Ever heard of BAHFest? It stands for Festival of Bad Ad-Hoc Hypotheses, a satirical conference on evolutionary biology held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October. The event’s popularity led an additional BAHFest held in San Francisco, also held this past October. The concept was originally proposed in a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip proposing that human infants have been evolutionarily optimized for long-distance dispersal by catapult.
At each festival, six presenters, each armed with reams of research, vied to win over a panel of judges with a different bogus scientific theory. The winner got a statue of Darwin looking dubious—shoulders shrugging, hands turned upward.
Selection readers and judges graded theories on four criteria:
- Force of Science – how much “scientific” information was brought to bear (graphs, real citations, “research” etc.).
- Artistry – how unexpected and clever the idea and presentation were, and how well the presentation was delivered.
- Parsimony – the simplest theory that explained the most data is best.
- Strength of Defense – how well views were defended to the judges.
Presentations this year included “Influenza Knows When You’re Doing Yoga” from Barbara Vreede, a postdoctoral researcher in evolutionary biology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as one exploring why we yawn, from Emma Kowal of Harvard University. (The answer? To catch bugs. Flying insects are high in protein. They gather in dense swarms most frequently at dawn and dusk, not-so-coincidentally the times of day when we are most likely to yawn.)
The winner of the BAHFest trophy was Michael Anderson, a Boston lawyer specializing in First Amendment cases, for his theory on ubiquity of belly fat in middle-age men.
In ancient times, men’s “spare tires” served as a flotation device for them to rescue their families in times of flooding. Primitive art supports the theory, he said. The earliest depictions of humans were mainly stick figures. But when people began to settle down near rivers and other bodies of water, human images began to take on abdominal bulges, Mr. Anderson claimed.
In addition to the fun of the event, coming up with obviously wrong scientific hypotheses helps us think about how evidence can be used/misused in reaching conclusions.