Slashdot is running a story, which is both insightful and hilarious:
Research published in a major medical journal concludes that a parachute is no more effective than an empty backpack at protecting you from harm if you have to jump from an aircraft. But before you leap to any rash conclusions, you had better hear the whole story. The gold standard for medical research is a study that randomly assigns volunteers to try an intervention or to go without one and be part of a control group. For some reason, nobody has ever done a randomized controlled trial of parachutes. In fact, medical researchers often use the parachute example when they argue they don’t need to do a study because they’re so sure they already know something works. Cardiologist Robert Yeh, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and attending physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, got a wicked idea one day. He and his colleagues would actually attempt the parachute study to make a few choice points about the potential pitfalls of research shortcuts.
They started by talking to their seatmates on airliners. […] In all, 23 people agreed to be randomly given either a backpack or a parachute and then to jump from a biplane on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts or from a helicopter in Michigan. Relying on two locations and only two kinds of aircraft gave the researchers quite a skewed sample. But this sort of problem crops up frequently in studies, which was part of the point Yeh and his team were trying to make. Still, photos taken during the experiment show the volunteers were only too happy to take part. The drop in the study was about 2 feet total, because the biplane and helicopter were parked. Nobody suffered any injuries. Surprise, surprise. So it’s technically true that parachutes offered no better protection for these jumpers than the backpacks.