Thursday, 26 February 2015

Is Science fun or funny?

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

The hugely popular sitcom Big BangTheory is now in its eighth season. In so many ways, it’s like other hit television sitcoms – the joys and sorrows of human relationships, the art and science of human communication, the kindness and meanness of human behaviour, and the rationality and emotionality of human actions. Like Friends, another legendary sitcom, Big Bang Theory revolves around the lives and times of a group of friends and acquaintances.

The difference, however, is that the main characters of this show are scientifically inclined, including two physicists, an astrophysicist, a neuroscientist, a microbiologist, and an aerospace engineer. Their conversations among themselves as well as those with lay people are both thought-provoking and funny.  But inevitably, the conversations have science either in the foreground or in the background. Take a recent episode, for example, when two of the characters seeking to lead a dark matter research expedition in a salt mine are questioned by their friends who don’t believe they have the necessary attributes to withstand the difficult conditions. The characters go about proving their mettle by sweating it out in the extremely hot and narrow confines of a steam tunnel at their University. No matter how funny the dialogues or the settings are, the science in the sitcom is always accurate.

In an earlier blog, we talked about science and humour and how science comedy is indeed a current rage. So are humour and entertainment effective vehicles for science communication? Do they help broaden public understanding of science? Given that science has typically been perceived as a world of complex equations and theorems and abstract theories – in other words, an exclusive domain for nerds, the use of humour does help break down perceptual barriers. Teachers often use jokes and fun experiments to attract the attention of students to understand concepts. But they also run the risk of over-simplification and stereotyping of science and scientists.

In an article forthcoming in PUS (also referred to in an earlier blog), Hauke Riesch of Brunel University undertakes a critical review of the literature on humour and science communication. The article is aptly titled “Why did the proton cross the road?” The author draws on insights from the sociology of humour to take a deep look at the effects of humour on “the science-public relationship” and notes that these effects may not always be benign or helpful to the cause of public engagement”. Some obvious benefits notwithstanding, there are some pitfalls of using humour injudiciously. These pitfalls, Riesch says, include “fostering ingroup cohesion through insider jokes and the construction of reverse-dialogue re-appropriations of the geek stereotype or by excluding imagined outgroups through negative stereotyping”.

There has, of course, always been a fine line between making science fun and making fun of it in the context of public understanding of science. Now is the time for a meaningful conversation on whether science should be portrayed as 'fun' or 'funny' and whether losing sight of the line between fun and funny has an impact on public understanding of science.