SUNDAY TIMES - Ig Nobel shows why silly research matters
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Sunday Times Business By TIM HARFORD, 2016-10-16 00:00:00.0

Ig Nobel shows why silly research matters

British-born economics professor Oliver Hart, a professor at Harvard University, and winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Economics, waits in the stairway for his family after speaking to the media in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., October 10, 2016.
Image: MARY SCHWALM REUTERS

Congratulations are in order to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, winners on Monday of the Nobel memorial prize in economics.

Even though economics is not a full-fledged Nobel prize, it has been earned by some splendid social scientists over the years - including a number of people who are not economists at all.

Yet I would rather discuss a different prize: the Ig Nobel prize for economics.

The Ig Nobels are an enormously silly affair: they have been awarded for a study of dinosaur gaits that involved attaching weighted sticks to chickens (the biology prize), for studying stinky feet (medicine) and for figuring out why shower curtains tend to billow inwards when you're taking a shower (physics).

But one of the Ig Nobel's charms is that this ridiculous research might actually tell us something about the world.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger received an Ig Nobel prize in psychology for their discovery that incompetent people rarely realise they are incompetent; the Dunning-Kruger effect is now widely cited.

Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith won in physics for their discovery that hair and string have a tendency to become tangled - potentially an important line of research in understanding the structure of DNA.

Most famously, André Geim's Ig Nobel in physics for levitating a live frog was promptly followed by a proper Nobel prize in the same subject for the discovery of graphene.

A whimsical curiosity about the world is something to be encouraged. No wonder that the credo of the Ig Nobel prizes is that they should make you laugh, then make you think.

In 2001, the Ig Nobel committee did just that, awarding the economics prize to Joel Slemrod and Wojciech Kopczuk, who demonstrated that people will try to postpone their own deaths to avoid inheritance tax. This highlights an important point about the power of incentives - the pattern has since been discovered elsewhere.

Alas, most economics Ig Nobel prizes provoke little more than harsh laughter. Still, surely there is something in economics that is ludicrous on the surface yet thought-provoking underneath?

Where is the award for Dean Karlan and Chris Udry? The bold Yale professors wanted to figure out whether lack of access to crop insurance was damaging Ghana's agricultural productivity, so they set up an insurance company, sold insurance to Ghanaian farmers and accidentally got themselves on the hook for half-a-million dollars if it didn't rain in Ghana. (Happy ending: it rained.)

Psychologist Dan Ariely already shared an Ig Nobel prize for medicine in 2008 for demonstrating that expensive placebos work better than cheap placebos. But recent research with Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec Ariely paid people to build robots out of Lego.

The researchers' aim: to examine the nature of the modern workplace by dismantling the Lego in front of their subjects' eyes, to see if they could dishearten them. An Ig Nobel in management beckons.

But my preferred candidate for an Ig Nobel prize in economics is Thomas Thwaites. A few years ago, he set himself the simple-seeming task of replicating from scratch an Argos toaster. Retail price: £3.99.

He smelted iron in a microwave, tried to produce plastic from potato starch and generally made a colossal mess. His toaster cost £1,187.54, resembled a disastrously iced birthday cake and melted when plugged in.

Thwaites's toaster project tells us more about the brilliance and dizzying complexity of the interconnected global economy than any textbook could. He is a shoo-in for the economics Ig Nobel.

Perplexingly, however, the committee awarded him this year's prize for biology instead after he attempted to live life dressed as a goat. How silly.

- ©The Financial Times