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Comedians Do Everybody Good (Researchers Included)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In my perfect world, artist-in-residence is just the beginning. In my perfect world, all researchers and research institutions are paired with a comedian-in-residence. The reason is obvious. Comedians have competencies and expertise in areas where researchers *can* be lacking. Let’s take an oversimplified, overgeneralized look:

  • Researchers excel in gobbledygook, making even the simplest of ideas complex and confusing. See ‘academic writing’ as prime example.
  • Comedians excel in clarity; they cut to the chase. Brevity is the soul of wit.
  • Researchers take things seriously. Really really seriously.
  • Comedies take things not seriously. Really really not seriously.

These generalizations and stereotypes about comedians and researchers should be taken with a grain of salt, but my main point should not. Namely, it does scientific pursuits a whole lot of good to add a dose of comedy and laughter.

Let me give you an example.

Earlier this year I learned about You’re the Expert (Twitter / FB), a radio program hosted and produced by Chris Duffy (Twitter) and taped before a live audience. In each episode, an expert in a specialized field is paired with three comedians. Through games, Q&A sessions, and sketches, the comedians try to guess the expertise of the expert, and then the comedians and audience go on to learn about the field’s latest findings and why the field is important. We learn about science through comedy. For example, audiences have learned what whispering about pizza into a sleeping person’s ears does, how to beat Angry Birds, and when size matters, all with the help of experts and comedian counterparts. All episodes are online for your listening pleasure.

I do understand that comedy can be biased. I think Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is funny. You might not. You, of course, are wrong. But pair one dog cognition researcher against three comedians (who know maybe less than a thing or two about dogs), and all dog lovers will be rolling in their seats (and even learn another thing or two about dogs).

Earlier this year, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know and canine researcher, was featured on You’re the Expert. You can access the entire episode here, but let me highlight my favorite bit. Chris Duffy presented the three comedians with a simple question: Can you tell whether this came from one of Alexandra Horowitz’s academic articles about dog cognition or an article about Snoop Dogg? The comedians cracked jokes and placed their bets.

As a researcher in Horowitz’s lab, I was in stitches seeing how the research that I am so intimately familiar with could be easily misconstrued to describe Snoop Dogg. After making their guesses, everyone got to learn about the research in question (and if the sentence was about Snoop Dogg, we all just laughed). You too can see if ‘Snoop Dogg or Real Dog’ tickles your funny bone. You can listen to the live recording–and this segment starts at 46:45–or there is a second option! Chris Duffy took the best idea he ever had one step further and made a visual representation of ‘Snoop Dogg or Real Dog’ and put it on Digg. How many can you get right?

Comedy does a body and mind good (see dry academic papers below for support). Of course there can be caveats — how the humor is done, who feels included / excluded, how learning or understanding is measured — but my point remains. Comedy can make things better, more relatable, and more retainable. Of course, when it comes to comedy, I wish my adolescent brain had retained something other than Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy and Billy Madison quotes…

How has humor enhanced your understanding of science?

~~~
Image: Digg, This Quiz is Ruff Snoop Dogg Or Real Dog?

References
Garner R.L. (2006). Humor in Pedagogy: How Ha-Ha can Lead to Aha!, College Teaching, 54 (1) 177-180. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3200/ctch.54.1.177-180

Gorham J. (1990). The relationship of teachers’ use of humor in the classroom to immediacy and student learning, Communication Education, 39 (1) 46-62. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03634529009378786

Wanzer M.B. (1999). The relationship between student perceptions of instructor humor and students’ reports of learning, Communication Education, 48 (1) 48-62. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03634529909379152

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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