Orange neon sign close-up

Getting funny with facts: how can humor help communicate science?

By Meredith S. Palmer. Mentored and edited by John Arnst.

A statistics professor, a computational biologist, and two professional science communication researchers walked into a bar — or, rather, connected over Zoom at the 2022 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting to explore evidence that humor empowers science communication.

Sara K. Yeo, a communications professor at the University of Utah and Michael Cacciatore, a professor of public relations at the University of Georgia, both research ways that academics can use humor to turn stodgy science into accessible content that engages and educates. 

“Our vision is working with [science communicators] to create content that is humorous and that uses these specific types of humor based on what we know from research,” Yeo said at the AAAS panel held on Feb. 19.

While this may seem like a classic academic ruse to watch sitcoms and stand-up on the clock, developing guidelines on what tone to set, how to tailor your approach based on audience and content and on the appropriate context for levity provides a valuable roadmap for helping scientists deploy humor as an instrument for communication engagement. 

How many professors does it take to change a lightbulb? Professionalism and organizational barriers to levity

Jason McDermott is a computational biologist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory by day, webcomic content creator by night. His art, in his own words, revolves around “the academic process, the agony of submitting papers, and all that stuff.” McDermott doesn’t go for the ‘ha ha funny’ brand of humor, but he uses whimsy to make people think about ideas in interesting ways. While webcomics are a way to express relatable academic frustrations, he stays away from humor that might come across to the outside world as embitterment with the scientific process. 

“People could point to it and see scientists don't even believe their own systems. And that's not true,” McDermott said. Rather, he has seen that his doodled observations build feelings of inclusion and belonging, particularly when an early career researcher can see that those more established than them are still frustrated at the same processes.

However, there is a fine line between laughing with science and laughing at science, particularly for scientists who want to be taken seriously. 

“One of the concerns with being a creator and a scientist is that you're somehow lessening your science by the creation,” said Cacciatore, who is mindful that papers that are light of heart may be interpreted as being light on content. But if you have the science to back it up, can humor be incorporated into how scientists share content with each other?

According to McDermott, the witty academic paper title is esteemed in scientific writing, but once the reader’s attention has been grabbed, scientists are hesitant to use humor to make their content more engaging. Yeo and Cacciatore are actively investigating these concerns, with the goal of providing protocols for being punchy with your papers.  

Knock knock … Who’s there? Tailoring humor to your audience

Chelsea Parlett-Pelleriti, a professor of statistics at Chapman University, started out using humor as a teaching tool — for herself. 

“When I was learning, [making memes] was a good way to digest things,” said Parlett-Pelleriti. “I tried to make things that I wished that I had as a person learning statistics”. 

Drawing on her love of irreverent humor and Monty Python, Parlett-Pelleriti has become a Twitter and TikTok superstar who can make the Bonferroni correction or a sigmoid curve not only intelligible, but entertaining. She soon discovered that people unfamiliar with the ins and outs of her highly technical field were still consuming her content. This realization shaped how she crafted her humor moving forward, aiming for content that was wholesome and accessible enough to inspire further inquiry. 

“The most flattering feedback I've gotten so far is that people will say, `my goal in life is to learn enough statistics to understand this TikTok or to understand this meme,’” Parlett-Pelleriti said. “To me, that says that I'm doing something that allows them to still feel included in the community.”

A major concern with humorous science content is that niche topics can create ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ – those in the know, and those who might feel ostracized by their lack of understanding. Light-hearted and broadly informative humor, Cacciatore said, can be a useful strategy for engaging audiences in topics that they may know little about, inspiring a desire to learn more.  

Once peoples’ attitudes become solidified, humor can be a more polarizing weapon – a wisecrack on climate change can quickly change the climate with the wrong crowd. Both Parlett-Pelleriti and McDermott have noticed that their critical, satirical content tends to receive greater engagement than anthropomorphism or wordplay. 

Satire and sarcasm, Yeo said, “generates a lot of traction with people, right, but it's probably certain groups of people.” Understanding how to best wield humor in a way that is captivating yet inclusive – particularly when aiming to engage underrepresented groups in STEM – is an area ripe for academic exploration. 

While Yeo and Cacciatore continue their professional research on comedy and communication, McDermott informs his science humor style in a more down-to-earth way – by testing material on his children. While these findings guide the content he creates for the world, McDermott thinks they are unlikely to wind up in an academic journal.

“I don't have an IRB in place,” McDermott said, “so I'm not going to publish any of my work with my kids.”

Meredith S. Palmer is a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University, studying ecology and conservation with a focus on science communication and public engagement. She has contributed to numerous documentaries, articles, podcasts, and blog posts. Follow her on Twitter @songofdodo or email her at mspalmer.zool@gmail.com.

Photo: Humor, whether deployed in a manner similar to stand-up or more subtly, can be a powerful tool for science communication. Credit: Carlo Jiminez via Unsplash License.

March 10, 2022

ADVERTISEMENT
BWF Climate Change and Human Health Seed Grants

ADVERTISEMENT
Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communications

ADVERTISEMENT
Advertise with NASW