As we enter the holiday season, it seems appropriate to note the humorous side of scientific research. Scientists are people too, and while readers of my blog have already seen a hilarious April Fools announcement from the folks at CERN, there have been many lighthearted papers in the 350 years (and 9 months) of scientific publishing, and even whole journals and prizes devoted to humorous research.
BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) is one of the world’s preeminent disseminators of medical science, but that hasn’t stopped its 32-year tradition of publishing an annual “Christmas issue” of fully peer-reviewed research about not-quite-serious topics. Over the years, readers have learned how speed bumps can be used to diagnose appendicitis, why patients complain that magazines in medical waiting rooms are too old and stodgy for their tastes, that the Ice Bucket Challenge spread among celebrities last year at about the same rate as swine flu did during its 2009 pandemic and what are the potential side effects of sword swallowing.
The authors of that last article were honored with an “Ig Nobel Prize” – the premier humor award in science. Founded in 1991, these annual awards are a sly perversion of their more prestigious namesake. Prizes are given out in categories including biology, chemistry, medicine and economics, and each award is presented by an actual Nobel Prize winner.
A look through the winners of past awards means seeing some quirky research, ranging from a 2013 Psychology prize for a study proving that “people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive,” to a 1995 Physics prize for research showing that cereal gets soggy when water is added to it, to a 2003 Biology prize for a very detailed eyewitness report (including pictures) of a live mallard duck having homosexual relations with a dead mallard duck. While these articles rightfully sound humorous, they’re all published by actual scientists and have real-world implications. One Ig Nobel prize winner has even gone on to win a Nobel Prize – physicist Andre Geim.
“I have always been interested in things that are funny in a way that makes you pay attention to them and keep paying attention,” creator Marc Abrahams said while reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the prizes this year. Abrahams has spent most of his career working in humorous science as editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, a journal to highlight “research that makes people laugh then think.”
That phrase is a good description of the study featured at the top of this post. This article from several Canadian researchers in the journal Judgment and Decision Making looks at how people react to hearing “pseudo-profound bullshit,” or impressive statements that sound deep but actually mean nothing. Since I currently work as a journalist in Washington, D.C., I have nearly become numb to hearing stuff like this on a daily basis, but the researchers focused on studying the reception to vacuous statements similar to those of the “New Age guru” Deepak Chopra.
The researchers were able to design and test a “bullshit receptivity” scale to accurately gauge how profound participants may think a vacuous statement is. They found that a variety of factors could affect how one perceives bullshit – people who held strong supernatural beliefs were less likely to recognize it, for example, while those who scored higher on cognitive tests were more likely to.
What makes this research potentially so useful is the fact that modern-day life is, in a sense, inundated with bullshit, from political rhetoric to aggressive advertising to online clickbait.
“With the rise of communication technology,” wrote the authors in concluding their article, “people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before.”