Intended for healthcare professionals

Editor's Choice

Is it better to be smart or stupid?

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 23 September 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:0-h
  1. Kamran Abbasi, acting editor (kabbasi{at}

    At a meeting last week I was reminded of a quote by Victor Hugo: “A stand can be made against invasion by an army; no stand can be made against invasion of an idea.” We'd like to think your cluttered heads permit invasion by a few ideas from each week's BMJ about how to make decisions on patient management or policy making, things that are useful in day to day practice. One of the criticisms we often hear is that this focus misses some of the more innovative and interesting work done to test early ideas and hypotheses. In response we introduced an occasional section called research pointers, studies that wowed us but were a little removed from patient care or policy change. Some readers may have never seen this section, but this is no shaggy dog story.

    We now publish a study that wowed (some of) us so much that we're breaking out of the research pointer format—which is 600 words, five references, and one table—and publishing a full paper because the methods and findings deserve thorough scrutiny. Carolyn Willis and colleagues will please dog lovers everywhere with their finding that dogs can sniff urine and diagnose bladder cancer (p 712). The BMJ's usual policy is to diligently divert animal research to other journals, but this paper had us slobbering.

    The findings do not sound as absurd as you might think when you consider that man's best friend (or Santa's Little Helper, as fans of the Simpsons might say) can track criminals and sniff out crack cocaine. Tumours produce volatile organic compounds, some of which have distinctive odours. Tim Cole, one of the BMJ's statisticians and the owner of a chocolate labrador, describes the study as simple and elegant. Are dogs more cost effective than clincal assays? Would the findings be the same if the study were repeated? Should we set up mobile kennels to screen the population?

    The rest is up to you; it is an idea to mull over. The next time a dog sniffs your crotch—as even other people's dogs tend to do—what will you think? Will you think the dog smart or stupid? Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist, argued that lower, more stupid life forms are far better at survival than smart ones—as judged by biological success. The stupidity of beetles and bacteria provides them with an advantage over the intelligent human species, whose pre-eminence, argues Mayr, is a biological error that is about to come to the end of its allotted 100 000 years of life on earth. Noam Chomsky extrapolated from this: “We are entering a period of human history that may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid.” Possibly. But if dogs turn out to be smart and stupid, what does that mean?


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