20 August 2007

Bad science (or just plain offensive science)

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian is essential reading for a Saturday morning. His last Saturday’s column, titled “Evolutionary regression back to 1866” concerned a recent paper on Down ’s syndrome (or just Down, both are correct) in the scientific journal Medical Hypotheses.

Down's Syndrome used to be called mongolism, a term (along with Mongolian idiocy) that was invented by John Langdon Down in 1866, We now know that the disorder is caused by chromosome 21 trisomy (where a person has a an complete or partial third copy of this chromosome) but in his study “Observations on the Ethnic Classification of Idiots" he put stated that the condition was an evolutionary regression to (what he viewed as a) less advanced form of humanity. Mongolism and Mongolian idiocy are, mercifully, now obsolete as descriptive terms having been superseded by the expression Down’s syndrome in the 1960s

Ben Goldacre was thus shocked to come across an article from 2007 entitled “Down subjects and Oriental population share several specific attitudes and characteristics”. Written by Federica Mafrica and Vincenzo Fodale the article puts forwards the idea that the parallels between Down syndrome and "oriental" people are deeper than a vague facial similarity. His Bad Science website publishes the article in full.

The article contains a number of statements that beggar belief in this day and age: -

  • "Down subjects adore having several dishes displayed on the table, and have a propensity for food which is rich in monosodium glutamate."

  • "The tendencies of Down subjects to carry out recreative-rehabilitative activities, such as embroidery, wicker-working, ceramics, book-binding, etc., that is renowned, remind [us of] the Chinese hand-crafts, which need a notable ability, such as Chinese vases, or the use of chopsticks employed for eating by Asiatic populations."

  • "Down persons during waiting periods, when they get tired of standing up straight, crouch, squatting down, reminding us of the 'squatting' position ... They remain in this position for several minutes and only to rest themselves.... This position is the same taken by the Vietnamese, the Thai, the Cambodian, and the Chinese, while they are waiting at a bus stop, for instance, or while they are chatting."

  • "There is another pose taken by Down subjects while they are sitting on a chair: they sit with their legs crossed while they are eating, writing, watching TV, as the Oriental peoples do."

The article ends:

  • “Furthermore, it may be interesting to know the gravity with which the Down’s syndrome occurs in Asiatic population, especially in Chinese population. This study may offer the possibility of to know better the neuropathology mechanisms that are responsible of mental retardation in Down’s syndrome and to open a new diagnostic and therapeutic way for to operate precociously. Perhaps we could even clear Langdon of all blame from the accusation of being a ‘‘racist’’ for having first observed a sort of twinning which could be looked at in more depth in the light of modern knowledge on the heredity of features and on genic expression and inactivation.”

By the same token you could argue that anyone who likes buffet lunches sells at craft fairs, or does yoga must have a similar oriental connection too. I agree with Ben Goldacre’s when he described the article as “so fantastical and so thoughtlessly crass that it's impossible to experience anything like outrage”. Two thoughts also sprang to mind:

  • Are Fodale and Mafrica having a laugh? If so it is a pretty bad joke. It was published in the February edition so it wasn’t an April fool’s day thing. Also I don’t think that the article was intended as a homage to Alan Sokal and his hoax paper "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"

  • Where was the peer review? Apparently, the journal http://www.harcourt-international.com/journals/mehy/ Medical Hypotheses is a forum for “radical ideas in medicine and related biomedical sciences”. It does not operate a peer review system - the editor simply chooses to publish what are judged to be the best papers from those submitted.

Vincenzo Fodale appears to be a reputable scientist. He is the “Aggregated Professor of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care” at the University of Messina and has published widely, mainly on anaesthesiology as would be expected, but also on other matters including “the cholinergic system in Down’s Syndrome” (the nerve cells that use Acetylcholine as a neurotransmitter). What the hell is he doing, penning such unscientific and downright offensive nonsense?

Also check Tom Hamilton's excellent post at Lets Be Sensible


Anonymous said...

Sounds like the sort of deliberately outrageous pseudo-scientific claptrap that gets written by academics when they are desperately short of cash. As I recall, Hans Eysenck wasn't above turning out this sort of rubbish from time to time.

In the words of Peter Cook, "provocative f*cker".

jams o donnell said...

I suppose if they are working on teh basis of no publicity being bad publicity....

The Lone Beader® said...

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They're my fav. Saw them in London in April, and in Boston in May. And, I'm planning to go back to London in Nov. to see them again. :D

jams o donnell said...

Thery are very good. I will have to see about getting a ticket myself

Anonymous said...

So what's "unscientific" about looking for similarities between Down's kids and oriental people again? It may be un-PC, but I fail to see what is "unscientific" about it. Every good experiment requires a hypothesis.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

That is truly astonishing.

And Farmer John - this is a kind of "hypothesis" that is not published without a) bracing oneself and b) having a bit of proof for such nonsense.

Anyway, what the heck is "Aggregated Professor", I wonder? Some kind of a Lego composition?

Anonymous said...


I'm sure the authors of the study did have a bit of proof supporting their conclusions. Unfortunately, the webmaster of the "Bad Science" website only posted the "introduction" to the paper, and one is required to be a subsciber to a service if one wishes to see the rest of it.

And without being able to see the "rest of it", it's a bit difficult to draw a reasoned conclusion as to its' scientific merit.

But those who would pre-judge the scientific merit of the study on the basis of its' "cover", so to speak, may wish to consider the reasons why they find the study so offensive and what THAT has to do with science.

jams o donnell said...

Farmer John it's nothing to do with PC, it's simply an atrocious piece of work.

Look agaiin and you will see that Goldacre publishes the whole article, not just the introduction. The idiotic assertions are not referenced. If it had been a peer reviewed paper it would have been thrown into the bin.

Anonymous said...

I guess all I can say is, "What do you expect for a journal called 'Hypotheses'?"

I assumed it was an "abstract"... not the whole paper. Silly me.

There really is a lot of real science out there that is NOT PC. Hypotheses (standing all by themselves) ARE bad science.

Hmmmmmm. Perhaps I should submit some of my crazy hypotheses... $$ka-ching$$

jams o donnell said...

scientific research should never be bound by the wilder shores of PC.

Ah there is one slight problem: You pay page charges with that journal!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

btw - What do you think of this hypothesis? Is it science, or shift an effort to shift blame to a different scapegoat?

jams o donnell said...

Bird shit is corrosive stuff - just leave your car under a tree for a while! It may well have been a contributory factor but the wordd missing bolts and cracking steel leap out at me more than does bird shit!

I didn't really follow the story but it did sound as if the real culprit was lack of proper maintenance.