Do the Ig Nobel Awards Ruin Science or Make It Great Again?

Two science writers take on the joke-y awards.

Sarah Nichols/Flickr

Every year, the Ig Nobel prizes bring the best of weird, head-scratching science, from the chemical composition of belly-button lint to exactly what happens on a biological level when one endures bee stings to the penis to measuring how long it takes elephants to pee.

Held at Harvard every year, the Ig Nobel prizes honor the sillier side of science: projects that make people laugh first, then think.

But is making fun of science really good for science? Our two resident science nerds duked it out. In the “pro” corner, we have Jacqueline Ronson, reporter of depressing environmental news and strange extinct beasts. And against, there’s Neel Patel, space prophet and Neil deGrasse Tyson hater.

JR: The Ig Nobels inject a sense of curiosity and fun into science, which can often be lonely and tedious. The ceremony builds a sense of a community around the idea that science can be serious without taking itself too seriously.

NP: The Ig Nobels have the same problem that the media at large sometimes runs into when it comes to science: sparing words and time on studies and research that are not always deserving of this attention. Science doesn’t have to be completely serious, but it’s a waste of energy and resources for scientists to play satirists rather than celebrate the collegial achievements that truly do deserve it.

JR: But here’s where you’re missing the point: There’s nothing less scientific about the sort of work that gets recognized at the Ig Nobels. Sure, these won’t be Nobel prize winners, but these are real scientists getting commendation from their peers for following their curiosity and exploring it through the scientific method. It doesn’t take away from the bigger name stuff to have lesser known scientists get some appreciation. Let’s be clear here: It’s doubtful that these scientists are building research questions as a way to vie for Ig Nobel recognition.

NP: As the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity. It’s not hard to think that an awards event meant to be a parody could be used by some — scientists or not — as a platform to promote less-than-stellar ideas or hypotheses. In a modern day of short attention spans, it may indeed sap up the media appetite of some and encourage absurd ideas that don’t contribute to science, but simply stymie it.

JR: People who are interesting are nearly always interested in more than one thing. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s a community of scientists who are also into comedy. The marriage of those interests, by mining the world of science for humor, should be encouraged. And who knows, something good and actually useful might come out of it!

NP: Ok, ok, you have a point. There’s no reason science and humor can’t mingle, and a healthy dose of comedy would probably only serve to help science lose its stodgy, stuffy face. But the Ig Nobels indulge in a sense of irreverence that I think tarnishes science. Some research and studies are incredibly absurd, but, by and large, they still contribute to a body of knowledge. I don’t think it’s in our interest to ridicule that motive, especially in a time when science is facing so many haters.

JR: I’m not saying to pursue crappy science though! There’s enough depressing science in the world. Even some of these researchers, especially when they’re in the thick of it, probably fail to see the humor in their work until they’re encouraged to take a step back and see it from an outsider’s perspective. Finding new joy in the work can only reinvigorate and bring new passion and commitment from scientists.

NP: I think this is actually very healthy, but still — an effort like this ought to be spearheaded not by the scientific community itself, but by a third party. There ought to be a healthy difference from scientists and the satire itself. To marry them under one umbrella, again, puts the scientific community at large into a position that is too compromising.

JR: I guess our stars will just have to remain misaligned.

NP: Two ships passing in the night.

The 26th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony will take place Thursday, September 22 at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you can’t make it out for the ceremony in person, have no fear: The main bits will be live-streamed, beginning at 6 p.m. You can also follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #IgNobel.

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