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Proved at last: Men really are idiots

An analysis of Darwin Award winners leads to discovery of Male Idiot Theory, aka MIT

Finally! A scientific explanation for Johnny Knoxville — he of “Jackass” fame — and the fans who keep him at his dangerous and moronic antics: Male Idiot Theory.

New research has rigorously tested Male Idiot Theory, which posits that, well, men are idiots and are driven to take ridiculous risks despite the clear prospects for self-harm, and for no defensible reason. Newly published by the venerable British Medical Journal (in its annual BMJ Christmas issue), the landmark study has shown that Male Idiot Theory holds up under strictly scientific scrutiny.

While the latest research does confirm that males can be idiots, it fails to shed light on a larger mystery that has preoccupied this correspondent since girlhood, growing up in a household with six brothers: How did these idiots ever convince the non-idiot gender that they were somehow superior (and worthy of earning close to 30% more, on average, in the United States)?

But I digress. The latest BMJ inquiry plumbs an important but little-known database to assess gender differences in an individual’s likelihood to engage in profoundly idiotic behavior: the Darwin Awards. Winners of the Darwin Awards, which are handed out at random times and almost always posthumously, must be found to have died (or to have sterilized themselves) in the conduct of activity that is so stupid, pointless and predictably self-destructive that they can truly be said to have done humanity a great service. By removing themselves from the human gene pool, the awards note, these honorees have done their part to eliminate impediments to the sustained survival of humankind (note that I do not write mankind).

Since 1995, 413 nominations have been forwarded to the Darwin Award committee, and 332 have been independently verified and confirmed by the awards panel.

Recipients of this award include the terrorist who posted a letter bomb with insufficient postage, and who unthinkingly opened his own letter when it was returned (apparently, because he was conscientious enough to include a return address). The award was bestowed on a thief who died after unbolting the steel clamp from an elevator while standing inside, causing him to plummet to his death. But the rules did not allow the award to go to a man who, in the course of using a belt sander as an auto-erotic device, merely lost a testicle. (The latter’s case for award eligibility was done further damage after he salvaged his remaining testicle with a staple gun, though he did merit an honorable mention.)

After excluding urban legends, unverified accounts and honorable mentions, the study's four authors, all male,  found that 318 awardees met their study’s eligibility requirements. A lopsided 282 of those awardees — 88.7% — were male.

If men and women were equally prone to idiocy, that would be a statistical improbability, the authors concluded. Null hypothesis discredited, QED: Men are idiots.

Embracing a broad view of evolution, Wendy Northcutt, the UC Berkeley graduate who founded the Darwin Awards, has suggested that awardees may, perhaps unwittingly, be engaged in some form of altruistic behavior. By sacrificing themselves — or their ability to reproduce — they have contributed the survival of the species.

“We believe this view to be flawed,” write the authors, who were led in their analysis by Ben Alexander Daniel Lendrem, a student at the King Edward IV School in northeast England. Nevertheless, the authors wrote, the now-demonstrated phenomenon of Male Idiocy should be seen in evolutionary terms.

“Presumably, idiotic behavior confers some, as yet unidentified selective advantage on those who do not become its casualties,” wrote the authors. “Until MIT gives us a full and satisfactory explanation of idiotic male behavior, hospital emergency departments will continue to pick up the pieces, often literally.”

For medical news that's not idiotic, follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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