That 'Man Flu' Study Is Yet Another Irresponsible BMJ Holiday Prank

By Ed Cara on at

Every December, for about the last 30 years according to the New York Times, the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) publishes a batch of studies and papers that sound way more fun than the typical science fare.

Last year, for instance, a Stanford epidemiologist asked whether caviar could be a risk factor for being a millionaire. Two years earlier, a researcher from Ohio’s Kent State University conducted a review of everything we know about zombie infections—including prevention! And this year, a paper has made the case that Peppa Pig is overtaxing UK doctors by raising expectations of how all-knowing they can be, through its character Dr Bear. Another paper claims to have found evidence of the “man-flu”—the phenomenon of men turning into deflated balloons and becoming sicker than women the moment they feel the sniffles coming on.

These papers aren’t fake, at least not in the sense that scientists are gleefully making things up. Even the zombie paper diligently cites and combs through actual, if fictional, zombie literature, while the caviar paper was intended as a colourful example to illustrate how science should be better communicated. But they’re also not meant to be taken so seriously, as even the BMJ admits, noting that it welcomes submissions to their Christmas issue that are “light-hearted fare and satire,” but not outright spoofs or fabrications.

As Gizmodo has pointed out before, though, these joke articles get harder to laugh at every year, because of how sloppy the media tends to be when covering these papers.

The man flu paper in particular has led to a chorus of media headlines and articles proclaiming with a straight face that “new research” shows that the man flu is real, and credulously quoting the paper’s author, Kyle Sue, a Canadian family doctor, as he advocated for “male-friendly spaces, equipped with enormous televisions and reclining chairs, to be set up where men can recover from the debilitating effects of man flu in safety and comfort.”

Sue’s paper isn’t a new study though, the kind where we imagine lab coats shuffling around the lab testing mice and men. It’s just a review of some interesting research, in both animals and humans, that suggests men generally have weaker immune systems than women and offers some reasons why. The reasons range from plausible—testosterone and oestrogen could weaken and strengthen the immune system, respectively—to seemingly tongue-in-cheek: Sue suggests that men could have evolved their man flu response because it kept our surviving paleolithic ancestors better protected against predators. He also cringingly turns it back around on women for choosing these high-T men to mate with in the first place.

For the sake of fairness, some outlets have noted the timing of Sue’s paper along with the BMJ’s annual tradition, or quoted a doctor and tell the reader that no, you shouldn’t bring up your man flu to win a fight with your partner over not doing the chores. But plenty haven’t, or bury their disclaimers down at the bottom of the post where few dare to go.

Scientists have long, rightly, bemoaned the media’s bumbling coverage of their work even on a good day. So it hardly seems fair to put the blame on them when they decide to branch out and have a little fun amongst themselves. But as long as the BMJ is going to promote these articles, it ought to be more explicit about its game. Because like fruitcake and ugly jumpers, some holiday traditions are only entertaining if you’re in on the joke already.

Otherwise, you’re just duping hapless people into eating terrible food while wearing festive burlap sacks. [BMJ]

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