A Punch Line with a Purpose

How many climate skeptics does it take to change a light bulb? None, it’s too early to say if the bulb needs changing. I could already hear the collective groan of the Internet as I wrote that and, really, I don’t blame you. Humor has long been a rhetorical tactic for getting serious points across. Many great satirists like Shakespeare and O. Henry essentially made their careers off doing just that. In modern science, our attempts at humor are usually cheesy at best. They typically manifest as a “clever” title for a manuscript or a talk in the following format: “Some Play on Words That is Meant to Be Funny: Serious Statement About What We Did.” I find that these attempts at being amusing range from fairly funny to seriously groan-worthy, which usually depends on how forced the joke is. The aim could be to lighten the mood of an otherwise dense paper or to draw in listeners at a busy conference. But there may be an even better reason to include a bit of humor in communicating your research. As the organizers of the Ig Nobel Prize* say, “First make people laugh, and then make them think.”

Humor is one way to present an idea that may otherwise polarize an audience. President Obama recently used this tact when we called upon comedian Keegan-Michael Key as his “anger translator” in addressing his frustration over climate change deniers in Congress and the media’s tendency to sensationalize just about everything. The bit was so successful, even Fox News had to (bitterly) admit that it was “a hit”.  People seem to open up more to ideas they would otherwise dismiss immediately if the pitch is softened with a bit of humor. This can be a particularly useful tool for scientists trying to communicate such “controversial” topics as climate change and evolution to the general public. Some people might even say that the ability to make people laugh is part of being a good leader.

Still, there are some downsides to this approach. As many other blogs have discussed, a study found that journal articles with amusing titles tend to get cited less often. In this sense, being funny could totally backfire and make you seem like a less serious, credible source of information. I do think it’s important to note that the aforementioned study only looked at psychology journals. So it is possible that the acceptance of silly titles varies by field (An ecologist and a psychologist walk into a bar. Do they both find it equally funny?). I’ll admit that I would rather cite a paper that has a concise and straightforward title than one that seems to be trying too hard to be clever or amusing. Is humor a good tool in communicating serious scientific research? I certainly don’t have the answer but I am interested to know what people think. Perhaps, like everything, there is a time and place for humor in science and some of us are better at it than others.

Found through http://skeptikai.com/2012/10/25/the-weapon-of-comedy-why-humour-gets-the-point-across/

* Pronounced as “ignoble prize” and given annually to “ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research”.

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