Fake news and fake science is all the rage now, but I’ve been a fan since college when my mother, the research librarian, introduced me to the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a parody scientific journal. It published papers on absurd scientific theories, backed up with equally absurd and surprisingly detailed research, observation, and ‘facts.’ A quick google search tells me that the JIR was founded in Israel in 1955. I’m not sure it still exists; there is a JIR website, though I can’t tell how up-to-date it is. A former JIR editor founded the Annals of Improbable Research in 1995 which does appear to have a current website and publication schedule, and is the sponsor of the Ig Nobel award, a parody of the Nobel Prize. More well-known, perhaps, are the Darwin Awards, given out to people who remove themselves from the gene pool to the betterment of the future of the human race.
Nowadays, when I read fake news I tend to laugh only to keep myself from crying, so imagine how I leapt at the opportunity to attend BAHfest, the festival of Bad Ad hoc Hypotheses where I could laugh for the sake of genuine ‘scientific’ humor.
BAHfest is the brainchild of Zack Weinersmith, best known for writing the webcomic SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal). Last Saturday, the husband, D#2, the Significant Other (SO), and I went to BAHfest Houston on the campus of Rice University. (There are numerous BAHfests held in different locations worldwide.) None of us were quite sure what to expect; we were all prepared to end the evening saying either, “that was nice, glad I did it once,” or “I’m putting it on the calendar for next year.”
Below is a quick rundown of and highlights from the evening.
The keynote, Ron DenBleyker, addressed how the biggest problem with a space elevator will not be whether it can be built, but rather space elevator small-talk.
Nick Keiser posited that humans evolved bipedalism in order to juggle. When questioned by the judges as to how this might relate to dinosaurs who walked on two legs, Nick replied that paleontologists have unearthed what they claim to be nests with broken eggs indicating hatched dinosaurs… and he let the audience laughter finish his thought.
Social media can replace the current scientific peer review system according to Thomas Clements. Papers can be vetted simply by the quantity and duration of comments that a paper receives on twitter. As an added benefit, scientists will then be able to claim that the time they spend on social media is actually useful.
There was a bit of a dark theme to the evening, starting with Patrick Clay talking about the spread of disease. When good, happy people get sick, they tend to hide out at home until they recover. When mean, angry people get sick, they go forth and become super-spreaders, seeking contact with as many others as possible, the old misery-loves-company theory. The theory was good, but his solution of rounding them all up and sending them to Norway seemed unlikely to halt the next pandemic.
Rae Holcomb somehow compared a galaxy to the internet. Complete with photos that showed how they look almost alike…if you look at them from far enough away. Not finding evidence of life in a system as complex as the Milky Way is akin to not finding anything of value on a system of information as complex as the internet. In conclusion, complex systems all eventually fail and we are doomed. Even the judges were cowed by that one and had no followup questions.
The eventual winner of the evening was Habeen Chang who presented a very compelling argument in favor of replacing the quantum computing unit of qubits with units of ex- boyfriends and girlfriends called quexes because of the near infinite amount of meanings that can be contained in any given phrase of conservation. He clearly had the best, deadpan delivery, including starting his talk with “you all know about quantum physics so we can just skip over that part.”
The final presenter was Claire McWhite who studied what words can be found encoded in our genes. DNA, RNA, and proteins are denoted by series of letters. At the DNA level, it’s pretty much all CATs, but the more complex human proteins contain many more sad and negative words than happy and positive words. She hypothesized that this is why humans tend toward being miserable. Possibly because I was primed after a whole evening of fun, but this talk had me crying with laughter.
It was unanimous, the four of us are putting the next BAHfest Houston on our calendar, whenever and wherever it is. And we’re planning to spread the word to other folks who we know would enjoy an evening of laughing at good, bad science.
One last note. The JIR used to occasionally have contests for its readers. One was to write a limerick that contained the word “irreproducible” at the end of a line (necessitating writing a rhyme for it.) Here is my entry, which won honorable mention:
Old Bossy, she tried to seduce a bull.
No luck, but the fact was deducible,
That the bull she held dear
Was really a steer
That the farmer made irreproducible.
I claim my 15 minutes of fame anywhere I can get it.