Peer review: This is Improbable by Marc Abrahams

The bizarre stuff that has been researched is staggering. Judy Keys

You will have heard of the Ig Nobel prizes. These have been given out at Harvard University by real Nobel laureates since 1991, at a ceremony in which participants dress up in weird and wonderful garb and hand out awards for the loopiest published research.

Over time the emphasis on jeering at the naked research emperor has changed to something more cosy. The recipients grinning at their Ig Nobel prize no longer appear humbled, but more enjoying the whole thing. Jolly good show.

Well, this is the book. Marc Abrahams is the editor of Annals of Improbable Research, runs the show, and now has assembled a vast collection of specimens for our enjoyment. “After reading this book, you’ll never look at scientists in the same way again” screams a line on the back cover.

The emphasis is fair and square on taunting fun. The bizarre stuff that has been researched is staggering. This book catalogues a sample of it – attempting to classify what is by its essence a polyglot of oddities that share only being outrageously off-centre in common. So this isn’t a book to sit down and read cover to cover. Rather it is something to dip into, read a couple of examples and call out, “Hey, can you believe the banality of this one!” when something particularly silly strikes you.

But this is as far as it gets.

So much research is not funny, but is just as much a waste of resources. Malcolm/Flickr

First, there is no right of reply. The descriptions of the research projects are sketchy at best, and sometimes simply a one-liner. So we don’t have the context or rationale behind the choices – however apparently insane. Sometimes I thought I could see some logic, but the wherewithal wasn’t there to help. Perhaps this is just the researcher in me, and so I might be accused of scratching around for an apologia.

But no, actually, I think the problem is not dealt with seriously enough. There is actually a more fundamental problem than just an opportunity to mock silly research.

So much research is not funny, but is just as much a waste of research-time, -effort and –money, and reader-time and society. The wrong questions being asked, the wrong methods have been used to ask them, the wrong conduct of the research methods, the wrong analyses of the results, and the wrong interpretation of these.

And don’t get me started on research that isn’t published that ought to be (even though I am also guilty as charged). If we’re not careful, Ig Nobel and this book might become the tick in the box to lull us into thinking we have dealt with bad research. We haven’t.

This is improbable. Cheese string theory, magnetic chickens, and other WTF research by Marc Abrahams is published by OneWorld Publications