If you’ve kept track of the scant number of posts I’ve contributed to Feministe over the past half-year, you may have realized that I get very irritated when I come across blatantly misleading “science” reporting. (I guess it must come from being raised by scientists, then working in the media.) So my eyeballs bulged and turned a hilarious shade of pink when I came across this lead for a “Health” story on the BBC News site courtesty of Feministing:
Humour ‘comes from testosterone’
Men are naturally more comedic than women because of the male hormone testosterone, an expert claims.
Men make more gags than women and their jokes tend to be more aggressive, Professor Sam Shuster, of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, says.
The unicycling doctor observed how the genders reacted to his “amusing” hobby.
Women tended to make encouraging, praising comments, while men jeered. The most aggressive were young men, he told the British Medical Journal.
Previous findings have suggested women and men differ in how they use and appreciate humour.
Women tend to tell fewer jokes than men and male comedians outnumber female ones.
What we really need to do is find out the gender of whoever research and wrote this story for the BBC, because few things are funnier than someone who’s supposed to be a journalist, working for the largest broadcasting company in the world, making a complete ass out of themselves. Not to mention spreading the story to all sorts of other news services that seem to be taking the story seriously.
So, the first thing I always do with these science stories is find the original study: Sex, aggression, and humour: responses to unicycling. It turns out that Sam Shuster is a retired professor of dermatology. (Note to BBC researchers: this means he studied skin, not hormones or psychology.) Shuster wrote about reactions to his unicycle for the traditional end-of-year issue of the British Medical Journal. This season, the BMJ also features densely written scientific papers on which brand chocolate bar doctors ought to use to demonstrate bone fractures and whether magical powers are heritable, based on an analysis of Harry Potter novels. In short, it’s clearly a joke. I would blame the notoriously dry wits of the British for the confusion, but it seems all too likely that the BBC reporter is… also British, albeit maybe not a doctor with enough time on hand to write witty, self-referential papers about the statistical mistreatment of orthopedic surgeons in medical journals.
As if that wasn’t enough, the BBC hasn’t even gotten the joke right. Shuster doesn’t even claim that the men mocking his unicycle were actually funny. He points out that the “jokes” he heard mostly from men, and mostly from younger men in shabbier cars, were on the exact same topic about two-thirds of the time: some variation of “what happened to your other wheel” or “you lost your handlebars.” Wow, that’s funny. As Shuster notes:
The consistent content of the male “joke” and its triumphant delivery as if it was original and funny, even when it was neither, was remarkable, and it suggests a common underlying mechanism.
He goes on to basically make some stuff up about how the aggressive jokes mostly came from younger guys who have higher levels of testosterone in their blood, and aggression is linked to testosterone, so there’s your biological origin! At least suitable enough for the joke issue of the journal. If there’s anything really socially notable about Shuster’s findings, it’s in some of the nuances, where he notes that Indian and Asian men were less likely to yell aggressive jokes at him, as well as older men in fancier cars, and that women were less likely to say anything in their adolescent and teen years, and occasionally yelled a joke at him if they were in the company of men. All potentially interesting… and, I’d guess, the realm of sociology and anthropology, beyond the scope of Shuster’s paper or this post. The BBC, meanwhile, picked up the story and described it like this:
Professor Shuster believes humour develops from aggression caused by male hormones.
He documented the reaction of over 400 individuals to his unicycling antics through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne.
And then even found another scientist to comment:
Dr Nick Neave is a psychologist at the University of Northumbria who has been studying the physical, behavioural, and psychological effects of testosterone.
He suggested men might respond aggressively because they see the other unicycling man as a threat, attracting female attention away from themselves.
“This would be particularly challenging for young males entering the breeding market and thus it does not surprise me that their responses were the more threatening.”
Although Neave didn’t perform a study, it’s nice that he can easily fit a joke about unicycling into his hoary-sounding sociobiological theories about aggressive behavior and mating. Admittedly, the image of young dudes acting like apes is kind of funny: yelling and throwing stones to scare away the dangerous mating threat, poised on one wheel to snatch up their women and carefully reverse-cycle away. But it’s also an old joke… well, at least without the unicycle it is.
More about women and humor in the next post!
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