Monday, January 7, 2019

Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

At the end of the year, things get a bit crazy, between music and events and stress and whatever. So I often pick a light book or two for my late December read. Something I can pick up and put down as needed without losing the thread. 

 This year, I went with Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments, which was recommended by a musician friend. It fit the bill. It is breezy, written in a san serif font, with headings in magenta. It gives basic details of a variety of weird experiments, which, as the author notes, often tell us more about the researchers than their subjects.

One, of course, is the title experiment. What does happen if you give an elephant LSD? Well, at a high dose, it kills the elephant, which is not a good result, to say the least. Perhaps they should have started with a low dose.

While this experiment seems more sadistic and sad, many of the experiments are in the humorous category, such as the utter failure of dogs to go for help like Lassie. The topics range from experiments in reanimating corpses to mating behaviors to poop to animal behavior, to experiments involving the soul. (See Mary Roach…)

There is a little reference to XKCD in the introduction, which sets the tone, and reminds me of just how fun What If? was.

Here are a few of my favorite bits in the book.

First is the bit on the Baby Mozart phenomenon. It turned out to be devilishly difficult to duplicate the results. (It seems that you can’t get smarter just by ingesting background noise - you have to practice. As any professional musician could have told you.) Anyway, this line cracked me up:

Many researchers reported a failure to replicate the results of the 1993 study. In response, the UC Irvine team clarified that Mozart’s music did not appear to have an effect on all forms of IQ, but rather on spatial-temporal IQ, the kind that applied to paper folding and cutting tasks. In other words, millions of parents were unwittingly priming their children to become master scrapbookers.

Another amusing experiment involved the question of whether men prefer women who play hard to get or not. Well, the answer turned out to be not that surprising to introverted guys like me. Turns out, men actually don’t tend to prefer women who play hard to get. They like women who are selectively hard to get. That is, women who are cold to other people and warm to them. This shouldn’t be a surprise. For the most part, we prefer that there by mutual desire for us, and not indiscriminate attention to everyone. I want my wife to be in to me, and not in to other men. And I suspect she feels the same.

A personal anecdote on this topic. I waited over a year after I met my wife to ask her out. Some of that was circumstance - I was in my last year of law school and just bought a house with my brother, so I had a lot on my plate. But also, I wanted to see if she was in to me first. Fortunately, she sensed this, and encouraged me. This was likewise the way it went in our courtship. She half-jokingly proposed to me months before I proposed to her, and she has never left me in doubt of what she wanted. That worked well for us. So, at least in some cases, the stereotype of the evasive female and the conquering male is more of a culturally driven myth than reality. So women, don’t be afraid to ask a guy out…

Another one which fascinated me - and was something I had never read about before - was the behavior of a certain species of ant. Many ants have specific strategies for keeping their nests dry. This one, in addition to blocking entrances with their heads, has the second layer of defense wherein ants drink up any water which comes in, then go out and pee it outside. Communal peeing, so to speak.

I also want to mention a study (a series, actually) that I am quite familiar with, but should be mentioned regularly. Experimenters found that people will do unspeakably cruel things to their fellow humans if they are ordered to do so by a trusted authority. A shockingly low number of people are resistant to this. It goes without saying that this is of relevance for how totalitarian systems of all kinds come into being and remain in power. It also goes a long way to explain why Evangelicalism seems to be in a competition with itself to see how cruel they can been to refugees, the working poor, and anyone else their political “authorities” tell them to hate. I suspect that it is in part because they have spent the last several decades purging those whose compassion might cause them to question theological - and political - orthodoxy. As one of the researchers glumly concluded in a 60 Minutes interview:

I would say on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and formed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium sized American town.

Heck, we already have the children in cages. I’d say, based on my experiences of the last two years, and what I have heard even the “good” people say, I think you could staff the death camps from a handful of churches in any town in America.

Also depressing was the study involving a weird doomsday cult in the 1950s. Failure of their apocalyptic predictions didn’t change their minds. It only made them believe harder, and become more distrustful and hostile to outsiders. Also all too relevant to the politics of our time.

That’s kind of a bleak note to end on - fortunately the book goes from there to the ability of cockroaches to survive a nuclear holocaust. (There was a great Mythbusters episode on this one a few years back.) While roaches fare better than mammals, the best turned out to be a parasitoid wasp. Which begs the question of what it would live on, of course.

Despite a few depressing moments, the book was fun, light, and the sort of thing one reads when tired and wanting to decompress.

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