Felix Salmon has discovered the Best Academic Paper Ever, “Hazardous journey: Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials,” by Gordon C. S. Smith and Jill P. Pell. My favorite passage:
However sinister doctors may be, there are powers at large that are even more evil. The parachute industry has earned billions of dollars for vast multinational corporations whose profits depend on belief in the efficacy of their product. One would hardly expect these vast commercial concerns to have the bravery to test their product in the setting of a randomised controlled trial.
Update: A couple of commenters to the article point out that parachute trials of a sort were carried out during World War I, during which most of the competing armies sent soldiers aloft in observation balloons to track enemy movements. Most countries equipped these balloons with parachutes. The British did not–fearing, writes Allen J. Parmet, M.D., of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, “that the use of any such devices would lead the occupants to recklessly abandon their valuable government-issued equipment just because of the impending threat of death from fire, explosion or impact.”
This is all strikes very close to home for me, because I owe my very existence to the fact that the U.S. Army did equip the baskets of its observation balloons with parachutes. I think my grandfather used his at least twice.