Ig Nobel Award Sex Research Roundup!

by Thomas Roche on October 17, 2011

Chimera by Niceman for Erotic Mad Science

The Ig Nobel awards are given every year by The Annals of Improbable Research to, as Annals puts it, the purveyors of “research that makes you laugh, then think.” The caption-crazed felines I know would call that a LOLWHUT, as in “LOL!…whut?”

I’m on record as thinking that the Ig Nobel awards display, alongside their precocious cleverness, a stubborn love of ignorance when it comes to many topics, chief among them…science. What I mean to say is that it’s pretty ridiculous to give an award to Erich von Däniken, who said that human beings were taught to build pyramids by aliens from outer space, or to Pat Robertson for saying God told him the world would end in 1982 — and then give the same damned award to research investigating “why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t.” The latter example is science; the first two are made-up garbage. They might both seem silly, but they’re not the same thing.

Furthermore, those stodgy types at the Ig Nobel awards show a significant disrespect for human sex research. Their awards indiscriminately go to people who research weird things about mallard necrophilia, whereas completely boneheaded science on human sexuality gets a free pass. There are also some sex-related Ig Nobel prizes for what seems to me, as a sex educator, like perfectly valid science.

One of the recipients of a recent Ig Nobel award happened to be a guest a few weeks back on Stephen Fry’s pseudo-game show “Q.I.” This gent was Professor Chris McManus of University College, London, who received a 2011 award after surveying the fact that although physiologically, in humans, the right testicle is larger and hangs lower than the left in right handed people, the ancient Greeks got this simple anatomical fact exactly backwards in their statues, where, predominantly, the left testicle preferentially hangs lower. How is that not important to know? Did the ancient Greeks favor left-handed models, or were the Testicle Aliens confusing them with mind-control rays in order to make sure they built the Acropolis properly? This is critical research.

Nonetheless, my outrage doesn’t extend to turning down an Ig Nobel-inspired “LOLwhut” or two. While my giggles over how weird human sex research can be should not be interpreted as a disregard for the important work that sex researchers do — or for the research that doesn’t get done because of anti-sex prejudice — I just can’t help myself sometimes…now and then, sex science is hilarious.

That’s why I looked through the list of past Ig Nobel award winners at the Journal of Improbable Research and came up with a list of sex-related weirdness that scored awards over the years…and even compiled my own 2011 list of questionable sex-related research.

Medicine Prize, 2011: [The aforementioned] Chris McManus of University College London, for his excruciatingly balanced report, “Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and in Ancient Sculpture.”

Chemistry Prize, 2008: Sharee A. Umpierre of the University of Puerto Rico, Joseph A. Hill of The Fertility Centers of New England (USA), Deborah J. Anderson of Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School (USA), for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide, and to Chuang-Ye Hong of Taipei Medical University (Taiwan), C.C. Shieh, P. Wu, and B.N. Chiang (all of Taiwan) for discovering that it is not.

Economics Prize, 2008: Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, USA, for discovering that professional lap dancers earn higher tips when they are ovulating.

Peace Prize, 2007: The Air Force Wright Laboratory, Dayton, Ohio, USA, for instigating research & development on a chemical weapon — the so-called “gay bomb” — that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

I always thought this was an urban legend, but it appears that it was actually floated by government scientists. If you’ve never seen the Pentagon scene featuring Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin from Season 2 of 30 Rock, you’re missing out on the scene that gave new meaning to the expression, “Let’s do this thing!”

Medicine Prize, 2006: Francis M. Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, for his medical case report “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage”; and Majed Odeh, Harry Bassan, and Arie Oliven of Bnai Zion Medical Center, Haifa, Israel, for their subsequent medical case report also titled “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.”

Okay, that one is only sexual if you’re into that, and incidentally if you are into that, you should let your massage therapist know first, or that’d be pretty non-consensual and inappropriate.

Biology Prize, 2002 N. Bubier, Charles G.M. Paxton, Phil Bowers, and D. Charles Deeming of the United Kingdom, for their report “Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain.”

