People in this episode:
Ian Lynam (performer)
Dr Jessamyn Fairfield (host)
Kasha Patel (guest)
My name is Ian and when I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, now more popularly known as autism spectrum disorder. Why am I talking about that? I’ve noticed that quite a few comedians have started talking about Autism, and that’s natural. It’s a popular talking point right now. We’re learning a lot more about it as a society. The problem is, a lot of those comedians aren’t autistic, and I feel like those laughs belong to me, you know? I still get people asking me, “are you really autistic?” And I get it. I’m not- I don’t conform to the idea of what people assume autism looks like, but I sense a certain suspicion behind it. So to bring a bit of heavy hitting proof to this, I’m going to read out my mental health records. This one’s from 2001: “I saw Ian on one occasion and he meets the criteria for Asperger’s syndrome – problems in nonverbal communication, problems in peer relation, problems in empathy. He is fascinated by video games and was earlier fascinated by a wooden spoon.” You laugh now, but any Irish person knows that the wooden spoon is an object of terror. Okay, I was reappropriating that spoon. “Ian has…” This is a bit older – this is 15 years old. “Ian has, at least- problems in socializing, Ian has at least two friends and it is felt that they both have unusual personalities.” And then, right at the end of the document, the cheeky fuckers says “it is felt that his self esteem might be low”. Oh. I wonder why!
Welcome to You’re Up Next, a podcast by Bright Club Ireland that explores what comedy can do for research and society. I’m Jessamyn Fairfield. I’m a physicist, comedian, and organizer. This is the second season of You’re Up Next, and we’ll be exploring some important topics through the lenses of science and humor. In this episode, we’re talking about bias and I’ll be speaking with Kasha Patel, who is a science writer and comedian.
“The laws of nature don’t care whether or not you believe in them. They’re the same no matter what. Totally objective, not messy and subjective like things we humans do.” Have you heard this argument before? So if it’s true, then when humans investigate the laws of nature, they always find the same thing, right? Well, no, sometimes there are flaws in our experiments or theory, or just the way that we’re thinking about a problem that might lead us to the wrong conclusions. But the scientific process is self-correcting, so we’re always getting closer to those objective truths, even if sometimes we get a little lost along the way. Okay, so even if we accept the idea of an objective, universal set of truths, it sounds like we’re always going to be looking at those through our human preconceptions and biases. In fact, even if we built some sort of artificial intelligence or designed a machine learning task to search for the truth, it would be biased by how we programmed it; by our initial assumptions that informed our own programming.
There are actually a lot of historical examples of where science has been biased to fit social narratives. A famous one is the history of computing, which early on was considered a naturally female field. Early computers were actually women, literally, who performed complex computations on astronomical orbits, rocket trajectories, that kind of thing. Many of these women were not on academic papers, and were erased from the history of spaceflight until recent media like Hidden Figures and the Lady Astronaut series brought them into light. The development and programming of early electronic computers were also largely guided by women like Grace Hopper, who invented machine independent programming. And this kind of pseudoscientific argument was made that since typing at a computer required fine motor skills, that that was just something that women were naturally more capable of. I guess the idea was that men “with their fat sausage hands” could never master typing. But of course, the real reasoning was to do with the perception of computers as a secretarial tool, not an object of power or prestige. And when that changed in the 80s and 90s, men flooded to computing and computer science, and women were pushed out. Not so coincidentally, the wages for computer work went up when men started doing it. And there’s a converse effect where fields that women move into, like biology, experience a wage drop. When who is doing science changes, so does how much value we put on that science.
We’ve seen similar trends around other forms of bias too, of course. Darwin and many early anthropologists and biologists believed in a hierarchy of races and their abilities, and they weren’t discouraged by a lack of evidence. Nazi researchers tried to use science to prove their own beliefs about eugenics. And new biological tools like genetics are frequently used to advance racist lines of thinking. There are still academic journals specializing in these areas today. And the psychological diagnostic manual, the DSM, classified LGBT people as possessing a mental disorder until just the past decade. When science is being done by the dominant group, its findings will tend to mirror the prejudices of that group. And you can read more about that in a couple of amazing books by Angela Saini: Inferior and Superior. So science as a human activity can’t really be objective, though it can’t aspire to it. In fact, if you think of scientific knowledge construction this way, it’s really about trying to identify our own preconceptions, so that we can see past them to some deeper truth.
