Sunday, 23 March 2008

Death can be cured!

A book of ideas collected from Medical Hypotheses: Death can be cured by Roger Dobson

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses. 2008; 70: 905-9.


A new collection of ideas from Medical Hypotheses by Roger Dobson is entitled Death can be cured and 99 other Medical Hypotheses. It consists of humorous summaries of Medical Hypotheses articles from the past 30 years. The book’s humour derives mainly from the subject matter, although sometimes also from the ‘unconventional’ approach of the authors with respect to matters such as evidence, argument or inference. Medical Hypotheses has generated such a lot of apparently- or actually-bizarre ideas because it aims to be open to potentially revolutionary science. The journal’s official stance is that more harm is done by a failure to publish one idea that might have been true, than by publishing a dozen ideas that turn out to be false. Bizarre ideas tend to catch attention, and may stimulate a valuable response – even when a paper is mostly-wrong. A paper may be flawed but still contain the germ of an idea that can be elaborated and developed. The journal review process is susceptible to both false positives and false negatives. False positives occur when we publish an idea that is wrong; false negatives occur when we fail to publish an important idea that is right, and a potential scientific breakthrough never happens. False positives are more obvious, since the paper will be ignored, refuted, or fail to be replicated – and often attracts criticism and controversy. Editors may therefore take the more cautious path of avoiding false positives more assiduously than false negatives; however, this policy progressively favours less-ambitious science. Consequently, in Medical Hypotheses the ‘set point’ of risk is nearer to the false positive end of the spectrum than for most journals – and the publication of many apparently-bizarre papers is a natural consequence of this policy.


A new book of ideas from Medical Hypotheses

Roger Dobson’s collection of ideas from Medical Hypotheses is entitled Death can be cured and 99 other Medical Hypotheses [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14], [15], [16], [17], [18], [19], [20], [21], [22], [23], [24], [25], [26], [27], [28], [29], [30], [31], [32], [33], [34], [35], [36], [37], [38], [39], [40], [41], [42], [43], [44], [45], [46], [47], [48], [49], [50], [51], [52], [53], [54], [55], [56], [57], [58], [59], [60], [61], [62], [63], [64], [65], [66], [67], [68], [69], [70], [71], [72], [73], [74], [75], [76], [77], [78], [79], [80], [81], [82], [83], [84], [85], [86], [87], [88], [89], [90], [91], [92], [93], [94], [95], [96], [97], [98], [99] and [100].

This delightful volume consists of gently-humorous summaries of Medical Hypotheses articles published since the journal’s foundation by the late David Horrobin in 1975.

The book’s humour derives mainly from the subject matter, although sometimes also from the ‘unconventional’ approach of the authors with respect to matters such as evidence, argument or inference. The apparently-bizarre nature of the science is of many types. In most instances the subject matter and conclusions are quite mainstream and serious from a scientific perspective, but from the perspective of an outsider they may seem strange. In other instances the ideas really are bizarre, from almost any perspective. And there are theories from all points in-between.

Bizarre ideas tend to catch attention, and may stimulate a valuable response – even when a paper is mostly-wrong. When reading what I think is a mostly-wrong idea submitted to Medical Hypotheses, I sometimes find myself provoked into formulating exactly where and why the idea is wrong – which can be a valuable experience. A paper may be flawed but still contain the germ of an idea that can be elaborated and developed – the reader feels they can do a better job than the author, and might embark on a new line of investigation.

Bizarre or flawed papers that provoke the reader may therefore stimulate correspondence to the author or journal in response, may turn-up later as a citation, or may have an important but invisible effect on another scientist’s attitudes, teaching or direction of research. This is all a contribution to the dynamic process of science – and science should always be regarded as a dynamic process, not a fixed body of facts and laws.
False positives and negatives in reviewing

The reason that Medical Hypotheses has generated such a lot of apparently- or actually-bizarre ideas is that it aims to be open to potentially revolutionary science. The journal’s official stance is that more harm is done by a failure to publish one idea that might have been true, than by publishing a dozen ideas that turn out to be false.

