Scientific American daily podcast contributor Karen Hopkin talks about a few recent studies related to the science of the Christmas season.
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on December 23rd, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. And it's almost Christmas, and Karen Hopkin, our ace daily podcast reporter has been collecting science and medicine reports related to the holidays to get a handle on these seasonal science stories. I called Karen at her home in an undisclosed location far north of the Scientific American offices—Somerville, Massachusetts. So, Merry almost-Christmas, Karen.
Hopkin: Thank You Steve. Ho, ho!!! Upcoming Ho!
Steve: Thank you very much. So you've been collecting a few Christmas-related news stories from the world of science and medicine. Let's talk about a few of those to help prepare our listeners for the coming holiday and/or family onslaught.
Hopkin: Sounds good. So one of the stories is, you know, families have a tradition, some families, to go out and get a nice beautiful live, you know, a tree to put in their homes. It looks great, it smells really good—but a group of docs, a group of physicians in Texas warn that one in 10 people is allergic to mountain cedar pollen and that's exactly this time of the year, happy holidays [time], that these trees are releasing their pollen.
Steve: So we want to make sure that if we purchase a Christmas tree that it's not necessarily mountain cedar because one in 10 people may find that oronasally unfathomable.
Hopkin: Yeah, that sneezing, wheezing thing going on. Fortunately, if you go to one of those lots, you know, where they sell Christmas trees or wreaths or even if you go to one of those farms where you can cut your own tree—usually those are Scotch pines or Douglas firs and they don't pollinate during winter. The problem is if you're one of those, let us say trippy people, who sneak out in the dead of night into the, you know, nearby forest with the hacksaw to harvest your own holiday cheer, that's when you can run into some trouble.
Steve: So stay away from the mountain cedars and, basically, also stay away from anybody with a hacksaw in the forest in the middle of the night.
Hopkin: Then the only other thing you have to worry about is if you bring in anything from the outside, apparently they could harbor mold spores, in which case you would have to get something like Yuletide fungicide or something.
Steve: Yuletide brand fungicide: to kill the mold spores in your life.
Hopkin: Exactly. So, you know, stick with the tannenbaum and a bark.
Steve: All right. So that's one of the things that you've been following there at Christmas Science Central. Your next little update is—this stuff drives me insane and I think there was a whole episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that was built around it—the impenetrable wrapping that stuff comes in now.
Hopkin: Yes, those beloved clam shells, the molded plastic cases that stand between us and our enjoyment of our purchases and gifts.
Steve: There's an actual syndrome that has been identified by physicians.
Hopkin: Yeah. They are calling it a "wrap rage," which I think is a bit of a misnomer because it is not the, like the wrapping—it is the, you know, it's that plastic stuff, and according to a poll that folks conducted in Pennsylvania, about 17 percent of adults actually have been injured or know someone who's been injured while opening a gift.
Steve: That's one in six Pennsylvanians.
Hopkin: And that's not just like a paper cut. That's, you know, some sort of gash [that] requires actual medical attention.
Steve: Ah! Ah! So we're talking stitches or a trip to the emergency room or something that's bad enough to get the attention of the actual serious medical community.
Hopkin: Yeah. The other funny thing was, there was an article apparently in the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette, they claim that data from the Census Bureau showed that twice as many people are injured by opening packages than by, say, riding on skateboards.
Steve: Interesting. But we don't know about the severity of the injuries, right?
Hopkin: That's true, but it does make me think, what if your skateboard actually came in a clamshell?
Steve: Oh! That sounds like a synergistic danger effect.
Hopkin: Somebody is thinking bad things about you if they give you that for a gift.
Steve: Would you explain to me, if possible—this rage wrap story or wrap rage, or unwrap rage or clamshell combustibility story is based on a study from the American Dialect Society?
Hopkin: The American Dialect Society, I think is the one that named the syndrome as wrap rage.
Steve: Ah!! I see. So they gave it the name, but actual scientists did the study.
