No laughing, please, I'm a scientist.
July 9, 2016 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Where does the "scientists are humorless" trope come from? Was there a particular early famous scientist who was specifically known as such and made a large impression on subsequent media depictions?

It seems to me that scientists tend to be more funny (and fun) than the average person, not less, so it's odd that this is a thing. Is it a post-WWII "all scientists are German" thing?
posted by dmd to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe Mister Spock from Star Trek?
posted by The otter lady at 7:43 AM on July 9, 2016

I feel like I'm more inclined to think of Archimedes running through the streets naked shouting "Eureka!", Einstein sticking his tongue out, or Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, than a humorless scientist.
posted by XMLicious at 7:44 AM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The otter lady: wrong directionality. Spock is a fictional character. I'm asking "why spock".
posted by dmd at 7:52 AM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fictional characters can have influences on what follows them too, so this doesn't necessarily have to have started with a real person. Not that I think it was Spock -- he's too late.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:57 AM on July 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

It probably comes from writers who don't know any science or scientists. Which also explains a lot of TV writing about science.
posted by srboisvert at 8:02 AM on July 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

My guess is that it is a reaction to fun things being shot down by know-it-all types. The know-it-all type then gets conflated with scientists.

During a thunderstorm, the fun kid says "Listen, the gods are bowling". The know-it-all says "actually, lightning superheats the air and causes a sonic boom..."

Walking through the woods, the fun kid says 'listen, the birds are singing love songs to each other." The know-it-all says "well, actually, mostly they are yelling at each other to stay away from my territory"

Fun kid says "The moon is made of cheese!" know-it-all kid says "no it's not."
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 8:06 AM on July 9, 2016 [15 favorites]

At the beginning of the 20th century, a major project of science (and medicine, and government) was public health. If that was a large part of the average person's direct interaction with science, could that have resulted in an image of a scientist as someone who scolds you to pasteurize your milk, spray for mosquitoes, get vaccines, and not throw poisonous things into the bonfire even though it's fun to watch them burn?
posted by XMLicious at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2016 [8 favorites]

You might also look into the word "egghead." Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture might also have good background on this question.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

I thought poor Isaac Newton was the archetype. Neither made nor appreciated jokes, never laughed (except, reportedly, once) and had no chill at all when Pepys and Locke tried to get him laid/married/otherwise "embroiled with woemen". Lots of speculation as to the causes but he stood out for his lack of humor, even among others with scientific interests.
posted by notquitemaryann at 8:21 AM on July 9, 2016 [10 favorites]

The "average" person just may not get the jokes of scientists and take a bit of droll commentary as overly serious.
posted by sammyo at 8:50 AM on July 9, 2016 [10 favorites]

Maybe it's because, when they're doing science, scientists are supposed to look at actual evidence, not their feelings, and they aren't supposed to let their feelings affect their judgment about what they see. So if you were a scientist studying monkeys, you wouldn't want to give them all names taken from your friends and family members and imagine they had corresponding personalities, or interfere if your favorite monkey got attacked by another monkey or a predator, or give extra food to your favorite monkey, or even have a favorite monkey in the first place. If you were a physicist, you wouldn't want to assume a certain idea was wrong because it came from someone you hated or that another idea must be right because it was supported by people you liked and respected. You'd want to look at the actual evidence, without letting your emotions get in the way.

None of that has much to do with humor, but if scientists are seen as people who have deliberately shut off their emotions in order to do science, then it makes sense that they would be humorless, too.
posted by Redstart at 8:54 AM on July 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

How about Goethe's Faust, part I (1808):
"Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grĂ¼n des Lebens goldner Baum."
"All theory is gray, my friend
and the golden tree of life is green."

I'm sure that Goethe was reflecting on something that was in the air.
posted by Namlit at 8:56 AM on July 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Like notquiremryann said, Newton was famously humorless, but matters weren't helped by the fact that members of the Royal Society - the first scientists - were viciously and consistently skewered by the Augustan wits (Pope, Swift, etc.) in the early 1700s who represented themselves as the funny ones and the scientists as the "dull" butt of their jokes. This is known as the battle between the ancients and the moderns, and it is a fascinating slice of literary/scientific/cultural history. Joseph Levine is the man to read. See his Dr. Woodward's Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. It's probably also worth remembering that early science was dead serious business, embroiled in a host of conflicts and controversies both political and religious.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:03 AM on July 9, 2016 [23 favorites]

Great question! Maybe science teachers and science tests in school? That seems like it would be the biggest source of science exposure for most writers.
posted by clawsoon at 9:08 AM on July 9, 2016

