Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump and several other world leaders are among the winners of the humorous IgNobel 2020 award, which each year highlights the most peculiar achievements of science. Politicians took the category of “Medical Education” as a way to mock their anti-scientific measures in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic in their respective countries.
The announcement was made on Thursday (17) at the 30th edition of the award, which took place online for the first time (under normal conditions, the ceremony is held in person at Harvard University, in the United States). In addition to the Brazilian and North American president, they also took the prize Boris Johnson, from the United Kingdom; Narendra Modi, from India; Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from Mexico; Alexander Lukashenko, from Belarus; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from Turkey; Vladimir Putin, from Russia; and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, from Turkmenistan.
They were chosen for the feat of “using the Covid-19 pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors”, according to the justification. All, to a greater or lesser degree, were criticized for their denialist and / or populist stances towards the public health problem and for distancing themselves from science to make decisions.
Created in 1991, IgNobel is a parody award for the Nobel Prize – its name is a pun on him and the word ignoble (“ignoble”). Every year, the satirical magazine Annals of Improbable Research he chooses to reward “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think”. In general, the focus is on unusual and apparently bizarre studies, but not necessarily without scientific validity. Last year, for example, one of the winners was a researcher who studies whether Italian pizza prevents cancer – in case you are wondering, yes, specifically the Italian version of the pizza.
However, some categories can also reward anti-scientific events and attitudes or simply silly and funny, in an ironic and critical way, as in the case of world leaders.
When it comes to award-winning studies, however, the scientific community in general takes the prize in sports, and the winning researchers themselves participate in the ceremony. They have 24 seconds to explain their work and then summarize their research in just seven words. And anyone who thinks that IgNobel is merely symbolic is mistaken: it includes a trillion dollar amount as a reward. Well, more or less.
Researchers take home a 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bill, the former national currency of the Zimbabwe. This is also a joke: the currency was taken out of circulation in 2009 because of the enormous hyperinflation that has plagued the country, to the point that the value is equivalent to 40 US cents.
At the same time, the head of the Central Bank of Zimbabwe received the IgNobel for mathematics for “offering people a simple, everyday way of dealing with a wide range of numbers – from very small to very large – by getting their bank to print notes ranging from a penny ($.01) up to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000)”.
This year, the “Medical Education” award was given to world leaders to demonstrate to the population how politicians can have a profound impact on public health, even greater than scientists and doctors – clearly with a negative connotation, and not in a complimentary way.
Bolsonaro, one of the winners, has minimized the danger of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. The president opposed measures of social isolation and promoted treatments without scientific basis. The stance was similar to that of Donald Trump, who was also awarded the prize. USA and Brazil are in the top 3 countries with the most cases and deaths by Covid-19 in the world, together with India, whose Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is also on the list of winners.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was criticized for his government’s initial strategy of adopting “vertical isolation” and trying to achieve herd immunity by letting the young and healthy population become infected freely, even under harsh criticism from scientists and epidemiologists. But mortality soon soared in the country – and Johnson himself ended up in the ICU after becoming infected. Thereafter, the plan was abandoned in favor of traditional isolation.
Turkmenistan’s president-dictator, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, made headlines worldwide by banning the word “coronavirus” in the country and taking an extremely denialist measure of the virus’s existence and danger. So it was with Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who is currently facing a wave of protests in the country after a re-election with suspicion of electoral fraud. At the beginning of the pandemic, he even recommended vodka and sauna sessions against the coronavirus and called the pandemic “psychosis”.
It is worth mentioning that it is not the first time that Lukashenko has received IgNobel: in 2013, he won in the “Peace” category for making it illegal to applaud in public (many protesters had adopted the unending joint applause as a way to protest). In the same category, the Belarus police were also awarded that year for arresting a man who allegedly broke the law of applause. There’s just one thing: he only had one arm.
The category that criticized politicians was not the only one in the 2020 edition. As it traditionally does, IgNobel once again highlighted the most unusual and funny scientific studies of the year. In the “Psychology” category, for example, American and Canadian researchers took the award for developing a method for identifying narcissistic people – just by analyzing their eyebrows.
In the “Physics” category, who took the trillion dollar note was a study that analyzed what happens to the body of a live earthworm when it is placed to vibrate at high frequencies. In “Medicina”, Dutch and Belgian researchers stood out for having identified and characterized “misophonia”: a medical condition in which someone feels distressed, anxious or angry when hearing the sound of other people chewing.
Who took the “Materials Science” trophy were the scientists who demonstrated that knives made from frozen human feces do not work as well (yes, this is a serious study). In the winning article in the “Entomology” category, researchers gathered evidence that many entomologists – scientists who study insects – are afraid of spiders (which are not insects, but arachnids).
In “Acústica”, researchers who placed an alligator in a helium gas chamber and then analyzed its vocalization won out. In the “Economy” category, an article won that analyzes the relationship between a country’s income inequality and the average amount of kisses on the mouth in that nation (one of the study’s co-authors is Brazilian).
One category that also came close to acid criticism was that of “Peace”. The recipients of the award were the governments of India and Pakistan for their rather unusual diplomatic measures – such as, for example, putting their diplomats to ring each other’s bell at dawn and then running out.
Another award that was not for a study, but for an incredibly stupid feat, was that of “Administration”. The winners were five Chinese hired killers for the following story: the first professional was hired to carry out a murder and hired the second to do the job for him in exchange for part of the payment.
This, in turn, hired a third assassin under the same conditions, who hired a fourth, who ultimately asked for a fifth to do the job, each with a smaller percentage of the payment. In the end, none carried out such a murder. It is the height of outsourcing.