Marc Abrahams Makes Science Improbably Funny From farting fish, to the laws of stupidity, Marc Abrahams (editor and co-founder of The Annals of Improbable Research) has a knack for finding science that "makes you laugh, and then makes you think." Abrahams discusses some improbable research, and why science that might at first seem absurd, matters.

Marc Abrahams Makes Science Improbably Funny

Marc Abrahams Makes Science Improbably Funny

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From farting fish, to the laws of stupidity, Marc Abrahams (editor and co-founder of The Annals of Improbable Research) has a knack for finding science that "makes you laugh, and then makes you think." Abrahams discusses some improbable research, and why science that might at first seem absurd, matters.


Up next, some improbable humor. If you're a loyal listener, you know my next guest. He's been a SCIENCE FRIDAY regular for, oh, 20 years. Wow. Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving. You know that. We play the first annual Ig Nobel Awards. They awards given to science that makes you laugh and then makes you think. Marc Abrahams is the co-founder and the emcee of the Ig Nobels. He's also the editor and founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, and he writes a weekly column for The Guardian. Welcome, Marc.


FLATOW: Hi there. Marc is going to join each month to share with us some of the unusual scientific research he comes across. And I think it's fitting for you to be here, Marc, as we're going to announce the winner of our joke show. I know you have a great sense of humor, at least that's what they tell me. No, I know that you do.

ABRAHAMS: In theory, I'm honored to be here today.


FLATOW: Let me go right into our joke show winner. During our annual April Fool's joke. We asked folks to get creative and submit their best punch line to a Joke-A-thon, we asked folks to get creative and submit their best punch line to a joke. And the joke began: A climate scientist and a climate change denier walk into a bar. And we asked people to submit their jokes, and, boy, did we get some terrific response. Our staff picked the three funniest punch lines, as chosen by you folks, and we were then post it - we then posted them on Facebook, and I asked you to vote for your favorite.

And so with - here's the results, ladies and gentlemen. With 209 likes. Joe Weisman(ph) had the winning entry and here's the joke: A climate scientist and a climate change denier walk into a bar. The denier says, bartender, show me your strongest whiskey. The bartender says, this one here. It's 95 percent alcohol. The denier slams down his fist and leaves the bar in a hurry. The scientist says, you know, that's the problem with these guys. You show them the proof, and they still don't buy it. Marc, is that a good one? Did you get it?


ABRAHAMS: Sure. That would have been my vote. And, in fact, it was my vote.


ABRAHAMS: Are you going to tell the other two?

FLATOW: I'm going to tell the other two. Here's the second-place winner is from Mike Muller(ph) and he - his joke is: The scientist surveys the room and says to the bartender, I'll have what 99 percent everybody here is having. The bartender turns to the denier and says, how about you? The denier replies, I'll wait to see what the other two percent think? That's sort of a double-edge sword on that joke.


FLATOW: And the third-place winner goes to Craig Jarby(ph) who - here's his joke: The denier orders a beer. Bartender says, bottle? Denier says, naw, draft. I have an incisor that gets in a way. And the climatologist says, that's an inconvenient tooth. Ooh, we need Flora and her...


FLATOW: ...her sound effect here. But one of our favorites, I think, came from one of our producers, Christopher Intagliata, who writes this joke and came up with it on the spot: A climate scientist and a climate change denier walk into a bar. The denier says, nice to see you. The climate scientist says, nice to CO2. And, of course, Christopher is not eligible to win anything, but he does accept your appreciation of his humor. So that's - that - you can read all of our stuff on our website, and point to our Facebook page where the jokes are. And if you wanted, you know, to get on with the jokes.

But tell us, Marc, what you've got waiting for us today. You sift through all those great science stories, and you come up with some really interesting findings. Have you got one for us today?

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. I got all sorts of stuff. Well, people are always sending things, and again, I think you know what I do. I collect things that make people laugh and then make them think. These are real things that are surprising. They're surprising in a way that's funny and in a way that might get under your skin and into your mind, and make you start thinking about them.

So, a couple of things that I've ended up getting involved with, also: one is by a team of Italian researches. We gave them an Ig Nobel Prize two years ago. They had - these are physicists, and they came up with a mathematical description, pretty simple, showing that within any organization, things work a lot better if you promote people at random rather than by traditional means.

FLATOW: Wow. Just throw darts at an employee list - you get promotions better.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, not go outside and just get anybody who knows nothing. But, in effect, they started thinking about this because they had run, at random, across a book called "The Peter Principle," which is written in the 1960s by a Canadian guy named Peter, Laurence Peter. And you can boil that down to one sentence, which is that people get promoted one level too far. People always keep getting promoted until they exceed their level of competence. So what these Italian physicists did was say, hey, we can write that in math. We can write a simple math description and then look at how the math tells us it's going to play out. And that's what they did. And what they showed was that you keep introducing so many bad eggs in there, that, you know, it's guaranteed that over time, the organization any (technical difficulty) becomes tough-heavy with people who no longer know what they're doing.


ABRAHAMS: And, in fact, you've taken all of your best people and you've promoted them to do something else. So the whole level of everything sinks and sinks. So it's a beautiful, sweet, little piece of math.

