20 Science Experiments That Were Completely Bat Sh*t Insane

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What happens if you give an elephant LSD? On Friday August 3, 1962, a group of Oklahoma City researchers decided to find out.

Warren Thomas, Director of the City Zoo, fired a cartridge-syringe containing 297 milligrams of LSD into Tusko the Elephant’s rump. With Thomas were two scientific colleagues from the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, Louis Jolyon West and Chester M. Pierce.

297 milligrams is a lot of LSD — about 3000 times the level of a typical human dose. In fact, it remains the largest dose of LSD ever given to a living creature. The researchers figured that, if they were going to give an elephant LSD, they better not give him too little.

Thomas, West, and Pierce later explained that the experiment was designed to find out if LSD would induce musth in an elephant — musth being a kind of temporary madness male elephants sometimes experience during which they become highly aggressive and secrete a sticky fluid from their temporal glands. But one suspects a small element of ghoulish curiosity might also have been involved.

Whatever the reason for the experiment, it almost immediately went awry. Tusko reacted to the shot as if a bee had stung him. He trumpeted around his pen for a few minutes, and then keeled over on his side. Horrified, the researchers tried to revive him, but about an hour later he was dead. The three scientists sheepishly concluded that, “It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD.”

In the years that followed controversy lingered over whether it was the LSD that killed Tusko, or the drugs used to revive him. So twenty years later, Ronald Siegel of UCLA decided to settle the debate by giving two elephants a dose similar to what Tusko received. Reportedly he had to sign an agreement promising to replace the animals in the event of their deaths.

Instead of injecting the elephants with LSD, Siegel mixed the drug into their water, and when it was administered in this way, the elephants not only survived but didn’t seem too upset at all. They acted sluggish, rocked back and forth, and made some strange vocalizations such as chirping and squeaking, but within a few hours they were back to normal. However, Siegel noted that the dosage Tusko received may have exceeded some threshold of toxicity, so he couldn’t rule out that LSD was the cause of his death. The controversy continues.

Imagine that you’ve volunteered for an experiment, but when you show up at the lab you discover the researcher wants you to murder an innocent person. You protest, but the researcher firmly states, “The experiment requires that you do it.” Would you acquiesce and kill the person?

When asked what they would do in such a situation, almost everyone replies that of course they would refuse to commit murder. But Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment, conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s, revealed that this optimistic belief is wrong. If the request is presented in the right way, almost all of us quite obediently become killers.

Milgram told subjects they were participating in an experiment to determine the effect of punishment on learning. One volunteer (who was, in reality, an actor in cahoots with Milgram) would attempt to memorize a series of word pairs. The other volunteer (the real subject) would read out the word pairs and give the learner an electric shock every time he got an answer wrong. The shocks would increase in intensity by fifteen volts with each wrong answer.

The experiment began. The learner started getting some wrong answers, and pretty soon the shocks had reached 120 volts. At this point the learner started crying out, “Hey, this really hurts.” At 150 volts the learner screamed in pain and demanded to be let out. Confused, the volunteers turned around and asked the researcher what they should do. He always calmly replied, “The experiment requires that you continue.”

Milgram had no interest in the effect of punishment on learning. What he really wanted to see was how long people would keep pressing the shock button before they refused to participate any further. Would they remain obedient to the authority of the researcher up to the point of killing someone?

To Milgram’s surprise, even though volunteers could plainly hear the agonized cries of the learner echoing through the walls of the lab from the neighboring room, two-thirds of them continued to press the shock button all the way up to the end of scale, 450 volts, by which time the learner had fallen into an eerie silence, apparently dead. Milgram’s subjects sweated and shook, and some laughed hysterically, but they kept pressing the button. Even more disturbingly, when volunteers could neither see nor hear feedback from the learner, compliance with the order to give ever greater shocks was almost 100%.

If you were a man walking across the campus of Florida State University in 1978, an attractive young woman might have approached you and said these exact words: “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?”

If you were that man, you probably would have thought that you had just gotten incredibly lucky. But not really. You were actually an unwitting subject in an experiment designed by the psychologist Russell Clark.

Clark had persuaded the students of his social psychology class to help him find out which gender, in a real-life situation, would be more receptive to a sexual offer from a stranger. The only way to find out, he figured, was to actually get out there and see what would happen. So young men and women from his class fanned out across campus and began propositioning strangers.

The results weren’t very surprising. Seventy-five percent of guys were happy to oblige an attractive female stranger (and those who said no typically offered an excuse such as, “I’m married”). But not a single woman accepted the identical offer of an attractive male. In fact, most of them demanded the guy leave her alone.

At first the psychological community dismissed Clark’s experiment as a trivial stunt, but gradually his experiment gained first acceptance, and then praise for how dramatically it revealed the differing sexual attitudes of men and women. Today it’s considered a classic. But why men and women display such different attitudes remains as hotly debated as ever.

Milgram later commented, “I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”

When Stanley Milgram published the results of his obedience experiment in 1963, it sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Other researchers found it hard to believe that people could be so easily manipulated, and they searched for any mistakes Milgram might have made. Charles Sheridan and Richard King theorized that perhaps Milgram’s subjects had merely played along with the experiment because they realized the victim was faking his cries of pain. To test this possibility, Sheridan and King decided to repeat Milgram’s experiment, introducing one significant difference. Instead of using an actor, they would use an actual victim who would really get shocked. Obviously they couldn’t use a human for this purpose, so they used the next best thing — a cute, fluffy puppy.

Sheridan and King told their subjects — volunteers from an undergraduate psychology course — that the puppy was being trained to distinguish between a flickering and a steady light. It had to stand either to the right or the left depending on the cue from the light. If the animal failed to stand in the correct place, the subjects had to press a switch to shock it. As in the Milgram experiment, the shock level increased 15 volts for every wrong answer. But unlike the Milgram experiment, the puppy really was getting zapped.

As the voltage increased, the puppy first barked, then jumped up and down, and finally started howling with pain. The volunteers were horrified. They paced back and forth, hyperventilated, and gestured with their hands to show the puppy where to stand. Many openly wept. Yet the majority of them, twenty out of twenty-six, kept pushing the shock button right up to the maximum voltage.

Intriguingly, the six students who refused to go on were all men. All thirteen women who participated in the experiment obeyed right up until the end.

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