A little titter among the test tubes 1

March 7, 2003

As the Ig Nobel tour hits the UK, Laurie Taylor recalls his own flirtation with eccentric science

I have a personal reason for liking the idea of the Ig Nobel prizes. In the 1970s, I rather fancied myself as an experimental social psychologist. Together with a colleague at York University, who went on to become a highly respected academic, I succeeded in persuading the university to set up a laboratory complete with one-way mirror and sophisticated audio and video recording devices. For a couple of years, we used this with relative success for teaching. But eventually we decided that the time had come to conduct some original research. We cast around for ideas and came up with a variant on the famous experiments carried out by the US social psychologist Solomon Asch on the "conformity effect".

In the standard Asch experiment, five students were seated on a panel and asked in turn to call out the answers to a series of perceptual tests (such as choosing the longest from a set of three lines). Four of these students had been programmed to call out the wrong answer on a number of trials. How would the innocent student (the stooge) respond when he heard the evidence of his own eyes being contradicted by his fellow panel members? Asch found that many of the stooges chose to go along with the group.

We wondered if eye contact might play some part in this conformity effect. Would there be as much acquiescence by the stooges if they were not under the critical gaze of their fellow panellists when they made their choices on the critical trials? But how could we obliterate that variable? We pondered the question for weeks. Then, Eureka! How about fitting the panellists with a pair of sunglasses. We duly carried out the trials using one group decked out in sunglasses and, of course, a control group with unobstructed vision. No effects whatsoever were observed, but we at least had the satisfaction of seeing our research published in a respected journal.

I remember having some slight doubts at the time about the "scientific" nature of our experiment as well as the mild feeling that there was something slightly eccentric about forcing students to sit around for days on end doing nothing much more than staring at each other through sunglasses and trying to guess the length of lines. It was at that time that I read the following article in The Times by Bernard Levin.

It was (and still is) a wonderful satirical portrait of the absurdities that can be engendered by a blind infatuation with experimentation. I constantly carried the piece around with me and took to reading it aloud in first-year lectures as a cautionary tale.

I never conducted another social psychology experiment. Levin was not entirely responsible for this decision. By the early 1980s, several respected social psychologists were hard at work pointing out that people in laboratories behaved in ways that had little connection with how they would conduct themselves in other contexts. But I suspect that at the back of my mind was the very real fear that I might be next in line for the wickedly hilarious treatment meted out by Levin to the man from Aberdeen.

I have, of course, always been slightly aware that Levin's attack was fuelled by a patrician distrust of anything that mere scientists might have to say about human behaviour. It is certainly rather a malevolent exercise when set alongside the Ig Nobel awards, where scientists happily and confidently choose to laugh generously at their own kind as part of an attempt to make science more accessible to others.

But as you may have noticed, I have not provided the precise academic reference to my article on sunglasses and conformity. The Ig Nobel judges already have plenty of suitable material. They hardly need to be spoon-fed by me.

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