Category Archives: humour

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.

Laughing at students’ mistakes

I have an opinion piece in today’s Times Higher Education: a complaint about their ‘exam howlers’ competition, an annual compilation of silly things students write in exams.

I do understand a desire to laugh at these mistakes, and to share them with colleagues, but I still think it’s an unreasonable thing to do. If we’re going to ask students to do something as weird as sit an exam, I don’t think we should make fun of them when they inevitably slip up. Sharing these mistakes in public feels especially nasty, but really I don’t think we should do it at all. I do sympathise with the ‘for’ argument published alongside my piece by Times Higher. However, I also believe that if you need to laugh at students in order to get through your working day, you are in the wrong job. I mean that in all seriousness.

For me, the issue is partly personal. I’m dyslexic, and especially prone to these sorts of mistakes (and this is not just a matter of spelling mistakes, what dyslexia is let alone how it manifests itself in an exam is not straightforward, and if lecturers think they know how to filter out dyslexics’ slips so they don’t laugh at the afflicted, they’re kidding themselves).

To quote the longer piece:

Exams are a bit of a weird situation, especially today when most students are used to computers. I still think exams are useful, but we have to expect imperfections. University is a space where students can and should make mistakes. That doesn’t mean we should be lenient; just professional about the slips that inevitably turn up […] That stupidity you’re laughing at? Well, it was the job of you and your colleagues this year to help these students get over that. Who failed, exactly? […] Mrs Malaprop, Dogberry, Reverend Spooner, George W. Bush and other cultural icons of varying degrees of fictionality: they are all funny, at least partly, because of the odd mixed-up view of the world their slips throw out. Still, worrying that I might be laughed at for apparent stupidity has a chilling effect that makes me even clumsier in my articulation. I don’t want that passed on to any student.

I do also have an academic interest in the topic. The role of humour in education is something I’ve thought about a lot, as the jokes used in the Horrible Science series form a chapter of my PhD. I touched on this work in a post for the Guardian Science blog festival last year (see this post); asking people who use comedy in science to think about the ways in which the processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes can be divisive as well as a chance to laugh amongst friends. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t crack jokes, but you should think about their context.

Although I wouldn’t take an ‘anti-humour’ approach, I think it’s important to challenge the idea that anything goes as long as it’s framed as a joke, and consider who exactly we place as the butts of our jokes, and why. Humour is by it’s nature fun, but it can also hurt. It is a political act reflecting a cultural location of the joker and their audience; the background and implication of humour is something we should at least be self-aware of.

If anyone’s interested in reading up on the sociology of humour, I found these useful as a way into studying the topic:

  • Billig, Michael (2005) Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour (London: Sage). This can be an intellectually and even emotionally challenging read as Billig puts forward a deliberate poe-faced ‘anti-humour’ approach. Personally I take it as a challenge to stop and think before you succumb to the social pressure of “but you’ve got to laugh, eh, you got to laugh…”, and found it to be a thought provoking thesis, but I know some people found it a bit too grumpy.
  • Davies, Christie (1998) Jokes and their Relation to Society (Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter). Another book with some thought provoking points, especially the section discussing jokes about ‘stupid people’. As Billig has noted (and I agree) Davies is too dismissive of the racism at work here, but I do think there are some interesting bits in this book, especially in terms of jokes in around education and science.
  • Kuipers, Giselind (2006) Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Berlin & New York, Mouton de Gruyter). More empirically based than the last two suggestions and, in my view, catches the right tone of critical but understanding of the social role of jokes. Perhaps slightly less intellectually provocative than Billig, but probably more intellectually sustaining.
  • Mulkay, Michael (1988) On Humour: its Nature and its Place in Modern Society (Cambridge: Polity). In many ways, this is a lovely book even if for my personal taste it isn’t quite as critical as it could be. It has an especially useful focus on the positive role surreal humour may play in finding new ways of thinking about the world. Read it in conjunction with Billig and make up your own mind about humour’s various powers for social good and bad.
  • Palmer, Jerry (1994) Taking Humour Seriously (London: Routledge). A really neat overview of humour studies. Analytical and thorough. Again, it’s not as provocative as Billig’s thesis, but serves as a great introduction to the subject.

On laughter and ridicule

I have a post about science and humour as part of the the Guardian’s science blogging festival. Go read, and have a look at some of the other blogposts while you are there.

The interactions between science and comedy is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. I did some work on humour in popular science discourse as part of my PhD. I’ve given papers about it at the LSE and University of Manchester. Somewhere on my hard-drive have a draft journal article (email me at college if you’re interested in the bibliography).

As I say in the Guardian post, I think we need to remember the ways in which humour reflects communities of shared understanding. A premise of a joke could be thought of as the basis of a question: do you understand it, do you agree with it? If so, laugh. If not, you scowl/ are left confused. The processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes is both divisive and inclusive, bringing people together as well as demonstrating where they don’t connect. I don’t think we can escape this; we just need to be aware of it.

On this topic, I can recommend the first chapter of Giselinde Kuipers’ book (pdf). The whole book is good, but that’s the free bit. Also, this study of jokes told amongst mathematicians (pdf) makes a great example of jokes within a science-ish community.

The piece is also an invitation  to take a critical approach to humour. To stand up proudly sour-faced in front of a joke you disagree with. In this I am partly following Micheal Billig’s approach to humour. Billig argues we must go against an unthinking celebration of humour: “The critic has to examine the idea that the world might be changed by warm-heartedness, lots of hugging and a little more laughter” (Billig, 2004: 11). In doing so, “We might appear anti-humour, but there are worse crimes” (Billig, 2004: 9). It’s a  bit like a call to remain sceptical of humour. Personally I think an anti-humour approach is slightly grim, I’d rather celebrate jokes I like than just beat down the ones I don’t, which is why I included (admittedly awful) jokes in that post, and why I asked for examples of favourite jokes at the end. But I do also think we should retain some scepticism over comedy.

Jokes are a way of expressing opinion, and we don’t all agree on everything. A good laugh can be brilliant. So can a clever joke. It can make you happy and it can make you think. It can also be deeply offensive and make you cry. Just because it’s a joke doesn’t excuse the latter two reactions.

… and yes I have seen this xkcd and I do think it’s funny (because I recognise it), but I’m really not saying this to be superior. I hope that’s clear because the main reason I care about this issue is that I’d love an escape from one-upmanship when it comes to public debate about science and technology.