“The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover becomes an economist”*…
Congratulations are in order to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, winners on 10 October of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Even though economics is not a full-fledged Nobel Prize, it has been earned by some splendid social scientists over the years — including a number of people who are not economists at all, from Herbert Simon and John Nash to Daniel Kahneman and Elinor Ostrom.Yet this week I would rather discuss a different prize: the Ig Nobel prize for economics. The Ig Nobels are an enormously silly affair: they have been awarded for a study of dinosaur gaits that involved attaching weighted sticks to chickens (the biology prize), for studying stinky feet (medicine) and for figuring out why shower curtains tend to billow inwards when you’re taking a shower (physics).
But one of the Ig Nobel’s charms is that this ridiculous research might actually tell us something about the world. David Dunning and Justin Kruger received an Ig Nobel prize in psychology for their discovery that incompetent people rarely realise they are incompetent; the Dunning-Kruger effect is now widely cited. Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith won an Ig Nobel in physics for their discovery that hair and string have a tendency to become tangled — potentially an important line of research in understanding the structure of DNA. Most famously, Andre Geim’s Ig Nobel in physics for levitating a live frog was promptly followed by a proper Nobel Prize in the same subject for the discovery of graphene.
A whimsical curiosity about the world is something to be encouraged. No wonder that the credo of the Ig Nobel prizes is that they should make you laugh, then make you think…
The Undercover Economist (Tim Harford) on “The Ig Nobel prizes in Economics – in praise of ridiculous research.”
* Nassim Nicholas Taleb,
As we prepare our entries for the Golden Fleece Award, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that residents of Donora, PA went to bed as usual, not knowing that a suffocating cloud of industrial gases would descend upon them during the night. The cloud, a poisonous mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust, came from the smokestacks of the local zinc smelter where most of the town worked. Over the next five days, twenty residents died and half the town’s population – 7000 people – needed medical attention for their difficulty breathing. The Donora tragedy shocked the nation and marked a turning point in the national dialogue about industrial pollution and its effect on health.