Humor in Science (Episode 1: Writer’s Block)

Humor in Science, Posts

The stereotypical scientist is a highly intelligent, socially awkward, and humorless person, obsessed with unearthing “the truth.” Scientists seem to be always on the verge of becoming crazy. They tend to develop aspirations to either save or overtake the world. And when scientists speak to us they inform us about the facts. They tell us what has been measured. They read us from the book of nature.

(Did you expected to see a man on this picture? If so, what does this tell us about the stereotypes of scientists? Do you see a woman on this picture? How can you know? Anyway, this is not the topic of this post – Image: surya91)

Humor is less often attributed to scientists. Humor seems to have no place in science, other than as an object of research. Yes, of course, there is a science of humor! There are theories of humor which attempt to explain what humor is, what social functions it serves, and what would be considered humorous. There even is The International Society for Humor Studies, publisher of the quarterly journal, Humor: International Journal of Humor Research. Among the journal’s top 20 most downloaded articles are:

But luckily (and funnily) the science of humor is not the only way in which humor is in science. Often unnoticed, we find humor in science itself. After all, scientists are also only apes – like all of us! And as such, they must have humor, too (Gamble, Jennifer. 2001. “Humor in Apes.Humor – International Journal of Humor Research 14(2).).

Being a (social) scientists and ape myself, I can confirm that this is “true”! In this new series of mine I will prove that scientists are a funny tribe by showcasing humorous scientific publications. Apart from funny remarks in scientific publications, of which there are plenty (certainly more than anyone expects), there are truly humorous scientific publications which as publications function like good jokes. Why do these get published then? Because they are funny and because good jokes can educate.

Episode 1 introduces a pathbreaking article by Dennis Upper, published in 1974 in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis on the “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘writer’s Block”:


Note that

[p]ortions of this paper were not presented at the 81st Annual American Psychological Association Convention, Montreal, Canada, August 30, 1973 (my emphasis).

Given the severeness of Upper’s findings, his article has inspired some important follow-up research. In 1983, Geoffrey Molloy successfully (or unsuccessfully?) replicated Upper’s original study in Perceptual and Motor Skills. Two years later, Skinner et al., also in Perceptual and Motor Skills, suggested a group modification of these self-treatment procedures. Finally, in 1996, Skinner and Perlini reported that

[w]eekly one-hour administration of these group protocols has continued to be ineffective over a 10-yr. follow-up period.

…too bad!

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