Are You Kidding? Alas, Scientists Rarely Are

By Shlomo  Maital

science humor

   A friend drew my attention to an article in Chronicles of Higher Education, by Tom Bartlett,  Sept. 29, about the utter lack of humor in scientific research proposals, and in general, among scientists.  (An exception is the late Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman, whose book was titled, Mr. Feynman, You Must Be Joking!).    Bartlett asked the editor of the leading economics journal, American Economic Review, whether  “she could think of any joke, any tiny moment of amusement, one solitary witticism that has passed across her desk. Anything, even if it was rejected.”   “I can’t think of a single thing,”  replied Prof. Goldberg, confirming economics’ nickname as the ‘dismal science’.

   Why is this a problem? Why shouldn’t science be utterly serious?  Isn’t humor frivolous?   The answer is no.  Research on creativity shows that among people seeking ideas,  humor, and in general a light, playful attitude,  are powerful contributors to an ambience that generates great ideas.  Show me a stiff, and I’ll show you someone without ideas, in all likelihood.

    Bartlett provides an example. 

    “Stephen Heard once wrote a paper about how pollen spreads among the flowers of a certain endangered plant. In it he speculated that the wind might play a role by shaking loose the pollen. To support his point, he cited “Hall et al., 1957″—a reference to the songwriters of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” But a reviewer nixed Heard’s little joke. “Although I appreciated the levity of the reference,” he wrote, “I think it is not appropriate for a scientific publication.”   

   That reviewer reminds us of the two old grumps in The Muppets, whose total lack of humor was in itself hilarious.    I myself encountered this, in submitting research papers; anything in my writing style that sought to be interesting, journalistic, was instantly shot down, like a shoulder-guided missile homing in on a helicopter. 

    Hey, reviewers!   Lighten up!   Loosen up!  We need new thinking, new ideas.   Absence of humor often means absence of open-ness to anything unusual or weird.   Even Einstein told jokes (bad ones – see above).