04/01/2016

Spot the Spoof Science Study

07:54 minutes

This day each year, you’re bound to come across a fraudulent news story—your favorite media site’s effort to pull an April Fools’ chuckle. How good are you at spotting an authentic research study from a spoof? Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and the master of ceremonies of the Ig Nobel Awards Ceremony, tests Ira’s skills at detecting spoof science.

The three stories are below.

1. Whale Tale
Theories for a sea serpent sighting was likely to have been whales “either without flukes, or possibly, a male in a state of arousal.”
Relevant paper

2. Cat Landings
Does a cat land on its feet when dropped from a height of less than one foot?
Relevant paper

3. Gender Pickups
Researchers see whether women and men respond the same way if a stranger walks up and asks them to have sex.
Relevant papers (here and here)

Segment Guests

Marc Abrahams

Marc Abrahams is the editor and co-founder of Annals of Improbable Research and the founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Awards Ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Each week, in our editorial meeting, we sort out dozens of journal titles. And, after reading some of the headlines and abstracts, it’s hard to tell sometimes if the researchers are pulling our leg. Did you hear the news that if you carry a shopping list, you’re less likely to forget the items? Really?

That’s a study out this week in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and to celebrate April Fools Day today, Mark Abrahams is here to play a game of spot the spoof science story, a science edition of two truths and a lie. Mark is the editor of the Annals of Improbable Science, an MC of the Ig Nobel awards, of course. Welcome back, Mark.

MARK ABRAHAMS: Hi Ira. Happy 1st of April.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. You too. You have pulled together two studies that are outlandish, but true, and one false study completely made up. Are you ready to see–

MARK ABRAHAMS: Or the other way around. I’m not telling you how many of these are real and how many concocted. OK?

IRA FLATOW: Even better. Our audience can play this game. Anybody can play along. They can tweet us @SciFri and tell us which one they think is the fake study. So, Mark?

MARK ABRAHAMS: Or which two?

IRA FLATOW: Which two are the fake studies? OK. Go ahead. OK. Hit me.

MARK ABRAHAMS: First one is what we might call a scientific evaluation of a historic sea monster sighting. It’s some scientists looking at something from long ago. It’s a study called Cetaceans, Sex and Sea Serpents, an Analysis of the Egede Accounts of a– quote– Most Dreadful Monster– that’s the end of the quote, seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734.

The scientists who wrote this are at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland and one of them is in Norway. Published in something called the Archives of Natural History. I’ll read you a little piece of the paper’s abstract.

It says, “A reevaluation of the most dreadful monster originally described by the apostle of Greenland, Hans Egede, in 1741, suggests that the missionary’s son, Poul, probably saw an unfamiliar cetacean.” OK. We know we’re dealing here with whales and the like.

“The species seen was likely to have been a humpback whale or a North Atlantic right whale, or one of the last remaining Atlantic gray whales, either without flukes or possibly a male in a state of arousal.” That’s the first one.

IRA FLATOW: OK. I’m getting the picture on that.

MARK ABRAHAMS: What they’re saying is that it was, according to this, one of the best known and most widely analyzed historic reports of a sea monster sighting that, apparently, in the light of modern science, it was simply a whale with an erection.

IRA FLATOW: OK. That’s the first one.

MARK ABRAHAMS: Ready for the next one?

IRA FLATOW: Yes.

MARK ABRAHAMS: OK. The next one is an experiment on something that most people are familiar with, that it’s well known that with most cats, if you were to turn the cat upside down and drop it, the cat is able to turn itself around and land on its feet.

There was a paper in 1998 describing a series of experiments to determine the limits of a cat’s ability to right itself when you turn it upside down and drop it. The scientist, it was at the Institute of Biophysical Research in Milan, Italy. This was published in the journal Biophysical Naturale, again in 1998.

I’ll read you a little piece from the paper. “In this study, I dropped a cat upside down from various heights and observed whether the cat landed on its feet.” The next section says, “Dropping a Cat Upside Down From a Height of Six Feet. I dropped the cat from a height of six feet. I did this 100 times. The cat always landed it on its feet.”

Next section is headlined, “Dropping a Cat Upside Down From a Height of Five Feet. It says, I dropped the cat from a height of five feet. I did this 100 times. The cat always landed on its feet.”

Next section is headlined, “Dropping a Cat Upside Down From a Height of Four Feet. I dropped the cat from a height of four feet. I did this 100 times. The cat always landed on its feet.” OK. It goes on like that for a while.

I’ll read you the last couple. “Dropping a Cat Upside Down From a Height of Two Feet. I dropped the cat from a height of two feet. I did this 100 times. The cat always landed on its feet.” And the final entry is, “Dropping a Cat Upside Down From a Height of One Foot. I dropped the cat from a height of one foot. I did this 100 times. The cat never landed on its feet.” OK. That’s the second–

IRA FLATOW: From one foot? It never landed on its feet?

MARK ABRAHAMS: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let me remind everybody that we’re playing a little game with Mark Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Science. We’re talking about which one of these stories, one or two of them are true or false, on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

MARK ABRAHAMS: OK. I was reading to you from the paper. That’s what the paper says. The third one is what the scientists describe as an experiment in gender differences in psychology. This happened in 2003.

There are two psychologists who wrote a study called “Love in the Afternoon.” In this study, they explained that their colleagues had failed to appreciate the importance of an earlier study they’d done, a study 14 years earlier that described an experiment. The experiment they did in the earlier study was to see whether women and men respond the same way if a stranger walks up and asks them to have sex.

Here are the two studies. The later one was called “Love in the Afternoon.” Russell D. Clark III and Elaine Hatfield wrote it. Published in a journal called Psychological Inquiry, 2003.

The earlier one is called “Gender Differences in Receptivity to Sexual Offers,” published in 1989. And I’ll read you a little chunk of it. It says, “In these experiments, conducted in 1978 and 1982, male and female confederates of average attractiveness approach potential partners with one of three requests. Would you go out tonight? Or, will you come over to my apartment? Or, would you go to bed with me?

The great majority of men were willing to have a sexual liaison with the women who approached them. Women were not. Not one woman agreed to a sexual liaison. Many possible reasons for this marked gender difference were discussed.” OK. That’s the third one.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow.

MARK ABRAHAMS: Now you’ve got three. So Ira, which of those are genuine and which did I concoct?

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’ve seen old movies of cats being dropped, that experiment done. And there are films of a cat and they’d have a little background there so you could measure how far, not from six feet, though. I’m going to say then that that’s a real one.

MARK ABRAHAMS: OK. You’re wrong. I made that up. We published that in the Annals of Improbable Research quite a while ago. OK.

IRA FLATOW: Zero. I get three strikes, right? I’m going to say that the whale with the erection is true also.

MARK ABRAHAMS: That’s correct.

IRA FLATOW: That’s the right one. And I’m going–

MARK ABRAHAMS: And, also, the lead author on that won an Ig Nobel Prize, but for something else. Charles Paxton was the co-author of an earlier study called “Courtship Behavior of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain.”

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And I’m going to say that the “Love in the Afternoon” is not a real paper because you said not one woman. There’s got to be one woman who would have said yes, I would have thought.

MARK ABRAHAMS: Ira, you’re wrong.

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry.

MARK ABRAHAMS: It’s genuine. It’s genuine.

IRA FLATOW: OK. So I got one right. I give myself the booby prize. Thank you Mark.

MARK ABRAHAMS: Hey, one is better than zero.

IRA FLATOW: Exactly. It’s the loneliest number. Thank you Mark.

MARK ABRAHAMS: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Have a great day of April Fools’ Day. Mark Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and MC of the Ig Nobel awards.

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