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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Medical journal decks the halls with silly science for the season

Spider-Man should be getting a little more sleep to be a healthy teenager, a new "research" paper concludes.  (Marvel Studios)
Spider-Man should be getting a little more sleep to be a healthy teenager, a new "research" paper concludes. (Marvel Studios)

As we come to the close of a year that left a lot of us short on “comfort, sparkle and space to imagine a better future,” we might turn to an unusual place for a little holiday cheer.

A medical journal.


The BMJ – usually called the British Medical Journal – compiles an annual Christmas edition, and this year’s is a humdinger, replete with “research” about head injuries among nursery rhyme characters, the long-term health prospects of aging superheroes, a dictionary of slang usage in intensive-care units, and an examination of plant-related dangers at the holidays.

“Should your true love gift you a pear tree (or 12) this Christmas, we urge caution; do not eat the seeds,” reads an excerpt from “The holly and the ivy: festive plant hazards at the holidays.”

“Pears (Pyrus spp) are one of several fruits with pits, seeds, or kernels that contain amygdalin, which is metabolised to cyanide compounds in the gastrointestinal tract via emulsin. … There are no reports of human cyanide poisoning resulting from pear seed consumption, though the fruit of 12 trees may be sufficient.”

The BMJ Christmas issue is a combination of fanciful faux science and actual science, kind of, about fanciful subjects.

It includes a couple of serious articles as well, including one that addresses how we will know when the pandemic is truly over (“when we turn off our screens and decide that other issues are once again worthy of our attention”) and how we might use the COVID- crisis to rethink the way we live (“If we want the post-pandemic world to be better than what came before, we need to think big. We need our own utopias, as well as our own alternative visions of a healthcare future.”)

But the best parts are the most fanciful. Take “We all fall down: head injuries in Nursery Rhyme Characters.”

“Seven popular nursery rhymes involving or suspected of involving fall-related head injuries deserve some scrutiny (table 1),” the paper reads. “The injured characters were humans of various ages, five little monkeys, and an anthropomorphic egg. The head injuries were commonly due to falls – one was even related to the seemingly innocuous everyday activity of going to bed.”

The paper includes chapters titled “Jack and Jill: the demographics of head injuries” and “Rock a Bye Baby: the misuse of child products.”

“As cradles are not designed, tested, and certified for falls – from treetops or elsewhere – its crashworthiness is unknown and could be inadequate,” wrote the author, Declan A. Patton, a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Or consider “Anticipating the aging trajectory of superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

“Spider-Man’s spider related abilities, including strength, flexibility, and agility, should reduce his risk of falls in old age,” wrote the authors, a team from Australia.

“With much of Spider-Man’s crime fighting occurring at night, he is not likely to be getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep for teenagers of his age. Poor sleep in adolescence can lead to obesity, lower mental health, higher levels of pain and fatigue, and higher incidents of unintentional injuries.”

After evaluating the health of the Hulk, Black Widow and Black Panther, the authors suggest a new focus for the modern superhero.

“To date, the Marvel superheroes’ combined efforts focus on matters such as maintaining the safety of the multiverse, the modulation of human consciousness, the creation of artificial intelligence, and the development of technology to facilitate space travel. We suggest they move their focus to dealing with challenges, such as how to provide high quality health and social care across large, aging populations and preventing frailty and dementia. This would enable people across the multiverse, including superheroes, to experience high quality of life in older age.”

One paper reported on a population cohort study investigating whether there was an association between “heavy metal toxicity” – defined in this instance as the density of heavy metal bands in a city – and higher incidence of certain kinds of injury and mortality.

It found there was not; in fact, “vibrant local heavy metal scenes – comparable to other forms of cultural capital – might help to promote health through healthier lifestyles, better coping mechanisms, and a stronger sense of community.”

Rock on, and Merry Christmas.

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