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May 4, 2012 / sthompson

When You Put It Like That… Humour in Science Writing

When trying to get science information out into the community, and making people really want to know about it, the difficulty is usually either that they don’t easily understand, or they find it boring and are just not interested. One way to make a certain topic more interesting and engaging, is to add humour. It just adds that little extra life to your piece of writing, and can be all you need to go from ‘Nah, that’s pretty boring, I don’t really want to read it’ to ‘actually it’s quite funny and interesting to read’.

‘Roaches and radiation’, by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki uses this technique, to help create interest in what could possibly be an otherwise uninteresting topic to some people. In this text, Dr Karl discusses radiation and the popular myth that cockroaches will be the last living thing on the planet come the end of the world. Whilst cockroaches are indeed more tolerant of radiation than us humans, it turns out that there are many other insects who are much more resistant to radiation than both humans and cockroaches.

By humanising cockroaches, and adding their ‘personality’ to the article, Dr Karl engages the audience, and makes it feel more like a story, which in turn makes the facts seem more interesting. He grabs the audiences attention by making references to things like bands, and adding in extra interesting facts here and there, separate from the body of text. I began reading this knowing that it was a ‘science humour’ piece of writing, and I think this contributed to my initial impression, which was that I didn’t find it as funny as I was expecting it to be, but the humour was still there, more subtly woven throughout.

I find humour to be a very effective technique to add interest and engage an audience. I mean, who doesn’t like something that’s funny? Of course there are limitations to when this technique should be used, and sometimes it’s just not appropriate. It could appear to be in bad taste if applied to the wrong subject. So like everything it depends on what media it is being presented in, and who the target audience is. When used appropriately though, and as long as it matches with your own sense of humour, a piece of writing using this technique would not often fail to appeal to, and successfully engage you.

So for an area like science writing, where one of the most prevalent issues is how to engage the audience and get people interested, humour is a very useful tool. I can’t really think of a better way to engage an audience, can you?

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14 Comments

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  1. elenav90 / May 5 2012 1:08 am

    For sure, humour is a fantastic way to engage an audience. I think it’s particularly useful also in oral presentations: particularly if used at the beginning of a talk, it can increase the audience’s engagement and responsiveness throughout the whole talk. A few jokes here and there maintain this interest, and I’ve seen many speakers do this.

    I agree with your important point that humous is to be structured and limited accordingly to the audience. Lots of silly, unintelligent jokes with kids are fine, but a team of researchers might prefer the sly, subtle occasional lines.

    Finally I believe that humour oughtn’t take over the whole story to give an overall sense of ‘lightness’, reducing the importance of the science treated and dumbing down the audience. It should rather complement the narrative and be used as a tool to maintain audience engagement.

    Thanks for a clearly-structured and interesting post 🙂

  2. noelynn / May 5 2012 2:41 pm

    The post was clearly structured. Good work!

    While it may be true that some people think scientists speak a completely different language, a humour can capture interests from readers. If something is funny, I don’t think it would undermine a writing. Infact, it may add or bring the writing to a wider audience.

    So like elenav90 expresses, that humour is a good way to keep the audience engaged in your communication. It also adds flavor to an oral or written presentation.

    Finally, I agree that humour is a very useful tool to keep the reading audience within your scope of communication.

  3. alistairsisson / May 7 2012 4:30 am

    I totally agree with you; there is no reason not to use humour when writing about science so long as it is not at the expense of conceptual points or facts. Researching for an assignment would be so much more agreeable if there was just the occasional one-liner thrown into the academic paper; occasionally this does happen, but not often enough for my liking.

    Another point you make, about expecting humour and thus being unsatisfied with it, I also support. Rather than having designated people to write humour into scientific concepts, perhaps everyone should just allow themselves to add a little wit into their writing (like you say, where appropriate).

    So, good job, I’m glad to have read your post.

  4. JamieAlexandraGraves / May 7 2012 12:58 pm

    You have made a fantastic point here: “…who doesn’t like something that’s funny?” I think this is the key point to how humour is a crucial aspect of writing and its importance in engaging and challenging the reader. Especially in a subject as dry and arduous as science!

    Great job with supporting this idea with “Roaches and Radiation” by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. I like how you have analysed this text especially where you have said the humour is “subtle”. On this point I agree with elenav90 that humour definitely adds an aspect of “lightness” to any text and in some texts this can be dangerous if taken too far – as elena said reducing the importance of the content”. Another important point: humour should be used only to increase the readers interest in a topic, not to summarise the topic in an unimportant way.

    I also like how you have also acknowledged both sides of the story and embraced the idea that humour can be at times, inappropriate and ineffective. For example when you said the subject matter was in “bad taste”. This is a very important point also – perhaps an example would have strongly reiterated your idea?

