Archive for July 1st, 2009

Rank… in more ways than one

July 1, 2009

In which Dr Aust considers his lack of promotion prospects, but does attain rank in the “Anti-CAM brigade”

Dr Aust is feeling very sheepish about his lack of blog activity, and even more so since the much-appreciated plug (combined with a bit of gentle chiding) from ace legal blogger Jack of Kent a couple of weeks back

Indeed, a bit earlier last month Jack had even appointed Dr Aust to a rank in the “anti-CAM brigade”:

Which is curious, in one way, since I started off being neutral or even vaguely sympathetic to the less loony bits of CAM. Honestly.

I was recently reminded of this as I came across an old letter I wrote to Prof David Colquhoun almost three years ago, when I first started commenting on the blogs. As a chemistry undergraduate many years ago I was fascinated by natural product chemistry, so I have always found natural product-based remedies intriguing. (Like most biological scientists, I use various natural products as reagents in my scientific work.) And over the years I have taken a number of herbal pills – valerian and hops for poor sleep being an example. I was also probably influenced by Mrs Dr Aust, who trained in medicine in a European country where complementary therapies are more widely used by doctors than in the UK, and are rather more stringently regulated.

So why would I now be pretty relaxed about being labelled “anti-CAM”?

The reason is that the more I have had to do with the CAM folk over the last 2-3 years, the less and less sympathetic I have become. The reasons for this, I think, lie in the behaviour and evasions of the pro-CAM people, neatly summed up in Edzard Ernst’s personal paper here.

If you wanted to boill it down to a brief statement, my objection would be twofold:

Why do people have to invent fanciful and frankly ludicrous explanations for stuff, when there are perfectly reasonable ones around that do not require you to conjure up a special personal reality?

Why do the same people then cry (variously) “Foul!” “Not Fair!” “Leave my reality alone!” or “Libe!!” when people point this out?

In the specific context of science and medicine, if the CAM lot want to play in the game, then they have to play by the evidentiary rules that apply, notably the ones in which good evidence trumps bad. Otherwise, as David Colquhoun often says, it is like throwing the last 50-60-odd years of medical and scientific advancement in the dustbin.

So how did Jack of Kent come to be handing out ranks in the anti-CAM brigade? The answer is that this arose as a result of a mildly surreal letter that noted CAM apologist Prof George Lewith (who seems to have become the go-to-guy when an academic medical defender of CAM is required) wrote to the New Scientist earlier last month. The letter was in turn prompted by an article Jack had written in the New Scientist“Don’t Criticise Or We’ll Sue” – noting the enthusiasm of Alt.Reality folk for calling in M’Learned Friends.

Prof George concluded:

“It should be noted that the article you published on this matter is from a prominent member of the anti-CAM brigade.”

Which strikes me as rather a cheap shot coming from a “medically-qualified researcher of CAM”, as Professor George describes himself.

Jack of Kent tells the full story here, noting that his only interest in Alternative Medicine has been the use (or misuse, if you prefer) its practitioners make of the Threat of Legal Retribution to salve their wounded reputations.

Jack was rather amused at Lewith’s parting jab:


But I think this [that JoK is a member of the “anti-CAM brigade”] is incorrect.

Not that there is any shame being a member of such a “brigade”. If so, I would want to be Captain Jack serving below Brigadier Ernst, Colonels Colquhoun and Goldacre, and Majors Noir, Aust, and Gimpy.

Gentleman rankers?

Now, though I happily plead to membership, I’m not sure what rank I should be accorded in the “anti-CAM brigade”. “Major Aust” does, I admit, have a certain ring. And I have been variously described by several of my line managers as “a major something-or-other”. (The something might be “puzzle”, or sometimes “pain”.) However. I have to say that I’ve never really seen myself as officer material.

In fact, a certain aversion to the officer class seems to run in the Aust family. Dr Aust’s father, who was a national service conscript in the early 50s, was the only family member to be a commissioned officer, but he insists this was due to a combination of his technical aptitude for fixing things and his left-wing politics. It was, according to Dr Aust’s dad (or “Grandpa Aust” as he will henceforth be known on the blog, since this is approximately how Jr Aust and her cousins address him), viewed as a bit dangerous to have well-educated and articulate leftie types in the ranks, as they might foment discontent among the enlisted men. Therefore it was safer to make them junior officers and stick them variously in the Education, Intelligence, or Engineer Corps. As Grandpa Aust was both mechanically skilled and a keen teenage radio ham, he was sent to officer training school and then off to the Royal Engineers as a 2nd Lieutenant.

No other member of the Aust family, as far as we know, has ever achieved officer rank. Indeed, Dr Aust’s maternal grandfather, a career soldier who became a Regimental Sergeant Major, turned down a battlefield commission in World War 2.

Anyway, Dr Aust’s failure ever to get promoted in two decades in his current job seems to me to be more of a pedigree for a cynical old NCO than for an officer. And sergeants do feature among Dr Aust’s comic heroes, notably Sergeant Wilson from Dad’s Army, and the wonderful Sergeant Bilko.

So all in all, I think it will have to be Sergeant Aust of the anti-CAM brigade.

But what kind of a Sergeant?

Now, Dr Aust has always had a kind of unofficial job advising on scientific equipment, particularly for optical microscope-based imaging, plus rescuing and renovating older bits of scientific kit and re-distributing it to where it is needed around the Department.

So perhaps his brigade rank ought to be Quartermaster Sergeant.

Though come to think of it, an alternative job might be as a Sergeant Instructor. I do have plenty of teaching experience. And the anti-CAM brigade seems to be gathering fresh recruits by the day.

For which, I think, we must thank our old friends at the British Chiropractic Association.

Indeed, if I may allow myself a brief officer-style compliment:

Cracking work, chaps. Carry on.