Bad Santa, or Bad Science Reporting?


Illustration from BMJ by Brendan Halyday

Is Santa Claus a risk factor for obesity, swine flu and drunk-driving? And if you saw such a headline, would you think it was a joke?

That’s the cautionary tale floating about on this (admittedly slow) science news week, as a scientific article in the esteemed British Medical Journal entitled “Santa Claus: a public health pariah?” kicked up a bit of a storm. An AP story on the paper, which describes it as “light-hearted research” deep in the story, nevertheless seemed to play the findings of epidemiologist Nathan Grills straight, amusingly when it contained conclusions such as “Santa is a late adopter of evidence-based behavior change and continues to sport a rotund, sedentary image.”

The actual paper is, sadly, subscription-only and unlinkable, but from the text excerpted on the BMJ website, it’s hard to believe that people weren’t tipped off by the author citing Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me in the second paragraph. The AP article, hilariously, cites Grills’ finding of a “very high Santa awareness,” his suggestion that Santa should swap out fireplace cookies for carrots, and his personal experience with the disease-spreading potential of traditional Santa visits.

More disturbingly, Grills said Santa’s close-up contact with sniffling, coughing kids made him a one-man outbreak waiting to happen, with swine flu the biggest seasonal concern.

“Unsuspecting little Johnny gets to sit on Santa’s lap, but as well as his present, he gets H1N1 influenza,” Grills warned.

Grills said he donned a Santa suit himself – and deemed the experience a public health nightmare. “I was kissed and hugged by snotty-nosed kids at each performance and was never offered alcohol swabs to wipe my rosy cheeks between clients,” he wrote.

Okay, so maybe the AP was in on the joke, but according to this Newsweek article, many commentators skimmed over the “light-hearted research” part and wrote scathing replies to Grills’ “findings,” inevitably lumping it in with the ridiculous “War on Christmas.” The bulk of that punditry seems to have been written off the press release (or the AP story), without bothering to check the clearly marked-as-satirical original journal article – another example of a troublesome trend in a journalism industry with fewer and fewer specialized science journalists. Missing some sly Australian humor in a British science journal is harmlessly embarrassing, but relying on intermediaries with an agenda to explain a science finding related to climate change or health care costs is a whole different animal.

Hopefully, the whole silly episode is a holiday lesson for journalists twice over: 1) always check the original article and 2) yes, Virginia, scientists do have a sense of humor.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
%d bloggers like this: