Last week, in another fun-filled ceremony at Harvard University, this year’s IgNobels were awarded for research that seems particularly ignoble. This spoof has become a cult event of note; a report on the festivities and a succinct summary of this year’s ten award winners may be found here.

Some of the Ig(noble) Nobels – a prize for “discoveries that cannot, or should not, be reproduced” — seem richly deserved. But I do wonder about, and find undeserved,  two.

First, the prize for neuroscience, which seems the one most meaningful to economists, went to  C. Bennett, A. Baird, M. Miller, and G. Wolford [USA], for demonstrating that, by using complicated instruments and overly simplistic statistics, one can see meaningful brain activity everywhere – even in a dead salmon. The IgNobel seems undeserved because this research addresses – tongue in cheek but rather effectively – major problems in behavioural research (underpowered studies and other questionable statistics).  These caveats are not new (e.g., here and here) but warrant repeated reminders.

Second, the prize for fluid dynamics, went to H.C. Mayer and R.Krechetnikov for their systematic exploration of why it is so difficult to walk with a cup of coffee without spilling it. Apparently, particularities of common cup sizes, coffee properties (its viscosity), and the biomechanics of a walking individual combine to contribute to the occasionally ugly consequences of such mishaps:  “While walking appears to be a periodic, regular process, closer examination reveals fluctuations in the gait pattern, even under steady conditions. Together with other natural factors – uneven floors, distractions during walking, etc. – this explains why the cup motion during the constant walking speed regime is composed of noise and smooth oscillations of constant amplitude.”  (p. 3) The authors draw on lessons from sloshing engineering for preventive measures such as concentric rings (baffles) arranged around the inner wall of a mug, possibly – for better damping – perforated. While this strikes me as a good start, plenty of further explorations seem in order.  (In work in progress, I am currently conducting controlled experiments on the effects of putting a lid on a coffee mug. I will make sure that the CE reader will be first to learn about my study’s results. Pilot sessions conducted so far have been promising.)

In closing I note that no IgNobel prize for economics has been awarded in years; I hence nominate for 2013 this recent  study by Attema and colleagues: “Your Right Arm for a Publication in AER?” . The authors use the time tradeoff method popular in medical decision making to elicit economists’ preferences for publishing in top economic journals and living without limbs. The American Economic Review (AER) turns out to be preferred to QJE which outranks RES which outranks EER. The (relatively few) responses allegedly imply that they would sacrifice more than half a thumb for publishing in AER.

I submit that what needs to be said about this study is succinctly summarized in the commentary reported in fn 1. A worthy contender for the 2013 IgNobel sweepstakes it is.

One Response to Ig(noble)Nobels 2012, and beyond …

  1. David B says:

    Regarding the AER.. when I was a PhD student in the States Minnesota) a Lecturer of mine who shall remain nameless) was chatting to the then Editor of the AER. The Editor was effusive about the quality of manuscripts he had received…. to which my Lecturer replied “Thats great.. why dont you publish some of them!” Ouch!

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