Joshing, spoofing and damage

Doing my daily blog scan, I ran into a fairly odd post at a consistently odd site, but in this case the oddity was compounded.

This post at Improbable Research (blog of the Annals of Improbable Research, the folks who bring you the recently-awarded Ig Nobel prizes for “research that makes you laugh…then think”) includes the text of a letter to The Guardian.

Here’s a bit of the letter, but you need to click the link above for the full outraged flavor (or flavour, in this case):

I’m thinking that to make fun of these efforts is to belittle them unfairly. This is hurtful and insulting to the researchers; and might possibly do actual harm by inhibiting future grants. Not funny. Not funny at all. The IG really seems to stand for the IG Norant morons who are “awarding’ these prizes without thinking their consequences through.

The writer–Mark State–says the Ig Nobel awards “spoof” research and that the group hides the “actual information” about the research papers (and researchers) it honors. Given that the awards PR accurately states the nature of each paper or research effort and provides bibliographic information and links when available, that’s pushing the truth.

The reality is a little different than this outraged letter suggests. Most Ig Nobel award winners attend the ceremony. That would suggest to most reasonable people (I believe) that they understand that the Ig Nobels are joshing, not attacks–and that, in fact, Ig Nobels help to humanize what can be pretty arcane fields by making a little friendly fun. I’d be astonished to hear of a case where a researcher couldn’t get a grant because and earlier paper had won an Ig Nobel; I would not be surprised at all to see Ig Nobel recipients include the honor in their vitas. (I’d be surprised if they didn’t!)

I mean, would you go to an awards ceremony if you felt the award was actually an attack that could do you harm?

I was going to point back to a post I’d written about an Ig Nobel-award winning paper by a librarian–and then realized that it wasn’t a post; it’s a brief section of Trends & Quick Takes in the next issue of Cites & Insights (not out yet, and the essays aren’t edited; some time in the next two weeks, for sure).

Here’s what I wrote:


The Trouble with The

Once in a while, something jumps the queue—such as a librarian winning the Ig Nobel prize for Literature. That happened this year, and Glenda Browne (of Blaxland, Blue Mountains, Australia) managed to attend the ceremonies. The award was for “The definite article: acknowledging ‘The’ in index entries,” which appeared in The Indexer 22:3 (April 2001—the Ig Nobel people need time to recognize worth).

It’s a four-page article—well, actually just over three, plus references. It’s also a legitimate article—Browne explicates some of the bedevilment caused by The as an initial word. In “indexing” Cites & Insights, I drop “The” in every case—and that sometimes yields slightly odd results. (I used to invert them, but that’s even stranger.) But…

Where does The Hague belong? (One answer: Use the proper name of the city, Den Haag—but I jest, of course.) It belongs in the T’s. And if you’re indexing first lines of poems, all those lines starting with “The” also go in the Ts—but not corporate names. Or do they? The Los Angeles Symphony goes in the Ls, not the As…see The Hague. Isn’t this fun?

Browne’s discussion of “The nature of ‘The’” is excellent and might itself justify the Ig Nobel—you might laugh, but you’ll also think. Browne suggests double-indexing as a solution and offers reasons for doing so—and also reasons for ignoring the The.

Of course, if you use most any PC-based system that sorts (for example, music organizers), there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find The Beatles and all those other groups down in the T’s—but some systems are clever. Sometimes.

I love the last sentence: “Similar arguments apply to ‘A’ and ‘An’ but these are beyond the scope of this article.” Indeed.


Of course it’s a serious paper, albeit done with some recognition that it’s a tough topic to keep an entirely straight face about.Had it not been for the Ig Nobel awards, I wouldn’t have heard about the paper. Oh, and by the way, Glenda Browne attended the awards. Somehow, I don’t believe she feels she’s been damaged or belittled.

Sidebar: The IR post can’t be sure which Mark State wrote this letter, but suggests the possibility that he’s a 2006 candidate for the Toronto Mayoralty–State signs himself as a Toronto resident. State must have run an interesting race: He seems to have come in last in a field of 30+ candidates, with 194 votes out of 584,484 cast. I guess that would leave me feeling a little peevish too…

7 Responses to “Joshing, spoofing and damage”

  1. Jerry Stephens Says:

    I think your assessment of the Ig Nobel awards is correct. Most nominees and recipients of the awards seem to understand their tongue-in-cheek nature. One nomination a couple of years ago was for geographical research that proved that Kansas is, indeed, flatter than a pancake. The research was done in an apparently reasonable and justifiable fashion. And really prove that Kansas is flatter than a pancake. I was amused, as a native Kansan, to have proven scientifically just what we always understood: Kansas is flat.

  2. walt Says:

    I remember the Kansas article, which also revealed quite a bit about how un-flat a pancake actually is. And it sure does seem to me that most Ig Nobel recipients understand and appreciate the nature of the awards.

    But people’s ability to misinterpret continues strong, and probably always will. That happens in liblogs too, of course: I’ve had it happen to me, and have been guilty of it as well. And I’m sure there are researchers who are so deadly serious about everything they do that they’d be shocked and appalled to be nominated for an Ig Nobel. I’d bet that Glenda Browne is not one of them!

  3. T Scott Says:

    I’ve been a fan of the Ig Nobels for many years and always look forward eagerly to the new awards. They bring a wonderful leaven of humor to what is, of course, the very serious business of science and knowledge discovery. I’ve had the privilege of working among some very brilliant scientists over the course of my career and I have noted that the most tight-assed, humorless, (and most likely to berate circulation staff at the slightest inconvenience) are the prima donnas who know, deep down, that they’re never going to truly attain the first rank. The really brilliant men and women of science? To a person, I’ve found them to be kind, never losing their childlike sense of wonder at the universe, and having a fantastic sense of humor. Are they also demanding, driven, eccentric, wacko? Of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  4. walt Says:

    T. Scott: It makes excellent sense that the prima donnas would be those who knew they were second-raters. Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I had one survey course at UC Berkeley brilliantly taught by a Nobel laureate (as have tens of thousands of Berkeley students, by quite a few laureates). That professor did not seem to think he was above humor or better than the rest of us.

  5. G. Williams Says:

    I haven’t read Browne’s paper yet, but I immediately thought of a most bedeviling example: the band The The, which caused a great deal of consternation when I was working at Amazon.com preparing to launch the music retail site, back in 1998.

    I think we eventually dealt with it by treating the entire string–both words and the space between them–as a single unit, but I don’t quite recall because it’s been almost 10 years.

  6. Glenda Browne Says:

    Hello Walt, and thank you for your post. You are absolutely correct that most of the Ig Nobel winners think that winning an Ig Nobel is just about the best thing that could happen to them. The Ig Nobel committee also thinks the same, although they do let you know privately in case you wish to refuse. Just in case other people take it less positively, I have been considering whispering the Ig and emphasising the ‘Nobel Prize’ bit, but I doubt I’d get away with it.

    Hello G. Williams. I think The The is a great example, and it is in my 2001 paper, and was one of the questions asked by the audience at the MIT speeches.

    Glenda Browne, 2007 Ig Nobel Literature Laureate.

  7. walt Says:

    Wow, Glenda: I’m honored.

    And, you know, I would never have known about your paper otherwise.

    At one point, my coauthor and I considered “And Not Or” as the title for the book “Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality.” Saner heads prevailed–no problem with initial articles, but online catalogs would have had, um, difficulties with that title.


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