Rank… in more ways than one

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.

12 Responses to “Rank… in more ways than one”

  1. Sceric Says:

    Sergeant Sir, I’d like to offer you the title of “Drill Sergeant”…in case something like that exists in the British Forces…now I (a cannon fodder soldier) go back to my foxhole, write applications and stay an atheistic agnostic…

  2. draust Says:

    They certainly do have Drill Sergeants in the British Army, Eric. Somehow I doubt I would be terrifying enough to be one, though, even in the Anti-CAM brigade…! My father says his Drill Sergeant was a very scary man, and renowned as having the loudest voice in the entire British Army.

    My father says that one of the oddities of the officer training school he went to was that the terrifying Drill Sergeants and Sergeant Instructors had to address the officers-in-training formally as “Sir”, though it was the Sergeants who were in charge. According to my dad’s recollections, this worked approximately as follows:

    Sergeant Instructor to officer trainee (on live fire traning exercise)

    “Keep your *!*!ing head down if you don’t want it !**!ing well blown off, you !*!!ing stupid !**!ing ***! ….Sir

    All in all I am grateful they abolished military service in the UK long before my time. I think my friend Prof David Colquhoun is old enough to have been young in the national service days, but I don’t know whether he was “called up”. He may well have been at University until after they abolished compulsory military service. I do know several German, Korean and former Eastern European scientists who experienced compulsory military service, but many of them did it as army doctors or dentists after finishing University.

  3. Svetlana Says:

    Oh! I guess that David was not called up. It is understandable – David was a student in Leeds at first, and then he was a postgraduate student in Edinburgh. By the way, I don’t agree with his rank, which was given him in this joke above. He is not Colonel. He is a General!!! He is FRS, i.e. “academician” in Russian terminology. Russian academicians have military rank not less than General. Colonel is usual Professor. Why must British FRS be worse? He is a General too.
    By the way, I suspect that Goldacre has real military rank, because he is medical doctor, i.e. bound to military service.
    As for me, I have military rank too, because I finished the pharmaceutical school and then – Medical University. But I am not Lieutenant like all pharmaceutists with university education. The point is that all teachers at our Military Chair in our University were terrible idiots and I decided to shirk the study there :) I received “the ticket” with high myopia (it is a truth, I have a vision -7,5 dioptres). So I have now only the rank – common soldier, received in pharmaceutical school and plus the line in my military card – “non-effective in peace time and a non-combatant in war time”, i.e. I am lazy and sly anti-military physiognomy :)

  4. Sceric Says:

    yep, been there too, but before I started at the university…it was half “my brain is slowly eroding, because of lack of use” and half “yeah, lets run through the woods, or clean a house – from enemies” (it did teach me a few things about the reality of being in a war, at least more than any movie) …regarding the drill sergeant thing: I’m sure almost anybody anti-CAM is a threat to them and scares them(if you try to change or attack the believe system of somebody, they will be afraid – at least secretly – that they could be wrong)

  5. Allo V Psycho Says:

    My dad was conscripted and made it to sergeant. He used to say that going from private to sergeant was more challenging than going from ‘bleedin’ poncy lieutenant to bleedin’ poncy major’. Interestingly, he also got moved to a technical corps, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, perhaps because he was too bright/bolshie for the PBI.

  6. draust Says:

    So that makes two scientific fathers doing their national service in the REME, AV. I wonder how many others there are?

    My dad says that, on the plus side, the REME taught him to drive, and how to fix cars and engines, and that riding a motorbike was just about the fastest way to die young short of a war.

    On the other hand, he says the army also taught him that all large organisations were pretty much intrinsically incapable of getting or being organised, and that insane regulations and catastrophic foul-ups were the military rule rather than the exception.

    He did once tell me the army accidentally helped him get his first post-University technical job in 1954. The person doing the interviewing and hiring had been something important in wartime radar research, and my dad always reckoned he got the job because he could talk about the inner workings of the No. 3 MK 7 anti-aircraft radar system.


    British doctors definitely don’t have any formal military equivalent rank, Svetlana. Though I believe that medical doctors who serve in the military are always officers. My ex-colleagues who served in the Germany army and Korean army after graduating, respectively as doctor and dentist, were both made the most junior kind of officer (2nd lieutenant).

    The people who at one point DID have equivalent military ranks, though it doesn’t happen any more to my knowledge, are people who were on the staff of the US National Institutes of Health.

    There is a story that used to do the rounds about the NIH scientific staffer who, back in the late 60s or early 70s, wanted to go to a conference in Europe. It turned out that, as a government employee, he could get there on a US Govt uniformed services flight. The snag was that this meant travelling in uniform, so he had to go and find out what his “equivalent rank” was, and get suited up for the appropriate uniform. It turned out that being a lab head made him a major.

