How not to conduct experiments…

Because I love statistics and methods (no sarcasm… I really do), I thought I would share this funny little anecdote that I read in Alex Boese’s “Electrified Sheep” this week. A lesson to all of us in the importance of understanding experimental design before undertaking our own crazy work. This particular study was on the benefits of exposing children to electromagnetic currents (an experiment which Tesla was soon to replicate based on the design by Swedish scientist Savante Arrhenius (winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and all-around great guy). The currents were reported in European papers as having significantly improved mental acuity and physical fitness amongst the test-group. In comparison, the control class was weedy, dim, and generally disappointing to parents everywhere (or so I assume). These results were so promising that certain American school teachers began to entertain fantasies of kicking up their heels while students worked assiduously under the comforting hum of electromagnets. The highly enterprising and absurdly competitive Tesla (fighting for dominance with his perhaps better-known arch-enemy Thomas Edison) had even begun drafting plans for futuristic classrooms, complete with requisite child-zapping equipment. And then the truth came out…

“Everything was ready to go. Tesla had even priced out the equipment. Then disappointing news arrived from Europe. The details of Arrhenius’s experiment, it turned out, had been seriously misreported. The British psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne had written to Arrhenius, seeking more information about the study. Arrhenius had responded, informing him that almost all the facts in the newspapers were wrong. He had exposed a group of children to high-frequency electromagnetic currents. That much was true. But they had been newborn infants in an orphan asylum. So the claims of boosted intelligence were fictitious. Initially his results had been promising. He had observed a rapid weight gain among the electrified children, but when he examined the study’s methodology more closely, he discovered that an overzealous nurse had placed all the healthiest children in the electrified group, and the weakest ones in the control group. Upon repeating the study with stricter oversight, the apparent benefits of electricity disappeared.

Arrhenius’s discouraging results took the wind out of the sails of the electric growth movement. Superintendent Maxwell quietly shelved the plans for electrifying schoolchildren. After all, if it didn’t work in Sweden, he wasn’t going to risk trying it in New York. Tesla went back to looking for other ways to make money…”

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