Italian Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has made headlines around the world with his plans to perform the first ever head transplant on a human being. Presidential advisors in the United States have suggested that President Donald Trump would be the ideal subject for the new procedure. Late yesterday, White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, confirmed that plans are underway for Mr. Trump to undergo the procedure as soon as possible. When pressed for a timeline, Mr. Spicer said, “Right after the Mexicans pay for the wall.”
Commenting on the announcement, Mr. Walter Wonk, a community organizer in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the study, said “Actually this procedure could be extremely beneficial to many members on both sides of the aisle,” and he proceed to tick off a long list of prominent names.
Dr. Canavero scrapped his original plan to perform the head transplant on an Italian citizen, and instead the first head transplant will be performed in China. “Our plans a changed after Mr. Silvio Berlusconi left office as Prime Minister of Italy. Instead we a gonna perform a the procedure in China when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un comes for a state visit.” This announcement has been greeted with international approval.
Other scientists expressed skepticism; particularly at the doctor’s claim to have overcome the insurmountable obstacle of reuniting a severed spinal cord. Canavero brushes skeptics aside claiming that in secret, unpublished research in his laboratory, he has developed a new method, based on his grandmother’s cannoli recipe. “It sticks! It sticks good!” he says. When asked why the doctor has not applied this scientific breakthrough to treat people paralyzed by spinal cord injury, Canavero replied, “Buona idea! Buona idea! We should do that!”
Asked about the risks of the head transplant procedure, Stanford Neurosurgeon Dr. I. Haba Kopfschmerzen, said “The greatest risk of Dr. Canavero performing this procedure is that he will sew the head on backwards.”
In response to reporter’s questions about the planned disposition of the head that will be removed, Dr. Canavero said, “Maybe we put it on a horse. A talking horse would be nice.”
“What would you do with the horse’s head?” a science reporter for TV guide asked?”
“Maybe we put it on a cow,” replied Canavero, who then he broke into a riff set to the tune of the children’s song “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” which went on for 15 minutes.
This drew instant condemnation from Indian Neuroscientist and Hindu, Dr. Ra Srinivasan, “We think it not very nice to change the head of a cow.” Actions by the Hindu Cow Protection Society now threaten to derail the entire project.
Although Canavero has not published his research in the scientific literature, experts agree that he will have no trouble doing so. After the NIH mandated free open access to all scientific journals, scientific publication, which was once run by and for scholars, has become a lucrative publishing businesses, using the vanity publishing model where the author pays to publish whatever they want. Capitalizing on the tabloid business model, these journals now have vigorous PR operations to spoon feed journalists trying to make a buck and hungry for a spicy news story. PubMed, the database of scientific publication, was at one time very selective, but now it is filled with junk science. And a journal’s “impact factor,” which is now used to hire and fire scientists, is no different from the Neilsen TV ratings, which puts Jerry Springer consistently ahead of Charlie Rose.
Fake news is no longer something reserved for political reporting.
Cliffnotes for the slower students:
This piece is satire. Satire is a legitimate form of rhetoric that is very appropriate for some situations–as in addressing absurdity with absurdity. Of course it is easily misunderstood, and much easier to carry off well if you are Mark Twain, Will Rogers, or George Carlin, than if you are a scientist, so let me explain. Folks, in Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, he was not really advocating eating poor people’s tasty children, just as in my piece, I’m not making fun of Italians, Indians, or Hindus; I like them all and I like cannoli too. They are rhetorical caricatures to animate the narrative. (Yes, I was making fun of politicians, but that comes with the territory–they’re asking for it, expect it, and very often deserve it, and by all means I am deliberately making fun of the head hunter doctor; which is the point.)
I feel I need to make this very clear because when I posted this as a blog on another website where I have contributed since 2009, it was immediately taken down and I received a stern reprimand about the unsuitable tone of the piece and I was informed that additional controls will be imposed on my submissions in the future prior to their possible publication. My name and bio were erased from the list of contributors on the website, but it will return if I submit a more worthy article.
That’s fine. Honestly, it is their website. But, that’s it in a nutshell: the very problem my article addresses. There’s plenty of space for publishing BS junk science and fake science news because, even though it is absurd and scientifically unworthy, it is sensational, but there is no room for satire lampooning the BS and bringing into focus several important points for consideration. You’ll find these in the last paragraph. Among them are:
- The dire state of science journalism. With absolutely no published scientific studies to back up the extraordinary claims, and despite the incredulity of the proposal based on scientific facts, this story gets taken up and spread around the world. Journalism, and especially science journalism is on the rocks. Newspapers have cut or cancelled their science sections and outstanding science magazines, like Scientific American MIND and Nautilus are gone or facing closure. This leads to:
- Abysmal scientific literacy in the general population. Two weeks ago while I was in a hospital and the nurse learned that I was a neuroscientist, he asked me if it was really possible to transplant human heads. Even my authoritative dismissal of head transplanting as nonsense was inadequate to convince him, as he insisted that he had heard about it in the major news outlets. A nurse! At the same time we have scientists being suppressed in communicating their experimental findings to the public, the government dismissing scientific findings that do not agree with their politics, and increasingly, politicians telling scientists how to conduct their research. This is a disaster, but it gets worse…
- In addition to the problems communicating science to the general public we have pollution of the primary scientific literature by the new changes in publishing journals, which I indicate in the article.
- OK, inside baseball, maybe, but this is a big problem–judging scientists by their impact factor–how many people read and cite the publication.
Humor is a uniquely human attribute, and we have it for a reason. Gallows humor quashes fear and social humor unites us, to mention just a few reasons evolution decided to make us laugh. Not everyone finds the same thing funny, but satire has its place. It is not possible to address junk science with a rational rebuttal–that only propagates and legitimizes the fake news. Humor, on the other hand, lets the air out of the fake news hot air balloons that journalists and publishers, who should know better, are too often putting up.
So, I decided to publish my article here on my own blog where I know it will be seen and read by dozens of people. Some of them, I’m sure, are witty enough to “get it.” If not, well, Dr. Canavero has the cure.