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Science: Add Humor and Stir – Wocka, Wocka, Wocka!

Stand-up PhD defenseLaughter can be a joyous shortcut between people. It’s relaxing, and a playful way to engage our minds.

Science, on the other hand, can be tough to explain and digest. Traditional methods can be hard-going. So many of us reach for humor when we talk science. Comedy makes things accessible.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

It’s very easy for a joke to fall flat. The doom Angus is plunging towards here should be obvious – something called a PhD defense sounds intimidatingly formal, I hope. But I don’t know if the incongruity that gives me the giggles will hit a chord with others. If you’re not a fan of a certain muppet, “hey wocka, wocka!” just won’t have the same effect it does on me either.

People not being amused is far from the main way that humor can go horribly wrong. Any joke runs the risk of causing offense. Insider jokes like this one can back-fire, alienating people and reinforcing negative stereotypes. While I’m just trying to bring the silly, this joke will chime with superiority overtones to some (cringe). Whether something’s funny to you, how funny it’s appropriate for you to be, and how genuine amused responses are depends a lot on who has the power.

Bad timing can be a killer as well. (My sincerest apologies to any reader incorporating comedy in a PhD defense later today!)

Given humor’s importance and risks in science communication and education, it’s a pity it hasn’t been studied more.

Screenshot of John Oliver
Masterclass: John Oliver tackles dodgy science on nutrition, Last Week Tonight (click image to view)

However things are looking up. There’s now a Centre for Comedy Studies Research at Brunel University in London. And sociologist Hauke Riesch, who’s also at Brunel, has just published a paper aiming to open up an academic discussion on the use of humour in science communication and public engagement. (I’ve thrown in a comment on PubMed Commons.)

As Riesch points out, academics critically dissecting comedy is a bit of a hard path, but necessary. Attempts at humor aren’t a simple guarantee to better understanding or engagement with science.

Many science communicators are convinced that science infotainment is a route to scientific literacy and curiosity – a kind of “gateway drug” to the hard stuff. But I agree with Riesch that we can’t be sure about this. What’s more, there’s good reason to doubt it. An average positive, negative or zero impact are all possible at this point. Skill and context are also going to be big influences on the balance of benefits (and for whom) with harms like trivialization, polarization and deepened prejudice.

Screenshot of video
Diseasemongering parody by Miranda Burne and Ray Moynihan (click image to view)

The role of gentle comedy in technical education, and satire in peer-to-peer and policy communication, seem to me to be clearer territory.

On April Fool’s Day several years ago, a little group of journalists and scientists from Australia launched a parody-based campaign to highlight the dangers of medical overdiagnosis.

The video above was backed up by a piece in the British Medical Journal. Even though it was done on 1 April, many people fell for it – and some of them were not at all amused. It caused a bit of a stink. But it also put the issue of overdiagnosis front and center for a while and seemed to raise professional awareness. (You can find out more about where this has gone here.) And it would be hard to top another BMJ piece by Nick Craddock and colleagues when it comes to biting commentary on self-citation in science.

Sharing humor can grease communication among peers and fuel camaraderie (when it works!) for many. I’m sure a lot of the Large Hadron Collider crowd had a ball at the CERN stand-up night last year. Or maybe I should wait to be sure till I know if they did it again. Maybe it ended with a bang (boom!).

[Update from CERN: It was the right kind of hit and it’s thriving (with a mention by @EricIdle, no less!). Keep up @ComedyCollider and via video.]

Part of the goal of CERN’s event was to raise scientists’ confidence in public presentation. If it works, especially for groups that are pushing it uphill within science itself, that’s an important intervention. Humor has many forms and potential uses.

Image of a jester
1540 woodcut of a jester by Heinrich Vogtherr the Younger (via Wikimedia Commons)

I get a buzz when I hear of, or see, people using my epidemiology cartoons in teaching and presentations. Providing fuel for those activities is a large part of why I do it. Cartooning also appeals to me because I believe it is a democratic art form.

Mostly, though, my cartooning is explicitly editorial, a type of journalism and satire that I believe has particular power. One of my favorite cartoonists, Judy Horacek, has said the “square” of a cartoon is “a space for an idea to live in.” That idea can be expressed in a way that can be both more biting, yet less confronting, than other modes of expression.

Speaking truth to power: we allow cartoonists and comedians to get away with a lot of it. It’s a rich tradition to walk in. As Samuel Pepys said in the 17th century of Court favorite, Thomas Kelligrew, he “may with privilege revile or jeere any body, the greatest person, without offence, by the privilege of his place.” Of course, even with that privileged place we have for comedy, it doesn’t always end well.

Humor is, in many ways, a risky business.

But then, so is humorlessness.


In the mood for science comedy now? The Smithsonian has a classic must-know top 5 to check out. SciAm has Beatrice the Biologist – Katie McKissock over at Symbiartic, and the science comedian, Brian Malow, at But Seriously.

The cartoon of a stand-up PhD defense is my own (Creative Commons License): more at Statistically Funny. This cartoon pays clumsy homage to the wonderful muppet, Fozzie Bear. “Wocka, wocka, wocka!” was all that muppet had to say to make me laugh – even though stand-up wasn’t really his forte.

I don’t know if anyone’s tried stand-up PhD defense yet – but there is a dance your PhD contest.

The woodcut of the jester (Schalksnarr in German) is by Heinrich Vogtherr d. Jüngere, Augsburg around 1540, color added later, Schlossmuseum Gotha. Via Wikimedia Commons.

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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