Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are Political Jokes Appropriate in an AAS Address?

Today I listened to one of the best presentations I have ever seen at a scientific conference given by Michael Turner and Edward Kolb.  Both are widely respected in the fields of cosmology and particle astrophysics, so the science was great.  They also did a wonderful job in their presentations - by that I mean that it was genuinely fun to listen to them talk about the connections between cosmology and particle physics.  I left their talks excited about their research, which in my opinion is the mark of successful scientific presentation.

The one thing that did bother me, however, was that several times in their talks they made politically themed jokes insinuating that certain politicians and their supporters were ignorant or backwards.  The jokes got some minor chuckles and the talks moved on, but it left me a little unsettled.  Upon further reflection, I became even more surprised that such jokes would be made in front of 2,000 scientists, particularly when one of the presenters is clearly sensitive to the politics of science.  So the question I would raise for your consideration is "Are political jokes appropriate in an address to a national scientific organization?", or perhaps "what level of political humor is appropriate?"


  1. Nick,

    Those were good talks. (And I've heard Turner speak in person before and he is always really good.)

    Actually, the string theorists had jokes much more cutting than any politicians. (The scarecrow string theorist wishing: "If I only had a brane", etc... Think Wizard of Oz.)

    But yeah, I think it would be nice to avoid political stabs.

  2. Nick,

    Speaking of political correctness, I like how they suggested string theory has gotten so bad that calling someone a string theorist is no longer politically correct. :)

  3. Joe,
    Your right that there were far more string theory jokes than political jokes, but I guess my concern is more for wading into political minefields rather than scientific ones.

  4. I think humor in a conference talk should follow about the same rules as humor in other settings.
    (1) Unless you have your own show where you are paid to be offensive (which is a really sad state to be in), you should try to keep your humor non-offensive.
    (2) It is wise to be more conservative with your humor when addressing large groups. In large groups, you rarely know all the people you are addressing, so it is much easier to offend someone unintentionally.
    (3) Keep your humor appropriate (in level and style) to the formality of the setting (the more formal the setting, the more conservative the humor). Too much, or the wrong type of humor can reflect badly on the meeting.
    (4) It is very difficult to bring race, politics, or religion into a joke appropriately.

    I didn't hear what he said, but it sounds like he broke at least one or more of those rules. When you start making jokes about politics, then you stop being funny as your audience will most often only hear the politics and not the joke.

    Anyways, those are my thoughts.

  5. I loved their talks -- they were very clear scientifically, and very entertaining. In fact, all of the plenary sessions I attended were very very good speakers. I wasn't bothered at all by the political humor. I think either I've been at a liberal institution too long, and so it just washed over me, or I'm more liberal than most republicans so it didn't bother me.

    I'm not too concerned about their level of politcal humor. After all, scientific research doesn't happen in a bubble -- we are highly dependent on the political environment for funding (though thankfully not as much as people doing human body research). Thus, we are intimitely connected to the political thoughts of the day, and have a responsibility to respond to them. Now, as to if comedy is appropriate or not as a response, I'd say in general yes it is. And like I said, I didn't think Kolb and Turner's talks were too far at all.

  6. Andrew,
    I agree in general about the quality of their talks - they were extremely well delivered and the political humor was at worst a minor annoyance. I would say that the most inappropriate thing about their political humor was that it was one-sided (there were no jokes about liberals) and that it corresponds to strong left-leaning trend in academia. It was a problem for me because the comments belittled an under-represented minority in the astrophysics community.

    This is probably too nuanced of an idea for a comment, but I think that one of the biggest reasons higher ed is so poorly funded right now is that public universities have completely alienated the right by creating a political atmosphere that is strongly biased to the left. If university faculty were a more representative sample of political attitudes in their states then I have to believe that there would be more incentive from both political parties to provide funding.


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