The internet, as it is wont to do, got pretty riled up the other day with a new “study” that purports to examine Vladimir Putin and his supposedly “unique gait.”
The British Medical Journal (which somewhat confusingly sub-headlined the piece with the tag “political science”*) published an investigation by a group of two Portuguese, one Italian, and one Dutch researcher, who apparently got together to watch a bunch of YouTube videos “depicting the gait of highly ranked Russian officials.”
Now all of these researchers, at least based on their titles would seem to have some pretty important things to do with their time. One is a practicing doctor doing his residency in neurology, which, you know, sounds pretty difficult. The other three are “only” professors of neurology or neurological disorders but still, you know, that’s a pretty serious job. Maybe I’m old fashioned but can’t you imagine better things for a professor of neurology to do than watching YouTube videos of Vladimir Putin walking into and out of meetings? Maybe research actual neurological disorders, or, if that sounds like too much, at least teach else someone how to?
I’ve done some boring research in my day, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had to watch several hours of high-ranking Russian bureaucrats walking into and out of official ceremonies. Studying poetry sounds less excruciating than that.
Anyway, after watching all of these videos the researchers were evidently amazed at the near-total lack of right-arm swing that was being manifested by Putin, Medvedev, Shoigu, and others. That might sound trivial but a lack of right-arm movement is apparently a very real and very serious symptom, one which is often considered an early indicator of Parkinson’s disease.
Understandably skeptical that there was a pandemic of (relatively rare) neurological degenerative diseases raging throughout the upper echelons of the Kremlin, the researchers set out to proffer some kind of alternate explanation. Because I mean, otherwise the 5 most powerful people in Russia are all simultaneously developing early-stage Parkinson’s disease, and that would be pretty bad.**
They settled on “Gunslinger’s gait,” which, based on my reading, seems like a rather technical and dry description for what basically amounts to “walking like an arrogant jerk.” They describe this gait as “a behavioral adaptation” which was “possibly triggered by KGB or other forms of weapons training” in trainees “are taught to keep their right hand close to the chest while walking, allowing them to quickly draw a gun when faced with a foe.” The authors of the study further suggest that this new knowledge about KGB training methods should be added to differential diagnoses of unilaterally reduced arm swing. Basically, that doctors need to take this into account when treating patients.
I imagine that, armed with this new knowledge, a future interaction between a neurologist and a patient would go something like the following:
“Mr. Ivanov, I noticed you’re having some trouble with your right arm when you walk. Do you have any family history of neurological disease?”
“No, none whatsoever.”
“Were you in the KGB?”
“Yes, yes I was.”
“Oh, well that explains that then. Carry on and have a nice day!
It is likely, of course, that the whole thing was a bit of a gag. I made a point of looking at what other research is currently featured on the BMJ’s homepage and saw the following which all but screams that the editors of the BMJ are having a really large laugh at our expense.
I always thought of medical journalists as pretty buttoned down, no-nonsense institutions, but the internet is famous for changing behavior patterns so this is basically the medical equivalent of “28 corgis who are excited for Christmas”
There’s a deeper point here, though, and it’s that far too many people (who definitely didn’t seem in on the joke!) spend way too much time obsessing about the particulars of Vladimir Putin’s persona.
Radio Free Europe had a particularly breathless take on the BMJ story, but they were far from the only ones. Headlines about Putin and his “gunslinger’s gait” were plastered all across the homepages of numerous news organizations and thousands upon thousands of words were written about it. More than a few people were willing to believe that this tongue-in-cheek story from a Christmas issue comprised largely of lighthearted humorous fare, offered some kind of deep, penetrating insight into Putin’s soul. Similarly, in the past, many others have found some kind of valuable insight in the (obviously nonsensical) comparison of Putin to a reptile or a lizard.
I’d argue that people in generally spend too much time obsessing about Putin and would be far better served by looking at data series from Rosstat or Levada but if you’re going to obsess about Putin please obsess about things that actually matter (his speeches and policy declarations) instead of banal trivialities (why he walks funny).
*I know political scientists and there’s near-universal consensus that even political science journals publish too much political science. Why is the BMJ trying to get in on the game? Someone should author a study
** also so incredibly unlikely as to border on the impossible