Comedy is actually very similar. A good joke upends an assumption that we didn’t even know we were making. A classic example is the joke about a man and his son who are caught in a terrible car accident, and they’re rushed to the hospital and critical care. The doctor looks at the boy and exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son”. How is this possible? The answer, of course, is that the doctor is the boy’s mother. And what’s funny is how many people don’t think of that. They picture the doctor as a man, and they can’t think outside that preconception. Of course, you could also argue that this joke has its own preconception: that children always have a mother and a father, never two fathers. So it’s preconceptions all the way down. What I like about humor is that it’s naturally subversive. It’s a very efficient way to challenge these unstated assumptions and biases. You could almost say that if we want science to get closer to objectivity, we need humor to help. So I had a chat about bringing science and comedy together with Kasha Patel, a science comedian based in Washington, DC.
I am a science writer by day, and a stand up comedian by night, and I specialize in science themed stand up comedy shows.
Which are excellent, by the way [laughs]. What I wanted to talk to you today about is the idea of like, using comedy to challenge things, whether it’s in science or sort of in our, in our day to day lives. And I know you have a lot of experience with this both as a comedian, a showrunner, and it sounds like in your day job too. So maybe to get started, aan you tell us like do you think that comedy is useful in terms of challenging people’s perceptions around science or around who can be a scientist?
Well, I’ve been doing stand up comedy for probably, like, eight years now. And you know, when you first start out, you’re terrible. Like, I was terrible. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was trying to do science jokes, but I just like, wasn’t a good joke writer. And I think my stage presence was pretty awkward. So I think that I just kind of gave up on the science jokes at first because I’m like, “oh, people don’t want to hear those” and that maybe I just need to get better at it. But then when I moved to Washington DC, people found out I did stand up comedy. My colleagues who work at a science place, NASA. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it before. It’s pretty up and rising. But they were like, “oh, do you do science jokes?” And it’s like, “oh, you would come to a show that did science jokes”. So in the beginning, I think there’s a lot of wrestling about how much science you can actually communicate in a stand up joke. Other forms, you can do more, right? Like YouTube videos, sketches, improv, you know, those have a little more you can do with it. But for my medium, it was stand up comedy. And I think at first, while I was still trying to figure out the content of my joke. I think the fact that I was just up on stage, and I had this science background, I work regularly with scientists, I’m pulling scientists on stage with me. I think comedy was helpful to break that stereotype of what a science person can be like.
And also the fact, you know, that- I mean, I’m a skinny little Indian girl. I mean, I guess some people think that sciency but for someone like me to also be on stage doing comedy, like so many Indians have come up to me and were like, “How did you learn how to do that? We don’t do that. We’re Patels!” I’m like, “I don’t know, it’s just something I like doing”. So I think there are multiple stereotypes that were being broken every time I walk on stage. As I got better at writing jokes, and my stage presence got better, and I got more experience, I think then I started working on tighter jokes and being funnier. And a couple years ago, I did a TEDx talk, which was pretty fun. And I basically analyzed over 500 of my jokes. And I measured how long it took me to say the premise and how many seconds of laughter came afterwards. And I separated my jokes into science jokes and non science jokes, because I wanted to see which jokes did better – is this actually good for people’s like, science retention, or, you know, just seeing if they’re turned off by the word ‘science’ rather. And the audiences I performed for the analysis, they were both science and both non science – I just kind of grouped them all together. Which, you know, maybe for follow up analysis, I would separate it. But I think what I found out there is that my science jokes actually did better. So that analysis showed me that people are interested in science. So I think in that case, comedy was helpful to get people excited about science. So that was like stage two. First stage was: comedy can be used to break stereotypes of what a scientist looks like. Stage two, or that was stage one, stage two is science can be used to whet people’s appetite and get them excited about science, because you know, it’s only like a minute long joke. And then I think step three that I’m starting to move into, is give more content, within a show or within the joke.
