Using humor in science communication: An effective tool or an annoying distraction?

Updated: Feb 8

Title: Exploring the use of positive humor as a tool in science communication: do science and non-science undergraduates differ in their receptiveness to humor in popular science articles?

Author(s) and Year: Alfred Chan and Chammika Udalagama; Published in 2021

Journal: Journal of Science Communication (open access)

​TL;DR: Researchers wanted to learn if including positive humor in a popular science article made reading the science more engaging to both STEM and non-STEM major undergraduates. A majority of both science and non-science majors found that the humor made the science more appealing, although a minority of students found that it reduced the credibility of the science. Overall, the findings show that integrating some positive humor into science articles increases audience engagement, especially among people who are not as inclined to read a science article.

Why I chose this paper: Mistakes are part of learning and having a sense of humor makes learning more enjoyable. I wanted to know if incorporating humor into science communication was effective to both science and non-science majors because when I teach I like to include a math cartoon at the top of every worksheet. I chose this article because I wanted to know if these cartoons were just annoying students or they could be beneficial to them.

Science and Humor in the Wild

Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies. Science and humor? Should science and humor be paired, or will you just be left with a weird taste in your mouth while questioning the credibility of the science?

Science and humor already mingle. Look no further than the wildly popular TV show, The Big Bang Theory. There is also the ‘Bright Club’, hailing from University College London, where researchers perform stand-up comedy routines, as well as other similarly inspired projects. Even the engineering juggernaut, IEEE, has a regular humorous, but technical column in their periodical, IEEE Microwave Magazine. Science communication books recommend using humor to talk about science to the public, however, there is little empirical evidence to support if incorporating humor when presenting science increases audience engagement and understanding, or if it just increases audience irritation and boredom.

Main Findings

Researchers wanted to understand if students of STEM and non-STEM majors enjoyed the insertion of humor into a science article, in addition to whether these two groups had different reactions to science peppered with humor.

Researchers found that both science majors and non-science majors were receptive to positive non-aggressive humor strategically placed in a science article, but that science majors may be more concerned with the perceived credibility of the article when humor is included. These results support research that suggests including positive humor in science articles may increase public engagement, especially in those who are not typically interested in science. However, a question remains as to whether a predisposed general appreciation of humor is associated with greater acceptance of humor inserted into science content.

Best Humor for Science Communication

Positive humor used in the classroom across all academic levels has many demonstrated benefits ranging from fostering a sense of community to encouraging creativity in the classroom. Instructional humor is considered positive if it is a funny story, funny comment, joke, professional humor, pun, or cartoon and riddle. Conversely, negative humor is considered to be sarcasm, sexual humor, ethnic humor, or aggressive/hostile humor. A study that collected over 40 years of education research showed that positive non-aggressive humor resulted in many learning benefits including greater motivation to learn and demonstrated that negative humor produced the opposite effect. Therefore, only positive non-aggressive humor was incorporated into this study.

The Study: Testing Humor Reception in a Science Article

This study used a 3-part survey to quantify how receptive 76 undergraduate students were to positive non-aggressive humor after reading a research article.

  1. The first portion of the survey measured the participants’ general receptiveness to positive non-aggressive humor by asking them to rate the humor of 12 different jokes, including this one.

  2. The second portion of the survey tested student reception to positive non-aggressive humor in written science communication. Participants were asked to read a popular science article written by one of the researchers of the study that contained positive non-aggressive humor. The humor was incorporated only at the beginning and the end of the article as cartoons related to the article content.

  3. The final portion of the survey determined the participant satisfaction with the article, perception of the article’s credibility, and demographics through a questionnaire. Of the 76 students, 47 identified as female, and 29 identified as male. There were 36 and 40 science majors and non-science majors, respectively.

So, what’s the verdict? Can science and humor work together?

Figure 1 shows the results from the first 8 questions of the third portion of the article survey, revealing that the majority of both science and non-science majors:

  • Enjoyed reading the article

  • Found that humor in the article made the science more appealing

  • Did not think including humor in the article made the science less credible

However, science majors were slightly more resistant to including humor in the article. Over a fifth of the science majors, compared to a tenth of non-science majors, found that humor made the article less believable. Yet, other studies discussed here found that when scientists use positive humor to talk to audiences, they are not perceived as less credible. In fact, using humor often humanizes scientists and makes them more likable!

Graphs of survey responses to written science communication from Figure 1 in Chan et al. (2021)
Figure 1. Survey responses in portion 3 to the survey as percentages of undergraduates majoring in science and non-science degrees, respectively. An overwhelming majority of both science and non-science majors found that including humor made the article more appealing and did not weaken the credibility of the science (Q4 and Q6). Adapted from Figure 1 in the paper.

The receptiveness to positive humor based on the jokes at the beginning of the survey was also measured. There was no trend found between science and non-science majors or between sexes with regards to the receptiveness to humor. Importantly, there was also no strong correlation found between receptiveness to general humor and the receptiveness to humor placed in the article. These findings indicate that even if the public is generally receptive to certain jokes, the public may not appreciate jokes placed in science content.

Unsurprisingly, a majority of the science majors from the study reported frequently reading science news, while the majority of non-science majors reported rarely reading science news. Including strategically placed positive humor may be an especially effective way to draw in a general audience that is initially less likely to read a science article. These results indicate that balancing humor is key to engaging all sorts of folks with science content, while not sacrificing the perceived credibility of the presented science. Perhaps science and humor can be tastefully paired to attract and maintain a wider audience.

Edited by Megan Widdows and Stephanie Deppe

Cover image credit: Derivative of 3 Clear Glass With Brown Liquid Inside by Mikhail Nilov by Kirsten Giesbrecht

Figures used under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0


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