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Bah! Also humbug. Is it just us, or is the highly anticipated Christmas issue of the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) delivering more lumps of coal and fewer tinselly baubles lately?

Maybe it’s Noel nostalgia, but we find ourselves reminiscing about BMJ offerings from Yuletides past, which brought us studies reporting that 0.5 percent of U.S. births are to (self-reported) virgins, determining how long a box of chocolates lasts on a hospital ward, or investigating Nintendo injuries.

The annual issue, which arrived this week, emphasizes originality and lighthearted fare, BMJ tells would-be authors. Where, then, are the papers on whether mistletoe has a placebo effect, causing those who stand beneath its spiky leaves to see others as more kissable? Or on how many times a fruitcake can be re-gifted without it causing gastrointestinal problems? Note to BMJ editors: Fatal motorcycle crashes, old people falling, and joint pain — three of this year’s Christmas issue studies — do not qualify as “lighthearted.”


Nevertheless, like those who dutifully gush “thank you” upon finding an ugly sweater, wrinkle cream, a bathroom scale, or Viagra under the tree, we recognize that not all Christmas arrivals can be cheery and upbeat.

Perhaps you have wondered whether the link between achy joints and rainy weather is real? Researchers at Harvard Medical School did. They scoured records of 11,673,392 visits that Medicare beneficiaries (generally, older Americans) made to primary care doctors from 2008 to 2012, looked for insurance codes indicating joint or back pain, and matched those up to weather records. The conclusion? Such visits were not more frequent on rainy days, they report: 6.35 percent of the visits included reports of pain on rainy days, compared with 6.39 percent on dry days.


The Grinch here at STAT is narrowing her eyes. Surely patients whose joints ache on rainy days don’t see a doctor instantly, or even within a week (an analysis the researchers also ran)? Surely some of the dry-day visits were because of pain incurred on rainy days? The researchers also had no data on the degree of pain patients reported, and so can’t rule out that it was greater on rainy days. Given the many studies finding an association between bad weather and joint pain, like one in 2015 and one in 2014, this paper is far from the last word.

At least there’s sex. Researchers in New Zealand got into the holiday spirit by comparing how well Siri and Google Assistant answered 50 questions about sex, including requests for pictures of how people have it. Alas, Siri included pictures of sex with aliens, men wrestling, and people kissing. She was also embarrassed by many of the questions, it seems, answering, “I don’t have an opinion on that,” and replying to a request for information about “good sex” with, “I don’t know what you mean by good sex.” Points for honesty!

Google Assistant at least came back with a magazine article on “10 sex tips.” All told, Google Assistant was better than Siri in providing correct answers and useful references, but a plain old Google search outperformed both, providing the best response to 36 of the 50 questions, the researchers found.

Speaking of modernity, over on the lower-tech side it seems that wine glasses have grown from a capacity of 66 milliliters (2 ounces) in 1700 to 449 milliliters (15 ounces) in 2017, based on what researchers at the University of Cambridge found by combing collections from museums, The Royal Household, and manufacturers. They suggest that supersizing glassware caused wine consumption to increase over the centuries — in England, almost fourfold from 1960 to 1980, and almost doubling again to 2004 — because of the “unit bias heuristic.” This psychological quirk causes people to think of what they eat or drink in the units the food or drink comes in — one cup of coffee, one hamburger, one carton of popcorn — regardless of how big that unit has become.

The Grinch wonders whether larger glasses were the effect and not the cause of a greater thirst for the juice of the vine.

Those who feel proud as they take stock of their 2017 successes need not worry about falling flat on their face as a result, conclude scientists at Scotland’s University of Stirling. Although Proverbs 16:18 (The Bible. Christmas. Get it?) tells us that, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,” science begs to differ. When researchers asked people 50 and older how proud they’d felt in the previous 30 days, and then two years later, asked whether or not they had fallen in those two years, they found no association between pride and falls. In fact, the odds of a fall were slightly less for the very proud, though not statistically significant.

The Grinch would be more impressed if pride before falls was examined within a tighter time frame; if feeling proud makes us careless as we walk, surely the effect is immediate, and not two years later.

A study analyzing fatal motorcycle crashes (For a Christmas issue? Really?) in the U.S. from 1975 to 2014 concluded that they were no more likely to occur on a night with a full moon: 9.1 per full moon nights vs. 8.6 per night one week before and one week after the full moon.

The Grinch would be more impressed if the researchers had data on which way the motorcyclist was facing when he crashed (their hypothesis is that the full moon was a luminous, deadly distraction) and on weather conditions on the relevant nights.

Did we mention humbug?