December 27, 2007

The unkindness of strangers

Several readers have taken me to task for being too hard on the journalists who filed serious stories about spoof articles from the British Medical Journal's Christmas issue ("'Tis the season", 12/21/2007). For example, Ray Girvan, a frequent correspondent and long-time foe of bad science journalism, wrote:

Re the unicycler, it's by no means clear whether it's a spoof or not.

The Christmas BMJ does include many, but it's not solely "a spoof issue". As the editorial for Christmas 2000 says: "The essence of the Christmas BMJ is strangeness. It's our left brain issue. We want everything to be not as it seems".

This includes some spoofs, but also many genuine but quirky topics such as last year's "Sword swallowing and its side effects", the 2003 "How long did their hearts go on?" (an actuarial study to see if the lives of Titanic survivors were shortened by the trauma); or in 2000, "Civilisation and the colon: constipation as the "disease of diseases" (an erudite history of constipation and its treatment).

In this case, Ray is off the mark. The unicycler story was not "genuine but quirky", it was "quirky and presposterous". Let me explain.

The "unicycler", in case you've forgotten, was Sam Shuster, a retired dermatologist who took up riding a unicycle around Newcastle upon Tyne. Finding himself the object of unkind comments (and sometimes more direct interventions) from strangers, he "realised that this indicated an underlying biological phenomenon and set about its study".

True enough, this is probably not the kind of spoof article that is a complete fiction from beginning to end. Let's grant that Dr. Sam Shuster exists, that he did ride a unicycle in Newcastle upon Tyne, that he did record 400 instances of comments from strangers. Let's even grant that the paper ("Sex, aggression, and humour: responses to unicycling", BMJ 335:1320-1322, 22 December 2007) was not meant (entirely) as a parody of articles about the biological determination of social facts, but rather represents Shuster's sincere belief about the causes of his experiences.

Why is this article still essentially a joke, which should never have been presented in the mass media as a serious contribution to the biology of humor? Well, let's say that it would never have been published in a serious scientific journal, if not as a joke; and that its key conclusions are entirely unconnected to its evidence, other than via the logic of jokes.

There are several superficial things that should have signaled to any intelligent reader that something odd is going on. There's the author's apparent lack of expertise -- he's a retired dermatologist writing about a linguistic topic at the intersection of anthropology, sociology, social psychology and physiology. There's the lack of serious footnotes or references -- there are three references, one to Darwin's Descent of Man and two to recent popular-science books on sexual selection. There's the personal and informal presentation ("My wife said 'buy the bloody thing', which I did on the whim of the moment").

None of this necessarily undermines his work, or seriously influences my own evaluation of it -- there's plenty of nonsense produced by credentialed experts, in the standard impersonal style of scientific rhetoric, with a conventional battery of footnotes and references. But you don't normally get past the editors of major scientific journals unless these superficial characteristics are in order -- except as a joke.

A slightly more important set of problems was raised by Dr. Shuster himself. He points out that "because responses were not from a consecutive cohort or sample, the findings are only semi-quantitative", and that "confirmation by another rider, with a different style, appearance, dress, age, sex, and location is desirable".

These problems don't entirely invalidate the research itself, but outside of the Christmas spoof context, they would surely have led the referees and editors to force Dr. Shuster to be more precise in describing its limitations. They might even have made him run a control or two. But the real problem, the thing that could never have gotten past an editor who was not looking mainly for light-hearted quirkiness, is the generality of the conclusions that Dr. Shuster wants us to draw.

Let's review: An elderly upper-middle-class man rides a unicycle through streets frequented mainly by people from lower socio-economic strata, in a culture with a long tradition of class antagonism. The strangers he meets respond with ridicule and even some "attempts to topple the unicycle", as well as expressions of praise and concern. The physical attacks are generally from adolescent males, while ridicule is most salient from adult but not elderly males.

His diary confirms his initital impression, which is that "almost 50% of those encountered ... responded verbally"; that 95% of the responses from post-pubescent females "praised, encouraged, or showed concern", vs. only 25% of the responses from post-pubescent males. These are essentially the only numbers in the articles, whose observations are mainly qualitative.