It's perhaps a stereotype based on the fact that scientists have been the ones to hold the (sometime unenviable) position of insisting on the rigors of science and the scientific method when others are tempted to do less. As such, there is a "gate guarding" aspect to the profession that is built in, and sometimes feels somewhat killjoy when others aren't quite as adept at it. From early on, you couldn't be a good scientist without insisting that these fundamentals are in place before starting a good investigation. I imagine it's been hard to sell this non-negotiable foundation in person or in story in a way that always sounds winsome and exciting, although the things that come as a result can be pretty enticing. Additionally, some people who are drawn to analytic professions may also naturally more no-nonsense than, say, stand-up comedians (although they also take their professions seriously). So, in the history of science, when science was becoming good science, it likely lead to the kinds of impressions that eventually made Spock such a known character, as it was built on temperaments that were already anticipated to get the results of logical and scientific investigations. Of course, it's like a number of professions: there are perceptions from the outside that soften up quite a bit once you get to know people and their unique personalities. There are things in my job that I'm pretty no-nonsense about (and a certain subset of people will know me for this), but I really like to have a good time both in my job and in my relationships at work and at home. Unfortunately, stereotypes are often built from a limited set of interactions with public perception, and sometimes the interactions that are most insistently defended.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:54 AM on July 9, 2016

As others have said, I'm almost certain that "humorless" follows from the slightly more realistic idea of scientists as dull, hyper-rational rule-following know-it-alls. I also think that "engineer syndrome" plays into this.

To take a more friendly/optimistic approach, I think that scientists are taught to think about things in a non-linear way. Now, comedians are, too, which is why a lot of scientists are actually really funny and not humorless at all! However, I think that a lot of jokes rely on expected patterns of thought and behavior. Since scientists have been trained to question assumptions and and analyze patterns, I think that can sometimes result in certain individual scientists coming at jokes from an unusual direction that results in them not "getting" it. I have a good friend who's a scientist, and he obviously has a sense of humor, but it's clear in the ways he reacts to my jokes that he has an unusual way of approaching what makes something funny. Which often comes off as him being oblivious to the joke.
posted by Sara C. at 9:56 AM on July 9, 2016

Newton, the public health example, and particularly pinkacademic's comments about the answer being in the history of science itself - one can see the trope arising just pondering the origins of science (in the western mind) from the philosophers to being the practice of "natural philosophy" to "science" - are right on the nose, IMHO.

To add a different take: As a scientist I also wouldn't be surprised if the very practice of science lends itself to that impression. I would consider that I have a good sense of humor - like most people do, haha! - and I certainly know lots of scientists, very good scientists, who do have a sense of humor. But practicing science involves a few things that probably come off as very humorless, among them a) tendency toward obsession; b) data collection and entry itself, which involves a certain discipline; and c) integrity.

Let's face it, to the average layperson data collection can look very boring. If you walked up on me collecting and describing rock samples every 10 cm from a 10 m cliff of shale, it would look like the most boring thing ever (and honestly, it can be). There's no visible humor there. Doing that involves discipline, and discipline comes off as humorless.

Intertwined with that discipline is that I consider my profession and work a matter of honor. There can be no lapses in integrity. It's something I - and almost every scientist I know - take extremely seriously. (There are lots of arguments against that, of course - see: industry funded research; the inability in our time to publish negative results; etc.) But on the whole - at least in my scientific discipline, I should say, I can't speak for others - the idea like our work is only as good as our data or that our theories may be wrong but that's okay as long as our data can still be used involves my and a lot of other scientists being very solemn about it. One could say my theories are wrong, one could question the data itself (as in, didn't look at x) and that's okay. But the slightest hint that my data involved any kind of fabrication or a charge of a serious lapse in methodology (I actually collected those 10 cm samples willy nilly, intentionally ignored sections and didn't mention it, etc.) and my integrity/reputation as well as any work before and after would be forever questioned. So it's easy for me to see the humorless scientist trope arising from that alone.

So there are a lot of times when I want to make jokes like putting pieces of shale over my teeth and pretend I'm a hockey player (yep, I'm a real laugh riot) but since I have my "professional pants" on I don't, or I'll save it for a break, because being professional overrides everything else. And this realllllly comes out in the main medium of communicating science, the peer-reviewed paper, which tend to be super dry and humorless - the academic language, rhetoric, and structure all - which comes back to the history of science since the philosophers.

Anyway, just my two cents. An interesting take on it would be to investigate the trope beyond European influences - are there similar tropes in other regions and cultures, and if so, when/how did they arise?
posted by barchan at 10:38 AM on July 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

High Context and Low Context culture

Humor is very context dependent. If you have to explain the joke, it isn't funny. If you are greatly more educated than people around you, a lot of what they find funny will reveal errors in their mental models (or sometimes ugly social assumptions that more educated individuals typically find objectionable). If you attempt to explain to them that their assumptions are incorrect, you are the asshole know-it-all that everyone hates. If you are more polite than that and restrain yourself, you still won't laugh at their lame, possibly ugly, jokes.

A charitable reading: Different cultures often fail to get the jokes of the other culture due to a lack of shared context.

