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Humor in Science Communication – How Much Is Too Much?

We all love to laugh.

Whether it be a funny viral video or the farcical antics of a friend, a good laugh starts a cascade of endorphin releases in the brain that make us feel cheerful, positive and fulfilled. Indeed, the ability to laugh is an aspect of our make-up as humans that seems to set us apart from animals. It is a universal experience that draws us closer together as a human race.

However, there is always that person who takes it a little too far. For example, in every circle of friends or relatives around the world, there’s always a ‘cemetery joke guy’. Without fail, upon driving past a cemetery, one of a selection of cheesy jokes will come out of their mouth.

“Hey look! It’s the dead centre of town…”

“Hey that one’s nice… I bet people are dying to get in there…”

“I don’t want be buried there… heard it’s full of old stiffs…”

All we can do is roll our eyes, lay our head in our hands and cringe so hard we squeeze out a noise that is more a forceful exhalation of breath than a chortle; and only implemented to acknowledge that the person did in fact speak and to prevent them repeating the verbal drudgery again.

The next level of awkwardness comes when they brazenly disregard their audience, fall back on one of their recycled delights, only to find that somebody has a relative in that same cemetery.

Too far…

The scenario above highlights the need for balance when it comes to using humor. One recent study, from the Journal of Science Communication, suggests that this is also the case with science communication.

Appropriately Season Your Science Communication with Humor

In many Asian countries, you’ll often have your socks blown off by how salty the food is. I know where I currently live, the perception is that something is not tasty, or even edible, if it’s not incredibly salty. However, for the average set of taste buds, it can be a little too full on, and after the first few mouthfuls, it’s too much to bear. Ironically, it’s at this point that it’s inedible.

Adding humor to science communication is much like seasoning food with salt. Of course, food needs salt. Likewise, if your science communication is completely void of humor, it lacks “flavor”; it’s dull and unpalatable. On the other hand, too much humor and it drowns out the flavor of everything else; and like the scenario above, it can be repulsive and hard to swallow. The right amount of humor, however, enhances the flavor of the message, making it not only easier to ingest, but pleasurable to do so.

About now, you may be justifiably put off by my cliché illustration. However, the piece of research that I cited earlier seems to indicate that this is very much the case with science communication— humor usage needs to be balanced. If this balance is not achieved, it can have serious consequences.

Misuse of Humor in Science Communication – Potential Consequences

In the communication of research

When communicating research, one potential consequence of the misuse of humor is that it can cause one to misinterpret the seriousness of the message. For example, excessive use of humor may cause one to have a lackadaisical view of climate change, and potentially deter them from actually doing something about it. Therefore, it would be wise to assess the seriousness of your message and the science at hand. It may, at times, move you to leave out the jokes and puns, in favor of more insightful and persuasive comments.

Alternately, if there is not enough humor in the communication of your research, especially if your research covers subjects that aren’t as serious in nature, it can be as boring as watching a sloth play lawn bowls.

In the classroom

From my experience, there is always a place for humor is a classroom. Students love a good sense of humor and it often endears them to their teachers. It can also be a powerful tool in terms of learning and motivation. However, the effectiveness of humor in the classroom setting appears to be related to the type of humor that is used and how it is used.

Positive, non-aggressive humor, as in a well-timed pun, science joke, funny video, meme or spontaneous fit of silly acting can aid in learning and re-call. On the other hand, negative and aggressive humor, such as impersonations, stereotypical jokes, and snide comments regarding a student’s classroom performance or academic trajectory can have a less than desirable effect. The latter is often done to establish power boundaries, or perhaps to jolt a student into action. However, it is more likely to jolt a student into feelings of embarrassment and the subsequent disengagement.

Don’t worry. I’ve done it before. Sometimes we get carried away and things come out by accident. I distinctly remember a time when I said something to a student that resulted in a wave of snickers across my class. At first, I thought I was pretty funny too. But once I realized that it could have, in fact, upset the student in question, I spent considerable time awkwardly trying to undo the damage. Thankfully, he was a rambunctious and happy-go-lucky kid by nature. Sometimes you won’t be so lucky. And there will be tears…

In matters of policy

Politicians place a huge value on having a sense of humor, especially in countries such as the UK and Australia. If they are seen engaged in humorous dialogue, or having a whale of a time in activities perceived to be “normal”, they feel they can counter common perceptions of elitism and win over the hearts of the public.

And so, it’s no longer a novelty to see politicians standing around with pints of beer, having a laugh with their buddies, dressed in funny outfits, being spontaneous. I’ll never forget when the former Prime Minister of Australia thought it would be a good idea to bowl a cricket ball in front of a crowd of curious spectators and media personnel, only to bowl it off target and straight into the ground. Or President Obama’s off-target ceremonial first pitch to open the 2010 Major League Baseball season at Nationals Park—hard to forget!

Although amusing, these scenarios highlight another potential consequence of the misuse of comedy in the communication of policy to the public. Along with the dignity and good reputation of the politician in question, the robust discussions between stakeholders and the public that policy making merits, can go straight out the window with wings. The effect on policy discussions is much like that described earlier— it can dilute their importance and lead to disinterest and disengagement.

Use of Humor in Science Communication – The Take Away Message

Don’t get me wrong, I am a strong advocate for humor in science communication. I have always used it in my teaching. However, like adding salt to a dish, balance is required, and how much you use depends on the “dish” itself.

My words of advice? Use humor in line with the material at hand and remember who you are talking to. Be careful not to trivialize an otherwise critical issue or inspiring story with excessive humor. If you do use humor, focus on things that are universally funny. Be witty, but not condescending. Do not be overly casual and especially avoid stereotypical jokes.

How much humor is too much? Like eating an overly salty dish, it’s when it ceases to be pleasurable to ingest. If you can read your audience, you’ll know when that happens.

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.


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About the Author
  • Tyler Berrigan

    Tyler Berrigan began his career in STEM as an analytical chemist and laboratory technician; later making his transition to secondary school science teaching. In recent times, he has followed his passion for writing, working as a freelance writer on a number of projects in the areas of STEM and Education. His mission is to bring STEM back down to Earth and make it accessible to all.

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