Occam’s quiz: can you spot the bullshit amidst the comedy?

At the first Symposium of Occam’s Beard, seven magnificently ridiculous theories were presented. But to show that reality can sometimes be better than comedy, we ended the symposium with a quiz featuring real science publications — as well as some made up nonsense — and asked the audience whether they thought the paper was a real publication, or the product of our overactive imagination.

These are the papers we showed (click on the title to see the answer):

Synthesis of anthropomorphic molecules: the NanoPutians
Chanteau S.H. and Tour J.M.
Journal of Organic Chemistry (2003)

In this paper, the authors show a new family of molecules: the nanoputians, tiny human-shaped molecules that come in many varieties, such as the NanoKid, the NanoGreenBeret and the NanoScholar.


Auto-fluorescence increases in bacteria isolated from bovine excrement during full moon
Cremer V., Vaarzen L.A., and Torres A.I.
Journal of Bacteriology (2001)

Over a period of six months, piles of feces from large ruminants were collected and its bacteria were isolated and examined. The researchers noticed that the autofluorescence of the bacteria increased significantly in days when the moon was full.


The Power of Kawaii: viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus
Nittono H., Fukushima M., Yano A., and Moriya H.
PLoS one (2012)

After looking at images of cute animals, participants in this study performed significantly better at a motor dexterity task and visual search task. The control group, shown images of pleasant-looking food, showed no improvement.

Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children
Watanabe S.
Animal Cognition (2010)

This research showed “good” and “bad” paintings — made by kids — to pigeons, and demonstrated that the birds can learn to distinguish random colouring from the playground Picassos. By the end of this study, the pigeons were veritable art critics.

Premenstrual enhancement of snake detection in visual search in healthy women
Masataka N. and Shibasaki M.
Scientific Reports (2012)

This paper showed how pre-menstrual women in particular were exceptionally quick in detecting snakes in pictures; much faster than finding a flower in the control images.

How many did you spot? Tell us in the comments!

Image: cow dung, by kradeki (creative commons).

Bullshit Bingo

By popular request: here is the pdf for our Bullshit Bingo cards! Use it in seminars, in journal clubs, in conferences, while reading the science digest of your favourite blog or paper, or while checking your own work.


Thanks to everyone who joined us at the Champalimaud Centre yesterday, or who watched the livestream! It was a great success!

How bald are you?

Occam’s participant Mário Silva needs your help! For the continuation of his research project on the adaptive value of male baldness he is looking for data. Go here to fill out the form (takes less than a minute) and help Mário determine how fast hair is lost in our modern day male population.

Infant distress vocalizations, or “crying”

In the final week before the symposium of Occam’s Beard, the video of the winning BAHfest presentation was released. This one explains the ratio of colicky infants in our population, the extremely aggravating sounds they emit, and Babybjörns — applying tribal warfare and an elegant computational model. Add to that the stage presence of Tomer Ullman, clearly pained by his own experience with procreation, and it is clear why he won.

… and the Q&A:

Our own event is around the corner! If you haven’t reserved your seat yet, you can do so at our eventbrite page. See you there!

Rise and fall of the Superhumans

Did you ever wonder how our species managed to adapt so amazingly well to such a wide variety of terrestrial habitats? Jordan Smith did. At BAHfest he presented a theory to explain this fantastic ability of our forefathers. After our departure from Africa, Jordan explains, “Within 150,000 years, we were everywhere. We had dominated every corner of the globe, and every climate imaginable.” To get to America, for example, “Humans would have had to cross the Sahara and the Arabian Desert, scale the Himalayas, cross the Bering strait… and then survive Canada.”

How did they do this? Simple: our forefathers had a double dose of mitochondria, and thus were energetic superhumans. Of course!

Not convinced? Watch Jordan explain his theory at BAHfest…

… and defend it at the Q & A that followed:


Left, right, or counterclockwise: how do you take your coffee?

In the run-up to Occam’s Beard, important questions are being asked. Questions you may ask yourself every day, even without realizing it. But science is here to help, and to get to the bottom of your thoughts — or, in this case, your coffee.

One team presenting at Occam’s Beard has exactly this lofty goal. If you have a minute, why not help them out, and fill out this survey?

Edit (16/02/2014): the survey has been closed! To see the results of this meticulous investigation, join us on February 1st, 16h, in the auditorium of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, for the first ever Symposium of Occam’s Beard!

