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Are audiences receptive to humour in popular science articles? An exploratory study using articles on environmental issues

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This study aims to test the perceptions of audiences to positive and non-aggressive humour in two popular articles. The themes were the effects of climate change on biodiversity and the over-exploitation of species. Both articles were published on-line at a Portuguese environmental site, and readers were asked to answer to an on-line survey. A total of 159 participants submitted their answers concerning their receptiveness to the humour, demographic information and comments. Results showed that the use of humour in popular articles is considered valuable for the majority of these readers, but different degrees of receptiveness suggest caution in its use.
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Are audiences receptive to humour in popular science
articles? An exploratory study using articles on
environmental issues
Bruno Pinto and Hauke Riesch
This study aims to test the perceptions of audiences to positive and
non-aggressive humour in two popular articles. The themes were the
effects of climate change on biodiversity and the over-exploitation of
species. Both articles were published on-line at a Portuguese
environmental site, and readers were asked to answer to an on-line survey.
A total of 159 participants submitted their answers concerning their
receptiveness to the humour, demographic information and comments.
Results showed that the use of humour in popular articles is considered
valuable for the majority of these readers, but different degrees of
receptiveness suggest caution in its use.
Abstract
Environmental communication; Popularization of science and
technology; Science and media
Keywords
Introduction Science communication books often stress that using humour is an important
device through which to communicate with the audience [e.g. Bowater and
Yeoman, 2012]. Though this is not always written up uncritically [Wilkinson and
Weitkamp, 2016], this piece of advice rarely relies on evidence as to humour’s
effectiveness in furthering the goals that science communicators might set
themselves.
Humour has started to be frequently used within science communication, an at
least so far informally acknowledged recent trend [Leach, 2016]. Communicators
hope to use humour to make science communication events or texts more
enjoyable, accessible, to enhance learning about scientific concepts and to increase
positive attitudes towards science and scientists. This trend manifests itself in
various forms: in the UK, some established comedians such as Dara O’Briain, Lee
Mack and Robin Ince have hosted popular science TV and radio shows (with Ince
having recently won the Crick award in science journalism for his work on the BBC
Radio 4 popular science magazine The Infinite Monkey Cage; Chortle [2016]).
Scientists and scientific institutions have also started using comedy, with the
“Bright Club” format at University College London — which trains researchers to
perform short comedy routines about their research — having been widely
imitated [Bultitude, 2011].
Article Journal of Science Communication 16(04)(2017)A01 1
In the US, comedians such as Brian Malow [Malow, 2015] use humour to
communicate science, and science advisors at the successful TV situation comedy
The Big Bang Theory likewise believe that the show can be used to educate about
science [Saltzberg, 2010; Li and Orthia, 2016]. Humour also exists in other science
communication formats, such as webcomics (PhD comics by Jorge Cham), popular
science books (Ben Miller, Pratchett) and social media platforms (IFLS).
Using humour in
communication:
risks and
opportunities
Previous researchers have tried to conceptualise the use of humour [Riesch, 2015]
or investigated the views of science communication performers and their audiences
[Pinto, Marçal and Vaz, 2015; Bore and Reid, 2014]. For example, recent research
focused on a science stand-up comedy project in Portugal, in which both
scientists-performers and audience members argued that this medium has the
potential to make science more appealing [Pinto, Marçal and Vaz, 2015].
Nevertheless, issues such as the fact that the audiences were usually highly
educated people, the peculiarities of the format implying a simplified view of
science and the possibility of misinterpretation of messages due to the humour
were also mentioned. Moreover, Bore and Reid [2014] studied the benefits and
challenges of a satire stage play about climate change and concluded that it
promoted audience engagement, but that the use of humour also encompassed
risks such as the difficulty of catering for different humour preferences in the
audiences, or “preaching to the choir”. Given that the topic was climate change
and therefore a pressing social as well as scientific problem, they also warned that
the use of humour may discourage the audience from taking action. Marsh [2013]
contends that the constraints of comedy performances — where a fairly passive
audience absorbs talk provided by a speaker on stage — may not be ideal for
conducting two-way public engagement dialogues. While Marsh was explicitly
talking about stand-up comedy, similar consideration would apply to popular
science magazine articles.
There is also extensive research about the use of humour in formal education,
which spans over the last four decades. In this long endeavour, some authors have
found that humour is good in the classroom and should be used by teachers [e.g.
