Whose bad idea is the best bad idea? 


The Indy explores a competition for bad science ideas.

The crowd roars with laughter as Daniel Harris explains that the reason we can’t hear our own heartbeats is that they’re too catchy, and we wouldn’t have survived because we can’t ignore a funky beat.

This is not your average comedy act. This is BAHFest.

Properly known as the Festival of Bad ad Hoc Hypotheses, BAHFest is a symposium of utterly ridiculous but ridiculously well argued hypotheses concerning evolution. This past Saturday, BAHFest was totally sold out as six speakers delivered their implausible, yet well-evidenced claims to a panel of four judges that included MIT and HBS researchers in addition to a former BAHfest winner.

Keynote speaker Abby Howard, creator of the slice-of-life web-comic Junior Science Power Hour, opened the festival with a presentation about deer populations in the United States. Howard proposed that a decrease in the number of predators such as bears and wolves has led to a rise in extreme deer aggression.

Her proposed solutions range from a knife-wielding re-purposing of MIT’s novel cheetah robot to genetically modified bald eagles. By the end of her speech, audience members and judges alike were in the mood for some rigorously bad science.

Alexander Rothfuss, a high school junior from Cincinnati, began the series with the shocking proposition that human chests—and their nipples and navels in particular—are a defense mechanism based on eyespot mimicry. Essentially, we scared away lions by making faces with our stomachs.

“It’s definitely not what I expected,” said one student in the audience, “but I’m glad I went. I haven’t laughed this hard about research in a long time.”

Rothfuss skillfully illustrated the importance of the adage “correlation not causation” with a graph that showed the rise of homicide rates in different regions as average temperatures rose. Aggression is therefore directly related to shirtlessness motivated by the heat. His conclusion? Bare chests are dangerous.

Harvard postdoc Stacy Farina followed Rothfuss’s human evolutionary theory with a hypothesis related to her research on fish. Fishes, she observed, rarely raise their children. When they do, it’s usually in a grotesque way that involves cannibalism or the embedding of eggs in their own skin. Most fishes release their spawn into the ocean, never to be seen again. Therefore, fish offspring must be leaving their parents because literally anything would be better than being raised by them.

Judges asked her how she would apply this knowledge to her own child-raising endeavors.

“I hope they never see this,” she laughed.

Beyond the absurdist humor of claiming that funky music is deadly or that sleepwalking is the body’s way of getting more workout hours in the day, BAHFest highlighted the importance of carefully interpreting data, whether we’re pipetting enzymes and buffers or studying democratic processes in American history.

Cherry-picking data may string together various phenomena into a narrative that just happens to explain some aspect of human biology or behavior, but it doesn’t always mean it’s right. It challenges us as scientists and citizens to examine how we perceive and assemble data to form opinions about the world. With the exponential increase of computation and the application of technology in fields like evolutionary biology, events like BAHFest remind us to keep our minds open just enough to new possibilities and discoveries.

At the end of the evening, the host pulled out a decibel meter, and the crowd voted with applause. The judges then tallied their scores. Was one speaker’s sample size of four college students funny enough? Or was the allure of a cat parasitism theory more worthy of the grand prize?

Five hundred dollars, two books, and the trophy—a garishly orange 3D print of Charles Darwin—were ultimately presented to Robert Gooding-Townsend, a Canadian applied mathematician.

His winning hypothesis? When human ancestors developed the enzyme needed to efficiently metabolize alcohol, their brains began to increase in size to dilute the effects of drunkenness, a proposition that resonated with the many MIT and Harvard students in the audience.

Gooding-Townsend accepted the prize with a smile and a brief speech. “There are some theories that are so brilliant that when you first hear them, you can’t help but believe they’re correct… then there’s a second class of theories. Once you hear it a little bit, and give it the benefit of the doubt, it starts to make more sense, and you see more and more evidence of it…”

He closed with “… and if you all go out and take a drink, it will all make much more sense.”
Audrey Effenberger, ’17 (effenberger@college.harvard.edu) is now accepting suggestions for bad science ideas.