They then extended that, recently. They just published another thing, also in a physics journal, where they looked at democracies and about how politicians are chosen, and they showed that pretty much the same thing applies there. In a democracy, things work better for everybody on a whole, if some of the politicians are chosen at random. Now, this may sound kind of absurd, but they also looked at history, and it turned out that when you go back to ancient Greece, to Athens, which was the celebrated, you know, big birthplace of democracy - that's how politicians were chosen. All the citizens, except the ones who didn't want to be part of it, had their names put into a lottery, and people's names were picked out and they became the legislatures. And for centuries, these guys have documented, that's how legislatures were chosen, at least often, around the world. And it's only relatively recently that we've gotten away from that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Marc Abrahams. Tell us an improbable story, the one about the flatulent fish. Do tell us that one.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. This, again, started, from my point of view, with an Ig Nobel Prize. We gave a prize, about eight or nine years ago, to a couple of teams of scientists. They had discovered the same thing, looking in different parts of the world. What they discovered is that herrings, you know, this little fish – herrings - apparently communicate by farting, and they have recordings and film.


ABRAHAMS: And by farting...

FLATOW: I'm not touching that herring, no, no.

ABRAHAMS: ...they don't mean...

FLATOW: Herring, (unintelligible).

ABRAHAMS: Well, they don't mean exactly what you may think by that. Herrings have a whole separate system connected to the swim bladder where they're pushing air around and sometimes letting it loose. And this is how they rise and fall in the water. And so it's by letting the air loose that they apparently also communicate. And at the Ig Nobel ceremony, one of the teams, who's from the Sweden, told us how they got involved with this, and this turned out to be the best part of the story.

So there's these two Swedish marine biologists, and they study fish, porpoises, whatnot. And about 15 or 20 years ago, the Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, was sort of on the warpath, repeatedly for years, telling the Swedish public that they were being invaded by submarines from their big neighbor, from Russia. And he kept saying this and there wasn't really any proof. There was an incident, years before, that was a sort of an oddball thing, but he kept saying there are submarines, and he kept saying they're even coming into Stockholm harbor, into our capital. He had the navy, the Swedish navy, put microphones in the water in Stockholm harbor. And they came up with a recording with sounds like rapids, metallic tapping, and so they thought and the prime minister thought, OK, we've got proof. Prime minister's planning to get up in public and announce that the Russians are basically attacking us.

And to bless this proof, he got a team of scientists, including these two marine biologists, to look at the stuff and write a report. Well, these two marine biologists listened to the recording and they pretty much said, yeah, that's a very nice recording you've got, but that's not a submarine. That's fish, and give us a little bit of time, and we'll tell you what kind of fish.

FLATOW: All right. Let me just interrupt...

ABRAHAMS: (Unintelligible) exactly did some tests.

FLATOW: Marc, I hate to interrupt...


FLATOW: say this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Marc.


FLATOW: I was interrupting a story, which I hated to do, but I have to do. Go ahead. Go ahead. Please.


ABRAHAMS: OK. Back to the intrigue. So anyway, the Swedish prime minister told the scientists, you're wrong. It's submarines and he's planning to get up in public and start this big international incident. And the scientists said, go ahead. But if you do that, we're going to get up in public and tell people that, no, it's not submarines, it's herrings and it's herrings' farting. And so the prime minister backed down, never made the announcement. But I'm told by reporters in Sweden, that over the years, he's continued to tell people that it really is and was Russian submarines. And he's now the foreign minister of Sweden. So he's still in a position of power. Kind of interesting, huh?

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, I wonder if you can visually document, you know, the gas release of any of that stuff and come back with...

ABRAHAMS: Oh, yeah, yeah. In fact, I've been with them a few times when - they love to do a demonstration, they'll get a freshly cut herring - and a dead one by now - and they'll plunge it into a bucket of water and squeeze it. And you can see the stuff coming out, and you can hear it. You can do this yourself.


FLATOW: This is going to be...

ABRAHAMS: But it's got to be fairly fresh herring, yeah.

FLATOW: You can try this at home, not the pickled kind...


FLATOW: ...that you get in a jar, right?

ABRAHAMS: Probably not...

FLATOW: It's too late by then.

ABRAHAMS: ...but I think nobody has tried it with the pickled kind.


FLATOW: OK. We got a minute left. Tell us about the weekly newspaper column. You talked about a recent one about the laws of stupidity. Quickly, do tell that to us, quickly.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, yeah. Well, this is something done by an Italian economist about 30 or 40 years ago. His name is Cipolla, and he wrote the little piece to be funny, but it's also quite true. He called it "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity," and these laws boiled down to very few things. One is that there are more stupid people around than anybody will ever estimate accurately. And the other is that there's nothing you can do about them, other than become aware of it. They just are a fact and you better deal with the fact that they're not going to go away, and that there is no point to trying to accommodate them. There's no way you're going to prevent them continuing to be stupid.

Well, again, these Italian researchers, the one who did the randomness stuff, looked at this and thought, we can write this up as a simple mathematical description. And they did, and it plays out in a simple way. And that's what led them to their paper in a physics journal that says, we're better off choosing politicians at random, because otherwise, we're all far too prey to this universal plague of stupidness.

FLATOW: That's - what better place to end it, Marc. Thank you very much. Marc Abrahams is editor...


FLATOW: ...and co-founder of the Annals of Improbably Research...

ABRAHAMS: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: ...also founder and master of ceremony of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony and weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper.

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