It may easily be forgotten that the review processes of science are susceptible both false positives and false negatives. False positives occur when we publish an idea that is wrong; false negatives occur when the journal fails to publish an idea that is right. False positives are more obvious, since the paper will be ignored, refuted, or fail to be replicated. This attracts criticism because it may waste the time and resources of other scientists.

But false negatives – when we fail to publish an idea which would (in an imaginary alternative universe) have led to some kind of breakthrough – are a more devastating mistake. But the false negative problem is seldom acknowledged, because the consequences may be invisible. Failure to publish might lead to an idea being lost altogether, or being published somewhere less appropriate (increasing the possibility that it would be unnoticed or ignored).

The fact that false positives attract more rapid and certain criticism and controversy than false negatives exerts a constant drip–drip of pressure on editors to take the more cautious and less controversy-generating path of avoiding false positives more assiduously than false negatives. This is prudent, but constitutes a sinister trade-off in the long term because it progressively favours less ambitious and more conservative science.

Consequently, in Medical Hypotheses the ‘set point’ of risk is nearer to the false positive end of the spectrum than it is for most journals. This is why the journal deploys editorial review (where journal contents are chose mainly by the editor) rather than the commoner but more cautious and negative peer review system.

On top of this, the Medical Hypotheses editorial policy constitutes an implicit contention concerning the style in which science should be conducted. Our idea is that it is sometimes (but not always) better to be interestingly wrong than boringly right; sometimes better to err on the side of tolerance rather than exclusion, sometimes better to stimulate than to reinforce closure.

It takes many personality types to make the world of science, and the same applies to journals. Science would not work efficiently if all journals were like Medical Hypotheses: there would be too much ‘noise’ in the system. But science does not work properly when journals will only publish papers that are regarded as completely correct by a panel of peers – because such papers cannot be bold and speculative, and because gems of insight may come from bizarre or flawed research.

Currently, the pendulum has probably swung too far in the direction of excess caution in mainstream medical science; such that the imperative to exclude noise has slipped-over into a too-rigid exclusion of diversity and dissent. The majority of journals publish only ultra-cautious papers that report dependable but cringingly-modest, incremental extrapolations of solidly-established knowledge.

One consequence is that although medical science has expanded hugely in funding and production over recent decades, there has probably been a declining frequency of major breakthroughs which seems to have slowed the rate of medical progress.
The future of bizarre ideas

These are some of the reasons why Medical Hypotheses publishes (apparently) bizarre papers, and how it was possible for Roger Dobson to collect 100 such ideas into an entertaining volume.

However, in the internet era of open-access to international publication, the role of Medical Hypotheses has inevitably become more specialised: it is now more like a place where bold scientific speculation meets the mainstream.

Since Medical Hypotheses has recently entered the realms of respectability with its 2006 impact factor of 1.29, monthly internet downloads running at about 32,000, and the rejection rate currently hovering around 80% or 90% – my challenge as editor will be to build on this success while maintaining the traditional open-ness and genial eccentricity of the journal which have characterized its first three decades.

This goal of avoiding false negatives more assiduously than false positives will almost-inevitably mean that Medical Hypotheses shall need to continue rejecting some probably-correct papers that are worthy-but-somewhat-dull, in favour of publishing some bizarre or flawed papers that just might (but – it must be admitted – probably will not) stimulate a break-though of some sort.

By holding to this principle, I hope to ensure that in another thirty years, a future science writer can produce an equally entertaining and edifying volume as Roger Dobson’s Death can be cured.


What follows are the 100 papers from Medical Hypotheses featured in Death can be cured and 99 other Medical Hypotheses, by Roger Dobson – Cyan Books, 32–38 Saffron Hill, London, EC1N 8FH, UK, 2007. ISBN 978-1-905736-31-7. Chapter titles are appended in italics.

[1] Mak MWM, Kwan TS, Cheng KH, Chan RTF, Ho SL. Myopia as a latent phenotype of a pleiotropic gene positively selected for facilitating neurocognitive development, and the effects of environmental factors in its expression. 2006;66:1209–15 [Short-sighted people are more intelligent].

[2] Arzy S, Idel M, Landis T, Blanke O. Why revelations have occurred on mountains. Linking mystical experiences and cognitive neuroscience. 2005;65:841–5 [Revelations always happen on mountains].

