MIT has long been home to world-renowned scientists, but in recent years it's become home to some of the best bogus theories. Since 2013, hilariously inaccurate science has had its moment in the spotlight at the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses or the BAHFest.
On Sunday, MIT's Kresge Auditorium was packed with over 1,000 people ready to watch six science presentations. Each presenter marshaled real evidence and carefully written equations to prove scientific theories that are definitely, absolutely and obviously wrong. Voila: a bad ad hoc hypothesis.
“I propose that what killed the big dinosaur was no meteorite, but a brief reversal of earth’s gravitational field,” said James Propp, presenting his faux-theory.
"Cosmologists posit that something called dark energy exhibits gravitational repulsion with itself. We know almost nothing about dark energy. So it’s 100 percent consistent with our state of ignorance,” he said through the laughter.
Propp – a math professor at UMass Lowell – flips through a PowerPoint citing actual scientific studies, semi-plausible math and jargon. It’s all meant to demonstrate that 65 million years ago for one brief moment animals fell up and then came crashing down.
"There's evidence that animals the size of cats or smaller might just be able to stick the landing,” Propp said, pointing to an old study of cats falling from New York high rises.
But as Propp explained, when big animals – like hefty dinosaurs – fell back to earth, they went splat … right into extinction.
When a panel of expert judges deemed Propp's bad theory the winner, Propp had a simple message for the audience: “In a time when real science is mistaken for fake science and bad science masquerades as good science, it’s really important to make a place for bad science that says that it's bad science.”
Most of the BAHFest presenters are bona fide scientists – anything from doctoral students to tenured professors. But at least one regular presenter at this event is not exactly a scientist.
“Well, I got a five on my high school AP Exams, but no – I am a lawyer for Christ’s sake,” said Michael Anderson.
He says he read Wikipedia to learn the jargon, and his scientific knowledge is thin. He sets himself a challenge: “How long can I keep the language up before people start to pelt me with rocks and vegetables?”
But Anderson insists that bad ad hoc hypotheses help keep scientists creative, nudging them to question the status quo.
“I am hoping that there’s some effective kidney punches going on against orthodox scientific thinking," he said.
He has had some time to practice those punches. This is Anderson’s fourth time presenting a bad ad hoc hypothesis – he’s particularly proud of his first theory on why middle-age men develop belly fat.
Anderson’s hypothesis is that the spare tire was a flotation device for our Mesopotamian forefathers – far more effective than boat building.
"The flood waters of the Euphrates are rising around your ankles. Do you really spend the last 15 minutes of your life splashing around trying to cut down a palm tree?” Anderson asked the audience in 2014. “No! You don't. You grab dad. And you hold on to those handles for dear life."
Here’s another theory that’s gone down in the book of epically bad ad hoc hypotheses: Why are babies shaped like footballs?
The answer? They’re aerodynamic, so they can be launched over mountains, rivers and other things that might otherwise restrict genes from spreading.
"This also explains why babies like being tossed up and down," Zach Weinersmith explained in 2014. "It explains why babies like it when you grab an arm and a leg and spin them around."
Weinersmith, who is the cartoonist of the web-comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and a co-author of the forthcoming book "Soonish," is also the founder of BAHFest. He’s quick to insist, “It started as a joke.”
Several years ago, he did a little sketch about a mad scientist presenting this throwing babies theory. Then, he started wondering about making it into a real presentation.
"I thought we'd do this as like a little funny thing, and it would maybe attract 30 or 40 people," Weinersmith said.
The first year, at MIT, over 1,000 people showed up. That was 2013. Weinersmith has since helped other cities launch their own BAHFests, selling out auditoriums in London, Sydney and San Francisco.
Weinersmith says people sometimes approach him with ways to make the event more educational, but he's adamant this sci-comedy has no lofty goal.
"It has never been and will never be our intention to have any higher purpose," he said. Yet, he admits, the event still has an impact. "You get a real cross section of many different types of academics, industry people and just general nerds to come to one place and laugh together and then they all shuttle out to all the bars in Cambridge."
Before the audience dispersed, I asked a few people what they thought.
"It was hilarious," said David Benjamin.
"I thought it was absolutely hilarious," said Samantha Gordon.
"I thought it was absolutely hilarious," said Henry Cohen.
In BAHFest terms, that's proof bad science can be good entertainment.