Bill Nye the Science Guy

Nutty Professors? The Case for Scientist-Humorists in the Culture Wars

It's time for the personalities of the science community to emerge from their labs and to get into the ring.

At the historical hub of the culture wars are science and religion. Despite the much-recited protestations that they can live in parallel harmony, or that they can even mutually complement and benefit each other, these two primary “explainers” of the world have butted heads ever since Charles Darwin introduced us to the concept of evolution in his 1859 text, On the Origin of Species. Indeed, the skirmishes even precede this seminal faith-quaking book, as Galileo could testify to — were he still with us.

If investigation and open-mindedness are scientific behaviors at odds with the dogma and fixed beliefs of faith, one might ask: can humor, a communicative method more in tune with scientific perspectives, be employed as a methodology to combat antagonistic religion?

Contemporary culture wars, though, have been playing out ever since Jerry Falwell led the forces of evangelical Christianity out of its churches and onto public stages, in the process enabling Ronald Reagan to become the 40th President of the United States in 1981. Since then, science, previously enjoying a consensus acceptance and public funding that brought us great advances in medicine, technology, and space, has come under scrutiny, its legitimacy and credibility challenged on multiple fronts by the forces of faith.

Evolution, despite the mountain of observable evidence that validates it, has since been under assault from so-called creationists, who even concocted their own pseudo-scientific alternative with the concept of “intelligent design”. Their attempts to shoe-horn its principles into school boards, textbooks, and curriculums have made the evolution-creation debates the principal battlegrounds of the culture wars. Although a series of legal defeats have kept the creationists at bay and intelligent design (legally) banished from America’s public schools, one recent study shows that even today 13 percent of public school biology teachers are teaching creationism and 60 percent refuse to openly endorse evolution (“Evolution, Creationism, and the ‘Cautious 60 Percent’”, Steven Newton, The Huffington Post, 23 July 2012 ).

The future, alas, could prove equally ominous. As I write, one of America’s candidates for the Presidency is so intent on pandering to the evangelical base of his party that he has compromised his previously held views on evolution, incorporating creationist beliefs to arrive at a convoluted position of “theistic evolution”. If elected, we can assume that Trump’s basket of fundamentalist voters will be calling for this oxy-moronic theory to be introduced into America’s schools’ biology classes. His running mate, furthermore, assumes an even more anti-scientific stance, wholeheartedly embracing the thoroughly debunked views of the Young Earth Creationists. For parents and their children — indeed, for all advocates of science education — the stakes could not be higher.

But where have the scientists been while their lay advocates and lawyers have been fighting the good fight? Some would respond “in absentia”. For many scientists, these skirmishes are not their concern, and they regard participating in discussions with the faith lobby as beyond their professional purview, outside the sanctity of their labs; such fights, they feel, are better left in the more capable hands of politicians, social activists, and lawyers. This, coupled with the reality that most scientific work involves arcane studies written in even more arcane language, has left scientists in an arena where they are willing and able to speak to each other but to few others beyond their enclaves. As a consequence, creationists, alongside vaccine critics and climate change deniers, have been dominating debates in the courts of public opinion. The primary victim here is not the science community, but a general public increasingly deprived of a legitimate education, a healthy environment, and, perhaps, a future world for our children to inhabit.

The trend of anti-intellectualism that has been fostered as a result of faith-driven anti-science has created an environment today where science and scientific methods have been marginalized by all the bluster, obfuscation, and politicking emanating from (mostly) one side of the debate. Today, the scientific way is not presented as the best way, but as just one of many ways. Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness” so pervades American culture that the mythical stories of The Bible or the anecdotal commentary of a celebrity on-line are afforded and awarded equal gravitas alongside the studies and verified evidence of educated scientists. Furthermore, because the scientific “way” always presumes that it doesn’t necessarily have all the answers and that its findings may change with subsequent discoveries, the huckster with a more assured belief, one confidently presented with dogmatic simplicity, offers the apparition (to some) of greater authority. One might say that, ironically, the scientific calling for observation, evidence, and verification doesn’t always help science in a culture more ruled by succinct one-liners emanating from Twitter.

If investigation and open-mindedness are scientific behaviors at odds with the dogma and fixed beliefs of faith, one might ask: can humor, a communicative method more in tune with scientific perspectives, be employed as a methodology to combat antagonistic religion? Should scientists themselves be using humor as vehicle to return to the public stage, to participate in dialogues they have been notably absent from but which threaten their very worth and legitimacy in the modern world?

Like science, humor is not a belief system but a way of thinking, not a philosophy but a method of interrogation. Like so many humorists, too, scientists are skeptical by nature, particularly on matters of religious faith. According to Richard Dawkins in his 2002 TED talk, only seven percent of the leading US scientists in the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god. While no such study exists for humorists, it would not be outlandish to speculate that a similar statistic would probably reflect the theistic beliefs of our leading critical wits. Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, Louis CK, Lewis Black, Sarah Silverman, Julia Sweeney, Jim Jeffries, Doug Stanhope, Eddie Izzard, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver are just a handful of current comedians dedicating much of their craft to satirizing the anti-scientific forces of faith. Even Stephen Colbert, a practicing Sunday School teacher for the Catholic church, uses much of his TV airtime (often accompanied by the likes of Neil DeGrasse Tyson) scornfully mocking creationists, anti-vaxxers, and climate change deniers.