Image credit: Jennifer K. Warren — licensed with Creative Commons BY NC ND 2.0

Farm me! I taste like chicken!

Another BAHfest presentation was made public today! This presentation by Cori McLean explores the hypothesis that humans exert an evolutionary pressure on animals to taste like chicken: we like the taste of chicken, so we will farm the animals in question (in other words: take care of their reproduction).

Do compare this presentation with the TED talk we posted earlier. It’s interesting to see how thin the line can be between a comedy festival, and the serious science presented at BAHfest.

Edit 24/01/2014: Cory, too, had to answer jury questions at the end of her presentation. Here’s the video for that:

The Descent of Man

In the beardy chaos of non-parsimony, at least two theories about our human origins are competing for your attention. Let’s leave creationism out for the moment — that one is old, and has been debunked by better men. (Not to mention, its proponents do a pretty good job ridiculing their ideas themselves.) Fortunately, even while embracing evolution there is enough room for hairy theories. And what is a more engaging subject for such theories than our own evolutionary past?

Theory I: the pig+chimp Pimp theory
Geneticist Gene McCarthy specializes in hybridization, and as such has started seeing hybrids everywhere. That happens, we all know it does. You spend the day dissecting larvae, and on your way home even the trees start to look like imaginal discs. But I digress.

The point is: Gene McCarthy, PhD, knows a hybrid when he sees one. In the mirror, for example: humans, McCarthy says, are clearly a product of hybridization. As he’s a geneticist he must have genetic evidence for this theory, right? Well, no—but he won’t let that spoil the party. Making anatomical comparisons will get you a long way, and so he listed all the traits that us humans have that can’t be found in our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. Think earlobes, thick skins, and hairlessness. From that list it was evident who the co-parent must have been: the pig.

Yes, he’s serious, and he has a lot of ideas about how that hybridization event could have come about. Rule 34 comes to mind, and I need to change the subject now.

So let’s talk about genetics, McCarthy—you must have something, right? Why yes, he has an excuse: the original hybrids must have been backcrossed to one of the parent species, and diluted any genetic signal from the other parent. Furthermore: “Sequence differences are not necessary for anatomical differences to be present”. Well that solves that puzzle.

But what of the idea that we’re hybrids at all? For this premise, McCarthy presents the dead giveaway: human infertility. With a population over seven billion that too seems a bit of a stretch, but let’s here the man out. On his site McCarthy details all the ways in which our spermatozoa are incompetent little bastards. And the logical steps from ‘our sperm sucks’ to ‘we’re practically infertile’ to ‘must be ’cause we’re hybrids’ follow easily.

To recap: humans are infertile, we share traits with pigs, and many backcrosses will have got rid of genetic evidence. Take away Occam’s shaving implements, and the case is clear-cut. (Sadly, some popular press seems to actually think so…)

Theory II: Homo aquarius
Our surprisingly hairless skins inspired more than just a reminiscence of porcine ancestors. Together with our bipedalism, the blubbery fat under our skins, our big brains, and—only added recently—our large and empty sinuses, they provided evidence for another theory about our forefathers: they inhabited beachfront property.

The aquatic ape theory, as it is called, was first coined in the 60s by Sir Alister Clavering Hardy, marine biologist (I’m sensing a pattern here). Subsequent exploration proved an entertaining exercise: pick a human trait, and try to link it to an aquatic environment. Even better if it’s a trait that can’t be detected in fossils.

Of course you can do the same thing with basically any other hypothetical environment, but where’s the fun in that? (Actually, I was joking: there is a lot of fun in that.)

You know what: I think I get it. If you’re hairless, you don’t need a razor. It all makes sense now.

Photo by cdorobek, licensed under creative commons.

Angels make the universe turn

Praying to Change the Past

In 2001, Leibovici published the results of a rather phenomenal experiment.

Medical files of over 3000 patients were split into two piles; one was left alone, and the other received a small prayer. The result: Patients who had been prayed for spent (statistically significant!) less time in the hospital, as well as having less fever and a lower mortality rate. Oh, and did I mention that the medical files were from patients who had left the hospital more than 4 years before the study was performed?

How is this possible? Well, God is not “… limited by linear time, as we are”. The amazingly titled: Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial explains it all!