Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Research that makes people laugh and then think

"Humor is intrinsically a risky business, since it succeeds only if those present respond in the desired way. In mixed groups where some people are highly vulnerable in various ways and others are extremely secure, it is not an accident that humor tends to be initiated by the secure. It is also not an accident that the readiness of others to become secondary agents increases in proportion to the security and power of the joke's initiator ... If all the people involved are peers, then much of the moral danger involved in acts of humor is avoided. This is not because nothing can go wrong, but because if it does, there is some chance of a direct response. The situation is quite different if the people involved are non-peers." (Harvey, J. 1995. "Humor as social act: Ethical issues." The Journal of Value Inquiry 29:19-30.)

Tomorrow in class we'll be discussing the role of humour in science and technology, and the possibilities of humour as social and cultural critique.

Using the Ig Nobel Prizes and one of my favourite blogs - Improbable Research: Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK - as case studies, we'll be talking about humour, power and exactly what it is that people can laugh at and think about in these scenarios.

What about science and technology makes you giggle - or laugh so hard you snort liquid out your nose? And what do you think after that?

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Blogger Biella said...

thanks for posting this! i am working on a chapter that links hacker humor to the pragmatics of hacking. looks like just the sort of thing i want to read!


Blogger gordonr said...

It might be the over-tired state which I normally find myself reading (the hrs before I drift off to sleep), but I've found Latour's Aramis to be quite funny and have actually laughed out loud at a couple of parts...

Anonymous anne said...

sounds good biella - but the article is kinda weird. it never looks at self-deprecating humour, for example, or anything that could be understood as "laughing with" instead of "laughing at"... just something to bear in mind :)

and no fair gordonr - we want to know why it was funny! ;) who or what were you laughing at - or was it with?

Anonymous ville said...

I personally have been lately thinking about why on earth written scenarios about information and communication technologies suck so bad - as a literary text, i mean. (well, I have a few guesses..)

In many of the cases there must be some hidden wish by the researcher to be the worlds greatest sci-fi author, which makes them write bad scifi which has people in empty rooms using technologickal devices or something happening by accident and technology solving it without friction. (It would be funny to see some bad amateur theater play out some of the classic tech scenarios.. :)

It would be nice to read a comparative study on the literary qualities of the influential and not-so-influential historical texts on computing tech and see, that to what extent are the classic texts better writing than the ones which are considered worse.

But this is an evil laughter, not a joyful one. :)

Blogger Jake said...

"Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture's being drained by laughter?"
-Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death

Anonymous Rob said...

Sounds like you could do with a bit of Arthur Koestler.

Anonymous anne said...

ville - what kind of texts are you talking about, and who are the intended audiences, do you think?

jake - thanks for bringing up the important matter of being careful to distinguish *when* humour is productive and when it's not!

rob - i had to look up koestler because i'm unfamiliar with his writing...can you explain a bit more where you see humour coming in?

wikipedia sez: "The post-modernist scepticism colouring much of this writing tended to alienate most of the scientific community" but i think that's exactly the kind of humour i'm trying to avoid.

i regularly read ben goldacre's bad science column, and although i enjoy much of it, and even laugh out loud sometimes, i'm consistently turned off by the kind of irony (not humour!) needed to maintain such disdain for external critiques of science.

snobs are snobs are snobs, it seems. and they're all rude, not funny. but having said that, i think that context is the single most important bit: humour is so highly situated that it's almost impossible to talk about it outside of particular assemblages of people in particular places. for example, the kinds of humour i enjoy while drinking beer with my friends (as you've witnessed, rob ;)) are substantially different from what i say in class or write here or talk about at work.

Blogger Gordon said...

I meant to update this some time ago. And since posting, i've loaned out my copy of Aramis to a friend (a real life spaceship engineer no less, I kid not). I think the parts I found the funniest were the sections of dialogue between the student and the sage, the pesky young narrator fresh with his ideas about how things work in the world and the wise (cracking) sociologist. There was some good comedic tension between the two that kept the narrative marching forward and kept you going between the technical passages, contradictory interview snippets, etc.

Blogger Ccaasseeyy said...



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