Funny Science Friday: The IgNobels, Wall Street Journal

The IgNobel prizes were awarded this week. Yes, the Nobel prizes too, but the IgNobels are the really interesting ones. (For an thoughtful piece about why the Nobel Prizes in the sciences do not enhance or may even hurt scientific recognition, read Carl Zimmer’s piece at The Loom) .

The IgNobel prizes are awarded annually for research that “makes you laugh, and then makes you think”. Actually, I liked their previous motto better: “research that cannot or should not be reproduced”. But like the Nobel prizes, IgNobels are not awarded only for science. For example, The mayor of Vilnius received the IgNobel Peace Prize for fulfilling every urban driver’s dream and running over an illegaly parked car with a BTR-60 (an armored personnel carrier mistakenly identified as “tank” by the IgNobel prize awarders, but what do these Harvard peaceneaks know about military stuff).

The Physiology Prize was given to Anna Wilkinson (of the UK), Natalie Sebanz (of THE NETHERLANDS, HUNGARY, and AUSTRIA), Isabella Mandl (of AUSTRIA) and Ludwig Huber (of AUSTRIA) for their study “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.
REFERENCE: ‘No Evidence Of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise Geochelone carbonaria,” Anna Wilkinson, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mandl, Ludwig Huber, Current Zoology, vol. 57, no. 4, 2011. pp. 477-84.

The prize I like best was the medicine prize awarded to : Mirjam Tuk (of THE NETHERLANDS and the UK), Debra Trampe (of THE NETHERLANDS) and Luk Warlop (of BELGIUM). and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman (of the USA), Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (of AUSTRALIA) for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate.

In other entertaining, for want of a better term, the Wall Street Journal came out with an op-ed which made quite a few heads explode. Basically using a rather heavy-handed non-sequitur the author tried to unravel climate science:

The science [global warming] is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere

For a full dissection of this weirdness, please go to Phil Plait’s response in Bad Astronomy.


For one, there is always room for questioning science. But that questioning must be done by science, using a scientific basis, and above all else be done above board and honestly. But that’s not how much of the climate science denial has been done. From witch hunts to the climategate manufactrovery, much of the attack on climate science has not been on the science itself, but on the people trying to study it. And when many of those attacks have at least a veneer of science, it’s found they are not showing us all the data, or are inconclusive but still getting spun as conclusive by climate change deniers. And if you point that out, the political attacks begin again (read the comments in that last link).

Second, the neutrino story has nothing to do with climate change at all. It’s a total 100% non sequitur, a don’t-look-behind-the-curtain tactic. Just because one aspect of science can be questioned — and I’m not even saying that, which I’ll get to in a sec — doesn’t mean anything about another field of science. Bryce might as well question the idea that gravity is holding us to the Earth’s surface.



The whole thing generated the delightful hashtag #WSJScience. Read the tweets before they expire.

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