Hopkin: Well, scientists, you know doctors...
Steve: Okay, so I see know it was something at the Pennsylvania Medical Society called the Institute for Good Medicine [that] actually performed the survey. And again we should point out this is a survey specific to the state of Pennsylvania. We have no data at all regarding the ability of people in Alabama or New York, California, Idaho, on their ability to safely open packages.
Hopkin: That's correct. Either they are, you know, buying with it and nobody gets hurt or there could be fatalities in other states, I mean, we don't know.
Steve: That's true. That is a good point. Pennsylvania is often thought of as a little microcosm of the whole country, I think. So perhaps it is a finding that can be extended. Now the physicians who are involved in the study have offered tips to safely open your clamshell packages.
Hopkin: Exactly. So some solutions are, if you're going to be using those kitchen shears, you know, point them away from your body and not towards anybody else's body. Also, I think they suggest that you are going to have like a whole, I guess, like package-opening outfit. You would have like, you know, safety goggles and, you know, falcon-handling gloves—you know, that sort of thing.
Steve: And of course the scissors that they gave you in the third grade that won't actually cut a postcard in half.
Hopkin: It will keep you busy for awhile, you know.
Steve: And I see—you actually sort of covered this with your admonition to avoid pointing the scissors at anybody else, but one of their tips is, avoid opening tough-to-open packages in a crowded area. That's presumably so that you don't hurt somebody else. It also might be because somebody else might stand there, like Ralph Kramden, and eventually go, give me that! I'll do it.
Hopkin: You know, all your loved ones gather around—closer, come closer, I'm trying to open this thing with it, with the giant knife.
Steve: With deadly force. And there is one of the tips also, and let me tell you this is dead serious: Do not use your legs to keep the product stable that you are trying to open.
Hopkin: Oops! Femoral artery is right there!
Steve: Seriously, don't—literally, do not go there.
Hopkin: I did not include this as a suggestion: Just ask someone else to open your package.
Steve: Now, there is a device that you can buy specifically for opening these incredibly tough to open clamshell packages.
Hopkin: Oh! It does involve, like, you know, setting the fuse and then run to the other room!
Steve: Right. You can't [come] back into the house for three days. This was the plot of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where he is having trouble with the package and he gets this device that he can use to open these packages, but the device itself of course is in one of these packages. So he can't get to it. So anybody with HBO On Demand, go find that and enjoy. Now, here's an interesting study. We apparently overestimate how often we will use these holiday gifts that we so crave.
Hopkin: I mean the good news about that is, ah, people are pretty optimistic by nature, right? So you think, well, if I get that bread machine, I'll be making a fresh, delicious loaf of bread every day or, you know, if I re-up my gym membership, this time I'm going to use it. But in fact, in reality, you know, life really meets our expectations, right? So cleaning the bread machine, nobody wants to do and, you know, going to the gym involves getting up off the couch, so ...
Steve: So, forget that and, of course, the number-one use for any home stationary cycle is...
Hopkin: Ah!!! Clothes rack.
Steve: Absolutely. There's nothing to dry your delicates that you don't want to throw in your dryer on, better than the handlebars of a stationary bicycle. So this study was actually published in a journal called Social Influence, and they found out that oddly enough, strangers are going to be better at predicting how much you're going to use something that you get as a gift than you yourself will be.
Hopkin: Exactly. So, the way they did it apparently was after Thanksgiving, they gave, I think, 164 participants, you know, a questionnaire. It was a little survey really and it asked them, okay, "Tell us what is the item that you most lust after, you know for the holidays, and how much do you think you'd actually use it on a scale from like, you know, from once a year to, you know, three times a day or more." And in the spring they brought all those folks back and said "Okay, seriously, what actually happened with that gift?" and apparently 59 percent of the gifts were used less often, you know, than predicted and recipients thought they basically used stuff twice as much as they actually turned out to do. So at the same time, the researchers showed these surveys to strangers, you know, people who didn't know the folks who filled out these cards; and so the strangers, you know, they looked at the survey, saw what the gift was and how much each person predicted, you know, he or she would use that item. And I guess, basically by just, you know, come on let's get real and lowballing it, the strangers were much more accurate and they only overestimated about 10 percent of the time.