[3] Oinonen KA, Mazmanian D. Does body fat protect against negative moods in women? 2001;57:387–8 [Fat people really are more jolly].

[4] Melles RB, Katz B. Night terrors and sudden unexplained nocturnal death. 1988;26:149–54 [Nightmares can kill you].

[5] Stevenson I. The phenomenon of claimed memories of previous lives: possible interpretations and importance. 2000;54:652–9 [Birthmarks are proof of reincarnation].

[6] Fisch H, Andrews HF, Fisch KS, Golden R, Liberson G, Olsson CA. The relationship of long-term global temperature change and human fertility. 2003;61:21–8 [Global warming reduces fertility].

[7] Elsner RJF, Spangler JG. Neurotoxicity of inhaled manganese: public health danger in the shower? 2005;65:607–16 [Showers are bad for the brain].

[8] Samaras TT, Storms LH. Secular growth and its harmful ramifi cations. 2002;58:93–112 [Small people can save the world].

[9] Sri Kantha S. Total immediate ancestral longevity (TIAL) score as a longevity indicator: an analysis on Einstein and three of his scientist peers. 2001;56:519–22 [The date you will die can be calculated].

[10] Katz G, Durst R, Zislin Y, Barel Y, Knobler HY. Psychiatric aspects of jet lag: review and hypothesis. 2001;56:20–3 [Jet lag triggers mental illness].

[11] Harris JR. Parental selection: a third selection process in the evolution of human hairlessness and skin colour. 2006;66:1053–9 [Why humans are not furry].

[12] Verhaegen MJB. The aquatic ape theory and some common diseases. 1987;24:293–9 [The purpose of ear wax].

[13] Bobrow RS. Paranormal phenomena in the medical literature sufficient smoke to warrant a search for fire. 2003;60:864–8 [Hearing voices could save your life].

[14] Ichim I, Kieser J, Swain M. Tongue contractions during speech may have led to the development of the bony geometry of the chin following the evolution of human language? A mechanobiological hypothesis for the development of the human chin. 2007;69:20–24 [The reason for chins].

[15] Howe NE. The origin of humour. 2002;59:252–4 [Humour increases survival].

[16] Fessler DMT, Abrams ET. Infant mouthing behaviour: the immunocalibration hypothesis. 2004;63:925–32 [Babies suck to avoid asthma].

[17] Vardi P, Pinhas-Hamiel O. The young hunter hypothesis: age-related weight gain – a tribute to the thrifty theories. 2000;55:521–3 [Beer bellies protect men in old age].

[18] Kolettis TM, Kolettis MT. Winter swimming: healthy or hazardous? Evidence and hypotheses. 2003;61:654–6 [Why winter swimmers don’t shiver].

[19] Manning JT, Bundred PE. The ratio of 2nd to 4th digit length: a new predictor of disease predisposition? 2000;54:855–7 [Finger lengths predict disease].

[20] Mobley JL. Is rheumatoid arthritis a consequence of natural selection for enhanced tuberculosis resistance? 2004;62:839–43 [Arthritis is the price of having healthy ancestors].

[21] Rubio-Godoy M, Aunger R, Curtis V. Serotonin – a link between disgust and immunity? 2007;68:61–6 [Feeling disgusted is healthy].

[22] Miric D, Hallet-Mathieu A-M, Amar G. Aetiology of antisocial personality disorder: benefits for society from an evolutionary standpoint. 2005;65:665–70 [Psychopaths are a necessary evil].

[23] Cassano WF. Cystic fibrosis and the plague. 1985;18:51–2 [Cystic fibrosis is a legacy of the Black Death].

[24] Sontag SJ, Wanner JN. The cause of leg cramps and knee pains: a hypothesis and effective treatment. 1988;25:35–41 [Modern toilets ruin legs].

[25] Bakan R. Queen Elizabeth I: a case of testicular feminization? 1985;17:277–84 [Queen Elizabeth I was part man].

[26] Bark N. Did schizophrenia change the course of English history? The mental illness of Henry VI 2002;59:416–21 [Schizophrenia changed the course of English history].

[27] Clarkson JDB. A possible origin for the Turin shroud image. 1983;12:11–16 [Jesus, the Turin Shroud and spontaneous combustion].

