From Mr. Wizard to Neil deGrasse Tyson, scientists have been trying as best they can to get the rest of us interested in scientific research. For most of us, though, science education ended with a papier-mache volcano powered by vinegar and baking soda a decade or so before we left school. This is a shame because scientific research shapes everything in our world from the instant replay in sports to Instagraming your weekend. Somewhere along the way, we decided science wasn’t fun. Fortunately, the Ig Nobel prizes exist to put the fun back in fundamental research, but I, Benjamin Wey, am concerned that the press might just be trivializing the work being done in reporting on the awards.
Journalist Benjamin Wey says the 2014 winners got their awards last week, and as usual, there were some odd-ball studies highlighted by the people at Improbable Research, Inc., the group that awards the Ig Nobels.
For instance, the Physics Award went to Japan’s Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai. They measured “the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor.” Yes, Japanese scientists devoted precious research time and grant money to do this, and the anti-intellectuals in the media and general public get to shake their heads over it.
As it turns out, though, there is a practical side to this study. “This concept will help to design a joint prosthesis,” Mabuchi told BBC News because it turns out that the polysaccharide follicular gels that make the peels slippery are also found in the membranes where our bones meet. Of course, you don’t get any attention with a headline like “Japanese Researchers Find Key to Joint Prostheses.”
And this is what concerns me, Benjamin Wey, not so much about the Ig Nobels themselves but about the way the media sell this story. By dumbing things down so much, we run the risk of missing the true value of the research.
Or consider the Neuroscience Prize that went to Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian and Kang Lee for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. It turns out our brains are hardwired to look for patterns even when patterns aren’t really there to see. This has implications for all kinds of things, from how to educate children to debunking bad science. Instead, we get “Chinese Scientists Study Jesus on Toast.”
The Public Health Prize is a great example of what I, Benjamin Wey, am talking about. Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček, Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan and Lisa Seyfried won the award for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat. In fact, the studies covered ties between human depression and cat bites, latent toxoplasmosis and parasites. Mental health is pretty serious stuff, but “Is Cat Owning Bad For You” gets the headlines.
A slew of people got the Biology Prize for “carefully documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.” This study appears to be a load of bull (or dog) until you realize that this sensitivity may explain how animals, and even humans, navigate.
The Psychology Award went to Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones and Minna Lyons, “for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.” For most of us, this is just fun, but in the case of genuine psychopaths, it could offer insight that might lead to treatments and cures. The media missed that.
The Medicine Prize winners were Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, “for treating ‘uncontrollable’ nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork.” OK, it probably won’t be the preferred treatment at Beth Israel, but it saved the life of a 4 year old who suffers from Glanzmann’s thrombasthenia, which can cause lethal nosebleeds. The press didn’t tell you about that kid, but I bet his mom keeps cured pork in the fridge.
The Art Award went to Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro and Paolo Livrea, “for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam.” Sounds like a good reason not to let these ladies near a laser, but in truth, the study looked at the effect cognitive factors have on pain and could lead to better ways of managing it.
The Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics won the Economics Award, “for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.” That may sound silly, but as a financial professional, I, Benjamin Wey, can promise you that better statistics will result in better financial decisions. It’s progress.
Of course, the usefulness of some of the research eludes me. Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, won the Arctic Sciences Prize “for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears.” The study took place on an island north of Norway, in the Svalbard archipelago, and maybe the research shows that you shouldn’t give scientists alcohol (I’m guessing here) and polar bear disguises on Arctic Islands.
And finally, Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich and Margarita Garriga, won the Nutrition Prize for their study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.” Sorry, I’ve got nothing here.