“Male Idiot Theory” and Other Research Oddities

From the 'MIT' theory and the Darwin Awards to the Ig-Nobel Prizes, blogger David Kleeman looks at the sillier side of research.
December 18, 2014

Your theory is crazy…but it’s not crazy enough to be true. – Niels Bohr

‘Tis the season to be jolly, so for my final blog post of 2014, let’s drop the serious analysis of research topics, and spend some time on the silly side.

This column was prompted by a recent analysis of winners of the Darwin Awards, an annual rundown of natural selection at work. The prize spotlights people who removed themselves from the gene pool in ironic, inane or bizarre ways. A 1992 classic was the man who mistook his handgun for a ringing phone in the middle of the night; it had him at “hello.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that males make up 88.7 % of the Darwin Award winners (282 out of 318 verified stories), leading the study authors to posit a Male Idiot Theory or “MIT” (as a Harvard grad, I’m holding my tongue).

The researchers noted that males are far more likely than females to be admitted to hospital emergency rooms with accidental injuries. They then proposed a sub-class of that group, central to Darwin Award consideration: those who take “senseless risks, where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final.”

Buried (pardon the expression) somewhere in here is nice insight into the concept of “correlation” and “causality.” If simply being male caused “MIT,” my gender would long ago have gone extinct, with the final words “Hold my beer and watch this!” Instead, there’s simply a tendency for males to do more dumb and dangerous stuff – an express path toward Darwin Awards infamy.

I’ve loved dubious research since, as a high school student, I did a “scientific” experiment with planaria (unintended title: “The Effect of Teenage Forgetfulness on Innocent Flatworms”). This was well pre-internet, and my card-catalog research turned up “The Worm Runners Digest,” a publication that ran both serious and satirical studies – until readers complained that they couldn’t tell the difference. Ultimately, they published the legitimate studies behind a front cover, and flipping and reversing the journal revealed the parodies behind a back cover. Or was it the other way around?

The Digest is sadly gone, but its work is carried on by the Journal of Irreproducible Results and the website Improbable Research.

You may know the latter for its annual Ig-Nobel Prizes. After all, who can forget the 2013 honoree “Are Cows More Likely to Lie Down the Longer They Stand“? And in the JIR, you can read a hearty and highly technical debate over whether paper delivery of weighty “National Geographic” magazines has contributed to geologic catastrophes such as earthquakes and mudslides.

I’ve written here, too, about whether the proliferation of academic journals leads to publication of less-than-stellar articles. It turns out that there’s an emerging category of for-profit journals that will publish pretty much anything for a fee.

Need proof? You only need read “Fuzzy, Homogeneous Configurations,”an article published in the Aperito Journal of Nanoscience Technology, authored by Margaret Simpson, Kim Jong Fun, and Edna Krabappel. If you ever need a journal publication credit (and have about $450 to spare), you don’t even have to worry about writing the article; Marge et. al. used SciGen, a random paper generator,  and the result is wonderfully nonsensical, but authentic sounding, gibberish.

Just how lax is vetting for these fake journals? Recently, the International Journal of Advanced Computational Technology accepted a manuscript that was nothing but the repeating phrase, “Get me off your f***ing mailing list.” To be fair, the thought-provoking charts that accompanied the article may have swayed the reviewers. (WARNING: Article and graphic contain NSFW language…like I had to tell you that.)

Have you got brilliant ideas for ridiculous children and media research? Perhaps “Whine Tasting: Correlation Between Caillou Viewing and Parental Stress Levels”? “Snow Boots and Flip Flops: Comparative Crowding of the Kidscreen Delegate Lounge 2014/2015″? “Titanic Growth: A Statistical Calculation of the Exact Day and Time When All Children’s Media Will be Made by Sinking Ship.”

Oh, and be aware that if you ever come to visit PlayCollective, we have our own ongoing informal psych study. If we invite you to choose a coffee mug, pick carefully.

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Happy holidays and see you in 2015!

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.


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