Improbable Research and the IgNobel Prizes

Last week, the IgNobel prizes were awarded. In case you’ve missed the Clue Train to Geektown for the last umpteen years, the IgNobels are given out each year by the bimonthly scientific humor magazine Improbable Research to “ten achievements that make people laugh, then think.” What this means in a language other than Poignant Catchphrase is that the IgNobel awards go to scientific research that seems, on the face of it, bizarre or amusing.

This year the IgNobel team’s guffaws and deep thoughts concerned inventing a new way to collect whale snot, using slime mold to find the optimal configuration for railroad networks, wearing socks on the outside of one’s shoes, and research suggesting that bearded scientists are dangerous to themselves and their families, and much more.

For more brain-based belly-laughs of your own, view the complete list of this year’s winners at If you just can’t get enough nerdy coolness, you can even go to YouTube view the winners’ September 30 Walk of Shame at the Imperial College, London in the box at the top of this post. And if, while watching it, you need a program aka Road Map of Squaresville, has one here.

Yes! That’s right. There’s a scientific award given out for creating that special look of LOLWHUT on the faces of scientists! Confused scientists = Cash, fun and prizes! Or, at least, prizes, plus publication in that esteemed peer-reviewed scientific journal, YouTube.

And talk about LOLWHUT! The mainstream press loves this event; it’s a chance for them to write light-hearted copy about those wacky scientists. ABC News, Fox and The Toronto Star, among many others, got into the act; so have many, many blogs; the one that tipped me off is The Inventor Spot.

Improbable Research explains its reasons for giving out the awards here:

Our goal is to make people laugh, then make them think. We also hope to spur people’s curiosity, and to raise the question: How do you decide what’s important and what’s not, and what’s real and what’s not — in science and everywhere else?

How indeed!?!? Hard to argue with logic like that, huh? Hell, impossible to argue with logic like that! So I’ll do it — or, rather, I’ll quote Live Science’s article from last year, which said:

Silly-sounding science is often branded as frivolous and sometimes criticized as a waste of taxpayer money. In last year’s presidential race, for example, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin attacked spending money on a particular scientific study. “These dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good,” she said in an October 24 speech in Pittsburgh. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.”

The problem with this perspective, said Marc Abrahams, originator of the Ig Nobels, is that important science often sounds strange. Palin’s fruit flies, for example, are pests that, according to Congressman Mike Thompson of California, pose a large threat to the U.S. olive industry. Fruit flies are also an essential genetic tool used to understand and develop treatments for medical conditions ranging from Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease to aging and diabetes.

“A lot of things we now call breakthroughs were once considered pretty crazy,” said Abrahams.

Can’t argue with logic like that, either! But what has always troubled me about the IgNobels is that their core conceit — that funny research is funny — sounds weirdly familiar. It’s a little too much like the contempt showed researchers of my own particular field of interest, sexuality. Sex research is underfunded and tittered at; as a result, studies as whack-ass as studies can be are sometimes accepted within the sex-ed community as decent research.

Slime molds, sex and whale snot seem slightly rude; so the hell what? Science, done right, is extremely rude. It slaps existing knowledge in the face, in extreme slow motion. Rudeness does not equal irrelevance; far from it.

I trust the scientists who award the IgNobels to know that. So do the many scientists and casual science nerds who celebrate the IgNobels. But does the general public?

Every time a rabid bridge-to-nowhere builder pops off about cutting science funding, I hear about fruit fly research. And when ostensibly educated laypersons tell me global warming does not exist or is not anthropogenic, they invariably bolster their “considered opinion” with the view either that scientists game data to get their research funded, or that science itself is useless and inconclusive and it turned out eggs aren’t bad for you after all and saccharine doesn’t cause cancer.

The bankruptcy of the position that science is irrelevant can be seen in the fact that people often express this view while drinking clean water, reading the news on an iPad and — most of them — standing upright instead of languishing in an iron lung because of polio.

So if you’re the kind of person who laughs at the IgNobel Prizes, laugh and then think: science funding is under attack. Those wacky bearded microbe-trailing scientists can laugh at themselves, but they’re not the ones laughing all the way to the bank to close out the NASA account.

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