Science So Bad It’s Good
The unexpectedly popular BAHFest searches for the year’s most laughable evolutionary theory, and rewards its creator
Trophy by Kyle Horseman
Last week, 1,000 inquisitive San Franciscans gathered inside the Castro Theatre for the second annual Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, or BAHFest.
The premise is simple: Six finalists are chosen out of hundreds of submissions every year to present a well argued, but completely incorrect, evolutionary theory in front of a live audience. The most creative presentation wins. While the science is bunk, the judges are not. The festival began as part of the Cambridge Science Festival in Boston, and as a result, members of the judicial panel include both Harvard and MIT staff members and working scientists. (Slate’s Phil Plait was a judge at this year’s event.)
The grand prize is $500 and a statuette of Charles Darwin shrugging skeptically. But most people don’t do it for the fortune and glory. There’s just something arguably thrilling, if not completely mad, about trying to sell the merits of a particularly terrible idea to an auditorium full of people.
The inspiration for BAHFest came from a 2013 comic strip drawn by Zach Weinersmith, of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal fame. In the strip in question, a professor stands in front of a packed auditorium and declares that babies are shaped like footballs and have more bendable bones than adults, because primitive man wanted to spread his genes as widely as possible—by punting babies from village to village. This, the professor explains, also accounts for babies’ smooth skin and hairlessness, both necessary for good aerodynamics.
For the first BAHFest—held in October 2013 at MIT—Weinersmith thought he’d sell maybe 50 tickets but ended up selling more than 1,000. The winner was Tomer Ullman, whose thesis, The Crying Game, explained that infant distress vocalization (or “crying”) could only have evolved if it had proven to be distinctly advantageous for adults in some way. Why, Ullman wondered, didn’t our early ancestors simply ditch these “predator beacons?” Because adults exposed to infant crying perform significantly better on violent motor tasks. “Our early ancestors harnessed the natural violent boost provided by crying infants by carrying infants into battle with them,” Ullman said during his presentation.
This year, BAHFest expanded to two events: one in Boston, and one in San Francisco. The latter was presented as part of the Bay Area Science Festival. Both sold out early. “We saw people trying to get tickets on Craigslist the week before,” Weinersmith said.
This year’s hypotheses included why people diet, why cats run out of the room, and something called the “smelly grandfather hypothesis.”
Sarah Hird, evolutionary biologist and chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Davis, won with her hypothesis that sleep evolved as a mechanism to allow animals to escape the stress of being themselves 24 hours a day.
Weinersmith says the quality of the entries has improved significantly since last year, when the majority of submissions were either too crazy or too plausible to actually be funny.
“I think there's a lot of hunger for funny science humor,” Weinersmith says. “Most science humor is either overtly didactic or cheesy dad jokes. We're trying to make high quality comedy for people who are already scientifically literate. I think that's unusual, and that’s helped us a lot.”
With the success of this year’s events, Weinersmith hopes BAHFest will be even bigger next year. And while the aim of the festival will remain having fun with science, there is scope to get people thinking about how empiricism and statistical analysis are discussed in science and science media.
“To the extent we ape the methods of real science, we are in some sense a satire,” he says. “But, my belief as a comedian is that you really should only try to be funny. If you're funny enough, truth tends to fall out.”