Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, September 16, 2019

The best of the worst

It's mid-September, so you know what that means:

It's time for this year's Ig Nobel Prizes.

The Ig Nobel Prizes celebrate the loopy side of science in a ceremony that has been taking place at Harvard University annually for the last 29 years.  The idea is to recognize research (and researchers) whose work is probably never going to receive an actual Nobel -- but deserves to be in the spotlight purely for the absurdity and humor value.

The winners each year get invited to a ceremony wherein they're wined and dined and given their cash prize (a $10 trillion bill from Zimbabwe, which is worth a few cents).  They then have to give an acceptance speech, which if it goes over sixty seconds is interrupted by an eight-year-old girl yelling, "Please stop, I'm bored" over and over until they give up.

As is usual with the Ig Nobel Ceremony, good times were had by all and sundry.  The audience is encouraged to participate by folding up their programs into paper airplanes and throwing them at the presenters, and needless to say they rose to the occasion.

So, without further ado, here are the 2019 winners:
  • Research finding that eating pizza is correlated with lower risk of dying of various diseases -- but only if the pizza is made and consumed in Italy.
  • A study showing that not only dogs can learn using "clicker training;" it also works for training orthopedic surgeons.
  • The finding that the degree of asymmetry in how low testicles hang on postmen (both clothed and naked) in France depends on the temperature.
  • A study to figure out how much drool is produced by an average five-year-old child.
  • An invention of a diaper-changing machine (now patented) by an American engineer.
  • A comparative study of paper money in various countries to find out which is the dirtiest.  (The winner was the Romanian leu.)
  • Research into finding which areas of the body are the most pleasurable to scratch.  (The back and the ankle, apparently.)
  • A study finding that holding a pen in your mouth to stretch your facial muscles in a "pseudo-smile" makes you happy -- then a further study finding that the opposite is true.
  • Research into why (and how) wombats make cube-shaped poop.
If you're so inclined, the link provided has further links to each of the academic papers that won prizes.

As is usual for the Ig Nobels, the studies that won raise more questions than they answer.  For example:
  • The asymmetrical-ball-hanging study immediately made me wonder, "why French postmen?"  Would we expect that there would be a different pattern amongst, say, Argentinian stockbrokers?  (Maybe because they're in the Southern Hemisphere?  You know, the testicular Coriolis effect, or something?)  Or were French postmen just the group they found that was the easiest to convince to drop trou in the name of science?
  • Who in their right mind would volunteer their child to test a diaper-changing machine?  That's the kind of thing I can imagine going very wrong.  Strangely hilarious, but very wrong.
  • If forcing a smile with a pen first worked and then didn't, why did they bother writing a paper about it?
  • The pizza experiment just sounds like the scientists taking advantage of an opportunity to use grant money to hang around in Italy going to restaurants.  Which places it squarely in the "why didn't I think of that first?" category.
  • Would you want to go under the knife with a surgeon who'd been trained using a clicker?  ("Good incision!"  *click click*  *trainer pulls the surgeon's mask aside and sticks a treat in his mouth*)
I suppose having further questions is a good thing in science, because after all that's how progress is made.  One thing leads to another is kind of the status quo.

On the other hand, I have a hard time seeing what more you could do with cubical wombat poop.

So that's this year's Ig Nobels.  Remember this next time you hear people say that scientists are humorless, pedantic geeks.  Anyone who can get a grant to investigate back scratches is okay in my book, because back scratches are fucking awesome.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation made the cut more because I'd like to see what others think of it than because it bowled me over: Jacques Vallée's Passport to Magonia.

Vallée is an interesting fellow, and certainly comes with credentials; he has an M.S. in astrophysics from the University of Lille and a Ph.D. in computer science from Northwestern University.  He's at various times been an astronomer, a computer scientist, and a venture capitalist, and apparently was quite successful at all three.  But if you know his name, it's probably because of his connection to something else -- UFOs.

Vallée became interested in UFOs early, when he was 16 and saw one in his home town of Pontoise, France.  After earning his degree in astrophysics, he veered off into the study of the paranormal, especially allegations of alien visitation, associating himself with some pretty reputable folks (J. Allen Hynek, for example) and some seriously questionable ones (like the fraudulent Israeli spoon-bender, Uri Geller).

Vallée didn't really get the proof he was looking for (of course, because if he had we'd probably all know about it), but his decades of research compiles literally hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of alleged sightings and abductions.  And that's what Passport to Magonia is about.  To Vallée's credit, he doesn't try to explain them -- he doesn't have a favorite hypothesis he's trying to convince you of -- he simply says that there are two things that are significant: (1) the number of claims from otherwise reliable and sane folks is too high for there not to be something to it; and (2) the similarity between the claims, going all the way back to medieval claims of abductions by spirits and "elementals," is great enough to be significant.

I'm not saying I necessarily agree with him, but his book is lucid and fascinating, and the case studies he cites make for pretty interesting reading.  I'd be curious to see what other Skeptophiles think of his work.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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