[28] Størmer FC, Mysterud I. Cave smoke: air pollution poisoning involved in Neanderthal extinction? 2007;68:723–4 [Smoke made Neanderthals extinct].

[29] McSweegan E. Anthrax and the aetiology of the English Sweating Sickness. 2004;62:155–7 [English Sweating Disease was really anthrax].

[30] Walsh GP. The history of the herring and with its decline the significance to health. 1986;20:133–7 [Herrings saved us from heart disease].

[31] Hollander DH. Beef allergy and the Persian Gulf syndrome. Med Hypothesis 1995;45:221–2 [Gulf War Syndrome is an allergy to burgers].

[32] Platek SM, Gallup GG, Fryer BD. The fi reside hypothesis: Was there differential selection to tolerate air pollution during human evolution? 2002;58:1–5 [Prehistoric fires protected man from lung cancer].

[33] Sri Kantha S. Could nitroglycerine poisoning be the cause of Alfred Nobel’s anginal pains and premature death? 1997;49:303–6 [Alfred Nobel was killed by dynamite].

[34] Passie T, Hartmann U, Schneider U, Emrich HM. On the function of groaning and hyperventilation during sexual intercourse: intensification of sexual experience by altering brain metabolism through hippomania. 2003;60:660–3 [Why women groan during sex].

[35] Gofrit ON. The evolutionary role of erectile dysfunction. 2006;67:1245–9 [The importance of being impotent].

[36] Marx GF, Naushaba SH, Schulman H. Is pre-eclampsia a disease of the sexually active gravida? 1981;7:1397–9 [Sex causes high blood pressure in pregnancy].

[37] Sheth R, Panse GT. Can vasectomy reduce the incidence of prostatic tumour? 1982;8:237–41 [Vasectomy lowers the risk of prostate cancer].

[38] Shoja MM, Tubbs RS, Ansarin K. A cure for infatuation? The potential ‘therapeutic’ role of pineal gland products such as melatonin and vasotocin in attenuating romantic love. 2007;68:1172–3 [A cure for infatuation].

[39] Eagles JM. Seasonal affective disorder: a vestigial evolutionary advantage? 2004;63:767–72 [Winter depression stops sex].

[40] Ramachandran VS. Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? 1997;48:19–20 [Gentlemen prefer blondes].

[41] Burger J, Gochfeld M. A hypothesis on the role of pheromones on age of menarche. 1985;17:39–46 [House smells turn teenage girls into women].

[42] Ney PG. The intravaginal absorption of male generated hormones and their possible effect on female behaviour. 1986;20:221–31 [Baby blues are caused by lack of sex].

[43] Xiong X, Buekens P, Vastardis S, Wu T. Periodontal disease as one possible explanation for the Mexican paradox. 2006;67:1348–54 [Gum disease causes small babies].

[44] Gjorgov N. Barrier contraceptive practice and male infertility as related factors to breast cancer in married women. 1978;4:79–88 [Condoms increase the risk of breast cancer].

[45] Schreiber G, Avissar S, Tzahor Z, Barak-glantz I, Grisaru N. Photoperiodicity and annual rhythms of wars and violent crimes. 1997;48:89–96 [Sunny days make men violent].

[46] Richardson-Andrews RC. Sunspots and the recency theory of schizophrenia. 1995;44:16–19 [The sun causes schizophrenia].

[47] Davis GE, Lowell WE. Solar cycles and their relationship to human disease and adaptability. 2006;67:447–61 [The sun fixes lifespan].

[48] Yeung JWK. A hypothesis: sunspot cycles may detect pandemic influenza A in 1700–2000 ad. 2006;67:1016–22 [Flu epidemics are affected by the sun].

[49] Mikulecky M, Rovensky J. Gout attacks and lunar cycle. 2000;55:24–5 [Gout attacks are caused by the moon].

[50] Sok M, Mikulecky M, Erzen J. Onset of spontaneous pneumothorax and the synodic lunar cycle. 2001;57:638–41 [Chest pains are caused by the moon].

[51] Sher L. Effects of the weather conditions on mood and behaviour: the role of acupuncture points. 1996;46:19–20 [How weather affects mood].