Yes, sex-related for the ostriches but (probably) not for the humans… but it does suggest a whole new category of anime and, need I say it, erotic cosplay?

Chemistry Prize, 2000: Donatella Marazziti, Alessandra Rossi, and Giovanni B. Cassano of the University of Pisa, and Hagop S. Akiskal of the University of California (San Diego), for their discovery that, biochemically, romantic love may be indistinguishable from having severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I have a new admiration for the bravery of my friends with OCD.

Medicine Prize, 2000: Willibrord Weijmar Schultz, Pek van Andel, and Eduard Mooyaart of Groningen, The Netherlands, and Ida Sabelis of Amsterdam, for their illuminating report, “Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Male and Female Genitals During Coitus and Female Sexual Arousal

Okay…that’s just insulting. That’s important science, damn you!

Chemistry Prize, 1999: Takeshi Makino, president of The Safety Detective Agency in Osaka, Japan, for his involvement with S-Check, an infidelity detection spray that wives can apply to their husbands’ underwear.

Statistics Prize, 1998: Jerald Bain of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta for their carefully measured report, “The Relationship Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how important that research would be to some casual-sex aficionados I’ve known.

Public Health Prize, 1996: Ellen Kleist of Nuuk, Greenland and Harald Moi of Oslo, Norway, for their cautionary medical report “Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll.”

Again, this sounds like critical public health research to me, especially for Russia.

Literature Prize, 1995: David B. Busch and James R. Starling, of Madison Wisconsin, for their deeply penetrating research report, “Rectal foreign bodies: Case Reports and a Comprehensive Review of the World’s Literature.” The citations include reports of, among other items: seven light bulbs; a knife sharpener; two flashlights; a wire spring; a snuff box; an oil can with potato stopper; eleven different forms of fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs; a jeweler’s saw; a frozen pig’s tail; a tin cup; a beer glass; and one patient’s remarkable ensemble collection consisting of spectacles, a suitcase key, a tobacco pouch and a magazine.

Why is this in the literature category? Was it in the form of poetry? Or is it memoir…?

Medicine Prize, 1993: James F. Nolan, Thomas J. Stillwell, and John P. Sands, Jr., medical men of mercy, for their painstaking research report, “Acute Management of the Zipper-Entrapped Penis.”

How anyone with a penis could downplay the importance of such research is totally beyond me, especially if they’ve seen There’s Something About Mary.

Biology Prize, 1992: Dr. Cecil Jacobson, relentlessly generous sperm donor, and prolific patriarch of sperm banking, for devising a simple, single-handed method of quality control.

Okay, that one’s an in-joke. Cecil Jacobson was the guy who ran a sperm bank and sold what he said was the sperm of good-looking, hunky types. Turned out it was his sperm. One handed!!! Get it? The Ig Nobels are being a little “dry” with their humor there, if you’ll forgive the pun. What they mean is, “To Dr. Cecil Jacobson, for beating off into a test tube a lot.” They are making light of a fairly serious scandal in the sperm bank world, but whatever. One handed, haw haw haw haw haw!

Art Prize, 1992: Presented jointly to Jim Knowlton, modern Renaissance man, for his classic anatomy poster “Penises of the Animal Kingdom,” and to the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts for encouraging Mr. Knowlton to extend his work in the form of a pop-up book.

How is that funny? Sounds like great art to me. Wait…why are you all laughing?

Biology Prize, 1991: Robert Klark Graham, selector of seeds and prophet of propagation, for his pioneering development of the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank that accepts donations only from Nobellians and Olympians.

See, that is the Ig Nobel committee speaking out against eugenics, I guess. At least they didn’t make a masturbation joke this time!

The truth is, there are plenty of examples of terrible sex-related science out there. Tiny Nibbles could even give out, say, the IgNibbles, in the fields of History, Neurology, Journalism, Public Safety, Social Science (in which the competition is, er, really stiff…), Education, Sports, Sci-Fi Geek Blue Balls

Image by Niceman commissioned for Erotic Mad Science. “A mad scientist is making a “chimera,” an amalgam of two existing women (“Thama” and “Philia”) as seen in the tubes. The resulting woman will have the skills and memories of both her antecedents….at their own independent existences. Nothing great comes without sacrifice….”

