What have the Pope and the Welsh rugby team got to do with headlines last week announcing that aspirin may reduce the risk of cancer? A lot more than you might think.
It is inevitable that a study, such as the one published in The Lancet, that suggests a humble pill might ward off something as feared as cancer will generate huge media interest. But do the findings mean that we should all be rooting through the bathroom cabinet each morning?
Not necessarily. This study, from the University of Oxford’s Stroke Prevention Research Unit, is an excellent example of the frustrating limits of scientific research, and how the most promising of findings cannot be taken as definitive evidence. This is where the Pope and rugby come in.
A few years ago, a shocking study was published in the British Medical Journal. But it received little public attention, despite its impact on the millions of Catholics around the globe, as well as the Welsh nation. In essence, it proved scientifically that there was a 45 per cent chance that the Pope would die during 2008, based on the fact that Wales had triumphed in the Six Nations.
The idea for the study developed from an urban legend that every time Wales wins a grand slam, a Pope dies (apart from 1978, when Wales did particularly well and two Popes died). The researchers set about a painstaking review of the data to see if the legend stood up to scrutiny.
The authors explained that a grand slam is achieved “when, in a given season, one nation succeeds in beating all other competing teams in every match”. Under this definition, 53 grand slams had been achieved from 1883 to 2008. Using complex statistical analysis, the researchers discovered an association between Welsh rugby performance and papal deaths, and no significant associations with the success of any other nations. They concluded that because of the Welsh victory in 2008, there was a 45 per cent chance of the Pope dying by the end of that year. Or, as they put it, three fifths of a Pope would die in 2008.Hmmm, obviously this important research will have to be reviewed in light of the fact that Pope Benedict XVI must have decided to retire in 2012 when Wales won the Grand Slam.
Further if Wales had played better in the first half against Ireland we could easily have won a Grand Slam again this year, which wouldn't have been good for the health of Pope Francis. Divine intervention, rather in the style of Moses and the the Biblical fixture between the Amalekites and the Israelites, is as good an explanation as any of how Brian O'Driscoll et al managed to run roughshod over us.