Making People Laugh About Science. It's a Good Thing.

Why was Schrödinger afraid of his cat? Shutterstock:

Because it was both dead and alive at the same time! 

Alright, so admittedly I’m no quantum theory comedian. But if you brushed up on your science communication strategies recently, attended a talk at a local science museum or read a Brain Flapping post by Dean Burnett at The Guardian, you might have noticed that science comedy is a hot thing.

And for good reason. It turns out that using humour and even stand-up comedy to communicate science may be an effective strategy for helping audiences “become more open to and interested in subjects that they would probably otherwise ignore.” Although humour is not a standard mode of communication in traditional scientific mediums, scientists and science communicators are recognizing it as a powerful (and eccentric) tool for engaging lay audiences in science and prompting critical thinking. Some researchers suggest that a humorous tone might help promote positive engagement with largely negative scientific issues such as climate change. Comedy shows about science, including Big Bang Theory, can also be a “gateway drug” to more serious science news.

Sheldon: I read an article about Japanese scientists who inserted DNA from luminous jelly fish into other animals; and I thought "Hey! Fish night-lights".

Leonard: Fish night-lights.

Sheldon: It's a billion dollar idea, ssh!

Since the late 1990s, The Annals of Improbable Research, a magazine that spoofs scientific research, has been issuing yearly Ig Nobel Prizes that honor “achievements that first make people laugh, and then makes them think.” In 2013, the top psychology Ig Nobel Prize when to researchers who confirmed by experiment that people who think they are drunk… also think they are attractive. The researchers demonstrated in barroom settings that participants consuming fake alcoholic beverages were in fact led to think they were drunk, and subsequently gave themselves overly positive self-evaluations on a “drunk speech.” Yes, this is published research. LOL.

“The frozen Tundra methane holds

In ancient blogs and swamps of old

But when the melting process starts,

We’ll burn our ass when the arctic farts.” – Extract from U: The Comedy of Global Warming

In a 2013 published study about a stand-up comedy project in Portugal called ‘Cientistas de Pé” (translated as ‘Stand-Up Scientists’), surveyed audience members of the show unanimously agreed that humour makes science more appealing. Science communicators participating in the project described the benefits as getting people engaged in otherwise difficult topics such as climate change as “laughter disarms people.”

Humour has also been explored as a way to teach science to children. Entertainment media, even cartoons such as Finding Nemo, are increasingly incorporating elements of science to develop realistic and engaging plot-lines. Scientists have also increasingly taken a part in being science advisors to Hollywood. Who said education shouldn’t be fun, nay, funny? Humour may have positive effects on attention, attitude and engagement with science in the classroom, and may decrease anxiety over ‘hard’ or complex topics. For younger children, science comedians might use slapstick and “toilet humour” to engage them. For older children and adults, puns and wordplay can enhance attention and higher level cognitive processing. (But no matter how old you are, how can you pass up reading about sparkly bat poop? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Just come back later!)

“Whether entertainment or educational, programming needs to grab the viewer’s attention, and this can be achieved through the use of humour and powerful narratives. These components motivate viewers to keep watching and as a result they can assimilate knowledge.” – Learning Science Through Humour


Funny narratives may even help us better remember presented facts: “Emotional scenes in movies can trigger the release of noradrenaline [or norepinephrine, a stress hormone] in limbic system in the brain improving memory at that particular time (Southwick et al. 2002). Moderate emotion–causing (i.e. mild humour) events are better remembered than neutral ones (Gibb 2007).” An upper threshold seems to exist though – if you have people doubled over in laughter, they might focus more of the “funniness” of the moment than cognitively processing any scientific information embedded in the humour.

While more research is needed on the media effects of science communicated with humour, the studies discussed above give us a good basis to explore this new format for science communication.

But let’s ask a science comedian himself about the benefits, and any potential pitfalls, of being funny about science. I present to you Dean Burnett, neuroscientist, comedian, and author of The Guardian’s Brain Flapping.

1) Can you tell me about your own experiences in communicating science with satire/humor? How did you get into it?

Dean: I never really planned on being someone who does this, it was more of an unconscious, organic thing. I come from a family of enthusiastic amateur performers (choirs, Karaoke, dances) but I have no detectable rhythm or musical skills. However, I always loved making people laugh, despite being too shy and awkward to do it properly. Went to University, first in my family to do so, and gained some confidence. Studied neuroscience, really liked/like it. Always wanted to do stand-up but never had the guts. Then between graduating and getting a place on a PhD course, I spent 18 months embalming cadavers for a medical school. This pretty much altered my whole perception of what 'scared' me, so I ended up giving stand up a go, seemed to have a knack for it.

I did want to be a proper scientist still, and I still thought science and humour were incompatible at the time, given that everyone I knew seemed to think this. I kept my proper work and my comedy sideline separate. Then I ended up in an escapade involving the 'most depressing day of the year'.

