Death Can Be Cured – a review

Death Can be Cured - a missed opportunity

Death Can be Cured - a missed opportunity

The Journal of Medical Hypotheses has a lot to answer for, being the source of speculative media stories that make great headlines but lack scientific substance.  The clue is in the title – these are just untested ideas, albeit backed up by logical deductions.

Ignoring the generation of unhelpful – and downright scare-mongering – headlines (“ZOMG! Dogs give you cancer!!!”), JMH is a wellspring of amusement for the scientifically minded. So it’s not surprising that Roger Dobson has cobbled together a selection of around a hundred of the oddest ideas to grace its pages, in the form of “Death Can Be Cured”.

Disappointingly, the book doesn’t do justice to the material, and it feels like a wasted opportunity to explore some of the outer fringes of scientific thought.

The book is a series of short pieces – each a page or two long  – briefly reviewing a JMH paper and grouped together under broad titles (for example, “Sex, blondes and noises in the night” or “Chins, beer bellies and earwax”). This structure is the major flaw in the book. Dobson has gone for quantity over quality, and the stories just feel like dry, uncritical reporting of the papers, lacking in depth and analysis.

Furthermore, each vignette depersonalises the researchers, not mentioning them by name and providing little background. Who are these people? Are they established in the field, or are they on the fringes? Is it just one crazy guy in a garage? And too much is made of the word “research” – many of the papers sound more concrete and evidence-based than they are.  Let us not forget that these are hypotheses, rather than the reported results of experiments.

There’s also too much repetition. For example, in the chapter entitled “It’s the sun (and moon) wot done it”, several of the stories mention sunspots, and explain what they are. And there’s quite a lot of repetition in the sex and hormone-related bits. The book is obviously designed as toilet reading – something you can dip into at any point for a quick science hit, but I can’t help thinking that it would have been more interesting to focus a bit more on fewer ideas.

For example, making each chapter a longer exploration of a single subject (the proposed properties of sunspots, the design of the human body,  the brain, cancer, our animal friends…) with more background and scene-setting, pulling in related JMH papers, exploring the evidence to support them – and the scientists proposing them – and discussing how they fit (or not) with established theories.

And given that JMH does occasionally hit the headlines with some of the more outre ideas, it would also have been nice to see a bit of discussion of any media coverage, and comment from other scientists and organisations. Working for a cancer charity, we’re often asked to comment on papers, including those published in JMH. Widespread publicity of unproven scientific ideas isn’t always helpful, and I worry that the headlines may confuse the public. After all, science is science, right? And if a scientist says it could be true, then it is, right?

There is a great book about science, scientific thought and the development, acceptance or rejection of fringe theories lurking in the pages of JMH. Sadly, “Death Can Be Cured” isn’t it.  Although it’s a diverting sciencey read on the loo, it just left me wanting much more.

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