The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is a much admired cultural institution in my home town. Perhaps that's why I am troubled by what may look to others like a minor thing.
I saw an ad today for the 2010 Comedy Festival that features a "Comedy Fact":
"Those suffering ankylosing spondylitis gain 2 hours of painless sleep when expose (sic) to 10 minutes of comedy."The "fact" is referenced to Pete Gitundu: 'Dealing with Stress' 2009.
To begin with, I know that ankylosing spondylitis is a real condition, an autoimmune arthritis mainly affecting the spine, and not something made up, even though it has a comical sound (especially to anyone familiar with the Goon Show's "Spon plague"). But that's a completely inadequate reference for any sort of therapeutic claim, so I Googled Pete.
It turns out that Peter Gitundu is "a Web Administrator and Has Been Researching and Reporting on Stress for Years" (all those capital letters are his, by the way, not mine). Sure enough, there in the first paragraph of one of Peter's 1400 online articles (!) is the source of the Comedy Festival quote:
"It has been found that two hours of painless sleep is added to patients of ankylosing spondylitis who are exposed to ten minutes of comedy. These are very interesting statistics..."It's pretty clear that Peter isn't quoting his own research here, but there's no reference for these "statistics". So I looked a little further afield.
The trail leads back to a Canadian physician, Dr Norman Cousins, who published a personal account of the effects of laughter on his own ankylosing spondylitis in the late 1970s. Interesting and encouraging as it might be, it's a single-patient case report and does not appear to have been replicated in a clinical trial anywhere that I can find. There's no reference to a control group or placebo. And there are definitely no "statistics".
Dr Cousins may well have reported that he got an extra two hours' sleep after watching the Marx Brothers, but there's nothing to say anyone else will get the same effect from comedy (especially not if it's Two And a Half Men... just saying).
Look a bit further and you'll find thousands of references to Dr Cousins' work all over the web. Yes, it was a novel idea in the mid-1970s, and his personal account was compelling... but it didn't prove anything!
I don't want to be a killjoy, but a comprehensive review of the literature in 2001 concluded:
Few significant correlations have been found between trait measures of humor and immunity, pain tolerance, or self-reported illness symptoms. There is also little evidence of stress-moderating effects of humor on physical health variables and no evidence of increased longevity with greater humor.It's disappointing that an anecdotal report from more than 30 years ago is still being cited - incorrectly - as "proof" of some therapeutic effect. But I find it even more disturbing that, having presumably chosen to use the first thing they Googled as a "fact" in promotion, no-one at the Comedy Festival bothered to check it anywhere beyond a ridiculously dodgy website authored by someone with no qualifications or authority on the subject.
Please understand, I'm not saying someone with ankylosing spondylitis doesn't deserve a laugh. But the Comedy Festival should be spreading mirth and merriment... not bullshit dressed as "fact".