    To his acute embarassment, when he turned up for the flight it transpired that he was the highest ranking officer on board. So for the entire boarding process, transatlantic fight and disembarkation he had all these real military folk snapping to attention and saluting him. Military protocol required him to return these salutes, otherwise the other ranks would just stand there staring at him, so he had to do the best job of returning the salute that he could manage. After which he swore he was never travelling on a military flight ever again.

    I’m pretty sure I once heard this story told about eminent (and still active) cardiovascular researcher Ed Lakatta, though it may be apocryphal.

    Sadly, the fact that NIH staff used to have military equivalent ranks has fuelled some of the internet conspiracy theorists. It used to occasionally get cited on AIDS Denalist sites as “showing” that HIV was devised by the military industrial complex etc etc.


    Re. David Colquhoun, I would happily make him a general, BTW, but I reckon he would turn the rank down – David was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, after all. We once worked out that we might have been on the same Aldermaston Marches in the early 60s (I was there being pushed in my pram).

  7. northerndoctor Says:

    I’ve just been blogging for a year now so if I was going to be ranked it would be the lowest of officers – second lieutenants are the greenest of the green in the British Army. Of course the British Army is really run by the meritocratic system of the NCOs – the sergeants, staff sergeants and warrant officers. (“Don’t call me sir, sir; I work for a living”).

    I would also echo your sentiment about the ‘anti-CAM brigade’. I have certainly not set out to be specifically anti-CAM. My recent exposure to the distortions of the pro-CAM lobby would leave me similarly unfazed if I were to be labelled as anti-CAM.

    This would seem a good moment to confess that I served as a medical officer in the British Army until 2004 and some of the best NCOs I ever met were the maverick bolshie rough diamonds in the REME.

  8. physicsmum Says:

    Dr. Aust, congratulations on your “promotion”!
    Perhaps you will be the very model of a modern major (whats-it) – apologies to G & S

    Regarding the scientific fathers: perhaps mine was an exception? He did his service in the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman, liked the uniform at least! The s.o.b.s tracked him down in remote northern Scotland to call him up for duty, cutting short his honeymoon :-(

  9. Svetlana Says:

    David’s membership in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament just corroborates that he is a General in our army of Skeptics and Anti-militarists, but not disproves it.

    There is still compulsory call-up to army for men in Russia (and in Israel – even for women! 8-O ). So, formal military ranks and Military Chairs in Universities and Colleges exists for civil medical doctors, railwaymen, many engineers, and natural scientists.
    But you mentioned rightly – formal military ranks for civil specialists in countries, where compulsory call-up is absent, can appear in war or similar conditions (sort of mentioned above flight on the army’s airplane). How does it happen? I think that army’s bureaucracy has for this some special list of correspondence between civil and military ranks. So all of you, civil chaps, has military ranks actually according to this “black lists” ;) Unfortunately, all our wild and crazy World lives still under laws of war and it doesn’t matter what inner rules act in the countries :( Silly relic, I hope – it will die off soon.

    I didn’t take part in the campaigns for nuclear disarmament in such early age like you, Dr. Aust ;) However, I took part in it later, in more conscious age. The nuclear disarmament was official doctrine of Soviet country (despite of its participant in arms race). And it was official policy in all public political organizations, including children organizations such as Pioneer organization (children from 9 years old) and even Octobrist’s organization (children from 7 to 9 years old). So we were activists of the campaigns for nuclear disarmament from our childhood. Of course, there was a lot of bureaucracy in such things as in whole Soviet state. But it doesn’t matter. Even bureaucracy is not capable to spoil good and right things, if it is really good things. Bureaucracy will die, good things will live.

  10. Nash Says:

    Allo V Psycho

    REME = Royal Engineers Made Easy


  11. Allo V Psycho Says:

    My dad reckoned that he might be able to do more complicated things than a Royal Engineer – but generally, he got to do them without anyone actually trying to kill him during the experience. He was happy with this arrangement.

  12. draust Says:

    My father was very grateful never to have to fire a gun in anger, or have command in any sort of combat. Of course, as part of the standard training for all junior officers he had to sit in a classroom and be taught how to command a platoon, including battlefield tactics and also stuff related to “coming to the aid of the civil power” (e.g. quelling / dispersing a riot, including where necessary identifying the ringleader and having your best rifleman shoot them).

    He always figured they were taught this latter stuff partly because of the fears that in the event of nuclear attack there would be complete breakdown of civil order, which makes me think of Peter Watkins’ long banned film “The War Game.”

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