Dear recent high school graduates,
Are you wondering what your major should be in college? Do you worry about finding the right subject, something that will interest you, excite you, and give you a lucrative job when you're done?
Would you like to study something that doesn't actually exist?
If you answered all of these questions "yes," then you should consider the University of Northampton (England), which just awarded a student a scholarship to study psychic phenomena.
The student, Calum Cooper, was awarded the scholarship in his final year of pursuing a BSci degree in psychology, in order to complete a project studying telepathy and clairvoyance.
And my thought was: wow, how times have changed. Back in my day, when you had a project to complete in a science class, one of the criteria for topic choice was that you had to be researching something that was real. I doubt, for example, that in my zoology class, my professor would have let me get away with writing a paper on Courtship and Mating in the Silver-hoofed Unicorn (Monoceros argyropodus). It would have been fun to try, although the zero grade would have been an inevitable downside.
Maybe it's easier in psychology, though. I recall a paper assigned in my Psych 101 class in which we were supposed to pick a work of fiction, and analyze it from the perspective of one of the schools of psychology we had studied. Being (1) lazy, (2) a procrastinator, and (3) a smartass, I decided to analyze The Cat in the Hat from the perspective of Freud. The Cat was, of course, the Id, the Fish the Superego, and the Little Boy the Ego -- the playing field on which the Id and the Superego duke it out. The Mom represented the outside world and its expectations.
In a coup that should be inscribed into the Annals of Bullshitting, I got a 96. I considered this a victory primarily because while the rest of the class was slogging its way through Catcher in the Rye and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, I had gotten away with reading Dr. Seuss.
But I digress.
Even considering my A in Psych 101, I guess that standards have relaxed some in the thirty years since I was in college. And I do have to admit to some curiosity about how Mr. Cooper's final paper will look. In my optimistic moments, I imagine that it will give details of his experimental protocols, controls, and procedures, and the rest will look like this:
Data: Nothing relevant happened.
Analysis: Since nothing relevant happened, we don't have anything to analyze. Sorry.
Conclusion: Nope. Sorry. Still nothing.
But as my Dr. Seuss story illustrates, to a really talented bullshitter, "nothing relevant" can be spun out into reams of deathless prose. And just having been awarded a scholarship, you can bet that he doesn't want the words "nothing relevant" appearing anywhere in the final product (nor, I'm guessing, the words "statistically insignificant"). Because then the flow of funds dries up, and we don't want that to happen, now do we? I'm guessing that if a degree in unicornology could bring in grant money, the universities would be trampling each other to see which one could get a program up and running first.
So, that's the news from the Halls of Academe. Me, I'm going to wrap this up and get back to working on my research on Dominance Hierarchies and Territoriality in the Red-bearded Centaur (Anthropohippos rufibarbis). Look for it to appear in Nature soon.