Garner, 2006; Brown and Tomlin, 1996; Kher, Molstad and Donahue, 1999; Huss,
2008] whereas others have argued it can have negative consequences [e.g. Lei,
Cohen and Russler, 2010; Wanzer and Frymier, 1999; Wanzer et al., 2006]. To make
sense of this apparently contradictory information, Banas et al. [2011] conducted an
extensive literature review about the use of humour by teachers in school classes.
These authors concluded that humour is potentially beneficial in formal education,
but that this outcome largely depends on the type of humour and how it is used.
More specifically, they found that positive, non-aggressive humour can aid
learning and recall, whereas negative and aggressive humour has the opposite
effect. The explanation for this result is probably related to the power imbalance
between teachers and students in the classroom, in which the use of negative and
aggressive humour by the teachers could further increase this disequilibrium
[Holmes, 2000]. Studies specifically concerning the use of humour in science
education are much less frequent and usually focus on positive, non-aggressive
humour [e.g. Weitkamp and Burnet, 2007; Roth et al., 2011; Flannery, 1993].
According to Roth et al. [2011], one possible explanation for this reduced research is
that science is considered a serious matter and, therefore, less prone to comedy.
Nevertheless, these authors argued that laughter can help science classes become
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 2
more life-like, and enhance the relationship between teachers and students. As
another example, a study about a comic book used to explain basic principles of
chemistry in primary classes of the United Kingdom concluded that humour was
one of the most important factors contributing for the effectiveness of
communication with this media [Weitkamp and Burnet, 2007].
Another relevant area to review is political humour, especially the more recent
trends that have seen politicians become active participants in its production
[Coleman, Kuik and Zoonen, 2009]. The parallel here is that, certainly in countries
like the UK and Australia that place huge cultural value on a sense of humour,
politicians have learned that participating in humorous dialogue — especially
when self-deprecating — can improve their image as non-elitist, close to the public
and approachable. Image improvement as non-elite and showing the human side
of science is also a frequently claimed benefit of using humour in science
communication. Though mostly seen as a positive development, these
interventions are not without their risks. One of the worries articulated by some
politicians in Coleman et al’s [2009] study was that of the loss of personal
reputation and/or dignity of public office. Higgie [2015] argues that the “political
co-option” of satire has shifted the accepted roles of permissible discourse among
politicians but also politicized the discourse of satirists: “Politicians have gained a
license to play, just as satirists have been licensed to provide serious political
commentary” (p. 73). However, she cautions that, as a consequence, politicians can
hijack the cultural status of comedy for their own political ends and thus end up
“damaging the often-celebrated democratic potential of satire” (p. 74; see also Basu
[2014]). If in line with most current opinions, in the field we conceive of science
communication and public engagement as a two-way democratic dialogue; this
points to a potential risk similar to the one highlighted above by Marsh [2013].
There are many different types of humour, ranging from slapstick to puns, and it
can have various targets, from racist and disparaging humour to self-deprecating
humour. It can be fairly benign or aggressive, though there are debates as to
whether all forms of humour are in some way aggressive [see Martin, 2010].
Traditional humour theory divides into three main explanations of why people find
something funny [see Billig, 2005]: relief theory which sees humour as a release of
tensions, superiority theory which holds humour as arising from our need to feel
superior over others and incongruity theory which sees humour as arising from the
unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated concepts. Studies of audience reception have
shown reactions to humour and comedy to be influenced by the audiences’ cultural
capital [Friedman, 2014], nationality [Bore, 2010] and ethnicity [Weaver and
Bradley, 2016], all of which modify what type of humour people will find
acceptable and/or funny.
There are thus several risks that can be associated with the use of humour in
science communication. Different types of audience may react differently and
interpret the often polysemic message of a humorous communication in multiple
ways. Humour can be interpreted as aggressive even when not meant to be, or dull
and “trying too hard” if effort is expended not to be aggressive; what may please
one audience might alienate another. The co-option of humour by scientists may
have consequences for attempts to democratize science, similar to the effects Higgie
warns about within political satire co-opted by politicians. Finally, there is a danger
that humour might trivialize important issues [see also Moyer-Gusé, Mahood and
Brookes, 2011].
