Archive for March, 2010

Cancer from your pen top

March 29, 2010

In which Dr Aust enjoys some musical wit and whimsy

Via some of my new friends from Skeptics in the Pub, and Twitter, I encountered this rather wonderful song about One of the Twin Powerhouses of British Media Ghastliness (along with the Sun), the Daily Mail:

The Tweet that alerted me to this little masterpiece (and which came from a skeptical arts blogger) referenced the brilliant line:

“Cancer from your shoes, from your dog, from your pentop”

– which I think deserves instant classic status. The Daily Mail is, of course well known in UK bad science circles for what Ben Goldacre likes to describe as:

“[Its] bizarre ongoing ontological project to divide all the foodstuffs (indeed all the inanimate objects) in the world into those that either cause, or cure, cancer.” (see also here)

– to which I would only add that it is not unknown for the same foods, or inanimate objects, to show up in both of these lists, often at surprisingly short intervals.

Private Eye routinely refers to the Mail as the “Daily Fail”, though my favourite title for the paper, which I think was coined by much-missed recently retired medical blogger Dr John Crippen, is the “Peoples’ Medical Journal”. This owes its origin to what all my doctor friends regard as the misleading medical and NHS stories that the Fail runs, mostly about how doctors are useless/grasping/sinister. But it serves equally well for the Fail’s seeming obsession with cancer, and multiple credulous stories about Alternative Medicine.

For any non-UK reader who would like to learn more about the Peoples’ Medical Journal and its long and not especially illustrious history, Wikipedia offers a useful introduction.

Anyway, the video, which is both brilliant and funny, and is now getting quite a bit of re-tweet and blog action, comes from this/these chap(s).

And now – a  random musical discursion

If you’ve watched it, the discarding of the copies of the newspaper as a dramatic device rather reminds me of a famous early pop clip, the one for of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.

The Dylan video is actually the opening sequence of the famous documentary Don’t Look Back by DA Pennebaker. (The film itself is an absolute classic, and anyone even vaguely interested in the music of the 60s should seek it out at once,  if they’ve not seen it.)

Now, while the newspaper discarding conjures up Dylan, Dan and Dan’s general style puts me more in mind of the (sadly departed) Jake Thackray. Most younger people in the UK now will not remember Thackray, a whimsical and often very funny singer-songwriter most famous in the UK in the late 60s and 70s. Thackray, whose distant influence can perhaps be seen in a song like Pulp’s Common People, was himself much inspired by the French singer-poet Georges Brassens.  So here, as an introduction, is Thackray singing his (rather good) translation of Brassens’ famous anti-capital punishment song Le Gorille:

and the Brassens’ original for comparison (with subtitles from this blog):

Upcoming highlights (which may never appear)

If you listen to Le Gorille you will notice that it evinces a less than respectful approach to the gravitas of the judiciary. Which reminds me that we are expecting the formal Appeal Court ruling on the BCA v Singh “appeal on meaning” some time soon, and possible before the weekend. I am aware that I have been very slack about posting recently, so perhaps I will try and comment on the ruling when it appears, as Jack of Kent has been nagging me to do. And then there is World Homeopathy Awareness Week to come after that….

In the mean time, enjoy the music. And I’ll close with one other completely unrelated – though appropriately seasonal – musical favourite; in this case a song I like to sing to Junior Aust when we go for a walk.  Enjoy.

PS AND UPDATE – March 31st:

One of my senior academic colleagues reminds me of another piece of British newspaper-related beat poetry, this one from our youth back at the end of the 70s, and dealing with another mid-market tabloid, the Daily Express. In an interesting piece of serendipitous co-incidence the writer/performer, the wonderful John Cooper Clarke, famously pinched much of his own visual style from the early 60s Bobby Zimmerman, though its not easy to see that in this rather low-quality live clip. However, the poem makes up for the quality.


Dr Michael Dixon is annoyed

March 10, 2010

In which Dr Aust spots that Prince Charles’ favourite GP is in a state of high dudgeon over people being mean about magic medicine. You know – being mean by asking about evidence, and other awkward stuff.

