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Mike Sutton
Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.


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Immunomythology and Immunovictimization: Might some minor myths, once busted, and certain crimes, once suffered, provide immunity against harmful ones?

Jan. 26, 2012 8:27 am
Categories: Counterknowledge

In an earlier paper (Sutton 2010a) I explain how I was able to trace the origins of a myth that I named the Spinach, Popeye, Iron Decimal Error Story (SPIDES) as far back as I could to an article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). That BMJ article was written by Professor Hamblin. I emailed Professor Hamblin to ask for the source of his story. His very prompt and courteous reply was that he had forgotten the original source of the story, after so many years, but thought he may have read it in an unknown copy of the Reader's Digest.

Unable to find any earlier source for the story, in the Readers Digest or elsewhere, I concluded that Hamblin had probably conjured the story from thin air. A later paper that I wrote on the subject reveals, subsequent correspondence from the USA came in response to my 2010 paper and gave me a new lead. In light of this new information I was able to trace the story as far back as an inaugural lecture given by Professor Bender in 1972. In his inaugural lecture (at p. 11) Bender attributes the discovery of the decimal error explanation for the exaggerated iron content of spinach to the work of a professor Schupan. In a later letter published in the Spectator (Bender 1977), Bender claims that the correct iron figure for spinach was first discovered in 1937 by Professor Schupan. I can find no reference to any work published by a Professor Schupan on this subject. If any reader can find it then they will have solved another piece of this puzzle about how myths are created and spread (it is possible that Bender misspelt this professor’s name).

Without any other evidence to contrary (since Hamblin never referenced his source) it seems fair to conclude that Bender's reference to a Professor Schupan is the source of Hamblin's mysterious German scientists who he claimed discovered the decimal error in the 1930's. My research proves that both Bender and Hamblin were wrong about the true iron content of spinach being discovered in the 1930's. They were also wrong about there ever having been a decimal error. And they were wrong about Popeye eating spinach for iron. Because the truth about spinach and iron was known in 1892 and widely disseminated by US scientists as early as 1907. But it is fair to say that Hamblin most certainly never made the story up out of thin air as I earlier, and wrongly, suspected.

The world works in wondrous, though rationally explainable, ways. Had it not been for my original belief in the SPIDES – based on Hamblin’s BMJ article – and my efforts to track down those mysterious German scientists, I would have never embarked on a self-taught course in myth busting and philosophy of science. Those newly acquired skills have enabled me to bust two further myths: first, that all

beat patrol policing must be ineffective

and second,

the Routine Activities Theory explanation of opportunity as a cause of crime.

In addition, my research in this area led me to find that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is spreading potentially harmful nutritional myths about the abilities of Florida Grapefruit juice to aid the absorption of iron from spinach.

As far as I can tell, the spinach myth that Hamblin helped to spread led to no physically harmful impact upon anyone. But the criminological myths I have busted, since investigating his spinach story, are widely believed to be true and they have had a significant international impact upon policing and crime prevention policy making with all the attendant negative consequences that must flow from ineffective measures in these areas.


Could it be possible that Hamblin's dissemination of the SPIDES, and its subsequent busting as a myth, is acting as some kind of healthily skeptical wider social immunization against serious myths and fallacies?

The same sort of process might work to immunise those who have fallen for minor scams - such as advance fee frauds and some online romance scams - from falling for more serious ones later in life. Of course, those poor souls who are on suckers lists AND who are serial victims of scams provide one ready-known example of disconfirming evidence for this hypothesis.

For the rest of us the essential immunomythology hypothesis is that: What fools us might just make us less foolish.


We criminologists know that certain people tend be multiple victims , but might some others be less likely to be victimised in the future if they suffer an earlier episode of victimisation that wises them up and helps them avoid taking serious risks in the future?

Obviously, if indeed this is the case (and it may well not be), this is going to be a factor that is quite likely to vary between difference offence types - and perhaps even different personality types - and maybe even by socio-economic group factors.

The old saying once bitten twice shy has been said to apply to how victims alter their behaviour to avoid further victimisation (Hindelang 1978) but this is something that has been weirdly neglected by empirical criminology studies - perhaps due to the discovery of repeat victimisation. More research is needed. We know that crime can cause problems associated with fear of crime - but we have paid little attention to the possibility that crime might in other ways protect people, in some circumstances, from risk of more serious victimisation at a later date.

How we might seek to test this hypothesis is a difficult question. But it’s just another problem waiting to be solved. A thoughtful paper on repeat victimization by Kleemans touches on the issue in relation to burglary and is a good place to start. Of course it is as much buildings that get burgled as their occupiers - so other offences such as robbery, fraud and violence might provide better places to begin looking into this area.


Professor Hamblin sadly passed away on January 8th 2012. As a immunohematologist, Hamblin was a notable and highly respected and regarded researcher and teacher. He is particularly notable as an early pioneer of stem cell treatment for cancer. He made a difference by making the world a better place.


Bender, A. (1972) The Wider Knowledge of Nutrition. Inaugural Lecture. October 24. Queen Elizabeth College., University of London. Somerset. Castle Cary Press Ltd.

Bender, A. (1977). Iron in spinach. Spectator. p.18. July 9.

Hindelang, M., Gottfredson, M. and Garofalo, J. (1978).

Victims of Personal Crime: An Empirical Foundation for a Theory of Personal Victimization. Cambridge, Ballinger.

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