His first-level conclusion is that the "waxing and waning of the male response" suggests sexual competitiveness due to "androgen induced virility". In other words, the male denizens of Newscastle upon Tyne are concerned to prevent Dr. Shuster from riding in on his unicycle and impregnating their women. The youth express this concern by swooping at him with bicycles and kicking soccer balls at him; more mature men do it by making stupid jokes at his expense ("Couldn't you afford the other wheel?").

This all may very well be true, though other hypotheses do come to mind -- for example, in some cultures, rough teasing is a way to make friends. And, as Dr. Shuster points out, the study was not very well controlled. But let's stipulate that he's right about all of this, and go on, because we've reached the real crux of the problem: what in the world does any of this have to do with humor?

On the face of it, his observations are about responses to a stranger doing unexpected things in a public place. It's one particular stranger (Dr. Shuster), one particular kind of odd behavior (an elderly man riding a unicycle), and one particular public place (the streets of Newscastle upon Tyne). Adolescent boys sometimes respond with what might be called aggressive threat displays, like kicking balls at him; mature men often (about .75*.45 = 33% of the time) make teasing remarks, like "I didn't know the circus was in town" or "And what were your other birthday presents?".

But Dr. Shuster generalizes beyond the public teasing of oddly-behaving strangers in British cities: "These findings suggest that humour develops from aggression in response to male hormones". A logically parallel argument would be "I've observed on many occasions that drinking red wine leads gives me a headache. These findings suggest that all illnesses develop from the physiological response to metabolites of ethanol." Shuster's conclusion is frankly presposterous, and surely would never have been allowed to stand in an article published in a serious scientific journal, other than as a joke.

Now, this is not just a matter of faulty logic -- Dr. Shuster's generalization is obviously false to fact, as any man or woman with a normal experience of life can testify. Women make jokes of all sorts, nice ones and mean ones and neutral ones, at roughly the same overall rate as men. Even in the line of teasing comments that Dr. Shuster focused on, there's a stereotypically female kind of remark described as "catty".

But we don't need to look out the window, because there's a fairly large experimental literature on the subject.

For example, there's DT Robinson & L Smith-Lovin, "Getting A Laugh: Gender, Status, and Humor in Task Discussions", Social Forces, 80(1) 2001, which used "event history techniques to analyze humor attempts and successes in six-person groups", collected "in the early 1980s at the University of South Carolina". There were "approximately four groups in each of seven gender-compositions conditions (all female, one to six men)", in which "the participants were Anglo undergraduates between the ages of 17 and 25 enrolled in introductory sociology". Among the conclusions: "Groups consisting entirely of women have a significantly higher rate of humor [than mixed-sex groups]... Compared to mixed gender groups, all male groups did not joke more frequently ... Likewise, the rates of successful humor [i.e. where others laughed] are higher among all female groups, but not all male groups". However, within mixed-sex groups, "men engage in humor at higher rates than women".

Another relevant study was done in New Zealand by Jennifer Hay. Though there were a number of later publications in refereed journals (e.g. "Functions of Humor in the Conversations of Men and Women", J. of Pragmatics 32 (6) 2000, pg 709-742), an especially accessible source is her 1995 University of Canturbury MA thesis "Gender and humour: beyond a joke". Her data came from 18 hour-long recordings: six involving four males, six involving four females, and six involving two participants of each sex. (Hay took recordings from existing collections where she could, and recorded others to fill in the gaps in the table. She says that "There will no doubt be variation in the intimacy of the speakers across my tapes, but all of the conversations can be described as discourse between good friends.")

Hay divided jokes into 12 categories, one of which was "insult":

An insult is a remark that puts someone down, or ascribes a negative characteristic to them. ... The insult here is likely to be genuine, and the humour stems from the unexpectedness of the statements, which isn most circumstances would be unacceptable.