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 3
Considering the uncertainties of using humour in science communication, the main
objective of this exploratory study is to test if audiences appreciated the inclusion
of humour in popular science articles about environmental issues published on-line
at a Portuguese magazine (“Visão”). The adoption of this format is based on
previous research which suggests that popular articles can make science more
accessible to general audiences [Hyland, 2010]. These articles were written by one
of the authors of the current research, who has previous experience on science
humour. Since positive, non-aggressive humour is acknowledged in the literature
as the most benign form in science communication and education, only this type of
humour was tested [Fisher, 1997; Meyer, 2000]. Implications of this study on
science communication are also discussed.
Methods Popular science articles
Since the written format to be tested was the popular science article, two original
articles with similar size and style were created by one of the researchers
specifically for this study: “Climate change and biodiversity” (about the effects of
climate change on fauna and flora species) and “The over-exploitation of species”
(about the management of renewable natural resources, with specific information
about fishing stocks) (see Table 1 and 2 for details). The author of these articles has
previous experience in using humour in science communication activities in both
oral and written formats. The fact that the tested articles were not written with the
aid of one or more professional comedians had the purpose of simulating what a
science communicator or a scientist could do in terms of using humour in their
activities.
The articles had one to two humorous sentences inserted either at the beginning or
at the end of each of the six paragraphs, thus integrating it with the serious
information (Fisher [1997]; see Tables 1 and 2 for details). This choice in the placing
of humour was done to decrease the disruption in the flow of scientific
information. Both articles had a length of about 700 words, in which the humorous
parts represented about 20% of the number of words.
Disparaging, hostile or tendentious humour was not used, which means that it was
not insulting, aggressive, gross or obscene [Janes and Olson, 2000; Fisher, 1997;
Meyer, 2000]. Although it is acknowledged that this type of humour can be a
valuable social tool [Billig, 2005], it is also more difficult to be well accepted by
audiences than non-aggressive forms of humour [Cann, Zapata and Davis, 2009].
During a pilot study conducted before data collection, three environmental
scientists and one social scientist were asked to review the humorous version of the
two popular articles and the closed questionnaire. The purpose of this preliminary
study was to assess if the popular articles and questionnaire were simple, clear and
scientifically correct, and if inserts were considered appropriate and reasonably
humorous. The popular articles and questionnaire were then revised, taking into
account the comments of the four consulted scientists.
The reviewed version of this questionnaire had a first part of a quantitative
assessment with 5 questions using a 7 point Likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree)
to 7 (strongly agree) which concerned the satisfaction with the article, the
importance of the focused scientific issues and the enjoyability of the humour. In
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 4
Table 1. Topics of each paragraph and humorous inserts in the article 1 entitled “Climate
change and biodiversity”.
Paragraph Topics of the paragraph Humorous insert
1 Changes in climate and
adaptations of
biodiversity
“This is what happens, when you don’t have
access to air conditioning.”
2 Difficulties associated to
the fast pace of current
climate change and
habitat destruction
“Given these difficulties, the least we could do
is to tell other species that we are very sorry
for the disturbances we are causing. Other-
wise, they might complain about us to God in
relation to climate change.”
3 Climate models and
implications of climate
change in the Portuguese
forest
“Some people like to predict the future whilst
staring at crystal balls which look like bedside
table lamps. But for some strange reason,”
[scientists use climate models. . . ].
4 Impacts of climate change
in the migration of birds
“Fortunately, they don’t have to pay addi-
tional fees to change their travel dates, other-
wise they would spend quite a bit of money.”
5 Climate change and the
Portuguese aquatic fauna
“I just don’t know what is going to happen
to the Portuguese fish stew with all these
changes.”
6 Uncertainties associated
to climate change and
actions to prevent future
consequences
“[. . .we will leave a poorer natural heritage
than what we have received]. And that’s not
very nice of us.”
the second part of the questionnaire, respondents were asked to provide
information concerning four demographic factors. In the last question, participants
had an open question regarding “Comments” (see appendix A for details).
These two popular science articles were published online at a Portuguese site of a
magazine (“Visão”), in a section dedicated to environmental issues (for more
details: http://visao.sapo.pt/verde; article 1 was published on 17/03/2015; article
2 was published on 9/04/2015). At the end of each article, there was a short
sentence asking readers to participate anonymously in the current study by
answering to a brief online questionnaire using the software survey tool
SurveyMonkey (SurveyMonkey Inc.). These two popular articles were
disseminated on the site of the magazine, as well as social networks and mailing
lists concerning environmental sciences. In total, 159 participants submitted their
answers, in the period between 17 of March and 22 May of 2015.
