Ig Nobel awards make sly commentary on oil spill, economic collapse

BP, AIG et al "win" Ig Nobel prizes for chemistry and economics

As silly as the Ig Nobel Prizes are, honoring researchers who study the sexual practices of fruit bats, and the habit microbes have of clinging to bearded scientists, as they did this year, you can usually count on the awards to provide some sly political commentary.

In its first go-round two decades ago, the Ig Nobels honored Dan Quayle for demonstrating the nation's desperate need for education in science. A few years later, Big Tobacco executives won a prize for "discovering" the surprising fact that nicotine is not addictive. In 2002, the likes of Enron and WorldCom were given the economics prize for "adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world."

Nobel vs. Ig Nobel

This year's awards will no doubt gain attention for the silliness of the anti-Nobel ceremony, which involves real Nobel laureates handing out prizes for accomplishments that are typically more humorous than useful. But, after scanning this year's list of winners, I think the Ig Nobel organizers outdid themselves when it comes to ironic political commentary.

The "chemistry" prize went to BP "for disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix." The "economics" prize went to the leaders of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns for, well, destroying the world's economy with some creative investment strategies.

The one that really made me laugh, however, was the awarding of the management prize to researchers who created a computer model that determined corporations would be better off promoting people at random rather than doing so based on merit, or whatever techniques companies use in the real world to decide who gets raises and title changes.

Blaming the BP oil spill and the collapse of the world economy solely on the CEOs of the companies involved may be over-simplistic, but the management of these corporations was so ineffective that it makes you wonder whether anyone on the planet could have done worse.

I won't put words in the mouths of the brilliantly satiric Ig Nobel Prize organizers, but if these three awards are their way of saying that literally anyone could have performed more effectively at the helm of BP and AIG than the people who actually ran the companies, then I have to say "heckuva job."

The Ig Nobels, awarded at Harvard University by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, handed out ten prizes as usual. Other "winners" included researchers who discovered that roller-coaster rides can have healing effects for asthma sufferers; who created remote-controlled helicopters that collect snot samples from the blowholes of whales; who used slime mold to design more efficient road systems; who studied the effects of wearing socks on the outside of shoes while walking on ice; who studied the effect of cursing on pain relief; who determined that microbes cling to bearded scientists; and for documenting the practice of fellatio among fruit bats.

When it comes to scientific awards, they don't get any weirder than the Ig Nobels.

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