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Science: A Laughing Matter?


The Guardian recently published an amusing compilation of science jokes solicited from a variety of scientists. They range from classics you may have come across, like these:

A psychoanalyst shows a patient an inkblot, and asks him what he sees. The patient says: "A man and woman making love." The psychoanalyst shows him a second inkblot, and the patient says: "That's also a man and woman making love." The psychoanalyst says: "You are obsessed with sex." The patient says: "What do you mean I am obsessed? You are the one with all the dirty pictures."

There are 10 kinds of people in this world, those who understand binary, and those who don't.

After sex, one behaviourist turned to another behaviourist and said, "That was great for you, but how was it for me?"

To less familiar specimens (for me, at least!), like these:

A statistician is someone who tells you, when you've got your head in the fridge and your feet in the oven, that you're – on average - very comfortable.

A blowfly goes into a bar and asks: "Is that stool taken?"

Why did Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli work in very small garages? Because they were quantum mechanics.

Besides making us chuckle, these discipline-based jokes illustrate something interesting about the psychology of humor.

As anyone who has spent time in a foreign country knows, "getting" a joke can require quite a lot of background knowledge and shared cultural assumptions. When it comes to scientific jokes, you often need to know some science, and part of the pleasure in exchanging such jokes derives from the common ground that doing so can establish.

It's a way of saying: "Hey! We belong to the same exclusive club and know the same secret handshakes!"

Taking this idea one step further, a classic theory of humor called the "superiority theory" suggests that humor is often about patting ourselves on the back; we laugh at shortcomings and misfortunes to affirm our own supremacy. A 1907 paper attributes the theory's origins to Hobbes, who wrote:

The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others or with our own formerly.

It's hardly a flattering portrait. But I think it gets something right about the satisfaction that comes with getting a joke, of knowing you're in the club.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker suggests that, whether convivial or aggressive, humor often involves some reduction in dignity in a complex social negotiation of dominance and authority. Sometimes humor degrades others, to establish our own superiority or that of our group. Sometimes it's self-deprecating or gently teasing, to signal that we're equals.

Used wisely, scientific humor can be an invitation to join the club rather than a way to mark group boundaries. Some insider jokes — such as philosophers' "Proofs that P" — can be very funny for the initiated, but totally opaque to novices. Others trade on more familiar concepts, and seem to say that science is for everyone, that science is accessible, that science can be fun.

Even if getting some science jokes requires a little extra work (or maybe just force times distance?), you'll get benefit from both the laughter and the learning.

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.