Sometimes there’s some like sort of science comedy shows, or like content that I’ve seen, where it’s very much like, if you already know the science, then you’re like, in the group that gets it. And if you don’t, then like nothing has really been communicated to you.
Which, like, I’m the person that would get those jokes, so you would think that I would like them, but I often don’t. And I think that’s one of the interesting things about comedy – is using it to convey that content, but also to potentially convey things about the structure of science, and, you know, how science is done, and stuff like that. We think science is objective when it’s done by people, so it has their kind of preconceptions baked into it.
Yeah. I mean, that’s a great point, because, again, you’re talking about something else that I’ve wrestled with is: okay, when I first did my science comedy shows who is coming to those shows? Are they scientists? Or are they… like, who else would come to a science comedy show if they’re not interested in science? So a lot of times those were scientists, and when I perform at scientific conferences, they want some more of those, like, insider jokes. And those are really great, too, because scientists haven’t seen science comedy shows. So going back to your original question, and what I said stage one was for me, was: the fact that I’m on stage and other scientists are seeing this, it gives them encouragement to be more of a communicator, to try going on stage. So in that regard, you know, you’re kind of helping out the scientist and showing like, “Hey, this is what you can do too. I have published papers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t not be a really fun presence on stage.”
Now, I think everyone, every show producer, who’s doing some kind of science comedy event, needs to ask themselves, what is your goal for your show? Because my goal – like I said it’s evolved, and I know I think I have multiple goals based off of who’s attending and who I marketed to – but I don’t want to preach to the choir. I think it’s more valuable to kind of sneak attack the science into people at just like a regular club, that aren’t expecting a science show. So that way, they go out, and they learn something and they like, want to go home and Google something on their own, which a lot of people have done. I get emails afterwards, they tell me after my show, like “oh, I googled that”. I was like, “you were doing that during my set? Thanks. But anyways, I’m glad that you’re science learning.”
I think it’s interesting too, like the the progression that you described, I think was sort of similar for me as well, where I started out with more sciency things and then needed to learn to write better jokes, and get them to actually be good. And I know, like, it’s a slow process, but for me, one of the things that I enjoyed too, was like bringing in stuff around, you know, how science is done, but also feminism and gender stuff, you know, both within science and in the broader world.
And I know too that you’ve done that in your comedy, both around like gender, and like you mentioned being Indian American. Like, do you think that comedy is a useful way to challenge that kind of bias? Or to tell people stories?
Oh, yeah. You know, it’s funny, because I’m from West Virginia. If your audience doesn’t know, it’s kind of like, we get the reputation of being the hillbilly state in the United States. I love that state, but you know, we have our issues just like every other state does. But we kind of get a bad rap for it. But I love that state, it made me who I am. But when I went to West Virginia jokes at the very beginning – because like I said, I kind of put away the science jokes, I just focused on me growing up as an Indian American in America, in rural America, in this like backyard state – people would come up to me afterwards and they would just say their stereotypes of West Virginia and they would be like, “are you really from West Virginia? Is that something you made up?”. And it’s like “okay, one, why would I make that up? And two, yes, I am. Why is that so hard to believe?” and it’s because they’re not used to seeing people like that.
So it got me thinking that when- this is kind of the overarching takeaway that I want people to get when they see my show, regardless of what I’m talking about is I want people to walk away with a new angle or a new idea of what that person is. Like, I want them to get rid of what their stereotypes of that location, of that background is. So when I do my West Virginia jokes, I always try and do it as like, like as a positive thing. It’s never like the punchline. Sometimes it is because you know, like – but my jokes are about me being Indian American in West Virginia. Same thing with science. Whatever people’s preconceived notions are of science, I want them to walk away with a different like, “huh, that’s different, I never thought of that in that light before”. So that’s kind of the overarching principle that I try to employ when I do my stand up comedy, and write my jokes.
