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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Media doesn't get scientist's X-mas joke, hilarity ensues...

Santa's a Health Menace? Media Everywhere Are Falling for It—But the Study Was Meant as a Joke
by Ashley Merryman

Around the world, news outlets have been reporting on a new study in BMJ, the U.K.'s leading medical journal. In the article, titled "Santa Claus: A Public Health Pariah?," Australian epidemiologist Nathan Grills meticulously lays out the reasons why Santa Claus is a terrible role model—a danger to children everywhere.

For instance, Grills writes, "Epidemiologically there is a correlation between countries that venerate Santa Claus and those that have high levels of childhood obesity." The researcher warns that the British tradition of leaving brandy along with the cookies means that Santa would be drunk-driving his sleigh. Santa's behind-the-reindeer malfeasance also includes "speeding, disregard for road rules, and extreme sports such as roof surfing and chimney jumping. Despite the risks of high speed air travel Santa is never depicted wearing a seatbelt or a helmet." (Grills somehow forgot to include that Santa is constantly breaking into people's houses—an obvious invitation for children to become burglars.)

Alerted to the article through a journal press release, news outlets everywhere immediately started reporting on Grills's article. Headlines proclaimed: "Santa Should Get Off His Sleigh, Jog to Trim Image, Doctor Says"; "Santa Promotes Obesity and Drink-Driving, Claims Health Expert"; and, of course, "Bad Santa."

Every wire service carried a version of the report. The international wire services AFP and AP wrote that Grills had established a relationship between Santa belief and obesity, and that he also warned against sitting on Santa's lap: it would lead to the spread of infectious disease. The wire stories were in turn picked up by major news networks and other venues.

Since then, people haven't been just reporting on Grills's work: he's being eviscerated for it.

A reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution blasted him with "Sometimes Scrooge has a medical degree and an Aussie accent." Another editorial proclaimed that the report was "wasted science" and "downright Grinch-like."

Around the world, Grills has been attacked as a mean-spirited Christmas killjoy. His e-mail inbox is filled with condemnations. He's so besieged by angry calls that he won't answer the telephone, so I couldn't talk to him for an interview. We had to correspond via e-mail.

Here's the thing. The entire "study" was a joke. It was satire. You've heard of Christmas in July? Well, this was April Fool's Day in December.

"It's supposed to be spreading a bit of Christmas cheer," explains Grills. He wonders if the sense of humor was lost because maybe some of the reporters read the press release but never read the actual article.

I don't know if that is the explanation or not, but the reason he asks the question is that it's clear his piece is a satire just from looking at it. The "study" byline includes a coauthorship by Brendan Halyday, an illustrator. Prestigious medical journals do not use illustrators; their graphics are dry charts and bar graphs. The cartoons at the top of this post are the illustrations included in Grills's "report."

While describing his article as "lighthearted," AP in all seriousness reported on Grills's supposed correlation between Santa and obesity. But there is no research to support the existence of that correlation—or any other claim made in the piece—whatsoever. It was just fiction.

In fact, in the "study," Grills never reported an exact numerical r correlation for that obesity/Santa-belief claim, nor did he claim to have done any real research on the relationship. Instead, he credited other sources as having made that finding—but two Internet clicks reveal that those cited articles don't have any data on that, either. And when I asked Grills to tell me about the specifics of the correlation, he instantly replied that there was no research on point; it was just a joke.

Similarly, the cited "research" relating to the complaint about a drunk-driving Santa is a single Yahoo-user question and answer.

And the article clearly states that there was no peer review of the piece—in a peer-reviewed journal.

If the article's text wasn't enough of a clue, the essay was published in a section of the journal called "Christmas Fayre"—that being the British description for a Christmas street carnival. One of the other articles in the Fayre section was a "quiz" for readers to test their ability to identify microscopic images. For one slide, the answer was "Macroscopic description: Two legs, two wings, weight 3 kg. Microscopic description: Abundant skeletal muscle fibres with their peripherally placed nuclei. Diagnosis: Christmas turkey."

Yet another article in that section asked readers to discuss the ethical implications of bringing a group of children on a trip to Lapland to visit an obese, hirsute, elderly white male dressed in a red costume.

All in all, the Fayre section is not a sendup of Christmas, but instead a good-natured parody of scientific journals. With a laugh at the gravitas of journal writing, the scholars ask us to reflect on the seriousness, and occasional inanity, of their work.

AFP has since filed a subsequent piece, reporting that Grills now says the article was a spoof. The wire service should have admitted that its previous report was in error. Instead, the piece intimates that Grills is backpedaling because of the condemnation he's received. Even in that second piece, AFP repeated the nonexistent correlation between obesity and belief in Santa.

Like all good satire, Grills's article contains kernels of truth. As he correctly points out, Santa is used by companies to sell, sell, sell—arguably defeating the whole idea of a kind and giving saint. Maybe we should insist that marketers stop using Santa's image to sell products that harm kids. And we should occasionally think about the messages we unwittingly convey to our children: even our most treasured icons may not always be setting the best of examples.

Does that mean Grills is Scrooge?

No. In fact, Grills is a Santa himself—he's repeatedly dressed up in the elf costume for kids in Australian schools.

As he wrote to me: "I am a Santa lover not hater! But I believe in the true meaning of Santa. The true Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a very generous man who gave of all his wealth to bless others who were in need. This was a reflection of one of the greatest gifts given to humanity: the baby Jesus. We need to reclaim Christmas for the beauty of giving and loving."

In the meantime, just to be clear: Grills does not consider Santa to be an actual public-health menace. He isn't a Grinch. And he isn't trying to kill anyone's belief in Santa.

He's just bewildered—and a bit angry—that his Christmas mischief has gotten more publicity than he has ever received for his real job. When he's not beating up on mythical creatures, Grills spends his time in rural India, studying the transmission of HIV through the region; his expertise is in determining how charities can most effectively help victims of the disease. In other words, he's trying to help people become real-life Saint Nicks, when it counts the most.

Ultimately, Grills's essay does offer a real, potent warning for us all. But it has nothing to do with Santa's weight or occasional misbehavior.

Instead, what we learn is that kids' fervent belief in Santa is nothing in comparison to some reporters' belief in a press release.

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