Why Science Needs Comedy

September 21, 2023
Sarah Adelman

I’ll never forget the Hannah Montana episode where Miley is struggling to learn the names of the bones for science class and realizes that she could ace her test by writing a song to remember the information. Until I watched that scene as a 10-year-old, I’d compartmentalized everything “creative” into one box and everything “serious” into another box; after all, school was separated into clear subjects, with very little overlap between sciences and the humanities.

As silly as it may sound, Hannah Montana’s bone song gave me permission to start being creative in my other school subjects to help me memorize topics and engage better with the material. I quickly wrote a song for geography class to memorize all the European capitals (which I still use to this day), and I taught the song to my classmates who also used it to help them study. I wrote a poem in math class about the number nine, the multiplication of which I truly struggled to commit to memory, and immediately started getting better grades on my times tables tests.

My desire to have a foot in both the creative and science worlds is a central theme of my life, most recently as a stand-up comedian who talks about my science career on stage. I’ve benefited enormously from blending these seemingly separate disciplines; the skills I learn in comedy help me be a more effective communicator in the science field, and the diligence and attention to detail I’ve learned as a scientist make me a better comic.

But why is the STEM field so hesitant to use humor, especially in communications with non-scientists? As Edward Bankes wrote in a paper for the journal Humor in 2023, there is a pervasive fear that using any form of lightheartedness in scientific communication could undermine science’s authority. However, I argue that the possibility of a hit to scientific credibility is vastly outweighed by the enormous benefits that comedy can bring to science communication; humor can bring accessibility, engagement, and even better adherence to public health recommendations.

To the layperson, engaging in scientific media and literature can be daunting, bland, and boring. For empirical and theoretical papers published in peer-reviewed journals where the primary audience is made up of STEM researchers, I am not concerned about the entertainment value of communication. However, when speaking to the public, data shows that the use of comedy can make daunting or scientific information far more engaging. For example, a 2018 study found that satirical advertisements and messaging about MMR vaccines were more effective at reducing vaccine hesitancy than non-humorous messaging. A 2020 study found that a scientific video featuring science-themed stand-up comedy with a live audience was correlated with viewer’s intentions to learn more about the scientific content and a more positive attitude towards the scientific information. And, while not explicitly science, this fascinating 2019 study found that serious news segments about Syrian refugees were less effective at garnering a more positive public attitude towards refugees than satirical ones.

Almost all scientists have the same goal: to have their results disseminated, understood, valued and integrated into society. The science community should view humor as a tool that can significantly help with engagement, trust, and understanding of material. I think science could learn a lesson from my 10-year-old self; that blending humor, art, and science together can often lead to better results than if the disciplines are always kept separate.