This study has the limitation of having surveyed only two popular science articles.
The reason for this option was that the inclusion of reference to the study in the
website depended upon the goodwill of the publishers. Therefore, the authors
considered that it was not appropriate to include the link to the questionnaire in
more articles, since the website is a public platform without any research purposes.
The analysis of the questionnaire was quantitative for the first nine questions, using
basic descriptive statistics [Sokal and Rohlf, 1995]. The results obtained were
expressed both as an average value, as well as percentage divided into disagree (1
to 3), neither disagree or agree (4) and agree (5 to 7). In the variable “age”, data was
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 5
Table 2. Topics of each paragraph and humorous inserts in the article 2 entitled “The over-
exploitation of species”.
Paragraph Topics of the paragraph Humorous insert
1 The Neolithic in Portugal
and fisheries as the only
significant source of wild
food
“And fishing is not exactly a rudimentary pro-
cess, since there is fishing gear, GPS and soph-
isticated sonars that should lead fishes and
other marine animals to think: But how can
these humans catch us so easily?"
2 The concepts of
“over-exploitation” and
“tragedy of the commons”
“Moreover, it seems that the whole story of
magicians being able to pull rabbits from
empty top hats is just a trick. Bummer.”
3 Fisheries in the world “Anyway, we can always pick up a fishing
cane and catch Peixinhos da horta.” (note: peix-
inhos da horta this is a Portuguese dish prepared
with vegetables in a wheat flour based batter, which
is then deep fried; the literal translation of this dish
is “little fishes from the garden”)
4 The sustainability of
fishing resources in
Portugal
“In Portugal, there are also cases of over-
exploitation of marine resources, which
means that this problem goes beyond the
working conditions in our country.”
5 Fishing practices in
Portugal
“And I’m glad they did it, since it would be
very difficult to get such a fine fish like the
sardine to eat with bread during the Popular
Saints” (note: this is a typical food during these
celebrations, which happen in Portugal during the
month of June)
6 The sustainability of
fisheries in the World
“But if all goes wrong, we should not despair:
just pray for a miracle of the multiplication of
the fishes.”
aggregated in four different age groups (groups: 18–25 years; 26–40 years; 41–65
years; >65 years). Correlation analysis was also performed between the five
questions, controlling for sex.
For the comments section, the analysis was qualitative and began with reading all
the comments to assess if they were related to the research issues [O’Cathain and
Thomas, 2004]. Since the authors considered that they did, the process of analysis
consisted in organizing information and creating emergent categories (defined after
working with the data), identifying patterns and connections within and between
these categories and interpreting them collectively [Taylor-Powell and Renner,
2003]. Additionally, the numbers of comments in each defined category and ver-
batim comments were also presented in the results [O’Cathain and Thomas, 2004].
Results In this study, 62.89% (n=100) of participants were women, 36.48% (n=58) were
men and 0.6% (n=1) did not reply. There was a prevalence of the age group 41–65
years which represented 42.14% (n=67) and the age group 26–40 years
representing 38.36% (n=61) (see Table 3 for details). The average age of the 159
participants was 46.36 years (SD =13.887).
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 6
Table 3. Respondents of the study per age group.
18-25 years 26-40 years 41-65 years >65 years NA Total
Number and 7 61 67 21 3 159
percentage of (4.4%) (38.36%) (42.14%) (13.21%) (1.89%)
respondents
Employed participants represented 65.81% (n=102), 20% (n=31) of participants
were retired, 7.74% (n=12) were students, 5.16% (n=8) were unemployed, 1.3%
(n=2) were homemakers and 2.52% (n=4) did not reply. Most of participants
had higher education degrees, with 42.76% (n=68) at bachelor level, 23.9%
(n=38) at master level and 18.24% (n=29) at PhD level, whereas only 15,09%
(n=24) had up to secondary education. Since only 17.1% of the Portuguese
resident population in 2015 had BSc degrees or superior education levels [Pordata,
2015], it was considered that the participants in this study represented mainly this
small part of the Portuguese population with university degrees.
