Science, like politics, is better when it’s funny

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. In fact, they’re so not extinct that sometimes they poop on our cars. And no one should wonder what dinosaur tastes like because most of us know. In fact, some of us had dinosaur for dinner last night.

Science comedian Brian Marlow sounds a little like he’s ranting as he insists over and over that dinosaurs are still alive. And while his audience of scientists and science communicators is mostly laughing, they’re also nodding. Because it’s true — dinosaurs are extant  —  we just call them birds.

Marlow is a big proponent of using comedy to communicate science, and at this presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, he was in good company. The Using Humor to Address Serious Topics panel comprised three speakers and a moderator, who all believe firmly in comedy as a vehicle for helping people understand the complexities of science.

Marlow initially moved from traditional standup into focusing on science comedy because he noticed that many of his science-based jokes weren’t getting laughs from traditional audiences. And it turned out, there was a pretty big hole in the science humor niche. In fact, at the time, the domain name was still available, so Marlow snatched it up and refocused his career on both telling jokes to scientists, and using jokes to tell science.

It’s this humor part of Marlow’s job that Amy Bree Becker, of Loyola University Maryland, researches. She studies how humor can help deliver complicated and contentious subjects, looking at how comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart discuss politics and science. In something Becker calls the “political comedy effect,” using humor to talk about politics engages a younger audience and acts as a gateway to more news content, while also creating interest in campaigns.

Becker believes this same system can help scientists communicate the complicated work they do. In fact, she said comedy is already driving discussion of science. The Daily Show has a relatively small news hole overall, but it devotes 50 percent more of its news coverage to science than traditional broadcast news outlets.

Neil deGrasse Tyson uses humor to talk about complicated topics, like astrophysics. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Neil deGrasse Tyson uses humor to talk about complicated topics, like astrophysics. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Together with Stephen Colbert, John Stewart helped communicate science by interviewing people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and making jokes about climate change that explained the concept more simply.

Chris Duffy is a former fifth grade teacher-turned-comedian who hosts the podcast You’re the Expert, where comedians talk to different scientists and try to guess what the scientist studies or does. Duffy had some advice for people trying to joke about science.

First of all, when it comes to interviewers talking to scientists, Duffy warns against making fun of them.

“The joke is not ‘How weird is it that you study that?'” he said. “It’s ‘How weird is it that we don’t know about that?'”

Second, he says it’s okay to ask dumb questions or explain simple concepts. The lower the barrier to entry, the more people who can learn and enjoy the science.

And at the AAAS conference, full of scientists and science communicators, that last point isn no joke. Whether they’re laughing or not, the more people who care about science, the better.

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