A year of Virtual Spleen

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 scienceblogs.com manage a rate of production that leaves me utterly staggered. I met one of the scienceblogs.com 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 scienceblogs.com 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 scienceblogs.com, 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]



16 Responses to “A year of Virtual Spleen”

  1. Svetlana Perstovich Says:

    Happy birthday! :)

  2. She-Liger Says:

    Be at rest, Doc. Ephistopheles will not come to you. It seems he got one soul already…. :(

    Happy birthday! :)

  3. Ephistopheles Says:

    Who is saying that I shall not come? ;) Thank you, Doctor, that you remember me :)
    Yes, I have really bought a soul of one local professor. But… Alas! One wicked big thick cat has stolen it from me! :(
    So – our contract is still actual, Doc ;)

    Happy birthday! :)

  4. jdc325 Says:

    Congratulations on your anniversary DrAust. If we could vote, I reckon I’d go for the “Holford’s Mentors” piece or one of the posts about Alt Med journals as my favourite. I’ve found both useful on occasion (when looking for info on advocates of Orthomolecular Medicine, or when looking for an apt, stealable quote about the quality of Alt Med journals).

  5. wilsontown Says:

    I’ve never been too bothered about the occasional mammoth time gaps between posts, because when there are posts, they are always well worth reading. As they would say in Private Eye , keep up the good work.

  6. apgaylard Says:

    I agree with wilsontown; really interesting stuff. A Dr Aust post (or comment) is usually a highlight of my blogging day. I guess that most -if not all – of the badscience bloggers have jobs, families etc (contrary to one of the standard critical quips from the offended) so the effort that goes into these posts is much appreciated.

  7. Mark Etherton Says:

    I also congratulate you on your first blog anniversary. And on the arrival of baby Aust in August, after which I am surprised you had time or energy to post at all.

    I think the tendency to waffle on is academic rather than specifically scientific. In an earlier career as a diplomat I remember a science attache (from the UKAEA) who used to say at the Embassy morning meeting “I have five points to raise, but before that there are seven other things I want to mention”; but I also remember that in the UN any academic would go on longer than was necessary (the most useful advice my predecessor gave was “You can always go and have a coffee when the Croat (a professor of international law) starts: he never speaks for less than 15 minutes and never says anything worth listening to”). But to be fair, judges were just as bad.

  8. draust Says:

    Thanks Guys.

    It goes without saying that I have enjoyed reading, and discussing, posts on Paul (Wilson)’s, AP’s – which has the best name of all the BadSci blogs except possibly the Quackometer – and jdc’s blogs. The only reason they aren’t on a blogroll here is that I am too lazy and/or HTML-inept to implement one. Perhaps one day I will hire my oldest niece to do it for me, as she seems much better at such stuff. They do say if you want anything New Technology-ish doing, hire a teenager.

    I should particularly tip my hat to Hawk/Handsaw’s sterling work on Homeopathy (particularly on the homeopaths’ laughable attempts to produce “scientific” defences of their sympathetic magic), jdc’s recurring taking-on of the laughably self-important Dr John Briffa, and AP Gaylard’s philosophy series explaining what the philosophers of science the Alties like to brandish at us (notably Thomas Kuhn) were really talking about.

    I completely agree with Mark Etherton that waffling is an academic, rather than scientific, characteristic. I was amusingly reminded of this last week when I read a Guardian review of (Archbishop) Rowan Williams’ book on Dostoyevsky. The Guardian reviewer said Williams was:

    “…an excellent literary critic…”

    – but then went on to explain what he disliked about the book:

    “The archbishop’s mind is one of eternal fractal elaboration. Each thought produces its opposite; each qualification must be qualified…”

    Of course, this is instantly recognisable as the normal workings of the mind of an academic, which is what Rowan Williams was (is?).

    Re. blogging post-Baby Aust, the secret thus far is that Baby Aust, Mrs Dr Aust and Jr Aust all need rather more sleep than Dr Aust does. Thus they are all usually spark out by 8 pm, leaving me to my own devices for a few hours once I’ve loaded the dishwasher.

    Of course, with University term-time upon us and Winter approaching, these hours may get taken up by work, slumping in front on the TV with a glass of wine and a touch of Northern SAD… we shall see.

  9. pleick Says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Aust!

    I’ve always enjoyed reading your work, the rants (and the more serious things) are very much appreciated. Some things are just best mocked.

    To indulge my tendency as an academic for useless waffling, I’ll mention, though, that I couldn’t bring myself yet to sing the alt.reality songs. Which is probably for the best.
    Whether intended as a trademark or not, the term alt.reality is absolutely priceless. You should have it copyrighted.

  10. Sceric Says:

    Congrats! And I have to agree with the others, that your posts really are excellent (quality instead of quantity)!
    And if you would like to sit a long time in front of the TV: Germany’s PRO7 channel, will have Uri Geller (aka “The Spoon Guy”) sending messages to aliens with a radiotelescope waiting for answers. So you should have approx. 8 years unitl you’ll have to leave the couch.

  11. She-Liger Says:

    One important question arises. How many universities with quackery courses exist? Colquhoun says about sixteen universities. Edzard Ernst states that there are 45 universities with 155 quackery courses. Who is right?
    As you see, it is devilish difference – 16 and 45!
    But in reality this number might be absolutely different from both values.

    I think that this number is more than 45 already.

    You lost this game for years of idle talking :P :P :P

  12. Political Scientist Says:

    Dr. Aust,
    Congratulations on your first “birthday”!
    I always enjoy the longer posts, as they give you something to get your teeth into.
    I look forward to what the next year will bring!

  13. She-Liger Says:

    Oh, such sign (avatar)! Look at sign, which system has chosen for this “Political Scientist”. It is a swastika!
    By chance.. But – what a chance!
    Hmm… Probably, idle talking about politics is dangerous ;)

  14. Dr Aust Says:

    Thanks again for the Birthday Wishes.

    Phillip and (und?) Eric, es freut mich sehr, dass ich einigen Deutschen Leser habe. Auch wenn Mrs/Frau Dr Aust das nicht glaubt.

    Political Scientist, glad to hear there are some people who like a proper extended rant. Although I think that this Autumn they are likely to be interspersed with shorter stuff, like more facetious songs. Apart from being quicker to type out, the latter have the advantage that writing the lyrics is a good diversion in tedious University meetings.

  15. Sceric Says:

    Dr Aust: I would have some ideas how to prove I’m German, but I don’t think She-Liger approves of invading surrounding countries, smile…

  16. It’s three years of Spleen – anyone still out there? « Dr Aust’s Spleen Says:

    […] this, I have avoided posting any others of this type since the first anniversary celebration. The second anniversary came and went a year ago, as did the 100,000th page load some time over […]

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