    Otherwise, I think you have done a great job on summarising the importance of humour in writing!

  5. priscillalyf / May 7 2012 5:32 pm

    I totally agree when you said that humour in science writing makes the piece much more interesting. Especially if the topic you are reading is not so much of interest to you, but once humour is added to the piece, it could be a little easier to enjoy. This is a very good tool to help the audience engaged.

    I find that I like reading science articles which has a little bit of humour it in, for sure too much humour could lose the essence of the article, like you said but if there is a little bit, I do quite enjoy reading a science article. In cases where the science topic is more serious I find that humour should not be used because humour like what elenav90 said gives a sense of ‘lightness’ and for serious topic there should not be any lightness.

    Another useful tool could be relating the science topic with personal stories, this could give the reader a more personal feel to the story and what has the author experienced based on personal experiences. Once the author has done this the story could become relatable to the reader and the reader would want to read more because he/she would want to know what is going to happen next.

    I really enjoyed reading your post, good analysis on humour and science writing.

  6. lodoubt / May 8 2012 1:37 pm

    Dr. Karl is an old hand at humour in science writing, and whilst it might be poor to say he’s staying in form given the article is 6 years old, I had textbooks in primary school featuring Dr. Karl’s writing. It might be interesting to examine the contrast between his writing in the two (Though I have no idea whether I could find any of those books these days), given your point about not finding it as funny as you expected, and elenav90’s point about audiences.

  7. muza2009 / May 9 2012 12:46 am

    It seems everyone agrees that humour is a good way to engage audiences but isnt it a difficult thing to get across? Lets face it some of us are just useless at telling jokes..humour in science communication is it a naturral talent which extends from the personality of the writer? Or is it something that we can honestly develop? There is nothing worse that a forced joke unless of course you are into reading that kind of dry humour. And to whom and on what subjects is humour a good fit? Cockroaches maybe an easy subject.

  8. michaelpetersen1 / May 9 2012 6:58 am

    Something funny will always be more readable, I agree that humour will always be helpful at communicating a message. The use of huomour to satarise or poke fun at all aspects of society, can in the same way be used to communicate science. I agree with Muza that the most effective use of humour always comes from those that have personality and know how to use it. Its probably not surprising then that the people who use these techniques such as Doctor Karl are our best known scientist and are chosen to communicate science to the public. Einstein one of the bets known scientist ever was also known for his wit and homour

  9. bonnyp / May 9 2012 8:16 am

    Similar to most people here, I agree that the use of humour often makes science writing more engaging. Like noelynn mentioned, it is also important when giving presentations – I know that I always enjoy classes more when the lecturer has a good sense of humour!

    Humour definitely needs to suit the subject matter when writing about science – it may be appropriate when writing about dry topics such as chemistry, when presenting weird facts, or if you are writing for children. However, if someone made jokes in an article about a serious topic such as cancer or global warming I would find it offensive.

    While I didn’t find Dr Karl’s article particularly funny, it definitely had a lighthearted tone and a distinctive personal voice. Cockroaches creep me out big time, so I found that his writing style made it easier to read about a topic that I normally can’t stand.

    As muza2009 mentioned, each science communicator has their own innate writing style, personality and sense of humour (or lack of one!). I think that having a personal voice is one of the hardest things to develop when writing, and overall I would rather read a serious article than one that tried to be funny but came across as forced or unnatural.

    As michaelpetersen1 mentioned many well known scientists have been known for their sense of humour. Creativity is associated with scientific processes like problem solving and innovative thinking, and I think that being funny is definitely a sign of creativity. So maybe a sense of humour is a sign of a great scientific mind as well?

  10. kellyfitzsimons1 / May 10 2012 1:53 am

    I also agree that humour can be a vital tool in making a piece of writing more readable and enjoyable. Personally, I usually enjoy pieces of writing that are funny or have a light-hearted tone like Dr Karl’s article.

    Although to some extent it is true that humour can engage an audience I would have to argue that there are other techniques such as descriptive writing, tone, imagery or personal stories that are equally engaging.

    In my opinion, the ability to incorporate humour into writing is an incredibly talented skill. This is because a complication of humour is that its effectiveness varies greatly across demographic groups and even among individuals. What I find funny may not be funny to you. Also, what men find funny is often very different to what women find funny. What is funny in one country may not be funny in another. Because of this, when writing with humour I would argue that knowing your target audience is essential- maybe even more important than when writing not using humour. What do others think?

