Social Science should be Funny

A popular theory is that humor is created by the violation of expectation, or “incongruity”.

For example, take a pun. When a veterinarian’s office adopted a pig, they named him Chris P. Bacon. This caused a news anchor to lose his shit, and it was amazing.

According to incongruity theory, the name Chris P. Bacon is hilarious because it calls to mind two very different ideas (a name and a pork product) in a context where both sort of make sense.

I bring this up because I was struck with the realization in class yesterday that the social sciences are actually comedy gold mines. We were discussing credit markets (a business school topic, if there ever was one), and an example we were asked to consider were those created by the mafia.

One of the many things that the mafia does is provide an alternative to banks for people to borrow money. And as we all know from watching the movies, when someone fails to pay their debts to the mob, it is standard for the mob to send goons to the debtor’s house to his break kneecaps. Now, academic language is often very dry, and well… goons breaking kneecaps is many things, but it isn’t “dry”. And, so help me god, it’s FUNNY to see a professor describe kneecap busting as “a way for lenders to mitigate the risks created by information asymmetry and adverse selection in the credit market”.

More generally, a social scientist’s job is to create an academic language to systematize people’s activities and behaviors, and the tone and tenor of academic language often is really incongruous with the subject being discussed. Hence the humor.

And, of course, this is when the academic language is being used correctly. What’s even funnier is watching students attempt to deploy academic language while they are still trying to wrap their heads around it. For example, in class, we were asked to discuss the drawbacks of using goons to break debtor’s kneecaps. Here are some of the answers we produced:

  • A goon army doesn’t scale well, and is expensive to maintain
  • Using goons to break people’s kneecaps sabotages debtors’ ability to repay their creditors
  • Sending out goons to break debtor’s kneecaps violates our ethical mandate
  • With a large standing army of goons, we risk undermining the state’s monopoly on violence, risks all of the negative externalities associated with turf wars between goons

Now, before I get accused of dunking on my classmates, let me be clear that that two of those are mine. In fact, I don’t think that the ridiculousness here is a bad thing.

The title of this post is the social science education should be funny. This is because the teacher’s goal is to help students connect the abstract language used to talk about a subject with the subject itself– if you will, to connect the conceptual map to the territory. There is, by nature, incongruity between these things. And incongruity, as we discussed, is often funny.

Of course, not all things that are incongruous are funny. But I’ve spent many years in school, and I read about the social sciences for fun, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the best teachers and writers are really good at toeing the line between analysis and farce.

Take, for example, the way Ada Palmer, professor of Renaissance history, describes what Niccolò Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli) was doing during his stint as a diplomatic representative of Florence.

Good morning, Mr. Machiavelli.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent Cesare Borgia from conquering Florence.  You will serve as our official ambassador to his court.  You will shadow the Duke-Cardinal as closely as possible, report to us about his character and tactics, and develop a strategy to keep him from adding Tuscany to his expanding kingdom.  While at his court, you will need to maintain yourself and your team with grandeur sufficient to make him take us seriously as a political force, but we can’t send you any funds to pay for this, since Borgia has so completely destroyed peace and order in the region that bandits are rampaging through the countryside robbing and murdering all our couriers.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, the Signoria will disavow all knowledge of your actions.  This message will self-destruct in a few weeks when your office is inevitably looted and burned, but if you throw it in the fire that will speed things up.

Is this treatment appropriate for most subjects? Almost certainly not. But I fear that it’s far easier to go too far in the other direction. If, in the study of any subject, you’re never laughing, it’s a sign that the connection– and the distance– between the abstract and the concrete is not being appreciated. It suggests that you may have succumbed to the fate that looms above everybody who deals in abstractions: getting lost up your own ass.

I think, in pedagogy, humor is treated like a spoon full of sugar. It keeps people amused while they absorb the lesson. It helps the medicine go down. And sometimes that is exactly how it works– just take any segment of Last Week Tonight. But the point I’m trying to make is that humor can be much more. It can help us understand and overcome the conceptual distance between the models in our heads and the messy realities that we actually have to work in.

This is not just a problem in academia. There are plenty of people in the private sector– managers primarily– whose deal largely in abstractions. Humor, used properly, serves to keep these people grounded. So don’t be afraid to be funny.

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