 

{ 8 comments }

1 Thomas Roche October 19, 2011 at 9:50 am

Cyäegha — You’re right about the wryness of the awards being one of the advantages. The cleverness of the blurbs is what makes it for me.

As to downplaying the importance of sex research, I mean that on a certain level, sex research is more likely to be selected because it is sex research, not because it’s “weird” sex research. However, the truth is that if it being sex research makes one “laugh, then think,” then that seems like a valid criterion for inclusion. It may not be as weird as it’d have to be if it were within physics, but then physics isn’t as funny as sex (most of the time). I also see a lot of really stupid sex-related assertions written about — everything from undemonstrated claims about energy to patently misleading and biased social sciences research about porn — that in my view should get excoriated more than it is, but for the most part it’s not really funny research…there would be no “laugh” part of the equation. And perhaps more importantly, it’s just not the Ig Nobel’s job.

Good point about Milken and Hubbard.

I stand by my bewilderment over why the award for “literature” would be applied some years to “scientific literature” and whatever the other stuff should be called…literature in a more general sense…because they’re really not the same word, or not the same definition of the same word. But I do agree that seems like their reasoning! And it provides plenty of humor from year to year.

2 Cyäegha October 19, 2011 at 8:25 am

Thomas Roche – “However, I believe you sound a bit outraged in your response to me.”
-> Sorry if I came out as such – please note that English isn’t my first language, and maybe my comment sounded harsher than I intended?

I just wanted to point out that, IMO, the awards they give for ridiculous claims serve a similar role to the (more common) awards they give for weird but valid science, simply in a different way. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all of the awards are necessarily ‘right’ choices (it’s always very subjective anyway); I’m just defending the idea in principle, not on a case-by-case basis. I do agree that there can be an issue with people not understanding what a given award really means, but I think there are two very good reasons for doing things the way they do:
- they assume that most people are intelligent enough to understand the awards, which I think is a more positive approach than assuming that most people need extra explanations to understand irony;
- the idea is to give awards to “research that makes people laugh, then think”: so it’s up to us to think what we want of the nominees.

I’m not sure I understand your point about the Ig Nobels downplaying the importance of sex research though: the majority of the awards are given for research that are valid but very obscure or just plain weird, and from the examples you quoted, I just don’t see how that’s different from the awards related to other fields of research, like, say, food science or medicine?

Finally, about the paranormal stuff: frankly, I just don’t see much of a difference between someone like L. Ron Hubbard and someone like Michael Milken (who got the 1991 economics prize for inventing junk bonds): at the end of the day, both were con artists operating on people’s beliefs, just not beliefs in the same things… Not to mention that ridiculing _both_ Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, etc. (with the economics prize) _and_ BP (with the chemistry prize) in 2010 could definitely be called “shooting fish in a barrel” too – but that didn’t make it any less funny.

(BTW, about the 1995 literature prize about rectal foreign bodies, since you were apparently wondering why it’s classified as literature: I think the literature prize is sometimes awarded as a prize for a – more or less – literary work, and sometimes as a prize for something related to scientific literature. Here, it would be the later, since it’s a review of the existing scientific literature on the subject.)

3 M W October 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm

The Ig Nobel award is given to “research that makes you laugh, then think”, not to research that is just stupid. The research is supposed to SEEM ridiculous, but actually be really important. Of course “completely boneheaded science on human sexuality gets a free pass”! It doesn’t fulfill the “makes you think” part. If it’s not good science it doesn’t deserve the prize.

As for the recipients listed in your article… it seems like perfectly valid science because it IS perfectly valid science, and that’s why they received the prize: because it’s funny but also important.

4 Thomas Roche October 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Quick Draw — Yeah…I’m not so sure about that. In any event, me ridiculing von Daniken is not the point of the article above. Ultimately, this isn’t the venue to discuss esoteric magnetism, but if Haramein is doing, or Leedskalnin did, any sex research, that’s another story. I’ll look into it.

