I made an effort to not write something about distance learning, ‘intelligent’ lockdowns or celebrating Easter at 1.5m distance, which was hard, because that’s the majority of what is going in on most people’s lives at the moment. I think we’ve all read enough about corona and everything around it. Instead, let me tell you about some remarkable and atypical research.
With data, you can try to prove a lot of seemingly unrelated things. For instance did you know that when the United States spends more money on science, space and technology, more people hang/strangle/suffocate themselves? It makes no sense unless the majority of suicidal people are really anti-technology. But it’s still true, there is a 99.79% correlation:
“US spending on science, space and technology correlates with Suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation.”( https://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations) By tylervigen (https://www.tylervigen.com/about) is licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Except what I said, isn’t true. The correlation is there, and indisputably statistically significant, but this is where the basic principle of CORRELATION ≠ CAUSATION used in statistics comes into play. We will probably never know why these two are so heavily correlated. By using just our common sense we can deduce that this is not a causal relationship. Sometimes it is more difficult to make the distinction between correlation and causation.
Take this example in medical research, a meta-analysis of numerous case-control, cross-sectional and prospective studies showed that post-menopausal women undergoing hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) had a relative risk as low as 0.50 for developing coronary heart disease (CHD) (1). Of course the attentive reader will have placed a question mark after these results and you would have been correct. More recent RCT’s have shown that there is actually a hazard ratio of 1.29 (95% CI: 1.02, 1.63) (2). Reanalysis of the initial data showed that women in higher social-economic classes were more likely to undergo HRT. Women with higher social economic status have been shown to have a decreased risk of CHD because of their better diet and exercise regiment (3).
I am no expert on internal medicine, hormone replacement therapy and coronary heart disease so I would have taken the protective effects of HRT for granted. As you can see this distinction is one way harder to make, with significant clinical implications.
But now for research that actually shows improbable things:
I have discussed the 2019 Nobel prize in another article (in Dutch, can be found here: https://www.msvpulse.nl/de-nobelprijs-in-een-notendop/ ). Today I am going to do it again. But today I am talking about the Ig Nobel Prizes or ‘Alternative Nobel Prizes’. Organized by an organization called ‘Improbable Research’, the Ig Nobel Prizes are meant for research that makes people “laugh, then think”.
The first Ig Nobel Prize I’d like to discuss is the 2018 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine and it stands completely separate from correlation and causation discussion. American researchers made an anatomically correct model of a kidney and the urinary tract to research the passing of kidney stones, which they then took to the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida (4). If you ever wondered just how much more exciting the back of the rollercoaster is: let me put it in medical terms for you. The back of the rollercoaster is nearly 4 times as likely to pass a kidney stone of any size when compared to the front of the rollercoaster (63.9% and 16.7% respectively). In the article they go as far as recommending pregnant women with small kidney stones to should “consider riding moderate-intensity roller coasters before starting calcium and vitamin D supplements with prenatal vitamins to reduce the risk of complications from renal calculi in pregnancy.”.
They do concede some limitations to their study however, for instance they state that the experiment should be repeated in multiple roller coasters to closer determine the force needed to dislodge a kidney stone. The authors also state that real-life kidneys and urinary tracts would lead to more accurate data, so ideally a cow’s or pig’s kidney and urinary tract but “Bovine and porcine renal models were deemed impractical as patient surrogates for study, owing to ambient temperature and the inappropriate display of such material in a family-friendly amusement park.”. The hypothetical sight of which has not left my brain since reading about it.
The next one is one especially for the aspiring parents reading this. It’s the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize for Obstetrics, in which Spanish researchers have shown that foetuses respond significantly more to music played to them intravaginally in comparison to emitters placed on the mother’s belly. General foetal activity increased, as well as mouthing movements and sticking out of their tongues. The latter two movements continued to be visible for at least five minutes after the music had been stopped. There also was a clear difference between actual music, and just general vibrations emitted intravaginally (5).
I am not a mom, I will never be a mom, so I do not know what it is like to be able to communicate with your baby in your belly. But apparently, there’s quite some value attached to it, as the researchers behind this study have developed a product based on the principle of intravaginal music described in their study: Babypod. A device to be inserted vaginally that will play music or recordings to the unborn baby. An indescribable feeling, to see your baby react on an ultrasound, as stated by a Babypod user. They were even featured on Ellen (with very little of the actual research behind it, that is). You can check the product on https://babypod.net/en/
Lastly, the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize winner for Psychology: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder’: People who think they are drunk also think they are attractive. This study showed by experiment that people who think they are drunk (even if they are not) think they are more attractive (6). This French team of researchers went out of their way to make placebo alcoholic drinks that the participants were not suspicious of for not actually containing alcohol.
Their first test was held in a bar, where they tested self-perceived attractiveness (amongst other variables) and plotted it against their blood alcohol level. This showed a definite effect, but a major flaw in this set up was that they didn’t actually know if the participants with a higher self-perceived attractiveness weren’t actually more attractive.
So they made a second experimental setup, where an elaborate plan was conceived to make four groups in their participants based on whether they were told they were drinking alcohol, and whether or not they were actually drinking alcohol.
They blinded the participants with the placebo previously mentioned and telling the participants they were a drinks company that was attempting to make an alcoholic drink which didn’t taste like alcohol / a non-alcoholic drink that tasted like alcohol. They then self-evaluated on attractiveness. They were later judged by a sober independent group of judges to see if they were actually more attractive.
If your ever in need of a little liquid courage but can’t be bothered to deal with the hangover, keep this in mind, you just have to convince yourself there is also Bacardi in your coke.
You can see these Ig Nobel Prizes and all others on the Improbable Research website: https://www.improbable.com/
1. Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Estrogen replacement therapy and coronary heart disease: a quantitative assessment of the epidemiologic evidence. Prev Med. 1991;20(1):47-63.
2. Investigators WGftWsHI. Risks and Benefits of Estrogen Plus Progestin in Healthy Postmenopausal WomenPrincipal Results From the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2002;288(3):321-33.
3. Lawlor DA, Davey Smith G, Ebrahim S. Commentary: The hormone replacement–coronary heart disease conundrum: is this the death of observational epidemiology? International Journal of Epidemiology. 2004;33(3):464-7.
4. Mitchell MA, Wartinger DD. Validation of a Functional Pyelocalyceal Renal Model for the Evaluation of Renal Calculi Passage While Riding a Roller Coaster. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2016;116(10):647-52.
5. Lopez-Teijon M, Garcia-Faura A, Prats-Galino A. Fetal facial expression in response to intravaginal music emission. Ultrasound. 2015;23(4):216-23.
6. Bègue L, Bushman B, Zerhouni O, Subra B, Ourabah M. ‘Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder’: People Who Think They are Drunk also Think They are Attractive”. British Journal of Psychology. 2013;104:225-34.