Less charitable: The uneducated "unwashed masses" are not going to be happy with better educated people not appreciating their dumb, often savage, sense of humor and will blame the scientist for failing to get the joke rather than embrace the idea that their jokes are dumb and often ugly.
posted by Michele in California at 10:40 AM on July 9, 2016

Your question made me curious as well. Ran across this interesting thesis on the history of the journal Nature, which has a few interesting nuggets that may shed some light, to wit:

1) the word "scientist" was conceived of in the 1830s to provide a counterpart to "artist"
2) most working scientists in Britian hated the word for its imprecision and there was resistence to adopting in for nearly 100 years
3) the preferred term was "man of science" intended as a counterpart to "man of letters"
4) in discussing whether to go ahead and let people use "scientist" in Nature (in 1924), the editors of Nature go off on a long tangent about how the general public thinks of scientists and science writing as dull, in-artful, inferior to literature and philiosphy, and of scientists as narrow, philistine, despite the fact that most spoke several foreign languages, etc.

Basically, I think pinkacedemic's on to something. The Nature discussion suggests that as late as the 1920s there was an anxiety among the scientific elite that science was still considered inferior to, and in opposition to, the liberal arts, un-refinied, dull, technical. Therefore perhaps we may infer that the scientist was conceived of as one who shared these qualities, that for one to privalige science over arts suggests one incapable of appreciating the finer things, the subtler emotions and sensations art, music, literature are intented to evoke.

Also, according to the thesis, the "Germans are aces at science" thing is a thing by the mid-19th century, it's not a post WWII deal.
posted by Diablevert at 10:43 AM on July 9, 2016 [8 favorites]

The Nature discussion in the 1920s is a product of the English class system. I would hope it's not relevant to attitudes in Europe and the Americas at that time. That was when the US was canonizing inventors like Edison.
posted by monotreme at 11:29 AM on July 9, 2016

I'm a scientist and I've often wondered that too because me and my friends are hilarious. I happen to be the child of a writer who is friends with a lot of TV and movie writers and when I asked they said it's just a trope and it's also something the actors learn and play to so even if the character isn't written that way it'll often be interpreted that way. Then there was some muttering about the average actor having a 7th grade education and the directors being worse, haha. My exposure to industry people confirms this honestly. I've been involved in enough science/ media projects to see there's a real disconnect. The media people want to tell a story and dramatize it more than it is in real life. The science people get annoyed by that and then everyone gets huffy.

There are lots of movies that scientists do like : Jurassic Park, The Martian (although there is no fucking way a biologist would know hexadecimal without a chart, I am one), Contagion stuff like that.
posted by fshgrl at 11:31 AM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Although some of the answers sound plausible I think it may have more to do with how stories get put together than anything specific to scientists. There are also "academics are humorless," "bureaucrats are humorless," "schoolteachers are humorless," and any other number of related tropes. Plus "scientists are crazy," "scientists are absent minded," "scientists are sadistic" and so on--it's not like "humorless" is the only popular image.

A lot of stories (real or fictional) told by non-scientists are naturally going to put scientists in the role of authority figure, who will then be deflated or shown up. So depicting them as a dull & humorless is a natural narrative choice.

I do like mrgoldenbrown's point about know it alls. Who tells you that your cool story is an urban myth or your clever idea to cure cancer isn't novel and isn't even worth trying? Certainly someone who is at least a scientist-sympathizer, so the killjoy archetype is going to ring true enough.
posted by mark k at 5:27 PM on July 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I wonder if the fact that scientific professions are friendly to people on the autism spectrum plays a role.

"Why did the chicken cross the road?"

"For any one of a number of reasons. Predator avoidance, mate seeking... I'd need more data."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:29 PM on July 9, 2016

My guess is that it stems from lay people making the same dumb jokes about and to scientists and their fields and the scientists not laughing because they've heard that lame-ass shit before.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:57 PM on July 9, 2016

You can always blame the Two Cultures, and however accurate or inaccurate the concept may be it's almost a meme in its own right.
posted by Coaticass at 9:04 PM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

It also plays to the popular conception of academic types -- especially engineers, computer scientists and other physical scientists -- being socially maladjusted, isolated, or somehow incapable of connecting naturally to other people. As opposed to, say, a standup comic, who is presumed to be a master of reading a crowd, talking to them, telling stories, connecting with them.

(PS, speaking as a scientist, can I just take a moment to reiterate how brutally and desperately unfunny The Big Bang Theory is?)
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 1:27 PM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm a scientist (analytical chemist ). If I'm even half as funny as I think I am... I'm *hilarious *. But I'm willing to admit that, at least in my current group at work, I'm an outlier. I crack jokes and they go right past my coworkers. (Not even high-brow stuff sometimes. Just a corny pun ) My current theory is that several of them are mildly autistic.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:11 PM on July 11, 2016

« Older NYC Backcountry Camping from Public Transportation   |   Plugging a U.S.-U.K. converter into U.K.-EU Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.