'Profound bullshit' and more wins Ig Nobel Prizes

When people ask me why I write science, among the top reasons I give is the Ig Nobel Prizes. Where else can you have an event that celebrates the spirit of discovery with wit, laughter and openly declared puns?  If you think that science is only for topics that you cannot spell or about creatures that you did not even know existed or gadgets only involved sophisticated materials, clearly you have not come across any of the Ig Winners.

For the 26th year of the Ig Nobel Prizes, winners included those who worked with topics that are commonplace like maybe looking in between your legs to see what’s behind you, very common creatures like flies, rats or even goats and working with mirrors to scratch beyond the surface of some medical problems.

It is not often that the Igs give out a Reproduction Prize but “for studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers on the sex life of rats, and for conducting similar tests with human males”, it was posthumously given to Ahmed Shafik. For the first one designed for rats, he made rats wear pants of different materials to test the differences and for the second one, he made human males wear them which was of course inevitable and presumably much easier to do than the first one.

The Ig for Physics went to scientists who, in two distinct and separate adventures, discovered “why white-haired horses are the most horsefly-proof horses, and for discovering why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones”. The revelation from the first one on white horses was that the flies use reflected polarized light to find its dark hosts. But because white-haired horse reflects all colors, through no fault of its own, the flies are overwhelmed and cannot home in on it.  The second one on dragonflies is a similar lesson on light reflection which black tombstones do. If female dragonflies are attracted to tombstones often enough that they lay eggs there instead of the water, then its bye-bye to baby dragonflies.

Two people who took time out from being human to understand what it is like to be otherwise, snagged the Ig for Biology. They were Charles Foster, for “living in the wild as, at different times, a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird”; and to Thomas Thwaites, for “creating prosthetic extensions of his limbs that allowed him to move in the manner of, and spend time roaming hills in the company of, goats.” The description of Thwaites’ book says it is “hilarious and surreal journey through engineering, design, and psychology..” and I guess, a lot of goats.

Thwaites received his Ig onstage on all fours which would have been a great chance for the ones who got the Ig for Perception to confirm yet again their finding that things look rather different in terms of size and distance if you look behind by looking between your legs.

But moving on to further our understanding of non-humans, the Ig for Literature surprised me not because he did not deserve the Ig but because it could have been an Ig for natural history.  It went to Fredrik Sjöberg, for “his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead.”  In a New York Times Sunday Book Review of his book by Hugh Raffles, Raffles wrote that Sjöberg acknowledges that there could be a number of useful reasons for collecting flies but, “Instead, he takes us on one of many brief excursions, into the dangerous pleasures of intoxication via Thomas De Quincey, which eventually leads to an extended and passionate defense of gardens, meadows, churchyards, ditches and the creatures that dwell there. “For me,” he says, these places “are wilder and richer and much more fun than nature undisturbed by human beings.”

If you suddenly feel like scratching, imagining flies and other bugs,  you would be relieved to know that an itching question in medicine was solved by the Ig Medicine Prize recipients.  They proved that if you itch in one side of your body, you can relieve it by scratching the other side as long as you are a facing a mirror while doing it.

If you are looking for hope for humanity, you may get some boost from the Ig Prize for Psychology  that went to those who who did a psych study that “asked a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.”  It was a study that concluded that after we are born, we get better at lying in childhood, even excelled in young adulthood only to get worse at it again in old age. That is certainly something to be hopeful for.

But just as you are holding on to that hope, note a slight dip when you see the Ig for Chemistry that went to Volkswagen for “solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested.”

The Ig for Economics went to three people who did an assessment of personalities perceived in rocks. Again, in case you missed it -they studied rocks and their “perceived” brand personalities to contribute to a body of knowledge related to marketing. In order to do personality assessment of rocks – you must be caught between those rocks and some awfully hard place.

The Ig for Peace went to five fellows who made it their utmost duty to find out how people confuse vagueness for being profound.  The title of their published study: "On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit." They concluded as probably most of us have observed – people think vague words put together can sound really deep.  My favorite example of this is a quote I see in bookmarks and other paraphernalia that goes: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”  That one missed the physics of simple plain reality that you will land nowhere else but in a special place of embarrassment.

I love the ig Nobel Prizes. They make you laugh, then make you think, and then think some more… – Rappler.com