Archive for October 3rd, 2008|Daily archive page

2008 Ig Nobel Prize winners

The winners of the 2008 Ig Nobel Prizes have been announced and the awards ceremony was held yesterday at Harvard. The Ig Nobel Prizes, obviously punning on ignoble and the Nobel Prizes, are given out each year for research that “first make[s] people laugh, and then make[s] them think.” Many of the categories mirror the Nobels: physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace, but awards are also often given out for accomplishments in the fields of public health, engineering, biology, et cetera.

A full list of this year’s winners is available here, but here are some highlights from this year’s prizes:

ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE. Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino of Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, for measuring how the course of history, or at least the contents of an archaeological dig site, can be scrambled by the actions of a live armadillo.

BIOLOGY PRIZE. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, France for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat.

ECONOMICS PRIZE. Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, USA, for discovering that a professional lap dancer’s ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings.

I’m usually most interested in the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, the first of which was given to Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, “for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it.” Last year it went to The Air Force Wright Laboratory “for instigating research & development on a chemical weapon—the so-called ‘gay bomb’—that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.” (Don’t worry, the presumably non-lethal weapon never got beyond the concept phase.) This year’s peace prize winner?

The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.

Enshrining the dignity of plants in law? Funny, but it doesn’t come close to the most hilarious award citation ever. That distinction, in my view, is that for the 2005 literature prize. That award went to

the Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters—General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others—each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.

The winners are invited to the awards ceremony to accept their awards in person (last year, no one from Wright Laboratory showed up to claim the “gay bomb” prize, no Nigerians attended either); actual Nobel Prize winners serve as presenters. It used to be traditional for attendees to throw paper airplanes onto the stage, but that was discontinued in 2006 over “security concerns.” Apparently they are worried that al-Qaeda might hijack one of the paper airplanes or something. I guess.

Anyway, the winners of the Nobel Prizes will be announced soon. In the meantime, I’ll close this blog post the same way the Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony is traditionally concluded: “If you didn’t win a prize—and especially if you did—better luck next year!”

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Conspiracy theories, superstitions, and our sense of control

If you think these are bad luck, maybe you don't feel like you have control over your circumstances

If you think these are bad luck, maybe you don't feel that you have much control over your circumstances.

According to recently released research, if you feel that events around you are random and out of your control you are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and superstitions.

The scientists say that people who feel that things are beyond their control can fall prey to “illusory pattern perception,” they see “a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” So, yeah, as the Newsweek reporter writes, they “see things that aren’t there, falling victim to conspiracy theories and developing superstitions.”

It seems that our minds revolt against the idea that circumstances that effect us are entirely beyond our control, even when they really are random, as they sometimes are.  “The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics,” said one of the researchers. “Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening.”

The human mind prefers to believe that mysterious, invisible forces are secretly at work rather than that the world is random. Whitson put it this way: “People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order, even imaginary order.” Feel free to apply this to current events, starting with the conspiracy that people imagine in the proposed financial bailout.

Please do check out the article in question; it describes several different experiments which  demonstrate this effect under a variety of conditions.

Quite independently of finding the above article, I stumbled across an interesting video from British mentalist and showman Derren Brown dealing with superstitions and how they form.  Like all of his work, it’s thought-provoking and entertaining television.  Check it out. (The intro is about 80 seconds, if you want to skip it; total length 9:59.)

How many of us would have done better than those folks?  Statistically, probably not many.  I was impressed, however, with David Tennant, who, incidentally, currently plays the title role on the Doctor Who program.  Even with all the others talking about how they’d figured out the pattern he admitted he didn’t think they had; he rise above not only the human predisposition to form superstitions but also our tendency to go along with what everyone else is saying.  Perhaps he has a strong sense of being in control of his life along with a healthy amount of self esteem?

Anyway, if you still find yourself falling under the influence of superstitions, just remember: it’s bad luck to be superstitious!