Laughter in the Lab: the indisputable importance of humour in scientific discourse

Kevin Lyons discusses the vital role that humour plays in scientific research and explains the predominant lack of humour in peer-reviewed scientific publications.



If you tickle us, do we not laugh?

Science is a serious business. It requires serious people to write serious grant applications, to convince serious funding agencies to support serious research projects. Furthermore, the results of these projects are published in serious peer-reviewed journals, which are read by other serious people, who plan and conduct further serious research projects – and so the investigative cycle continues.

This inherent seriousness is perhaps one of the reasons why the revelations of scientific research and their associated implications are relatively well-respected by the general public. However, this rigid image of the scientific process also serves as fuel to the public perception of the scientist as a solemn humourless recluse, despite the fact that virtually every popular science communicator – Neil deGrasse Tyson, Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker included – proves this to be wrong in every possible way.

No doubt there are some schmucks that fit the stereotype, but the fact is most scientists – like the Germans –  haben einen Sinn für Humor.

Anyone looking for an entertaining and informative account of the history of scientific humour could do worse than to read a series of four articles published in the biochemistry journal Trends in Biochemical Sciences between 1995 to 2001, written by Dr. Jan A. Witkowski – current Editor-in-Chief of the journal, and Executive Director of the Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Over the course of these articles, Dr. Witkowski comes to the conclusion that although virtually all scientists have a sense of humour, they may feel as though they lack the appropriate platforms from which to publicly express the fact, due to the stodgy and conservative nature of formal scientific discourse.

In support of this claim, and to give his findings “a veneer of scientific respectability”, he conducts a rather tongue-in-cheek survey of humour in biochemistry research articles, concluding that the percentage of humorous and witty articles in the surveyed journals “was not statistically different from zero”. One possible explanation for this tendency to eschew humour in scientific writing, is that the editors of these journals, and others, are perhaps worried that readers may confuse real science and parody, or that any linguistic idiosyncrasies or other shenanigans may serve to diminish a journal’s integrity. Given the necessary competitiveness among peer-reviewed scientific publications – and the desire of every journal to publish articles which will boost their reputation, their so-called ‘impact factor’, and perhaps their advertising revenue – these concerns are not entirely unreasonable. Of course, this is not to say that the fortifications of formality remain forever unbreached.

In 1978, the Journal of Experimental Medicine accepted and published a paper written by the renowned immunologist Polly Matzinger. The paper’s suspiciously Tolkienesque co-author, Galadriel Mirkwood, was later revealed to be Dr. Matzinger’s beloved Afghan Hound – much to the annoyance of the journal’s editor.

Fortunately – for scientists and non-scientists alike – formal scientific journals are not the only outlets for scientific humour and creativity. Spoof journals such as The Journal of Irreproducible Results and the Annals of Improbable Research are the inevitable response to this scientific solemnity – producing articles, written by scientists, which mimic the style of conventional journals, but which have titles such as The Effects of Peanut Butter on the Rotation of the Earth, Infectious Diseases In Bricks, Acoustic Oscillations in Jell-O: With and Without Fruit, The Taxonomy of Barney (the friendly, purple and green, anthropomorphic dinosaur) and Apples and Oranges: A comparison.

In keeping with the format of many actual research reports, these amusing articles are often replete with unhelpful diagrams, incomprehensible charts and meaningless tables. And it gets better. Every autumn, at Harvard University, the creators of the Annals of Improbable Research host the First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony – a deliberately-misnamed event, which celebrates ridiculous and ignoble research projects “that first make people laugh, and then make them think”.

Since 1991, 10 Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded annually to scientists from across the globe in recognition of bizarre feats, such as “measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam”, “testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds)”, and for mathematically proving “first, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again”. Seriously, who funds this stuff?

How many scientists does it take to change a lightbulb?

In 1991, the English actor, comedian and writer John Cleese – of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame – gave an impressively well-researched lecture in Grosvenor House Hotel in London on the subject of creativity. This lecture was recorded by the video production company Video Arts (which Cleese co-founded in 1972), as part of a series of training videos to be sold to businesses – presumably to encourage employees to “raise the bar”, “bring their ‘A’ game”, “give 110%”, “synergize”, “think outside the box”, “maximize overall core competency”, and generally improve their ability to “do good business going forward”. Whatever the reasons for Cleese’s lecture – the video of which is widely available online – it constitutes a truly first-rate example of effective and meaningful communication between a speaker and his audience, delivered with that characteristically Cleesian blend of empirical wisdom and unexpected humour.

Anyone who has ever attended a talk or lecture of any kind will know of the challenges posed to the notoriously short human attention span by such an event. When these challenges are multiplied by back-to-back presentations at a scientific research symposium, an academic convention, or a seminar series, it seems safe to say that virtually every audience member will suffer a lapse in focus at some point, regardless of how interesting the material might be.

Some scientists make a deliberate effort to inject moments of humour into their academic presentations to prevent their audiences from drifting – often by including a relevant New Yorker cartoon, or a few philosophical panels from well-known comic strips like The Far Side, Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes – but this practice is perhaps not as widespread as it ought to be. Cleese’s lecture is a perfect example of this ‘humour injection’ technique, interspersed as it is with attention-grabbing sprinklings of banter and buffoonery – specifically, lightbulb jokes and the blowing of a perfectly-timed raspberry. Most, if not all, of Cleese’s gags are not in any way directly relevant to the subject of his lecture, and yet they act as perfect wake-up calls that draw our focus back to the words of the speaker in a very powerful way. Cleese argues that humour whisks us from the rigid and restricted ‘closed mode’ of thinking, to the ‘open mode’ – where we are more relaxed, more receptive and more creative – faster than anything else.

The fact that even the most irrelevant jokes can have this effect, suggests that the effect is not dependent on subject matter. That being said, if the use of subject-orientated humour is deemed more acceptable in a professional or academic scenario – where other forms of humour may be considered deviant – then perhaps scientific humour is the form of humour scientists should value most. Another reason to favour this approach, is that the setting of a formal scientific presentation often imposes certain implicit behavioural limitations on the speaker with regard to lightbulbs and raspberries. However, bearing in mind that – as Cleese puts it – “people learn nothing when they’re asleep and very little when they’re bored”, shouldn’t scientists make a conscious effort to prioritize effective communication over solemnity?

Also, what better way to encourage non-scientists, reluctant undergraduates and young children to take an interest in the natural world than by enlightening them, for example, as to the wonders of herring communication – a process which requires a fish to gulp in air, store it in its swim bladder, and expel it later through a posterior duct with a sound resembling high-pitched flatulence (Ig Nobel Prize in Biology, 2004).

The ability of humour to stave off boredom and arouse curiosity is probably reason enough to value it in the context of scientific discourse. However, perhaps the most important aspect of humour, in terms of its usefulness in a research setting, is that it promotes creativity. A study carried out in 1995 by Vaughan Goddard at the University of Surrey, found that subjects who had watched a stand-up comedy video before taking a creativity test scored higher than a similar group of people who had watched a serious documentary film.

This insight, and others, should arguably be incorporated more fully into scientific education, communication and research. If humour promotes creativity, then complete humour deprivation in science – either in the form of an intentionally-imposed prohibition, or when unintentionally introduced as a by-product of seriousness, stress and unease – surely has an unhealthy effect on scientific innovation, which we would do well to resolve.