It's December, when the British Medical Journal lets its hair down and publishes some joke articles, the latest of which focuses on the gender discrepancy in the Darwin Awards. I'm going to delve into the what, how and why what this paper means.

What ?

The Darwin Awards is an online compendium of tales of stupid people killing themselves by being stupid, shared for the amusement of the internet. Such as the tale of the man who just couldn't wait for the elevator, or the woman who thought she could survive on air alone. Some of these tales are confirmed, some are urban legend and most of them show a dark sense of humor.

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If you read enough of them, you'll probably notice that most of the nominees are Male. So the question arises, do men really win more Darwin awards ?

How ?

To work it all out, a bunch of researchers delved into the Darwin Awards archive, to read all of the stories and note whether the nominee was either male or female. They focused on the factual accounts, ignoring urban legends and unverified stories, and ones with both male and female victims. Out of 318 nominees, just 11% were female. That is a huge discrepancy right there.

Why?

I have my own perspective on why Men tend to get more Darwin awards. I ran a feature on my old blog called "TMI Friday", which consisted entirely of embarrassing stories of stupidity culled from the scientific literature, such as the men who lift heavy objects with their boners, and the woman who misunderstood "Silicone Implants".

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A few months after I first started, one of my readers drew attention to the fact that nearly all of my stories focused on men.

Here were my exact thoughts at the time:

I didn't notice this at first, and I looked through my back catalogue to disabuse this notion, and realised how spot on this tweet was. At first, I thought that maybe there weren't any stories about women's antics out there. But I immediately knew this was wrong, because I had a couple of stories about women on my reject pile. That was when I realised. I've been sexist about the stories I've been telling.

I'll give an example.

I read a story about a man cheating on his wife, and how in retaliation, she slipped a wedding ring over his penis, causing a condition known as "penile" strangulation, and I found this story hilarious. When hearing a story of genital mutilation with the genders reversed, I suddenly felt very ill.

I realised that I had a mental block that could be summarised like this :

"Violence against women = Not funny"

So after this, I strove to include more stories about women. Before that tweet, only 17% of my stories featured women. Afterwards, I only managed to bump that up to 29%, which is mostly due to a whole month I spent focusing only on women. Because I still haven't gotten over that mental block. I'm still sitting on the story of a woman who choked on a live cat, because it is so grim ( link for the curious).

This is why I think that reporting bias is a strong contender for why men get more Darwin awards.

To illustrate my point further, let's delve into the Urban legends section of the Darwin Awards website. You'll notice that in all of these stories, there are only six women featured, but usually as victims of blind fate. Such as the woman impaled by an icicle of urine jettisoned from a plane, or the wife and daughter of a missionary who decided to go spread Jesus to cannibals. The most highly rated stories were those in which men were the perpetrators.

That bias may be why men win more Darwin awards. That confounding factor is why the Darwin Awards can't reliably be trusted as an indicator for the risky behavior of men. It can tell you a lot about how society views risky behavior, and who the main perpetrators are.

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This scientific paper was never meant to be taken seriously. If you want that, there is a vast corpus dedicated to it. If you just want to sit down with a glass of sherry and have a good laugh, then this is the scientific paper for you.

The Darwin Awards: sex differences in idiotic behaviour, BMJ 2014;349:g7094

Image credit: Photograph of Charles Darwin taken around 1874 by Leonard Darwin.