Steve: So basically you should just, when you are shopping, just ask the person who happens to be next to you in the check out line and say, "Am I going to actually use this?"
Hopkin: Exactly. Because even if they don't know you, they know that you are not going to use that walk line everyday.
Steve: You know, you just reminded me because of the, you know, things like the gym membership, but there is a study that came out, it was a while ago, in the Journal of Health Communication, I'm looking it up right now—it was April 2000—and apparently the cigarette companies increased their advertising after the first of the year to try to counter your new year resolutions to quit. They are evil geniuses.
Hopkin: I see your stationary cycle and I raise you.
Steve: Keeping in line with this theme of things that are bad for you, there's this piece that came out in the British Medical Journal—and we should point out that the British Medical Journal around Christmas time has a whole bunch of, kind of light, kind of goofy articles that they publish, but often also with a point to them—and so they published this, kind of opinion piece by an Australian physician who says that Santa Claus is a really bad role model for children and adults because Santa encourages obesity, drunk driving and risk taking.
Hopkin: Well, you know, Santa is like one of the most well-recognized figures in the world, right?. I mean, even if you don't celebrate Christmas, you've seen Santa and, you know, he is generous, there are good things about him; he is generous, right, at least once a year, and he's jolly, you know, so that's nice. But he is morbidly obese. I have to say, I was out last night looking at Christmas decorations, you know, in my area and I saw on one lawn there was like a little teeter-totter or see-saw decoration and on [one] side there was Santa and on the other side, to counter the weight of the Santa, there were two polar bears and a reindeer.
Steve: Wow! Santa is going to have one of those Discovery Channel specials about him!
Hopkin: So, when they can't, like, get him out of the door of the...
Steve: ...of the toy factory at the North Pole—the fire department has to break down one of the walls.
Hopkin: Exactly. And all the cookies that people are leaving for him really don't help, you know.
Steve: Now, Santa should also probably, I don't know about the species barrier here, but he should probably be at high risk for Lyme disease.
Hopkin: Yes, like ticks jumping off those deers. Well, that is another thing that the Australian guy mentioned that, you know, Santa could be a serious means of spreading infectious disease!
Steve: Oh! That's true, too—he's gone from house to house...
Hopkin: He's got the whole globetrotting thing going, so he can bring a pandemic basically, and plus all that, you know, time spent in the mall.
Steve: Santa himself takes a risk every time he breaks into somebody's house—you know, this is a public health issue.
Hopkin: Guess I never really thought about that.
Steve: The article again is really a tongue-in-cheek thing, but they point out that perhaps Santa could set a better example by ditching the sled and delivering the gifts on a bicycle.
Hopkin: I mean, that would be really hard. I mean, maybe he could at least, you know, drive a hybrid or something, you know.
Steve: You mean, half reindeer, half gasoline?
Hopkin: Yeah. But that's what's got to be dangerous, and I think he points out in the article that, you know, one you never see Santa wearing like a safety helmet.
Steve: Oh! Excellent point—that's an open-air vehicle. He is going at tremendous speed and he is not wearing any head protection.
Hopkin: Exactly. I don't think there's like a seatbelt in that thing either. I don't know—I have never been in one.
Steve: You have never been in Santa's flying sled.
Hopkin: I get around, but you know, not that much.
Steve: Well, I have got some last minute Christmas shopping to do. So once again I'm going to save our quiz feature, TOTALLY BOGUS... to be released sometime after the eggnog has worn off. In the meantime, www.ScientificAmerican.com will continue to provide you with breaking science stories throughout the long holiday weekend. So go there and be filled with cheer. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.