Ridiculous research: our picks of the silliest scientific studies

Ever wondered why good cold cash goes towards proving things we already know are true?

Ever wondered why good cold cash goes towards proving things we already know are true, to offer validity to minor grievances, or things that don’t even matter? Esther Tetlow puts on her Captain Obvious hat and charters the waters of the silliest studies of the noughties.

Research is important. Why? Well, it measures our successes as a species and encourages curiosity and creativity. Billions of dollars are invested into research every year, with 93 percent contributing to the continual progress of science, business, healthcare and ecological preservation (statistic may be falsified in part or in full). And the rest? It can be ridiculous, pointless or downright laughable, and the best is brought before the judges at the Ig Nobel awards each year. Since the turn of the millennium, these prestigious awards have highlighted some amusing finds in the area of pointless research. If necessity is the mother of innovation, then boredom is a researcher’s muse. We’ve compiled the biggest sinners.

Bad wrap for curly curtain question

In 2001 the Ig Nobel award for physics went to David Schmidt for his partial solution to the question of why shower curtains billow inwards. It seems to be the result of computational fluid dynamics, and something else as yet, well, erm, unidentified. His partial finding lead to a full award, but it doesn’t still the queries in my late-night questioning heart. The agony lives on as cold static shower curtains cling to my frame, and the ever-present ‘why?!’ continues to grind my gears. For all eternity.

€country music makes it more likely that you'll kill yourself

A little bit country, a little bit stabby-stab

There are other things that peeve me, things that can be measured and researched. Someone clicking their knuckles, dragging fingernails down a chalkboard, or toddlers screaming in Circus Circus make me, and most listeners, grit their teeth. But as indicated in Steven Stack and James Gundlachs’ 2004 report, it seems that it’s country music that makes people want to go a bit stabby-stab on themselves the most. Listening to country music makes it more likely that you’ll kill yourself, and this somewhat morbid finding won the two gentlemen the Ig Nobel for medicine, which also gave me real reasons to avoid barn-dances and hodowns, y’all.

It’s a textbook case of highlighting the problem

Vicki Silvers Gier and David Kreiner’s 2002 report validates another of my pet peeves. The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension confirms, in a highly scientific manner, that the most annoying thing about buying second-hand university textbooks is someone else’s highlighted notes. They even tested whether it would make any difference to the reader if the highlighting were appropriate. It turns out the previous owner may as well have drawn a yellow- highlighter phallus over the page – as sparse and carefully highlighted key words, facts, dates and important concepts make no difference.

So sharp you’ll cut yourself

While we were all freaking out before the non-event of the century – Y2K – David Dunning and Justin Kruger were busy ferreting away on their research project. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, which – otherwise known as the redneck effect – found that if someone isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, they’re likely to think they’re a razor. Those with the least intelligence think they’re the brightest, and this astounding discovery was awarded the Ig Nobel award for psychology after it was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999.

Rat a chat chat

If I were a rat (I am not) I would be interested in learning more rat-languages to broaden my horizons in the rat-world. The 2007 Linguistics prize went to a troop from the Universitat de Barcelona, for their study on rat-chat. They discovered that rats sometimes couldn’t tell the difference between two languages of human- speak when played backwards. Concerning though, that the languages of choice were Japanese and Dutch, and that the entire premise of the study is based on the notion that the rats can understand it in the first place. Disappointingly, I am monolingual and would fare no better than the rodents in this study. Millions of years of evolutionary advance ... fail.

Glass half empty – or is beauty in the eye of the beer-holder?

2009 saw a team from the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining – by experiment – whether it’s better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle. Either way, it hurts. Use your words instead. I don’t like violence, and what would your mother say? But when the time comes that being whacked is nigh, rest assured in your choice of four- lettered expletive. Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University have confirmed the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain. Not sure if Nana would buy it, but at least you have the backing of the scientific community.

Hearing the call of nature? There’s a science to it

Last year, the medicine prize went to a bunch of people from the Netherlands, Belgium and some Aussies, who confirmed what we all know: priorities shift when you need to pee. Social niceties go out the window as we cross our legs tightly and try not to think of waves and waterfalls. They concluded that decision-making can be better about some things (distance to nearest lavatory, length of line versus length of time before inevitability) and worse decisions about others (algebra, riddles, backwards Dutch and other such pointlessness) when have a strong urge to go.

Awards in your future?

So when you’re next pondering the smallest of grievances or have sunken to new lows of idleness, don’t let your wandering thoughts get too far out of sight. There may be an Ig Nobel award with your name on it. If you don’t want to sully your good repute, or are too busy thinking up other exciting ideas, gift your nugget of brilliance to a member of the scientific community. They may just run with it, and the results may be not-that-astounding.

Illustrations: Aimee Carruthers

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).