    I believe writers need to proceed cautiously when communicating through humour. In today’s modern world where places are becoming more multi-cultural how do writers include humour so that is does not offend culturally different views? Another challenge involves maintaining the credibility of your writing whilst also using humour and using humour in a way that does not distract the reader from the science.

    Also, like others mentioned I agree that the nature of the topic affects the appropriateness of using humour. Humour may not be a good writing style to adopt when talking about sensitive issues such as abortion.

    In conclusion, I believe that humour is a powerful tool in connecting people as everyone likes to laugh and share a joke but remember that different people respond differently to humour. Writers need to remember that there is a fine line between entertaining via humour and providing sufficient scientific information.

    Well done on a well structured post 🙂

  11. amber0699 / May 10 2012 7:42 am

    I believe humour is an excellent way to communicate science to an audience. It keeps people reading an article that they may not have read all the way through had it been written otherwise, and has the potential to get people to read a piece about a topic that they wouldn’t have normally read about. True, distinctions must be made about appropriateness: What is okay to laugh about and what is not. Cockroaches are a great subject for humour as they are universally disliked; writing a humorous piece about research on cancer survivors would be much more difficult.
    I agree with kellyfitzsimons1 that knowing the target audience is essential to writing a humorous piece in order to stay appropriate and make the humour effective. But I also believe that a subtle, woven humour is very relatable to most people, whether they be male or female, and even if they are from differing countries. I think that less might be more with humour in science writing; trying too hard to make the audience laugh would be a mistake as it would take the emphasis off of the science. Anyone else agree?
    Overall it was a well written post and an enjoyable read! You covered most the angles about humorous writing well. I liked the fact that you noted the article had personality, which is another benefit to humorous writing in that it adds style and voice to the piece.

  12. sthompson / May 10 2012 3:12 pm

    Thanks for your comments and feedback!

    I agree with elenav90 with the idea of the use of humour in oral presentations, and speeches too. It’s a great way to lighten the mood, break the ice with the audience, and get them interested right from the start. Also elenav90, your point about humour not taking over the story I think is very important, and I find an article is much better served by added humour that complements the science and the main message.

    Building on the severity of the humour in a piece of science writing, I really liked the way JamieAlexandraGraves put it. That it “can be dangerous if taken too far”. I agree that if there is too much, or it is too strong, it can distract you from the importance of the article.

    Priscillalyf mentioned the use of personal stories and relatability as another technique of engaging the audience, and I agree that this method could be just as effective as humour, and sometimes much more appropriate too.

    I hadn’t really heard of Dr Karl before I read this story, so I wasn’t aware of the previous stories that Iodoubt mentioned, but I think that they would be very interesting to compare to this story!

    I also agree with muza2009 that humour can be quite difficult to get across correctly. I think it definitely comes easier to some people, but I also believe it’s something most people are able to work on and improve. And again the context and target audience is always important.

    Michaelpeterson1 makes a good point about who is chosen to communicate science to the public, and it definitely seems to be those who do it effectively! And it makes sense that this is the case. I also think bonnyp makes an interesting point that maybe sense of humour and a scientific mind are related.

    I very much agree with kellyfitzsimons1 that there are many equally effective tools for audience engagement, and we don’t have to rely on humour. I also agree that target audience is perhaps more important when using humour, because if you get it wrong you could very easily offend people. It’s very important to take into account the fact that people don’t all respond to humour in the same way.

    I think amber0699 puts it well when she says less is more. This is a good theory to avoid letting the humour take over the story, and draw away from the science behind the story.

    In conclusion, I’d like to address again the issue of the questionability of appropriateness of humour on some topics. With sensitive issues such as diseases and illnesses, humour could easily be seen as offensive, and would therefore not have the intended effect. With topics like these, there are other methods to gain an audiences attention, and perhaps personal stories of the author would be more effective. If it were necessary to include humour on a topic like this, or you really wanted to lighten the mood slightly, then perhaps teaming some techniques together could be effective, so it’s not just humour alone. For example, if the author had personal experience on the topic, and was telling their own story to get the audience engaged, a little humour woven through the story would be much less confronting than outright jokes seemingly at others expense.

    I think there’s a consensus that humour in science writing can be extremely effective when used correctly. The balance is the key! The writer needs to find the point where the humour is effectively engaging the audience, and creating interest by complementing the writing, but not too strong for the story, so as to avoid distracting the audience from the main message.

  13. maria93 / May 11 2012 6:16 am

    Humour is a great way to engage an audience and make the topic more appealing and readable.

    I know that I personally enjoy a topic more when there is humour or a personal touch given, especially in presentations.

    I believe that this technique can be used without reducing the importance of the issue being presented and could help maintain the interest of your audience; however I agree that it must be used appropriately.

    Great post!

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