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'The Onion' Of Medical Journals Pokes Fun At Studies


When journalists want to take a quick vacation from the grind of world news, we turn to any number of fake, fun news sources, like The Onion or "The Daily Show." But what about, say, doctors? To stay informed, they have to slog through loads of dry medical journals. Well, for the past 14 years, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, or CMAJ, has done what it can to help with their spoof research issue called "Holiday Reading." Past issues presented a psychiatrist's take on Winnie the Pooh and explored the annual expansion of the human stomach. That one, says CMAJ Deputy Editor Barbara Sibbald, came from real life, an errant stomach X-ray and a clever radiologist who thought:

BARBARA SIBBALD: It looks like a little pie-shaped pouch. What if somebody could eat pie and have it in the pouch? So then he wrote it up as sort of a clinical thing, like during the holidays it's good to have this pie-shaped pouch so you can eat extra dessert.

CORNISH: You have started adding disclaimers - they're reluctant disclaimers. One of them I'm reading, it ends with despite what bush-mad physicians may get up to on their private islands, CMAJ by no means endorses this particular application of the Super Soaker Max, whatever. Do not try this at home. And this was at the end of a story about using a Super Soaker water gun to clear earwax?

SIBBALD: Yeah...

CORNISH: I don't know how anyone could have possibly think that this was real, although it had a very official name: A Novel Method for the Removal of Ear Cerumen.

SIBBALD: Yes, yes. That's just earwax. I mean, I mean, that's part of...

CORNISH: I mean, is the key to doing these basically big words and charts?

SIBBALD: Yeah, that's a big part of it. You know, you put in a couple of fancy diagnostic words and people are just convinced that that's what it is, you know. We had an article about why the Grinch's heart is two sizes too small. They concluded that he had chronic adrenocortical insufficiency. You mentioned the Winnie the Pooh article. There's a whole table in there going through each character and saying, you know, what their clinical disorder might be, what their personality disorder is.

CORNISH: Right. That Eeyore was mild depressive and that Tigger had risk behavior tendencies.

SIBBALD: And ADHD. Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: Right. Winnie the Pooh had ADHD. Do you think that these articles get attention because there is a lot of - and I don't know how else to say this - but sort of silly science news. I mean, I feel like every top 10 list of every news website has some quirky science story.

SIBBALD: Yeah, I think that's probably part of it and it's also partly, I think, because of where it's coming from. Because it's coming from this serious journal. I mean, we've very serious about what we do and there's not a lot of humor in the journal, you know, for 11 months of the year. And then once a year we sort of cut loose and just have a lot of fun and give people something entertaining for a change.

CORNISH: Barbara Sibbald is deputy editor at the Canadian Medical Association Journal. She joined us from the CBC studios in Ottawa. Barbara, thank you.

SIBBALD: Thank you.


CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.