“Somehow I measure my life and longevity not in years but in the number of accumulated experiences,” he says. Many of these experiences are mountains he has climbed. One is finding a use for an extremely powerful magnet at a university in Holland in the late 1990s. He levitated a frog, and even though this demonstrated nothing new about magnetism, it attracted grants, attention and job offers. It marked him out as a prankster and earned him an Ig Nobel prize from Harvard. Against the advice of more self-important scientists he showed up to collect the prize and, the organisers remember, “was constantly running around telling dirty jokes”. He was especially fond of showing the kind of imagery to be obtained from the reflection of two fingers in a spoon.
The éminence grise behind the Ig Nobels is Marc Abrahams, and for those of us who have heard of only the silliest prize winners, his second compilation of results from the wilder fringes of science suggests that the prize is, after all, rather unkindly named. It is not “ignoble” or entirely stupid and humiliating research but rather, as Mr. Abrahams describes it, research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think….
A prominent thread is a kind of mania for measurement. Readers are likely to think that even the gentle modesty of one researcher is an unwarranted exaggeration when he claims: “The sitting height, leg length, and sitting height index of several groups of Old Virginians is of some interest.” Perhaps the craze for measurement—mensuraphilia? metripathy?—runs in families: The son of the man who measured Old Virginians published a study summing up 35 years of measurements of how fast his fingernails grew.
Then there is the baffling wealth of “2D:4D” research, investigating how the ratio between your second and fourth finger predicts attractiveness or braininess. (Not very reliably, it seems.) Happily, at least, some indefatigable measurers have confirmed the notion that your ears never stop growing throughout your life. The lesson to be drawn from all this is, arguably, optimistic. You can’t have world-changing discoveries without allowing apparently pointless research—not only because the latter sometimes turns into (or at least inspires) the former but because there’s no way to tell what will be important before the results are in….
My favorite British review appeared in The Daily Mail. That review, too, was fairly lengthy. But the tone was different. Here’s my very most favorite part: “It’s almost dementedly inconsequential“.
Also this past week, I was interviewed on The Bob Edwards Show. Without intending to, I shocked Bob. At the end of the interview he asked me a very general question, to which I gave a very particular answer. The answer involved a historic duck.
You can get the book from Amazon and at most good bookstores.
BOOK TOUR: I will be doing a book tour of sorts in connection with the new book. At some events, I will be joined by colorful scientists, journalists, actors, etc., who will do brief dramatic readings from some of my favorite scientific studies. For details, see the full schedule of events. If you would like to host an event in Boston, NYC, Washington, or elsewhere, please get in touch with us ASAP.
Psychologists are up in arms over, of all things, the editorial process that led to the recent publication of a special issue of the journal Social Psychology. This may seem like a classic case of ivory tower navel gazing, but its impact extends far beyond academia. The issue attempts to replicate 27 “important findings in social psychology.” Replication—repeating an experiment as closely as possible to see whether you get the same results—is a cornerstone of the scientific method. Replication of experiments is vital not only because it can detect the rare cases of outright fraud, but also because it guards against uncritical acceptance of findings that were actually inadvertent false positives, helps researchers refine experimental techniques, and affirms the existence of new facts that scientific theories must be able to explain….
Chabris, together with Dan Simons, was awarded the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize for psychology, for demonstrating that when people pay close attention to something, it’s all too easy to overlook anything else — even a woman in a gorilla suit. [They documented that experiment, in the study "Gorillas in Our Midst," Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris, vol. 28, Perception, 1999, pages 1059-74.]