June 15, 2005

Job opportunity: joke checker at McSweeney's

Andrew Golden has an article at McSweeney's Internet Tendency entitled "An Episode of Star Trek Tediously Written for an Audience Entirely Composed of Remote Amazon Tribesmen". It's not clear whether the tribeswomen are allowed in the audience or not, but that's not the only problem here. In fact, essentially every factual premise of this joke is wrong.

The tribe cited is the Yanomami; and the gag has to do with numbers larger than seven. However, it's the Pirahã and the Mundurucú who have been cited as having issues with counting -- and seven was not the crucial barrier (see LL posts here, here, here, here, here, here etc. for discussion and links). After a few minutes of web searching, I couldn't establish one way or another whether the Yanomami are used to counting above seven. However, I suspect that at least these days, basic arithmetic is not a problem for most of them, since they are much more numerous (17,653 vs. 150) and more accessible than the Pirahã, and it doesn't seem to make sense for folks like Peter Gordon to study counting skills among a remote remnant if a much larger and more accessible group has the same properties.

My guess is that Andrew Golden invented the premise of the joke: how to get Star Trek across to people who don't really deal with numbers. And he vaguely remembered something about some Amazon tribes who can't count. But he couldn't really remember who they were, and couldn't be bothered to look it up, so he plugged {primitive amazon tribe} (or something like that) into Google and took the first name that came up: the Yanomami. And he couldn't remember exactly what the counting problems were, but he dimly recalled a college psychology course where George Miller's famous essay on "The Maginal Number Seven" was discussed, so he figured it must be that the primitive Amazonians can't count past seven.

He was wrong on all counts. This is not the first evidence that McSweeney's needs a joke checker.

I know, it's just a joke. But if a joke make obviously factual assumptions in passing (say, that Kansas is east of Missouri, or that Jacques Chirac is a leader of the socialist party), and these assumptions have nothing to do with the funny part of the joke, then it kind of spoils the fun. Especially if the funny part is supposed to be about how some people are ignorant of elementary facts and skills.

[McSweeney's article via email from Nicole Finch]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 15, 2005 11:46 PM