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 Mongolism and Mongolian idiocy are, mercifully, now obsolete as descriptive terms having been superseded by the expression Down’s syndrome in the 1960s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