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At the risk of being an idiot

Time for the Science lite desk to admit, as much as it might pain us, that we are idiots.

We do idiotic things. Many idiotic things. In fact we have lost count of the number of idiotic things we have done – which itself is a slightly idiotic thing to do.

The number of times we have been outsmarted by the office water cooler, the number of times we have arrived at the office with an inappropriate number of shoes. The list is long, undignified and, to us at least, unquantifiable. The thing is, idiot is a very broad term. We must, surely, be the thin end of that particular wedge. We hope, for example, never to bag ourselves a Darwin Award.

These are the accolades – given with tongue firmly rammed in cheek – which recognise individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by self-selecting themselves out of the gene pool. Now, the Darwin Award committee are serious about this. They firmly state “winners must die in such an idiotic manner that their action ensures the long-term survival of the species, by selectively allowing one less idiot to survive.”

“There has been no systematic analysis of sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour. Keen to fill this conspicuous void in human knowledge ­– no prizes for guessing what they found…”

More than a chuckle?
And there have been many illustrious winners since the inception of the awards back in 1985. There was the adventurous commuter who decided to hitch a ride home by attaching a shopping trolley to the back of a train, only to be dragged two miles to his death before the train was able to stop. The man who shot himself in the head to show his friend he did indeed own a real gun. Then there was our personal favourite, the terrorist who posted a letter bomb with insufficient postage stamps and who, on its return, unthinkingly opened his own letter.

Slightly cruel? Probably. Funny? Well…yes. But is there anything more than a few cheap laughs here? Father and son team Dennis and Ben Lendrem think so, and a few years back they published a paper in the BMJ to prove it. Dennis, a project manager at the Institute of Cellular Medicine, and his son think that buried deep in the annals of the Darwin Awards there is data. Data which they say throws new light on a statistical truth; namely that men seek out risk taking behaviour more than women. Now, there are reams of evidence to suggest that this is a genuine difference, and indeed many a mooted idea as to why this might be – but, say the Lendrem team, what has yet to be studied is a new, altogether more mysterious phenomenon; that of “idiotic risk”.  They argue that this is qualitatively different from those associated with, say, contact sports or adventure pursuits such as parachuting.

Idiotic risks are defined, they say, as “senseless risks where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final.” They also point out that to date, there has been no systematic analysis of sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour. Keen to fill this conspicuous void in human knowledge, they set out to fix that. No prizes for guessing what they found…

uh, men!
After raiding the past 20 years of Darwin Award data and applying some simple stats, they found – big sigh of grinding inevitability from all concerned please – males accounted for 88.7% of Darwin Award winners.

Yes, the authors acknowledge several potential flaws in the study – its retrospective nature, the fact that women may be more likely to nominate men, or that there may be some selection bias within the Darwin Awards Committee – but really, even if all potential errors could be ironed out do we think the result would change?

We do abhor a cliché here at Lab News, and the archetype male with his clunking stupidity is a real doozy, but in the end if the Award Committee were asked for the number of times a male had been nominated for the Darwin Awards…well, no doubt they will have lost count.





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