Every community has some sort of juvenile humor. That makes sense. It’s a talent we master somewhere around the age of 5, and like tying our shoes or riding our bikes, it’s something we never quite forget how to do, even if we haven’t actively practiced one of those arts in years.
That said, the community at the Science Online conference seems to take sex jokes and raise them to an art. Where another group of people would be content with a “That’s what she said” thrown into an opportune moment with a smirk and several groans, we construct beautifully written blog posts about bat fellatio, or give lectures on duck penises, or make a story about pubic lice into the capstone of banquet entertainment, as the frighteningly talented Bug Girl did during the The Monti storytelling at the Science Online 2012 banquet this past Friday.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a wrap-up of Science Online 2012, which just occurred in North Carolina last weekend. I considered serious posts. I considered emotional posts. I considered personal stories, anthropological studies and technical analysis.
But I just kept coming back to the sex jokes.
Why? While I do have a slightly suspect sense of humor, I don’t generally dwell on that kind of humor, and I certainly try to keep it out of most professional settings.
So why is it, when I go to write about a professional conference, why do I find myself writing about pubic lice?
Well, because I think that this tendency to focus on the sexy or the gross, the morbid or the taboo, is not just a symptom of our four days of very little sleep, more than a little alcohol in some cases and a deep sense of intellectual and cultural overstimulation.
No, this is an integral part of who we are as a group. We focus on duck penises because we almost have to.
We are all story tellers, whether scientists, journalists or educators. We take data and create hypotheses. We take facts and construct narratives. We take a curriculum and transform it into inspiration.
We teach ourselves to recognize oases of interest in the driest deserts. We develop a nose for the questions that remain unasked, the research that remains hidden away in a corner, and the boring subject that will transform someone’s life into a quest to know more.
We will grab on to the slightest thing that we think will pull people into a subject. If we can’t find something readily available, we will blunt force bash one out. We’re pretty good at this. It’s what we do.
So, when given such a nice, easy hook as duck penises or pubic lice, we grab onto it and refuse to let it go. We turn it every which way and generally beat it to death, just like any other group would.
However, jokes don’t just stop at being jokes. Even if they did, they could have shared use to our community as a sort of in-group language, and that would be okay, but they don’t. We tell the jokes. We share the humor and the group-building, but while we’re telling them, each of us is thinking ‘now, how do I use this? how do I make this something more?’ We then create stories around these facts. We use fruit bat fellatio as a way to explore non-reproductive activities that enhance reproductive fitness. We use barnacle sex to explain different methods for overcoming a lack of mobility. I personally research Syphilis as a way to explore social inequalities that remain major issues today.
In telling her story about strange questions entomologists get asked, Bug Girl created an even bigger story. The comment I heard over and over again was that while it was an inherently funny story, what really made it perfect was her delivery. She recognized the best way to tell it, she tailored it to her audience and she made it her own. In doing so, she made it all of ours.
This is the essence of what science communication at its best does. When a good writer or a good researcher or a good educator takes the time to unravel the threads of what seems like it should be a common subject and then weaves those threads back together, they don’t just imbue the story with their own style, and make it their own. They take that story, that otherwise would have languished in data or in nature or in the inbox of a harried entomologist, and they put that story in front of an audience. When they do it right, some members of that audience will take that story and fold it into their own experience, bringing it up and retelling it in ways that the original author never would have considered. That story will go on to spawn new and utterly unpredictable questions and new and unpredictable stories.
When you identify yourself as as science writer, people tend to immediately think one of two things: Very Serious National Geographic articles or about whatever big controversy is raging in the public eye at the moment. And yes, we could stick to telling stories about ‘serious’ topics, but sometimes it’s just fun to take a side step from trying to explain, very seriously, what exactly the Higgs Boson is, or why it’s so important to protect biodiversity. Sometimes that side step involves an explanation of how duck penises work. You never know how each story is going to end up affecting people.
And some day, some *very* inspired writer is going to use duck penises or pubic lice to explain the Higgs Boson. With the stew of ideas that is percolating in the collective intelligence I witnessed last weekend, I imagine it will be sooner rather than later. And then, as an educator (and science geek), I will have the chance to gleefully recount that story to as many people as possible, making that story grow and maybe even get people more interested in the plain physics or biology in the process!