The results obtained regarding the appreciation of the humour showed that the
majority of participants liked reading the articles with humorous inserts, expressed
desire to read more articles and thought that they focused important scientific
issues (see Table 4). However, the opinions about the specific role of humour in the
articles were more divided: about 65% of the participants thought that the humour
of the article made science more appealing. A similar percentage of about 63.5%
expressed their agreement to the use of humour in the articles, whereas about
24.5% expressed their disagreement with the use of humour in these articles and
about 12% had a neutral opinion.
Table 4. Receptiveness of general audiences to on-line articles with humorous inserts using
a questionnaire with 7-point Likert scale.
Average and
standard deviation
Receptiveness of respondents
in percentages
Agree Neither agree Disagree
or disagree
1. I liked reading this
article
5.761
(SD=1.329)
88.05% 3.14% 8.81%
2. I would like to read
more articles like this in
the future
5.594
(SD=1.345)
86.08% 5.06% 8.86%
3. The scientific issues
focused on this article are
not important
2.224
(SD=1.882)
15.38% 1.92% 82.69%
4. In this article, humour
makes science more
appealing
4.809
(SD=1.794)
64.97% 11.46% 23.57%
5. I would prefer if this
article did not have
humour
3.164
(SD= 1.824)
24.53% 11.94% 63.52%
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 7
Correlation analysis between the five questions showed a high value (ie. above 0.7)
between questions 1 and 2 (see Table 5). In this case, the enjoyability and the desire
to read more articles were very closely linked. It was also found moderate to weak
correlations between the readers’ appreciation to the articles measured in questions
1 and 2, and of the humour in the articles assessed in questions 4 and 5. This
indicates that humour has some influence in the enjoyment of reading these
articles, although this connection is moderate. Considering the results presented
above, this seems to be the result of mixed reactions of the respondents to the
humour in the tested popular articles. The perceived importance of scientific issues
was not related to the receptiveness of readers to the articles.
Table 5. Correlation between questions of the questionnaire, controlling for gender.
Comparison Correlation
Q1 vs. Q2 R=0.825 p <0.001
Q1 vs. Q3 R=-0.106 p =0.187
Q1 vs. Q4 R=0.634 p <0.001
Q1 vs. Q5 R=-0.413 p <0.001
Q2 vs. Q3 R=-0.061 p =0.445
Q2 vs. Q4 R=0.608 p <0.001
Q2 vs. Q5 R=-0.443 p <0.001
Q3 vs. Q4 R=-0.014 p =0.857
Q3 vs. Q5 R=0.014 p =0.861
Q4 vs. Q5 R=-0.678 p <0.001
The comments collected in the questionnaire add meaning to these results, despite
the fact that some of them were indirectly related to science communication (e.g.
style of writing). According to the chosen method to analyse this information, these
comments were grouped in six different categories (see Table 6 for details). There
was a division between participants who agreed with the use of humour in science
communication (n=16), those who did not agree with this approach (n=2) and
a third group who only agreed with the use of humour if certain conditions were
met (n=8). Therefore, humour was considered by some participants as pleasant,
with potential to increase the transmission of information and critical thinking, and
especially useful to stimulate audiences who were less interested in science. On
the other hand, it was also argued that science is a serious matter and that humour
should not be used because it can undermine its credibility, distort the message
and decrease its importance. A third view considered that humour should only
be used if it is very well done or if the whole article is written in a humorous style.
In what concerns the specific use of humour in the two tested articles some of the
respondents claimed that the inserts were not enough, that it was not their kind of
humour, that it was silly and that it deviated attention from scientific content.
Others considered that the humour used was a fresh approach to traditional
popular science articles, thus presenting a pleasant contrast to the serious scientific
information. There were also respondents which found that the humour was not
enough and that the choice of placing humour either at the beginning or at the end
of paragraphs made it predictable and slightly “forced”. One participant added
that the main drawback of using humour in these articles was that its receptiveness
depended on the personal sense of humour of each reader.
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 8
Table 6. Characterization of comments in the questionnaire.
