reading a year’s worth of my burbling, and hopefully the gaps in transmission this Autumn won’t be as long as last year.

Yours in Alternate Reality

Dr Aust


*Nugae – arum f. pl. [trifles, nonsense] cf. the verb

nugor -ari [to trifle , talk nonsense; to trick or cheat]