So, could these “surrogate” comedians offer templates and models from which public scientists might learn? Moreover, would humor from scientists be successful against the combative forces of faith? Regarding the latter, one must consider the possible effects of humor alongside the motivation of the humorist. Wielding Humor as a Tool”, an essay posted on the Richard Hawkins Foundation website in 2014, considers the perennial debating points surrounding Superiority humor, an approach of critical humor that often manifests in satire, parody, and sarcasm. Here, the question of whether such humor is helpful in combating creationism is considered.

Science-deniers tend to be conservative and religious, and their beliefs tend to be strongly held and are often impenetrable to the skepticism or criticism of outsiders. When threatened on their core beliefs, this constituency invariably closes ranks, dismissing views — and even well-verified evidence — that might collide with their dogma. Mockery, for this group, is variously viewed as patronizing, insulting, or even the prompts of the devil. It’s often said that the most potent satire punches up rather than down, and though one could hardly consider any of the major religions as powerless, many of their followers feel this way, particularly as mounting scientific findings result in the removal of more bricks from their once sturdy wall of faith. For an often poor and uneducated congregation that has little left but faith to cling to for assurances, the ridicule of “smart aleck” comedians is often perceived as elitist and condescending.

The challenge set out in “Wielding Humor as a Tool” is to mock the ideas rather than the believers, and to engage rather than ostracize those believers, such that they will want to question their own beliefs. Here, tone is just as important as style, and the article asks us to consider the light-hearted appeal of parody rather than the aggressive directness of satire as potentially the most persuasive method. Cited as an example is the faux faith of The Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), a long-running parody religion that highlights the absurdities of all denominations by forcing observers to recognize the selective hypocrisy at the heart of religions’ institutional machinery and machinations. If other religions can impose themselves upon our public schools, government, and spaces, asks FSM, why not them? FSM forces faiths to see religion from another perspective, and to hopefully then recognize the special rights that they have come to assume, expect, and enjoy. Moreover, attempts to rebut the playful parallels and illustrations of FSM just make the complainer appear privileged and prejudiced, traits tailor-made for Superiority humor.

“For better or worse, comedy has emerged as one of the most visible platforms for laying bare the insanity of anti-science reactionaries,” argues Sarah Gray in her 2014 Salon article, “Comedy vs. Anti-Science”. As already noted, a cast of contemporary comedians have brought this issue to the forefront, but what about the scientists themselves, a group so often reticent to even speak to the public, never mind integrate wit into their limited rhetorical repertoire? For Gray, science must not be left defenseless against the more socially mediated, meme-savvy trolls and advocates of the religious-political right. Citing the regular appearances of Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson on The Daily Show and other talk shows, Gray argues that it’s time for the personalities of the science community to emerge from their labs and to get into the ring.

Such a proposal doesn’t come without concerns, of course. Nye and Tyson aside, how many legitimate scientists are capable of adjusting their science-speak to a more public-friendly rhetoric? How many scientists have the wit(s) about them to both engage and entertain? There’s only one thing worse than a humorless scientist attempting to communicate to a lay crowd: one who thinks he is humorous but is not!

Two scientists willing to experiment with the potentially combustible mix of science and humor have been James Vernon McConnell and Marc Abrahams. A Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Michigan, McConnell was the founder of the Worm Runner’s Digest in 1959, a planarian-themed humor magazine that published such articles as “A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown”. After complaints that the satirical and the scientific contents of the journal were indistinguishable, McConnell took to printing the humorous pieces upside down. Abrahams is the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony Awards, a parody ceremony held annually at Harvard University since 1991. Seeking to “first make people laugh, and then make them think”, the Ig Awards was once presided over by an eight-year-old girl entrusted to keep the acceptance speeches short; it also boasts an array of real Nobel Laureates on hand to give out the awards.

Politics sometimes enter the Ig proceedings, too, such as when Dan Quayle was awarded the Education Prize “for demonstrating better than anyone else the need for science education”. Alas, the former Vice President didn’t show up to collect his prize. Although largely in-house, the humor of the Ig Awards shows the possibilities of enlightenment through humor, as well as the endearing quality of self-deprecation. The event’s much sought after tickets and always guaranteed full house also indicate that science can be a crowd-pleaser given the right delivery system. The Awards show, too, that humor can be used as a populist device to present science and scientific methods. Of course, in order to do battle in the culture wars against anti-science antagonists, a rather more pointed humor might be required, one delivered by confident public intellectuals willing and able to fight for the causes of science, using techniques suited to recruiting and re-educating the uninitiated or ill-informed. Though few in number, such public scientists have existed and do exist today.

Using markedly different methods of humorous expression and argumentation, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Brian Cox — let’s call them the Sci-Five — offer potential models by which current and future scientists might sway a belief-entranced populace away from the teachings of faith and towards a more scientific way of measuring and experiencing reality. Whether combative (Dawkins and Cox), conciliatory (Sagan and Tyson), or downright wacky (Nye), these scientists’ humor-laced rhetoric might not only lure some of the faith-hearted, but their efforts are actively turning the tides of public debate. Should they prevail in the culture wars, they might even help save the human species from itself.

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