Here's her transcription of one example:

 DF: i usually just um turn off the electric blanket
 BF: yeah well i did
 CF: i don't i roll over alex onto the cold side
(//so [ho]\
AF: /[oh ha]\\ DF: well chris that //just shows that\ you're a=
BF: /good on you\\
DF: =wanton //woman\ [insult]

This category would include the teasing jokes make about Dr. Shuster on his unicycle. Hay observes that

The odds of a speaker using a jocular insult in single sex interaction are more than twice the odds than in mixed interaction, and in both types of interaction, women are slightly more likely than men to use insults.

Specifically, in mixed-sex groups, a female's probability of producing an insulting joke was about a third greater than a male's; in same-sex groups, females were 50% more likely to produce insulting jokes than males were.

There are plenty of other studies out there. The details vary: the locations, ages, ethnicities and social roles of the participants; whether they were friends or strangers; the size of the groups; the goals if any of the conversations; and so on. There are plenty of gender differences, and there are sometimes circumstances like Dr. Shuster's, where jokes are more likely to come from men than from women. But as often as not, women make more jokes than men do, including insulting or aggressive jokes.

Now take a look at Shuster's paper again -- or more to the point, take a look at how it was presented in the mass media: "Humour 'comes from testosterone'", BBC News; "Scientist claims men are funnier than women", The Telegraph; "Aggression 'makes men more humorous than women'", The Independent; "Humor Develops From Aggression Caused By Male Hormones, Professor Says", ScienceDaily; "Is humor tied to male aggression?", World Science; "Quand les testicule régissent l'humour", TF1; "Das Geheimnis des männlichen Witzes", Spiegel; "Humor entsteht aus Aggression", Die Welt; "L'umorismo è maschile perchè legato a testosterone", AGI; "'L'umorismo è maschio', sostiene una ricerca", ANSA; "El humor 'está en la testosterona'", BBC Mundo; "Bewijs: mannen hebben inderdaad meer humor", Elsevier; "Testosteron ger män aggressiv humor", Svenska Dagbladet; "Estudo diz que senso de humor está ligado à testosterona", BBC Brasil; "Smysl pro humor je prý výhradně mužská záležitost", České noviny.

Can you tell me with a straight face that you think this was a serious science story, presented in a responsible way by intelligent reporters and editors?

[An irrelevant note on Ray's quotation from the BMJ Christmas issue for 2000: "The essence of the Christmas BMJ is strangeness. It's our left brain issue." The editors certainly pegged the quirkometer on that one, unless "left" is just a slip of the pen for "right", perhaps due to an overdose of eggnog.]

[Update -- Carl Zimmer writes:

This may be more information than you want about the unicycle story, but I thought I'd pass it on. is a press release service for science stories. It hosts a number of prominent journals, such as PLOS and PNAS and Science and BMJ. Press releases are made available to registered journalists under embargo before papers are published, and then become accessible to the public. BMJ posted a press release on the unicycle paper before it came out, and you can still find it there:

As you can see, it's a fairly detailed, straight-faced press release. I'd be surprised that a Christmas joke would extend as far as an embargoed press release, which is designed to draw attention to research in a journal.

If it wasn't a joke, which is what I suspect, then this appears to be a case of reporters uncritically writing about a paper that has the imprimatur of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. If we're apportioning blame, science writers deserve some for their laziness, but so do science journals that accept deeply flawed research and eagerly draw attention to it with press releases.

When the world's press features a really bad piece of scientific work, or a really bad misrepresentation of good work, the symbiosis of flacks and hacks is usually part of the background, as I've often observed.

But there's something else as well going on in this case.

I can see two possibilities.

One is that the PR folk at BMJ themselves missed the joke, and put out a straight-faced press release on automatic pilot.

Another is that the press release itself was another example of "lighthearted" (if deadpan) Christmas cheer.

But I can't believe that BMJ accepted and printed that paper as the result of their normal review process. ]

[Update #2 -- another Zimmer heard from, Benjamin this time:

See this piece for more on Sam Shuster of unicycling fame:

"It seems likely that Shuster is a wind-up merchant. Maybe he just enjoys getting into the papers by publishing wacky stuff in journals that ought to know better."

See discussion therein on his paper about the psychological effects of Karl Marx's boils and carbuncles. (At least that touches on Shuster's area of expertise, dermatology.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 27, 2007 09:27 AM