Given what this did to my academic reputation, I essentially abandoned all ambition to be taken seriously, so started doing science-based comedy. Started a blog to see if I could, to be honest. There's plenty of comedy about complicated subjects like politics, but not science, so I tried to see if I could do some. So far, so good.

I've found that using humour and satire does make a subject more accessible, particularly to those who aren't already trained scientists. The most obvious example is alternative medicine, which relies on far-fetched unscientific claims. Most science writers seem to try and tackle this with a no-nonsense detailed critique of the claims, but that isn't how your average person communicates or thinks. I've found that a catchy or easily-understood simile/metaphor is far more effective than pages of precise details, and helps you point out the ludicrousness of some claims, whereas a painstaking review can be seen to imply seriousness to the casual observer.

Recently, there was a Science Media Centre call out for neuro people to comment on the 'mini brains grown in the lab' research. Despite people far more qualified than me weighing in, my quote was picked up by the mainstream as I said we haven't grown actual brains in jars, as trying to get these to mimic full brain function would be "like trying to run Windows 7 on an abacus". It's to the point and a bit funny, so sticks in the mind a lot more than a detailed explanation. That's what I've found, anyway.

2) It seems that in recent years there have been more projects and efforts to bring humor and stand-up comedy to science. How do you think humor/satire improves science communication, with a view toward benefits for audiences and public understanding of and engagement with science?

Dean: I've always said that if you can laugh at something, it robs it of its 'power', so to speak. This is why dictatorships are so opposed to being spoofed and satirized, I guess. While it seems like that would be a bad thing for science, I think it really helps to have this lofty, superior facade people seem to attribute to science and scientists removed. Science is everywhere and happens all around us, so it should be as relatable as possible, especially as much of it is publicly funded.

If people can laugh with/about science, then they won't be as intimidated by it, and will perceive that science is a very human endeavour, not some monolithic process hiding behind the walls of academia and curated by emotionless intellectuals.

There's also some basic psychology to think about. If you present something in conjunction with a positive stimulus, they will like it more due to associative learning principles. So if you present science with humour, people will associate good feelings and positivity with scientific information, and that probably doesn't hurt.

[Author’s Note: There is actually research to back up the claim of needed to present positive visuals with negative information, or vice versa, in environmental communication. I’ve spoken to environmental psychology scholar Beth Karlin about this before.]

3) Is all humor in science communication created equal? Are there better ways of doing it better? Are there potential pitfalls or negative effects of using humor to communicate science to be aware of?

Dean: This is a difficult question to tackle thoroughly as humour is such a subjective thing, but here are my thoughts on the matter.

I really like that using comedy in science communication and science-based comedy is becoming more common, but there are a few approaches I question.

There's the issue of science communicators feeling they have to try to be funny, and I don't think this helps. If you are a genuinely funny person who wants to do it, great. But humour being so subjective and emotive, a person to whom it isn't 'natural' trying to do funny in a half-assed way can be much more grating or off-putting than them just presenting their info straight. Plus it reconfirms the old 'science and comedy don't mix' cliché, rather than combats it. Humour should be seen as a useful tool, rather than a requirement. I think most do see it this way though, so it's not a problem per se.

Another issue I have is with the growing number of comedians using science in their acts, but in a rather confrontational or aggressive manner. It's quite common for stand-ups to refer to scientific understanding and principles in order to mock people who believe differently. While there is some merit to this approach in challenging dogmas, it sets up the “us v. them” approach rather starkly, and is essentially using science to belittle others, which doesn't help the whole 'scientists as superior' stereotype.

And perhaps more subtle and an issue for me personally, is that these comics aren't actually doing any humour about science, they're doing jokes and including scientific principles in order to justify belittling someone. The science is presented as is, as if the comic too agrees that science can't be funny but can be applied to make other things funny. I really prefer to make science and scientists the object of the joke.

4) What advice would you give to other science writers or science communicators looking to use humor to communicate science?

Dean: Several possible points exist. If you can't think of something funny, don't force it. An obviously laboured joke (unless that IS the joke) can be a lot worse than no joke.

Writing comedy is something the best comedians make look easy. And it really isn't. Try to avoid the easy joke. If you encounter a subject and immediately think of a joke about it, chances are everyone else will arrive at the same joke just as fast. Usual rule of thumb is not to go with the first or even second joke you come up with, but the third, as that's most likely to be the one that surprises.

Comedy is best when it's relatable. My usual advice is "assume the audience is at least as smart as you are, but doesn't know what you know". This is a useful rule for making sure you are informative but not preachy, and not condescending.

And that's another point, something stand-ups learn a lot faster than science communicators I find, because stand-ups have to earn the indulgence of the audience. A science communicator at an event has an audience that at least knows they'll be getting science and is there for that reason, whereas a stand-up walks on to a room full of strangers who have no specific reason to be supportive to them, but who have paid their money and deserve to be entertained. So you can't condescend or lecture them unless that's obviously part of the joke. Respect an audience, assume they don't owe you anything and try to win them over from the off. You being a scientist doesn't make you any better, that's sort of the point of this.