Yeah, well, I think it’s so interesting, too because, like, when people listen to something that’s billed as comedy, and that’s good comedy, I feel like they’re more open to, you know, looking at things from a new perspective, because that’s what most jokes are.
So I hope that they’re taking stuff in and more willing to, like you said, walk away being like, “oh, I never thought about it that way”, rather than being like, “well, no, that’s not what West Virginia is, like”. Come on, okay. And the same for like scientific issues, hopefully. Things like climate change, which can have such entrenched, you know, opinions on it. I would hope that comedic communication of those can have more of an effect than just a straight up being like “you don’t get it, and here, I’ll tell you why. I’m the expert.”
So climate change is very interesting to me. When you have these really controversial topics, those are probably the hardest for me to write about. Climate change, specifically, because I work in climate change during my day job. I’m an earth science writer. And there’s so much negativity around climate change already, that it’s like, as soon as you say those two words, you bum people out. And I’ve actually looked up a lot of literature about this. And there are studies that show that if you joke about climate change – it doesn’t necessarily have to convey information about climate change – but just making jokes about it makes people who are listening, I think in these particular studies they were students, they actually felt better, and they didn’t feel so hopeless afterwards. Which I think is another- I mean, we didn’t talk about that, but it’s like how people feel motivated to take change afterwards. I think the fact that comedy can do that is incredible.
And then there was also this researcher nearby at George Mason University in Virginia, and he was also very – his name is John Cook – and he did some interesting research about how to combat climate miscommunication, and he uses something called parallel argumentation. And when he was describing this to me, I was like, “wait, we do that in comedy all the time”. Basically, it’s taking the logic of one situation and applying it to another situation and showing that the logic doesn’t hold necessarily. And the more outrageous, your second situation is, the easier it is to see the logic doesn’t hold. So he’s been doing that a lot with climate change, and you can see this a lot in monologue jokes. You know, I read this at the very beginning when I read the Comedy Bible, which like every stand up comedian reads. But I mean, in that book, she refers to it as “the mix”. And I have some jokes that talk about that, too. Like, I have a NASA moon landing joke about how some people think it’s fake because they can’t see it. Which is ridiculous, because astronauts brought back rocks, and there’s video, you know, and then I take that same logic to me being born and being like, “well, you know, I’ve never seen my parents mate before, but I know what happened, because I’m here, and there’s video, you know…” So that was my kind of mix of the joke that I would do. And to me, that was so interesting, because I don’t think he was trying to be funny when he did his mix in his part, because he’s not a comedian, but as comedians, we are able to do that. And we are able to make it funny. And I think that’s why, you know, Stephen Colbert or John Oliver are very successful because they use this technique a lot.
Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like too, in some of the comedy that I like, or that I’ve tried to write around, you know, issues like sexism and racism and things as well. I feel like that’s such an effective technique to be like, “okay, well, if you really believe this, then like, do you also believe this? No, didn’t think so.” Do you know, are there other comedy techniques that you think can be valuable in terms of calling out bias?
Easy question. No pressure.
You know, I feel like this past year, I think there’s been a lot of bias that people didn’t know that they even had You know, there is a lot of institutional bias that… people thought they were, you know, one of the good ones, quote unquote, and now we’re realizing, “oh, it’s those really subtle things that you would do that is not okay, nd is kind of perpetuating these things”. And you know, I used to have a joke about how people would say things to me about being Indian, like, because I’m Indian. The joke was along the lines of, you know, it’s really difficult to be Brown, because people expect you to know everything about your culture. And then I would have like people asking me like, “Hey Kasha, do you know when monsoon season is?” so I googled it, and Google said, “yes, that person is racist”, or, you know, something like that. And, you know, I’ve been doing those jokes for so long, because they’re my personal experiences. And I didn’t even realize what I was doing, I guess. I guess I was showing the bias, but to me, it was a really funny instance. And it happened so much to me and my friends that we’re like, “haha, yeah, that’s funny. Like my brothers, we get that, like, a lot. It’s just a normal part of our lives.” I mean, it’s not necessarily a technique, but you know, telling stories like that – stories are interesting for me, because you have to make sure that it’s funny. So what I do is I’ll write out the story, and then I will try to insert my punch lines or little jokes, you know, after each sentence to try and keep that momentum up, to make people laugh, but it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult.