Dr Aust occasionally checks the website of the GPs’ magazine Pulse. This is partly because alerts to it appear on my email and in my Twitter feed.

It is also because the Pulse website has blogs on it; the three I read are by Prof Edzard Ernst, by that excellent blogger (and an on-line acquaintance of mine) the Jobbing Doctor, and by the rather exasperated and often very funny Phil Peverley.

It is a bit of a faff to read the articles at Pulse online because you have to register, but it is free to do so, and once you have, you get an interesting perspective on what is going on in what a lot of doctors I know call “GP-land”.

Including with respect to “complementary”  medicine.

The thing that caught my eye there recently was a distinctly splenetic article (as one splenetic middle-aged gentleman talking about another) written by Prince Charles’ favourite GP, Dr Michael Dixon OBE.

Dr Michael Dixon of the Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health

Dr Dixon is the medical director of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health, probably the most influential lobby group promoting CAM in the UK.

In the article, Dr Dixon is evidently rather annoyed.

You can tell this from the very beginning, where he describes Edzard Ernst as

“A leading member of science’s militant tendency”

Dr Dixon also referes to his opponents – which seems to be anyone who thinks that CAM should live up to the same standards of evidence as the rest of medicine – as

“the new fundamentalists”

In fact, the whole paragraph that contains this phrase is worth quoting.

“The new fundamentalists rarely, if ever, think about the patient. That is not surprising. Most are not doctors. Even Professor Ernst hasn’t faced a real live patient for at least seventeen years. Those were the days when you could still, just, get away with ‘doctor knows best’. Seems he is still living that dream.”

The last bit of this is particularly smile-inducing – at least if you are a conoisseur of irony.

After all, who is it that is demanding the right to use hocus-pocus on the patients, and not explain exactly what is in the remedies?

Is it Professor Ernst?

Or is it Dr Dixon?

As one respondent puts it (read the article and then comments to find out who):

“It is the very essence of old fashioned paternalistic medicine to pretend that it’s a good idea to deceive the patient for the sake of eliciting a placebo reaction.”

While another commenter characterizes Dr Dixon’s extended harrumph (rather accurately in my view) as an “embarrassing diatribe”.

In fact, the main reason for mentioning Dr Dixon’s article is to draw your attention to the excellence of many of the comments that follow it, and which are well worth a read.

The commenters, as the phrase is, “take Dixon’s ass to school“.

Though I suspect his evident blind spots will mean he will not learn very much.


PS   For anyone interested in what the medical ethicists think of homeopathy, and the ethical issues involved, the answer can be found here.

ADDED: And via Twitter, and courtesy of the splendidly eagle-eyed “Blue Wode”,  here are two other informative articles about Dr Dixon from Majikthyse and The Quackometer.

Bad Administration

March 4, 2010

Perhaps the best leader article I have read in the Times Higher Education these last several years can be found here.

Red Tape: A Form of Distrust

Academics are vociferous in their condemnation of bureaucracy, especially when it tries to measure the unmeasurable. Obviously, higher education must be accountable to its public paymasters, but if the audit becomes the goal, human nature is such that people will put more effort into the things that can be audited – never mind the quality, feel the paperwork. And even the Quality Assurance Agency does not assure quality; it merely ensures that the correct processes are in place to deliver it.

But banal and mind-numbing though it is, bureaucracy isn’t neutral. It is insidious, changing the nature of both teaching and research; it also, of course, has been used to push academics in uncomfortable directions.

The comments after the article make interesting reading. It appears that University administrators think the academics should stop bloody whingeing and fill in all those excellently-designed forms the administrators send them – and which the Faculty Education Management Committee’s  Student Experience And Feedback Monitoring Oversight Subcommittee  spent so many productive hours designing –  more carefully.

Which is what I would call a:  “Getting the Point Epic Fail

A senior academic commenting as “Mark” sums it up for me:

“In so many cases, the main justification for the paper work is that “we have to be seen to be doing”.  In other words, it doesn’t actually matter if the monitoring is working, it just matters that we have a sufficient paper trail to prove to others that we are doing it.”


Now back to filling in those overdue online forms for our latest internal “Research Performance Audit.”