Categories
(total=6)
Number
of comments
(total=78)
Examples of comments
Importance of
humour
4 “Humour softens the reception of bad news”
“Humour adds flavour, and the speech becomes
less boring”
Humour in science
communication
22 “I think that humour can help in the transmis-
sion of knowledge in texts about science”
“In this kind of communication, humour only
works if its very well done”
Humour in
popular science
articles
24 “ I thought that it was very interesting to have a
humorous approach to such a serious and up to
date issue”
“In this article, I felt that the humour was dis-
tracting me from the information instead of re-
inforcing it”
Writing style of
tested popular
articles
11 “The article is very pleasant to read and con-
tains information which can induce the com-
mon citizen to change habits”
“Humour and stupidity are two different
things”
Scientific issues in
the popular articles
12 “There are scientists that talk about climate
change; and other scientists claim this is false
(. . . ). Climatic variations have always existed
and always will. They are natural, and not
caused by human action”
“I consider this issue relevant and a priority
(. . . ). It is necessary to create [environmental]
laws and punish the ones which do not respect
them”
Characterization of
participants
5 “I work in science communication, and more
specifically in a group which studies the re-
lationship between climate change and biod-
iversity”
“I am a biology student”
As for the writing style of these tested articles, those which approved of it thought
it was clear, synthetic, interesting and adequate, whereas those who disapproved of
it considered that there was a use of careless language, sentences badly written or
written in colloquial style, a frivolous view or too generalist approach to scientific
issues, and that it should include more scientific data.
The remaining categories of comments had more homogeneous responses.
Humour was considered valuable by most of the readers, despite several
comments with negative appreciations. As for the focused science issues, most of
the comments attributed relevance and reinforced the importance of informing
audiences about environmental issues. Finally, several participants commented
that they were biologists, biology students, environmentalists or science
communicators.
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 9
Discussion One of the main objectives of this exploratory research was to assess how positive,
non-aggressive humour in popular science articles is perceived by audiences. The
novelty of this study was the consistency of results in different types of analysis,
which corroborate the views of other authors that humour used in science
communication can have various outcomes and limitations [e.g. Bore and Reid,
2014; Weitkamp and Burnet, 2007; Pinto, Marçal and Vaz, 2015]. Research in science
education has previously associated this type of humour with a more interesting
and relaxed learning environment, which does not happen with the use of negative
and aggressive humour [Banas et al., 2011]. However, using this type of humour
alone in science engagement is not a guarantee that it will be well received by
the public.
For example, in the case of a satire theatre play concerning climate change, 63% of
audience members liked the humour used [Bore and Reid, 2014], which is a very
similar value of about 65% of approval rate to the humour of the popular articles in
our research. As another example, in the testing of a comic book about chemistry
directed at children, the humour was usually viewed as good [Weitkamp and
Burnet, 2007]. However, even among such a young audience, there was a minority
of children which found that this comic book was not funny. We also found a
moderate level of correlation between the pleasure of reading and the desire to read
more popular articles with the use of humour, as well as mixed reactions to the
humour used in the comments. Therefore, there was a majority of respondents
supporting and complimenting the use of humour, as well as a significant minority
giving their negative feedback in an equally effusive way, and few others reacting
with indifference.
On the other hand, Pinto, Marçal and Vaz [2015] reported an indicative survey of
the audience perceptions of a science stand-up comedy show, with 51% of
respondents as very satisfied and 49% as satisfied. The justification for this very
high level of approval rate to the humour may be that their performances were
intensively scrutinized and re-written before the final presentations. Also, each
stand-up comedy show had a mixed group of comedians, thus using different
styles of humour and themes which may have increased the probability of pleasing
the audience [Pinto, Marçal and Vaz, 2015].
Also, other authors have shown that audience receptiveness to humour can depend
on factors such as context, culture and type of audiences, which in many cases may
be difficult to control [Holmes, 2000; Hackman and Barthel-Hackman, 1993; Bore
and Reid, 2014]. In particular, with the audiences’ cultural capital resources
influencing appreciation of humour [Friedman, 2014], the social make-up of the
audience in our research (mainly highly educated with high cultural capital) will
make widening our conclusions to a more representative population impossible.
This limitation was also reported in other research concerning the use of humour in
science communication such as Pinto, Marçal and Vaz [2015] and Bore and Reid
[2014]. This is probably related to the fact that science communication usually
attracts this specific kind of audience, and therefore a problem more widely for
science engagement and outreach activities. Broadening up the types of audiences
is often one of the reasons why more popular cultural forms such as comedy get
enlisted in science communication [see Weitkamp, 2015], however our study is still
limited by that fact.