[52] Erren TC, Piekarski C. Does winter darkness in the Arctic protect against cancer? The melatonin hypothesis revisited. 1999;53:1–5 [Why Greenlanders have less cancer].

[53] Pauley SM. Lighting for the human circadian clock: recent research indicates that lighting has become a public health issue. 2004;63:588–96 [Lights at night cause cancer].

[54] Laumbacher B, Fellerhoff B, Herzberger B, Wank R. Do dogs harbour risk factors for human breast cancer? 2006;67:21–6 [Dogs give women breast cancer].

[55] Milham S, Ossiander E. Electric typewriter exposure and increased female breast cancer mortality in typists. 2007;68:450–1 [Electric typewriters cause breast cancer].

[56] Komarova SV. A moat around castle walls: the role of axillary and facial hair in lymph node protection from mutagenic factors. 2006;67:698–701 [Hairy people have less cancer].

[57] Kumar A, Mallya K, Kumar J. Are lung cancers triggered by stopping smoking? 2007;68:1176–7 [Quitting smoking too fast triggers lung cancer].

[58] Steindal Hykkerud, Porojnicu AC, Moan J. Is the seasonal variation in cancer prognosis caused by sun-induced folate degradation? 2007;69:182–5 [Cancer is best diagnosed in the summer].

[59] Donovan M, Tiwary CM, Axelrod D, Sasco AJ, Jones L, Hajek R, et al. Personal care products that contain estrogens or xenoestrogens may increase breast cancer risk. 2007;68:756–66 [Hairsprays cause cancer].

[60] Manning JT, Caswell N. Constitutive skin pigmentation: a marker of breast cancer risk? 2004;63:787–9 [Skin colour and breast cancer].

[61] Hoseini SS, Gharibzadeh S. Squeezing the glans penis: a possible manoeuvre for improving the defecation process and preventing constipation. 2007;68:925–6 [A cure for constipation].

[62] Weber C. Eliminate infection (abscess) in teeth with cashew nuts. 2005;65:1200 [Nuts cure toothache].

[63] Robinson A. Electrolysis between the feet and the ground and its probable health effects. 1979;5:1071–7 [Leather shoes cure diseases].

[64] Kumar A. Gag reflex for arrest of hiccups. 2005;65:1206 [A cure for hiccups].

[65] Eby GA. Strong humming for one hour daily to terminate chronic rhinosinusitis in four days: a case report and hypothesis for action by stimulation of endogenous nasal nitric oxide production. 2006;66:851–4 [Humming 120 times a day cures blocked noses].

[66] Kolettis J, Kumar A. Sustained repulsive magnetic force for bone lengthening. 2005;65:630 [Magnets can make you taller].

[67] Mathur RK. The role of hypersomolal food in the development of atherosclerosis. 2005;64:579–81 [Drinking water lowers the risk of heart disease].

[68] Dehmelt H. Healthiest diet hypothesis: How to cure most diseases? 2005;64:882 [A cure for most diseases].

[69] Olson CB. A possible cure for death. 1988;26:77–84 [A cure for death].

[70] Patronek GJ, Glickman LT. Pet ownership protects against the risks and consequences of coronary heart disease. 1993;40:245–9 [Pets prevent heart attacks].

[71] Sabayan B, Zolghadrasli A, Mahmoudian N. Could taking an up-elevator on the way to the delivery room be a potential novel therapy for dystocia? 2007;68:227 [Taking the elevator for a natural birth].

[72] Teas J, Hebert JR, Helen Fitton J, Zimba PV. Algae – a poor man’s HAART? 2004;62:507–10 [Seaweed may prevent AIDS].

[73] Magen E, Borkow G, Bentwich Z, Mishal J, Scharf S. Can worms defend our hearts? Chronic helminthic infections may attenuate the development of cardiovascular diseases. 2005;64:904–9 [Worms prevent heart disease].

[74] Smith W, Skilling DE, Castello JD, Rogers SO. Ice as a reservoir for pathogenic human viruses: specifically, caliciviruses, influenza viruses, and enteroviruses. 2004;63:560–6 [Killer viruses are hiding in the ice].

