Sunday, 31 August 2014

Science and humour

So why did the chicken cross the road? Going by an exhaustive compilation of humorous responses, the scientific possibilities are endless. Ask an evolutionary biologist and he would say: “It was the logical next step after coming down from the trees”. A physicist on the other hand would begin by trying to find out if the chicken crossed the road or if the road moved beneath the chicken.

Humour is increasingly being used to communicate the complexities of science to lay people. Indeed, as Paige Brown Jarreau says in her recent blog "Making people laugh about science: It's a good thing" in SciLogs, "science comedy is a hot thing". Brown especially highlights the role of humour in engaging the attention of children to science in the classroom by decreasing their "anxiety over 'hard' complex topics". 

In her blog, Brown also interviews DeanBurnett, scientist, comedian and the writer of the hugely popular BrainFlapping blog on the Guardian web site. As Burnett says, “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.”

Brown’s blog also cites the work of Bruno Pinto, David Marcal, and Sofia Vaz in Public Understanding of Science who found in a Portugal-based study that “stand up-comedy has potential for science communication because of its ability to get people talking about issues they don’t usually comprehend easily.

This potential, however, comes with a caveat. In an article published online last week in PUS, Hauke Riesch says that “humour in public portrayals of science can have effects on the science–public relationship that may not always be benign or helpful to the cause of public engagement.” The article “Why did the proton cross the road? Humour and science communication” cautions that the use of humour can sometimes perpetuate discourses of superiority, draw lines between insiders and outsiders, and ridicule scientific ways of theorising and writing.

Ultimately, however, humour needs to be used in balance. After all, the chicken needs to look left and right, front and back, and cross the road carefully. The crossing is as much a voyage of discovery as the excitement of encountering a new world on the other side.