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 10
A particular concern shared by participants was that humour is risky and can
undermine the credibility of these articles, which was also previously mentioned
by other authors [e.g. Pinto, Marçal and Vaz, 2015; Bore and Reid, 2014; Riesch,
2015; see also Moyer-Gusé, Mahood and Brookes, 2011, in health communication;
and Coleman, Kuik and Zoonen, 2009, in political satire]. For example, Bore and
Reid [2014] argued that the balance between humour and seriousness during a play
about climate change was raised by several members of the audience. Moreover,
some scientists themselves have previously described science communication in
general as a “risky or potentially dangerous process” due to misunderstanding or
misuse of information [Davies, 2008]. Therefore, the humour can add risk to this
communication, and simultaneously become a strength and a weakness according
to the way it is received by the members of the audience.
The implications of this study for science engagement are that it is advisable to
consider preferences of targeted audiences, in order to have a more consensual
humour [Bore and Reid, 2014]. One possibility is to test and reformulate the
humorous parts (if necessary, several times) used in science communication in
order to increase its acceptance [Pinto, Marçal and Vaz, 2015]. Since this may not be
feasible in many cases, one possible approach for a science communicator (or a
group of science communicators) is to accept that the comedy will only be
appealing to a part of the audiences. In this case, a good option is to create a niche
for audience members which appreciate to read about science with a certain kind of
humour. This is already happening in venues such as the U.S. Scientific American
blog “But Seriously” [Malow, 2015] and the UK Guardian blog “Brain flapping”
[Burnett, 2015], in which scientific issues are presented with a specific humorous
perspective. However, results also show that there is a significant part of the
audience which disagrees with the presence of humour in popular science articles
overall. In this case, the use of any kind of humour will likely be rejected by these
readers.
These results also point to possible future studies that will investigate these issues
more directly. For example, it was not possible in the current design to test versions
with and without humour in order to distinguish the humour effect from other
possible effects, or different types of humour. Moreover, the fact that the audience
was highly educated underlines the need of doing research about the use of
humour in science communication in other kinds of venues which have the
potential to reach different types of audiences [e.g. Bultitude and Sardo, 2012].
In conclusion, this study confirms the views of previous authors that the use of
humour in science communication implies risks, thus creating the possibility of
polarizing the opinions of readers. Even among participants which supported the
use of humour in these popular articles, results suggest that some liked it more than
others, showing also different preferences in the frequency of humorous inserts in
these articles. In this scenario, it is recommended a cautions approach to the use of
humour in outreach science articles, with an awareness that it can simultaneously
attract, be indifferent or repel readers [Riesch, 2015; Pinto, Marçal and Vaz, 2015].
JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 11
Acknowledgments The authors wish to thank all the anonymous participants in this study.
Acknowledgements are also due to Cheila Almeida, Sandra Mateus, Sofia Vaz,
Cristina Luís and Paulo Marques for their collaboration in this research, and Gisela
Oliveira and Filipe Lopes for comments to earlier versions of this manuscript. The
first author was funded by a postdoctoral fellowship from Fundação para a Ciência
e Tecnologia (a public foundation which belongs to the Portuguese Ministry of
Education and Science; Ref: SFRH/BPD/48272/2008).
Appendix A.
Questionnaire
used in the current
study
In the first five questions, please choose only one answer on a scale between “1-
completely disagree” to “7- completely agree”
1. I liked reading this article
2. I would like to read more articles like this in the future
3. The scientific issues focused on this article are not important
4. In this article, humour makes science more appealing
5. I would prefer if this article did not have humour
6. Age
7. Sex (Male; Female)
8. Education level (Secundary school; Bsc; Msc; PhD)
9. Professional situation (Employed; Unemployed; Student; Retired)
10. Comments
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Authors Bruno Pinto is a science communicator and researcher, which has been working on
the dissemination of environmental issues such as biodiversity conservation,
climate change and sustainability. To achieve this, he has been using different
formats such as exhibitions, theatre, stand-up comedy and graphic novels. He is
currently a researcher on marine science communication at the Faculty of Sciences
of the University of Lisbon.
Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência, Universidade de Lisboa.
1250-102 Lisboa, Portugal.
Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa. Campo Grande. 1749-016
Lisboa Portugal.
E-mail: bmpinto@fc.ul.pt.
Hauke Riesch is a lecturer in sociology in the department of Social Sciences, Media
and Communications at Brunel University London. He has been researching —
among other topics — on the public understanding of risk and environmental
sciences, citizen science, science popularisations and science blogs. His current
interests include the uses of humour in science communication and science more
generally and — because that’s too much fun, and we can’t have that — the
sociology of the end of the world.