[75] Robinson A. Heart disease, cancer and vehicle travel. 1979;5:323–8 [Car travel causes heart disease].

[76] Seely S. The recession of gastric cancer and its possible causes. 1978;4:50–7 [How soft drinks prevent stomach cancer].

[77] Fischer KM. Hypothesis: tobacco use is a risk factor in rheumatoid arthritis. 1991;34:116–7 [Smoking caused rheumatoid arthritis].

[78] van Woerden H. Dust mites living in human lungs – the cause of asthma? 2004;63:193–7 [Tiny bugs living in the lungs cause asthma].

[79] Blondell JM. Pesticides and breast cancer, popcorn and colorectal cancer: innovation versus fashion in dietary epidemiology. 1983;12:191–4 [Killer popcorn].

[80] Lim ECH. RCS Seet, Botulinum toxin injections to reduce adiposity: possibility, or fat chance? 2006;67:1086–9 [Botox makes you thinner].

[81] Ahmad Aziz N, Ibrahim Aziz M. Losing weight by defecating at night. 2006;67:989 [Defecate at night to lose weight].

[82] Johnson JB, Laub DR, John S. The effect on health of alternate day calorie restriction: eating less and more than needed on alternate days prolongs life. 2006;67:209–11 [Diet every other day to lose weight and live longer].

[83] Tekol Y. Salt addiction: a different kind of drug addiction. 2006;67:1233–4 [Salt, the cocaine of the kitchen?].

[84] Moishezon-Blank N. Commentary on the possible effect of hormones in food on human growth. 1992;38:273–7 [Why American heads are getting smaller (and the French bigger)].

[85] Nanji A, Narod S. Multiple sclerosis, latitude and dietary fat: Is pork the missing link? 1986;20:279–82 [Eating pork causes multiple sclerosis].

[86] Shaw CA, Bains JS. Did consumption of flour bleached by the agene process contribute to the incidence of neurological disease? 1998;51:477–81 [Mad flour disease].

[87] Ganmaa D, Li XM, Qin LQ, Wang PY, Takeda M, Sato A. The experience of Japan as a clue to the aetiology of testicular and prostatic cancers. 2003;60:724–30 [Milk causes cancer].

[88] Concepcion GP, Padlan EA. Are humans getting ‘mad-cow disease’ from eating beef, or something else? 2003;60:699–701 [Rats spread mad cow disease to humans].

[89] Surja Agus S, El-Mallakh RS. Fertility and childhood bipolar disorder. 2007;69:587–9 [How a prescription drug increased depression in children].

[90] Cook RD. Multiple sclerosis: Is the domestic cat involved? 1981;7:147–54 [MS and the domestic cat].

[91] Cane RH. The role of soap and nutrition in producing human diseases. 1983;11:251–4 [Soap causes heart disease].

[92] Previc FH. Prenatal influences on brain dopamine and their relevance to the rising incidence of autism. 2007;68:46–60 [Autism and city life].

[93] Henshaw DL. Does our electricity distribution system pose a serious risk to public health? 2002;59:39–51 [Power lines cause depression].

[94] Flensmark J. Is there an association between the use of heeled footwear and schizophrenia? 2004;63:740–7 [Heeled shoes cause schizophrenia].

[95] Sutton PRN. Can water fluoridation increase orthodontic problems? 1988;26:63–4 [Fluoride makes teeth crooked].

[96] Clauss R, Mayes J, Hilton P, Lawrenson R. The influence of weather and environment on pulmonary embolism: pollutants and fossil fuels. 2005;64:1198–1201 [Rain causes blood clots].

[97] Moalem S, Storey KB, Percy ME, Peros MC, Perl DP. The sweet thing about type 1 diabetes: a cryoprotective evolutionary adaptation. 2005;65:8–16 [Climate change caused diabetes].

[98] Aronson M. Does excessive television viewing contribute to the development of dementia? 1993;41:465–6 [TV shows cause dementia].

[99] Sutton PRN. Psychosomatic dental disease: Is mental stress in adults followed by acute dental caries in all racial groups? 1993;41:279–81 [Stress can seriously damage your teeth].

[100] Worth J. Neonatal sensitization to latex. 2000;54:29–33 [Gloves cause asthma].