How China's Belt and Road Initiative could benefit from Ig Nobel Prize-winning research

gathered, Boris Johnson, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, this year’s prizes, analysis, discovered, offenders, testing, studying, the other, why men wear beards, found, face-recognition technology

As world leaders gathered this week at the UN General Assembly in New York, I wonder how many recall that nine of them were winners last year of the Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education “for using the Covid-19 pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists or doctors”?

They included British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former US president Donald Trump. Unfortunately, they were not Ig Nobel winners again this year, for having a medium- to long-term effect on life and death.

Perhaps that is because the Ig Nobel Prizes, published annually in the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research, are intended “first to make you laugh, and then to make you think”. There is little in their Covid-19 legacy that we can laugh about.

Nevertheless, this year’s prizes were full of hilarity, and reminders that the route to knowledge is often a circuitous and serendipitous one.

Among them was a biology prize for cat-human communication, and a chemistry prize for analysis of the air inside cinemas to see how the odours produced reflect the levels of violence, sex and bad language in the film being screened.

The medicine prize went to a team that discovered that sex acts as a powerful nasal decongestant for at least an hour after orgasm, though I should issue a prize of my own for anyone who can tell me why this knowledge might be useful.

The ecology prize went to analysis by a team from the University of Valencia of the microbiome of chewing gum scraped from the underside of chairs and tables. Believe it or not, the gum retained the DNA of the chewer for quite a long time, perhaps suggesting that we might one day be able to use the information to track down and punish the offenders.

The transportation prize went to a team in Namibia testing whether it was better to transport anaesthetised rhinos by hanging them upside down by their ankles, or laying them on their sides. It seems it is better to hang them by their ankles. Similar experiments are now planned on hippos, giraffes and buffalo.

Prizes for physics and kinetics were awarded to two separate teams – one studying how people absorbed in their smartphones manage to avoid collisions while walking, and the other on why pedestrians sometimes do indeed crash into each other.

gathered, Boris Johnson, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, this year’s prizes, analysis, discovered, offenders, testing, studying, the other, why men wear beards, found, face-recognition technology

Pedestrians check their smartphones while walking in March 2020. One of the research teams awarded an Ig Nobel Prize developed a collision-avoidance model based on analysis of how pedestrians manage to avoid crashing into each other. Photo: James Wendlinger

The prize for peace was awarded to a team examining why men wear beards. While Charles Darwin’s view in The Descent of Man was that beards were “an ornament to attract females”, the team concluded that they helped to protect us in fights.

Noting that beards only grow on men, they suggested that the beards grew to soften the blows during the inevitable testosterone-driven competition for mates.

To test the idea, and because of ethical problems with using bearded humans, the team stuck sheep fleeces onto epoxy “bone”, and then whacked them repeatedly with a 4.7kg weight. The conclusion? Beards protect vulnerable bones in the face from forceful strikes.

Personally, I am not convinced. If beards were so essential to self-defence, why do so few boxers – or bouncers – sport beards? And if Muslim men and Sephardic Jews tend to grow beards, does this suggest they are more pugilistic than comparatively beardless Asian men?

gathered, Boris Johnson, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, this year’s prizes, analysis, discovered, offenders, testing, studying, the other, why men wear beards, found, face-recognition technology

The Ig Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to researchers who found that “human beards protect vulnerable regions of the facial skeleton from damaging strikes”. Photo: Shutterstock

The economics prize probably has the most profound practical value. Pavlo Blavatskyy at the Montpellier Business School found that the obesity of a country’s politicians is a good indicator of corruption in that country.

Chinese researchers had measured political corruption in their country by counting the import value of luxury Swiss wristwatches between 1993-2013, but found that the rise of social media had undermined the effectiveness of this measure. Blavatskyy opted to measure how fat leaders were.

He gathered photos of 299 cabinet ministers from 15 post-Soviet economies and then used an algorithm to measure each politician’s body mass index. The study found that 96 of the 299 top officials were “severely obese”. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan fared the worst. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index placed these among the world’s most corrupt economies.

The three economies with the lowest median body mass index – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – were also recognised by other corruption indices as less corrupt. The study concluded: “Our median estimated ministers’ body mass index is highly correlated with all five conventional measures of perceived corruption” and “political corruption is literally visible from the photographs of top public officials”.

It mischievously occurred to me that Blavatskyy’s research – perhaps combined with China’s controversial face-recognition technology – would be handy for Chinese investors along the Belt and Road economies across Central Asia, who would just need to update the average body mass of government officials to gauge whether corruption is getting worse, or on the mend.

Sadly for this year’s Ig Nobel Prize winners, pandemic travel restrictions meant that the award ceremony had to be virtual for the second consecutive year. Trophies had to be self-assembled from a PDF printout.

As usual, the cash prize was a counterfeit Zimbabwean 10 trillion dollar note – an iconic measure of how catastrophic the consequence of corruption and economic mismanagement can be, which should provide another sobering warning to world leaders gathered for the UN General Assembly. It is not just with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists or doctors, and we now have the “Blavatskyy model” to measure it.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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