Department of Social and Political Sciences, College of Business, Arts and Social
Sciences, Brunel University London, Uxbridge, UB8 3PH.
E-mail: auke.riesch@brunel.ac.uk.
Pinto, B. and Riesch, H. (2017). ‘Are audiences receptive to humour in popularHow to cite
science articles? An exploratory study using articles on environmental issues’.
JCOM 16 (04), A01.
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JCOM 16(04)(2017)A01 15
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Comedy is currently enjoying unprecedented growth within the British culture industries. Defying the recent economic downturn, it has exploded into a booming billion-pound industry both on TV and on the live circuit. Despite this, academia has either ignored comedy or focused solely on analysing comedians or comic texts. This scholarship tends to assume that through analysing an artist’s intentions or techniques, we can somehow understand what is and what isn’t funny. But this poses a fundamental question – funny to whom? How can we definitively discern how audiences react to comedy? Comedy and Distinction shifts the focus to provide the first ever empirical examination of British comedy taste. Drawing on a large-scale survey and in-depth interviews carried out at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the book explores what types of comedy people like (and dislike), what their preferences reveal about their sense of humour, how comedy taste lubricates everyday interaction, and how issues of social class, gender, ethnicity and geographical location interact with patterns of comic taste. Friedman asks: Are some types of comedy valued higher than others in British society? Does more ‘legitimate’ comedy taste act as a tangible resource in social life – a form of cultural capital? What role does humour play in policing class boundaries in contemporary Britain? This book will be of interest to students and scholars of sociology, social class, social theory, cultural studies and comedy studies.
Book
Research on humor is carried out in a number of areas in psychology, including the cognitive (What makes something funny?), developmental (when do we develop a sense of humor?), and social (how is humor used in social interactions?) Although there is enough interest in the area to have spawned several societies, the literature is dispersed in a number of primary journals, with little in the way of integration of the material into a book. Dr. Martin is one of the best known researchers in the area, and his research goes across subdisciplines in psychology to be of wide appeal. This is a singly authored monograph that provides in one source, a summary of information researchers might wish to know about research into the psychology of humor. The material is scholarly, but the presentation of the material is suitable for people unfamiliar with the subject-making the book suitable for use for advanced undergraduate and graduate level courses on the psychology of humor-which have not had a textbook source.
Article
Recent scholarship has recognised that political satirists are important players in contemporary political discourse. Research on this phenomenon has been largely restricted to the work of US satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. This article examines the under-researched Australian context, arguing that the interplay between satirist and politician has contributed to a complex slippage between play and earnestness in contemporary Australian political media. It provides many examples, but focuses on the Australian satire team The Chaser and their work over the last decade. The paper argues that Australian politicians have increasingly sought to engage with satirists like The Chaser in a playful manner, even willingly satirising themselves, while satirists have been granted more of a licence to speak both humorously and seriously on political issues. It concludes that the advantages of this discursive confluence between serious politics and comic satire distribute asymmetrically - the satirical truth-teller is more successful at playing the hybrid role of joker/serious commentator than the politician who attempts to be both king and joker - but that the political co-option of satire is a distinct and real danger that should be more closely studied.
Article
In this paper, we discuss a little-studied means of communicating about or teaching the nature of science (NOS)—through fiction television. We report some results of focus group research which suggest that the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory (2007-present), whose main characters are mostly working scientists, has influenced viewers’ perceptions of NOS. Both scientists and non-scientists were among the audience members participating in the study, thus making it possible to evaluate whether the portrayal of NOS resonates with scientists’ lived experience (using scientists’ reflections on the show) and whether non-scientist audience members come to know something about NOS from the show. Responses from the focus groups suggest that three aspects of NOS were most prominent in participants’ minds: science is empirically based, science is subjective and theory-laden, and, in particular, science is socially and culturally embedded. We argue that a broad understanding of NOS can be cultivated peripherally via regular viewing of this television programme, and a deeper understanding of particular aspects may result when viewers vividly remember specific scenes and storylines.
Article
Satire has long offered social and political commentary while entertaining audiences. Focusing on a Canadian stage play and its local reception, this article considers some of the key benefits and challenges of using satire to promote public engagement with climate change science. It demonstrates that satire can promote active and positive engagement with climate change debates. However, using satire risks confining representations to the humorous realm and requires communicators to consider the humor preferences of different publics. The article proposes recommendations for using satire in science communications.