Ho ho ho? Making jokes about science

This first appeared in the December edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the January edition, including a New Year’s piece from me on whether scientists have the future in their bones.

Happy holidays. Families congregate to catch up with each other, reflect on times passed and their hopes for the future, chat, eat, play games, offer gives, laugh and FIGHT. This is as true for groups of science as any other form of family.

Just before Thanksgiving, enter Joe Hanson of It’s OK to Be Smart show, with a special video featuring a dinner table of famous scientists from history. I’m going to have to describe it because it’s been taken offline (more on that in a moment). Featuring bobble-head dolls of Einstein, Tesla, Marie Curie, Darwin, Newton and Galileo and with a large turkey in the centre, they all laugh and joke, saying how pleased they are that their work has had so much impact on the world. Hanson points out that, for all that in many ways they have been mightily influential, there’s a long way to go.

Because, er, yeah, about the whole everyone believing in evolution thing, and um, we might get the whole third law of motion, but the public appreciation of the physical consequences of climate change could probably do with a bit more work.

It’s comedy, though rarely laugh-out-loud; light-hearted with comic fantasy of silly voices, anachronism and jokes about mixing up the movie Gravity with the physical force.

But on the holiday season fight. Because that’s the fun bit. I’m OK to be Smart is popular and held in respect by much of the scientific community, but as soon as it went live, there were complaints. Firstly, the scientists are it chooses to give thanks to are all white, there is only one woman and she starts off by saying she was just happy to have been included. Perhaps it’s traditional at Thanksgiving to whitewash history, but what kind of celebration of science only remembers those famous people our unequal society usually chooses to revere?

Further, Telsa’s played as crazy, a bit too crazy perhaps, with crazy played for laughs in a way that understandably aggravated people who’d like to see better treatment of mental illness. The silly accents were arguably a bit racist. And then there’s the way the Einstein character treats Curie. He starts off just by being a bit flirty, this moves to outright lecherous, as the others discuss science and history, with every cut to Einstein you seem him escalating his moves. Again, this is all played for laughs. It’s extreme and fantastical. It ends up with the bobble-head doll naked (the gentles pixelated out) “falling” on top of Curie. It’s a joke, yes, but it does look a lot like attempted rape. Many were appalled. Comments on the video’s Google + page were disappointed, shocked and angry.

In response, Hanson initially offered a not especially apologetic apology. The PBS ombudsman offered the excuse that it had ‘opened debate’ about women in science. As Emily Willingham pointed out, that debate was already quite open thank you very much, and if PBS and Hason had really been paying attention, they’d have realised how unhelpful, unimaginative and plain hurtful the video must have appeared. After further complaints, Hanson took the video down, with a fresh apology.

Two things are particularly interesting about this fuss. Firstly, it was a reasonably rare example of people arguing against a joke. It’s hard to say ‘no, that’s not funny’ and stand up against the premise of a joke. It’s one of the reasons feminists are often labeled ‘joyless’ or lacking a sense of humour. There’s a pressure to say anything goes in comedy, or at least it’s ‘just having a laugh, eh?’ Jokes act to articulate shared ideas, logic and attitudes. It is one of the reasons a shared joke between friends feels so special, and why you can feel so hurt or confused when you feel left out of one. Similarly, it’s hard when a joke falls flat. In many ways it was brave of Hanson to eventually take the video down. It’s always hard to say you think that, in retrospect, you were wrong, but perhaps especially true when it’s a matter of a joke.

Secondly, I find the whole video indicative of the way humour tends to be used to replicate the traditional structures of power in science, not buck them. There’s been a bit of a rise in science-related comedy in recent years, from the Science Museum’s Punk Science to the Infinite Monkey Cage. For all that we might imagine science to be a highly serious business, in many ways scientist and comedians are an obvious match.

A striking feature of comedy in modern Western societies is how much of it is based on the premise of some laughable imagined stupid Other person. Perhaps it is because so much of our lives is based on ideas of rationality we feel a need to laugh through the various anxieties we have about that. Or maybe we just need to feel superiorly rational. Whatever, science-based jokes offer a lot of material from which to build jokes about stupidity. George Bush’s dyslexia gags getting old? Try one about how there’s nothing in homeopathy.

As a result, the comedians largely side with scientists who can provide the knowledge. There are still a lot of jokes at the expense of scientists as a bit weird. The Big Bang Theory geek, for example. But in a way, that serves scientific authority too, painting them as a bit otherworldly, not really one of us and so hard to argue with. We don’t understand them which is why they are funny, but it’s also why they get to tell us what to do. Members of the scientific community may get angry at mad scientist serotypes, but in many ways, it offers them a lot of power.

I wonder if the web played a role in people standing up against the It’s OK to be Smart video. Those who felt offended by the joke could find others and collect together to feel less isolated, more justified in calling it out. This context of the web also reminded me the way Richard Dawkins has become a figure of fun online. Previously isolated quiet admissions that “I don’t really like Dawkins much” has flourished online to a whole sub-culture of people who regularly respond to everything his tweets with the in-joke of “your a dick” (a response to this). There’s even an online game. This is new, and feels significantly different from something like Monkey Cage.

I’m not sure if laughing at Dawkins is really much progress from homeopathy jokes made by educationally privileged people at the expense of the confused. But the comparison between the two, as with the controversy surrounding Hanson’s Thanksgiving video, can remind us that humour in science isn’t simply a matter of finding new audiences to talk about science to. As is often the case with science in popular culture, science comedy reflects a politics and should be politically aware. We should ask whose humour, about whom, disrupting what exactly, and why? Not simply how do we make more of it.

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