A new study proves parachutes are useless

A new study flies in the face of anecdotal evidence and raises questions about how we read data.

A new study proves parachutes are useless
Yeh et al.
  • Scientists working at medical schools across the United States discovered that parachutes don't lower the death rate of people jumping out of airplanes.
  • The study flies in the face of decades of anecdotal evidence.
  • The findings should be carefully applied, due to "minor caveats" with the experimental structure.

There is an old joke that says "If your parachute doesn't deploy, don't worry: you have the rest of your life to fix it." The findings of a new study may put that joke out of fashion, as intrepid scientists found that jumping out of a plane with a parachute didn't lower the death rate of test subjects compared to those who jumped without one.

A leap of faith in anecdotal evidence

The study, published in the light-hearted Christmas edition of BMJ, involved 23 test subjects who were randomly sorted into two groups. One would leap out of an airplane with a parachute while the second would do the same with a regular old backpack. Their survival rates were then compared after they hit the ground. Shockingly, it was found that the rates were the same for both groups!

The authors explained that "Our groundbreaking study found no statistically significant difference in the primary outcome between the treatment and control arms. Our findings should give momentary pause to experts who advocate for routine use of parachutes for jumps from aircraft in recreational or military settings."

What? How!?!

A portion of the flow chart explaining the study structure. As you can see, it follows every regulation for a randomized trial with a control group.

Yeh et al.

In order to get people to agree to take part in the study, the scientists had to structure the experiment properly. The airplane was both on the ground and stationary, as they thought it would be impossible to get people to agree to leap from a moving plane several thousand feet up without a parachute. The authors admit this was a "minor caveat" in the study's design.

They don't admit this until the fourth or fifth paragraph into the paper, however, which leads to their larger point.

Beware of headlines

The authors explain that the whole study was designed to highlight the limitations of randomized trials and the dangers of not reading past the first paragraph of a study. They explain:

"The parachute trial satirically highlights some of the limitations of randomized controlled trials. Nevertheless, we believe that such trials remain the gold standard for the evaluation of most new treatments. The parachute trial does suggest, however, that their accurate interpretation requires more than a cursory reading of the abstract. Rather, interpretation requires a complete and critical appraisal of the study. In addition, our study highlights that studies evaluating devices that are already entrenched in clinical practice face the particularly difficult task of ensuring that patients with the greatest expected benefit from treatment are included during enrollment."

While this study is funny, the questions it raises are real ones. Many influential studies in psychology have been found to be flawed because they used W.E.I.R.D test subjects or were applicable only to a limited range of situations. By clearly showing how accepted procedures can be used to create an absurd little paper, the authors remind us to look closely at the findings of any study.

Admit it, you've read a headline before and then pretended like you read the whole article later when you wanted to talk about it. The point of this silly study is to show just how misleading a summation of a study can be and how important context is in understanding what experiments mean. So have a laugh, and remember to always read more than the study's abstract before you decide to take its supposed findings to heart.

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle may finally be solved

Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.

Surprising Science

One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.

Keep reading Show less

Astrophysicists find unique "hot Jupiter" planet without clouds

A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.

Illustration of WASP-62b, the Jupiter-like planet without clouds or haze in its atmosphere.

Credit: M. Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
Surprising Science
  • Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
  • Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
  • Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Keep reading Show less

Lair of giant predator worms from 20 million years ago found

Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.

Bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois)

Credit: Rickard Zerpe / Flickr
Surprising Science
  • Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
  • The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
  • The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

FOSTA-SESTA: Have controversial sex trafficking acts done more harm than good?

The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast