It is no secret that academics research some obscure topics—and are known to write about these topics in ways that obfuscate the importance of such research. This is one reason why former Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) started the Golden Fleece Awards to highlight research that he did not consider cost-effective. Here are some examples, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society. (Academia has started to push back through the Golden Goose Awards, conceived by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN).)
Some of these potentially strange topics either have potentially useful applications or are just plain thought-provoking. To recognize some of the most unusual research in a given year, some good chaps at Harvard organized the first Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in 1991. This wonderful tradition continues to this day, with the 2012 ceremony being held yesterday. Real Nobel Prize winners are even known to hand out the awards!
Ten awards are handed out each year, so it is difficult to pick the best award. My initial thought was to highlight the Government Accountability Office’s report titled, “Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies,” but this sort of report is not unusual in the federal government. So I’ll single out a nice little article on whether multiple comparisons bias can result in brain wave activities for a dead Atlantic salmon (no word on whether the study participant was consumed after completion of the study) as my favorite award. Multiple comparisons bias is certainly real and the authors provide a nice example of how to lie with statistics, but the subject tested sure is unusual. I encourage people to take a look at the other awards and try to figure out how these research projects got started. Some seem more useful than others, but that is the nature of academic research.
The Annals of Improbable Research, the folks who put on the Ig Nobel ceremony, also have three hair clubs for scientists: The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, the Luxuriant Former Hair Club for Scientists, and the Luxuriant Facial Hair Club for Scientists.
Here is the full video of the ceremony.