The Award for Most Ridiculous Research Goes to …

The state of the universe.
Sept. 12 2012 2:10 PM

The Greatest Hits of Weird Science

What the Oscars could learn from the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

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I have found no reference to Scanlon's report in any political speech, anywhere. This is not surprising. No skilled politician likes to venture near a potentially divisive subject on which public sentiment is still unclear. 

Scholars, on the other hand, sometimes love to stake out an early position on a controversial issue. It's a simple way to make a name for oneself in the professional community. But the academic world, too, has been virtually silent on the question of race differences in selection of cheese color.

The Scanlon report itself is brief—just one page long. And it is blunt. “White and yellow American cheese was presented to 155 individuals from three ethnic groups,” Scanlon wrote. One group was black, one white, the other Hispanic. “In a supermarket, a display table was set with two plates of American cheese, one yellow, one white. As the individuals selected a piece of cheese, the grouping and the color of the chosen cheese was recorded.”

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Scanlon also offered the cheese to an extra, so-called control group of people, each of whom was blindfolded. The blindfolded cheese-samplers, she wrote, ”reported no significant difference in flavor of the cheeses.” 

The overall results of the experiment? Scanlon concluded that “the preferences for one of two colors of American cheese are dissimilar for different races of respondents.” 

As far as I could determine, this is the only research report Beth A. Scanlon ever published.

The Pride of the Pride

Lion-roaring competitions used to be private, simple affairs, organized entirely by lions, without spectators. That changed in the early 1990s, when Karen McComb, Jon Grinnell, Craig Packer, and Anne Pusey realized they could use technology—loudspeakers, amplifiers, and sometimes a stuffed artificial lion—to stage-manage some lion-roaring contests, and to document those ginned-up events on video. The foursome wanted to know: When lions hear other lions roar, what do they do?

McComb was based at the University of Cambridge, Grinnell at the College of Wooster and the University of Minnesota, and Packer and Pusey at the University of Minnesota. The roaring contests, however, were held in Tanzania. 

The researchers set up loudspeakers in the jungle, booming out recordings they had made of one, two, or three lions roaring simultaneously. In a series of reports in the journal Animal Behaviour, they detail what happened.

Groups of males in their own territory listening to recorded, amplified roars, generally roared back, and often walked toward the loudspeaker. Nomadic males heard the same recordings, but, being uninvited guests, they always stayed silent and kept to themselves.

Marc Abrahams is editor and co-founder of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and its website, www.improbable.com, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He seeks out research that makes people laugh, and then think.

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