But yeah, I think, though, that is so true. Like telling stories about things that have happened to you, that are surprising, or might be surprising to other people, even if they’re not surprising to people that share things with you. I think that’s super powerful. Because, you know, I feel like I’ve done some of that around being a woman in science where after sets, people will be like, “did someone really say that to you?” And it’s like, “Yes, they did. That’s not the only time.”
And that’s another interesting thing is, we are at this weird border, right between science and comedy. And I talked about this a little bit in my TEDx talk, that when you’re a comedian, people expect everything that you say to be a lie. They don’t- they’re like, “Oh, you’re just exaggerating for the punchline”. But then as a scientist, or from the science side, “No, everything you say is truthful”. So like, all of my jokes have true premises, and then I try to make the punch lines logically flow so it doesn’t sound too outlandish. Other people do that and that’s fine, but that’s not necessarily my style. So it’s interesting that I think one of the reasons why science jokes did well that I talk about is exactly the reason you said: when people learn that it’s real, it makes so much more of an impact where they’re like, “oh, that’s so interesting, like, I didn’t know” and I think nothing is funnier than the truth. That if you stick to the truth, you’re still communicating things and people are kind of, like I said earlier, twisting this stereotype on their head.
Yeah, I could not agree more. I think that the truth is funnier than anything you can try to come up with, and it’s also more fun to do as comedy. I don’t know. I don’t know if you agree with this, but the kind of way that each person individually wants to be funny and like tell stories and, you know, come to the thing that only they can say about comedy. Like that’s what I want to hear, whether it’s about science or something totally different.
Recently, I’ve been working with some researchers to actually take my science jokes, and because I did my previous analysis to see which ones are actually effective, to take those jokea and actually use them in scientific research about science communication, and how people are reacting to them. What factors make it funnier? What factors make people remember those jokes more? What factors make retention in science a little better? So it’s kind of cool for me now to be able to take my eight years of work, and like I could write out a whole PhD on this I feel like at this point, but it’s now really cool for me to take this and actually work with other universities, get funding, do surveys, and actually analyze the results. So hopefully I’ll have some published studies coming out soon. Meh, you know how the word ‘soon’ can be defined in this scenario.
But you know hopefully I’ll have some exciting results about, does it matter how you’re introduced to an audience? Will they respect you more as a science person or a comedian? Does that matter of how funny they think you are – if you have a big credit versus not a big credit, comedy credit? And a bunch of other things of like, you know, female versus male telling the joke, you know, race telling a joke – different races – so there’s a lot of exciting things coming up. And I think that the potential for science comedy is a lot more than just making you laugh.
Researching the science of science comedy – have we gone to meta? I don’t think so, because we’ve got to back up these claims, right? If humor helps people engage with science, we should be able to prove it. If research based humor is just as funny as regular comedy, we should be able to prove it. And if humor can help challenge the biases that we bring into science, we should be able to prove that too. And we can. So we need humor to challenge the way that we’re constructing knowledge in science, to make it more objective and more effective. Jokes can literally save science. Isn’t that funny?
This episode was made possible by support from the community knowledge initiative, the CÚRAM Medical Device Research Center, the research office at NUI Galway and Science Foundation Ireland. We’re grateful to our guests, our host, which is me Jessamyn Fairfield, our producers Maurice and Shaun, and to you our listeners and our Bright Club Ireland community. a transcript of this episode is available at brightclub.ie where you can also find more information about what we do at Bright Club Ireland.