Posted by: Jeremy Fox | November 28, 2011

More examples of humorous and satirical scientific papers (UPDATED)

In my continuing quest to make the world safe for scientific papers which use humor, and even satire, to make a point, here are three more examples, all from the medical literature.

It’s actually surprisingly easy to write an apparently objective but actually misleading review paper. As illustrated by this recent review of the evidence that cigarette smoking can improve performance in endurance events!

It’s not hard to find apparently objective or rational reasons to pursue a policy or course of action which you’ve already decided to pursue on non-objective or irrational grounds. As illustrated by this article on how leaving your bed unmade is actually good for your health!

Evidence-based medicine insists that medical treatment decisions should ideally be based on data from randomized, controlled, double-blind trials, and certainly should not be based purely on observational or anecdotal data. Which, as this article points out, means that there’s no evidence-based justification for the use of parachutes to prevent death by falling out of an airplane!

While it’s certainly possible for humor, satire, or any other rhetoric to be misunderstood, that’s true of any feature of a scientific paper. Statistics, graphs, and technical terms can be misunderstood too, but that’s not a reason to never include them in scientific papers. Humor and satire can be a very effective way to wake readers up and make them think about something they wouldn’t otherwise be likely to think about. Any of the above papers would be great fodder for a discussion in a lab meeting or grad student reading group (especially the third one, which raises an issue–inference of causality from observational or anecdotal evidence–that crops up a lot in ecology). To my mind, these papers are more effective–and more fun!–than papers trying to make the same points in humor-free ways.  I honestly don’t understand why there should be an exceptionless ban on this sort of thing.

HT to the Scholarly Kitchen, where I first saw a couple of these papers discussed.

UPDATE: See the comments for links to several great examples from ecology and evolution!

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Responses

  1. That third one was awesome. Try this one on:

    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html

    • I was wondering if someone would bring up the famous Sokal hoax. ;-)

      I’m curious if those who oppose any use of humor or satire within the scientific literature (and that’s not an uncommon stance, as far as I can tell) are ok with using humor and satire against opponents of science, as with the Sokal hoax. I’ve asked this question before, in the context of scientists making jokes about the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a way to attack creationists.

      • Yep, if you’re going to dish it out on others, you have to be able to take it yourself, maybe even inflict it on yourself.

        I wonder how many of those who oppose anything that deviates from the mind numbingly dull prose of the science lit., would actually be aware of humor or satire if it smacked them in the face. I fear that many would not. There are a lot of prudes in academia, let’s face it.

  2. You’ve probably seen this one before, but just in case….

    • Nope, hadn’t seen that. It’s, um, unique

      • The paper presentation is on youtube.

      • The link didn’t come through Barry

  3. I have used this one in lectures before:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2699.2009.02152.x/full

    • That is *awesome* Matt–I *have* to find an excuse to use that in my lectures!

      It reminds me of papers discussed in Oikos by Lawton (1996), about the ecology of the Loch Ness Monster.

      http://www.kean.edu/~bregal/Pseudoscience/Lawson.loch%20ness.pdf

    • That’s a really good one, Matt. I used it in a lecture and the students enjoyed it, and still bring it up when they see me. On the other hand, be sure that everyone is familiar with the sasquatch concept – there is always the possibility that students not familiar with North American pop culture might be confused and actually believe that it is real….Not that that happened to me or anything…

  4. Two humorous papers on the phylogenetics of non-existent organisms:

    http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/sdjordan/PDFs/yeti_1st_April04.pdf

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2005.11.010

    In both, the humor is really for its own sake rather than at the service of trying to drive home a serious point.

  5. And here is a theoretical model of the epidemiological dynamics of a zombie outbreak:

    http://mysite.science.uottawa.ca/rsmith43/Zombies.pdf

    Asking students to develop and analyze a model of a hypothetical organism is a great teaching exercise. I could definitely see using this paper in the quantitative methods courses I teach.

  6. Transactions of the Important Tree Scientists puts out some good stuff from time to time.

    • Note however, that they never clearly define how one tells an Important Tree from an Unimportant Tree, so there is room for improvement.

  7. Do you have the population ecology of vampires paper?

    http://www.hphomeview.com/Tips/Vampire%20Ecology%20in%20the%20Jossverse.pdf

    • Another good use of humor as a teaching tool; thanks.

      In my own population ecology class, the students do a lot of modeling of the population ecology of jackalopes. It makes the students smile, but it also has a serious purpose: it makes things seem concrete (terms like “predators” and “prey” can seem quite abstract to many students, at least in the context of state variables in mathematical models), but it prevents the students from being misled by their background knowledge of a real organism. If you try to teach the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey equations as a model of, say, lynx and hares, students sometimes get distracted, worrying about mismatches between the model and what they know about lynx and hare biology.

  8. So now somebody needs to figure out if zombies and vampires can coexist when competing for a single resource (humans)…

  9. R. Wassersug (1971) On the comparative palatability of some dry-season tadpoles from costa rica. American Midland Naturalist 86:101

    Students had to taste tadpoles and found out that the colourful ones were disgusting.

  10. You do not have to write the ms yourself, it can be done automatically. At least in computer science. Try the SCI generator.
    http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/

  11. My favorite is Ellstrand, N. C. (1983). “Why are juveniles smaller than their parents?” Evolution 37(5): 1091-1094.

  12. oops – just noticed that this was in the nov 17 post. Still a good one…


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