Laughing and Thinking in Copenhagen

(April 8th, 2015) Marc Abrahams and his IgNobel clique once again toured Europe. Live on stage: a student stops his nose bleed with bacon, a professor dresses as a polar bear and we get convinced that it is mentally hazardous for a human to own a cat. Lab Times reporter Karin Lauschke has the details.

24 years ago, Marc Abrahams established the IgNobel Prize based on a simple but brilliant concept: stories like "curing hiccups with anal massage" may sound hilarious at first glance but... if you have a chronic hiccup you might give it a go and be more than happy if it helps. Every year, the IgNobels are awarded in up to ten categories; the winners travel, on their own expense, to Harvard University where real Nobel Prize laureates present the prizes.

Over the years the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize has become increasingly popular, not only in the US but also in Europe. Unsurprisingly the recent European Tour was sold out in most cities. The Copenhagen event which had taken place on March 27th was sponsored by the University of Copenhagen and attracted mostly students, among them some die-hard IgNobel fans. Neighbouring country Sweden even sent a film team to capture the whole event on film. Marc Abrahams tells me that he also notices the increasing popularity. His book "This Is Improbable, Too" sells great; his latest creation is an IgNobel cooking book with "delicious and other recipes from IgNobel and Nobel Prize laureates."

Speaking of food, this was exactly the theme of last year’s IgNobel Prize ceremony. Let’s have a quick look at some of the prize-worthy stories:

Biology: Vlastimil Hart and Hynek Burda for their article “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field”.  (Czech Republic, Germany, Zambia).

Medicine: Sonal Saraiya for treating "uncontrollable" nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork.  (USA, India)

Neuroscience: Kang Lee and colleagues for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. (China, Canada)

Public Health: Jaroslav Flegr and colleagues for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat. (Czech Republic, Japan, USA, India)

Arctic Science: Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, for testing how reindeer react to humans disguised as polar bears. (Norway, Germany, USA, Canada)

Three of the reigning champions had made their way to Copenhagen, Hynek Burda, Jaroslav Flegr and Eigil Reimers. They had 15 minutes each to present their stories and the audience was encouraged to remind the presenters to finish on time, after 5, 10 and then every minute.

Burda was the first to enter the stage. His studies suggest that cows and dogs align with the north-south-axis while grazing or urinating, respectively. Their dog story, however, garnered heavy criticism. "Dogs align only when the magnetic field is calm. On rough days with solar storms for example, they don't do it," Burda said. Therefore the team excluded these “rough” days from their analysis and incurred the wrath of some colleagues, who thought that this was inappropriate.
Whoever is right, Marc Abrahams argues for the importance of Burda's work and says that whether a study's findings are right or wrong, it is still good that people think about it. "Almost every other prize is about good and bad. For us, that doesn't matter at all. For us it is important that there is something about it that makes people first laugh and then think." It is not important that the studies are carried out thoroughly and are 100% solid. "The chances that people think about it are much higher when it is solid, of course; it means it is not just some little idea somebody had."

But, on the other hand, is it bad to think about a finding when it is wrong? Abrahams says no. "There are lots of experiments that were done wrong; but this makes people think about them and then eventually they come up with something different. There were people, who discovered things that were true but the way they discovered it was very sloppy. The study was wrong but the discovery was correct," Abrahams points out. In Burda's case, there are three possibilities: what they discovered is correct but only the statistics are wrong; their findings are correct and the statistics are correct; or both is wrong. Abrahams pulls up examples from the history of science: "The first measurements of the speed of light were wrong. Almost every discovery in medicine is proven wrong at a later point in time". Only further research will bring conclusive evidence and "as I understand things, that's how science works, when it works well", Abrahams adds.

Luckily, the other two laureates of the evening are not subjects of public debate. Although Jaroslav Flegr might be a candidate with his "Frozen Evolution Theory". However, he got the IgNobel Prize for proving that people have a higher chance of getting depressed when they have been scratched or bitten by a cat: "50% of female patients with depression have been bitten by a cat," he claims. His statistics looked pretty solid and his findings pretty scary. Eigil Reimers, the last presenter, not only described his findings but showed live on stage what it is like to dress and act like a polar bear in the Arctic (also see LT 1-2015), approaching reindeers.

Then it was time for the "most amazing person on Earth", Yoshiro Nakamats, to tell his story. In 2005, he won a Nobel Prize in Nutrition. For 34 years, he had photographed every meal he had and analysed it retrospectively. "This is my last public talk, I will die by the end of the year of cancer," the 86 year old started. But still he presented his astonishing, over 3000 inventions - from the floppy disk to the karaoke machine and the blue-ray disk. Probably not all of this is true but in Japan he is the most popular Japanese person. He seems to be a true inventor with his latest inventions revolving around a cure for his cancer - a song against cancer, which he encouraged the whole audience to sing with him. It was a nice end of a long evening in Copenhagen with much controversy, laughing and in the end also thinking.

Karin Lauschke

Photos(3): Karin Lauschke


(April 13th, 2015) The article has been amended to correct a misleading quote.

(April 27th, 2015) Lab Times received the following email from Hynek Burda et al. 

Dear Editor

We were very much surprised to read your report about the Ig Nobel show in Copenhagen ("Laughing and Thinking in Copenhagen", April 8, 2015.

There are NO published, scientific, peer reviewed sources for your blaming claim that our study "garned heavy criticism"! We also did NOT exclude "rough days" from the analysis! On the contrary, we analyzed these days very carefully as they were essential for the main findings of our paper! And there is NO base for the statement that our "analysis incurred the wrath of some colleagues". In any case, claiming that a study "incurred wrath" of somebody is a clear statement that such a reaction was emotional but not rational. Only ideology, which knows in advance what is correct and what is wrong, can evoke wrath. That is not the case in science!

Furthermore, our Google-Earth cattle findings could not be disproved thus far although there were serious efforts to do so (J. Comp. Physiol. A, 197: 677–682 but see J. Comp. Physiol. A, 197: 1127–1133). In addition, they have been confirmed by an independent research team (J. Comp. Physiol. A, 199:695-701).

Apparently the author(s) and/or editor(s) of LabTimes did not try (or did not want) to read and understand our study and have concluded - just based on the titles of "reports" published in the tabloid press - that we claimed that dogs poo and pee heading north. This is a naïve interpretation of our study (see also our extended report about our research). We have not claimed this at all! The dogs prefer to align along the north-south axis when they are marking their territory - and they do so only if the magnetic weather is calm. What is so enigmatic and unbelievable about it? If you were about to mark your current location on a map, it would be also easier for you to align the map with the compass (north heading upwards), with the landscape landmarks, and yourself with the map and the surroundings. No one would be wondering why a tourist in a foreign city holding a map in her /his hands and trying to find where she/he is, is turning around and finally aligns in predictable direction.

Science cannot be criticized and rejected a priori only because somebody does not like it. Science is not the matter of individual (esthetic) taste. Conclusions should be based on real arguments and not drawn under influence of emotions that arose during reading of newspaper headlines. Many reports about our research confirmed the truth behind the brilliant April's Fool's experiment of the National Public Radio (NPR) last year when they managed to trigger a passionate or even aggressive discussion about their article titled "Why doesn't America read anymore?", although there was not a single word on this topic in the text. Let us conclude with the quote "The real question isn't why we don't read anymore, it's why we comment—passionately and with the utmost confidence—after reading only a headline."

We would expect a different standard in a media platform trying to address the scientific community.

With regards

Hynek Burda, Sabine Begall, E. Pascal Malkemper
and coauthors

Last Changes: 05.19.2015