5 Thomas Roche October 18, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Cyäegha — I’m not at all sure I agree; what is evident to some readers may not be evident to everyone, though certainly it seems evident to the recipients, given those who declined or ignored the award vs. those who graciously accepted. This would include, for instance, the scientist who couldn’t attend because she’d just given birth, and so sent her acceptance speech in the form of a video with herself and her new daughter in cow costume, in the company of a real cow. I find it unlikely that Pat Robertson would take similar action, indicating that the people who are being made fun of are aware they’re being made fun of, and the people who are being ribbed are aware they’re being ribbed.

I stand by my claim that the Ig Nobels, and science in general, often tends to downplay the importance of real sex research and be unaware of just how much shitty sex research is promulgated as real science. I admit that it is not, however, the job of scientists who don’t specialize in behavioral human sexuality commentary and activism, but DO specialize in making fun of science, to back away from sexuality just because it’s *my* sacred cow (and one that gives more milk because I gave it a name).

As a devotee of the paranormal, I also stand by my claim that singling von Daniken out is fairly ridiculous; while the Ig Nobels do a good job of satirizing “real” science that seems (at first glance, at closer look, or both) puzzling and pointless, they’re way out of their depth in using the awards as a forum to promote skepticism toward people like von Daniken. Their comments about “paranormal” science (i.e., made-up — at least in von Daniken’s case, and L. Ron Hubbard’s, and the like) just aren’t that clever. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel; they invariably take the easy route. Whereas their jokes about current economic issues and the like are, in my opinion, hilarious.

However, I believe you sound a bit outraged in your response to me.

What I would say in that regard is that the Ig Nobel awards display a particularly dry form of political and scientific humor. At times, their satire is brilliant. But they’re not the only ones with a dry sense of humor.

6 QuickDrawMcGraw October 18, 2011 at 6:05 am

You should check out Nassim Haramein and Edward Leedskalnin. Maybe they can help change your mind about some of the projects you are condemning above.

7 Cyäegha October 18, 2011 at 1:25 am

“I’m on record as thinking that the Ig Nobel awards display, alongside their precocious cleverness, a stubborn love of ignorance when it comes to many topics, chief among them…science. What I mean to say is that it’s pretty ridiculous to give an award to Erich von Däniken, who said that human beings were taught to build pyramids by aliens from outer space, or to Pat Robertson for saying God told him the world would end in 1982 — and then give the same damned award to research investigating “why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t.” The latter example is science; the first two are made-up garbage. They might both seem silly, but they’re not the same thing.”
It’s not ridiculous, because they are “the same damned award” in name only… Most Ig Noble prizes are awarded for valid, if weird, research, and are genuine awards; some awards are ironically given to complete nutjobs (like the 2011 mathematics prize) or just plain dangerous people or corporations (like the 2009 and 2010 economics prizes, or BP’s inclusion in the 2010 chemistry prize) to ridicule them. The difference between the two types of awards is usually clear enough that there is really no need to have different award names for both.

8 Cyäegha October 18, 2011 at 1:22 am

“I’m on record as thinking that the Ig Nobel awards display, alongside their precocious cleverness, a stubborn love of ignorance when it comes to many topics, chief among them…science. What I mean to say is that it’s pretty ridiculous to give an award to Erich von Däniken, who said that human beings were taught to build pyramids by aliens from outer space, or to Pat Robertson for saying God told him the world would end in 1982 — and then give the same damned award to research investigating “why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t.” The latter example is science; the first two are made-up garbage. They might both seem silly, but they’re not the same thing.”
It’s not ridiculous, because they are “the same damned award” in name only… Most Ig Noble prizes are awarded for valid, if weird, research, and a; some awards are given to complete nutjobs (like the 2011 mathematics prize) or just plain dangerous people (like the 2009 and 2010 economics prizes, or BP being included in the 2010 chemistry prize) to ridicule them. The difference between the two types of awards is usually clear enough that there is really no need to have different awards

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