The BBC says: humour “comes from testosterone.”
Holly says: bad reporting “comes from the BBC.”

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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16 comments for “The BBC says: humour “comes from testosterone.”
Holly says: bad reporting “comes from the BBC.”

  1. December 21, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks for the link. :] I really enjoyed this post and will be back for more!


  2. December 21, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    But… he said that the men would make comments intended as put-downs. It’s not like they were telling jokes… they were just making fun of someone because they probably thought unicycles were “gay” or something. “Hey, lose a wheel?” I guess that is sort of funny, but… well, not really.

    Nothing the article described was anything I would consider to be funny at all. It’s just people picking onsomeone for doing something different or unusual. How about we sit down at a bar with a group of men, note when they make jokes and decide how funny they are, and then do the same at a table full of women? I was expecting to read about men actually saying, you know, funny things. Since they’re supposed to be funnier? This article makes absolutely no sense.

    But maybe I don’t think it’s funny bcecause I don’t have enough testosterone in my body. Ugh.

  3. Jamie
    December 21, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    … uh-HUH… yeah right.

    Obviously, the so-called expert has not met and talked with the women I know, or most women in general.

    Seriously though, why are there these kinds of studies that tries to make these differences? It seems like something done to make women into the other, when they, like men, are HUMAN, and humans are darned complex and complicated animals.

  4. rootlesscosmo
    December 21, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Language Log has been tracking the BBC’s exceptionally stupid science reporting–pardon me, “science” “reporting”–for a while now; this post

    covers one instance and has links to posts on several others. (Funny coincidence department: the pseudoscience in question is usually misogynist.)

  5. December 21, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Let’s be clear, though… Dr. Sam Shuster, the “expert” who wrote the paper, is not really at fault here. He’s a retired dermatologist who likes to ride his unicycle, and wrote a satirical joke of a scientific study for the annual humor issue of the British Medical Journal. The reporting on his study, however, takes it completely seriously… so unsurprisingly, the articles don’t make any sense at all. Especially after you read the original.

    This often turns out to be the case with “what the hell?” science reporting stories. If you read the original study, it’s not nearly as overreaching and wacky as the media makes it sound.

  6. car
    December 21, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    Oh, I loved the magical heritability study! Sent it to all my Pottermania’d friends. And I can’t believe anyone fell for that unicycle study if they had read the original, with statements like this:
    “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, ”
    Don’t the science writers at least have to look at the paper they’re reporting on?

  7. December 21, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    It’s long been known that men score more highly on measures of “humour” or comedy. However, the reason for this has also been long known:

    Put simply, women are less likely to laugh at sexual innuendo, because a lot of the time, such innuendo happens to be sexist.

    On all other types of humour, women and men score more or less equally.

    (Source for this info is some “test your personality” book I had a while back)

  8. exholt
    December 22, 2007 at 12:11 am

    This often turns out to be the case with “what the hell?” science reporting stories. If you read the original study, it’s not nearly as overreaching and wacky as the media makes it sound.

    I’ve noticed this when many “science reporters” in the MSM have an irritating habit of oversimplifying and mangling computer technical news to fit a catchy headline and/or to appease some corporate entity. This, along with the fact many “science reporters” have little, if any science/technical background are reasons why I take MSM science reporting with several barrels of salt.

  9. December 22, 2007 at 12:52 am

    Oh man, good find Holly! If anything, the original paper is actually a satire of those BS studies that breathlessly claim to have found some new biological difference between women and men. Seriously, how can a reporter – for the BBC no less – be that gullible? Kind of scary how someone can accept almost any piece of data so uncritically when it happens to fit the preexisting narrative that they’ve been fed.

  10. rootlesscosmo
    December 22, 2007 at 1:20 am


    is Language Log on the BBC’s stubborn cluelessness. Apparently the British Medical Journal regularly publishes an end-of-year spoof edition; just as regularly, the BBC treats it as sober science, and actually defends this when it’s pointed out they’ve been fooled again. I think maybe the Catholic doctrine of Invincible Ignorance may apply here.

  11. Ledasmom
    December 22, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I am reminded of the father of an acquaintance who used to tell jokes incessantly. Nearly every joke ended with the punchline “The one with the biggest breasts, of course!” I am also reminded of Pratchett’s “The Fifth Elephant” in which Vimes says “You’ll know I’ve gotten onto the famous Ankh-Morpork sense of humor when I start talking about breasts and farting!” (Terry Pratchett, by the way, apparently has early-onset Alheimer’s; there is no justice in this world that this should happen to a genuinely funny man).
    It’s my theory that much of what passes for guy humor simply touches on a few points that the guy community has tacitly agreed to recognize as funny, in much the same way that certain female physical attributes are generally accepted as sexy regardless of whether they ring a particular guy’s chimes or not. It’s easier that way, you see. But what the hell do I know about humor anyway? I’ve been razzing a friend for months now about her drawing of Norway.

  12. December 22, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    My female co-workers pulled a pretty subversive prank on me yesterday. I’ve been chuckling about it all day, but what do I know. I’m just a wimmenz.

  13. Ben
    December 24, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Wow, LOL, I can’t believe someone working for the BBC made such an egregious error. I’ve always thought of the BBC as one of the most reliable news sources, but I remember scratching my head when I read that news story, so I’m not surprised that the original “study” turns out to be a joke.

  14. Laser Potato
    December 24, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    “I’ve always thought of the BBC as one of the most reliable news sources, but I remember scratching my head when I read that news story, so I’m not surprised that the original “study” turns out to be a joke.”
    I was thinking the same thing. I’m just waiting for a punchline like:
    “The BBC would like to make an apology. Last week we told you about a set of scientific studies that concluded humour came from testosterone. The studies actually concluded that humour, in fact, originates in the spleen. (image of spleen fills screen) We are deeply sorry for any offence this error may have caused.”

  15. December 26, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Mindful that I endeavour to write comedy, two people reported this BBC article to me. Indeed, on the grounds of the article’s authoritative status, there was a suggestion by one, albeit the seasonal drunk, that because of my gender I should give up writing comedy altogether. This was bad enough but when I read the article (see here) it escalated out of all proportion with its attack on all women. In addition to its implication that women write inferior comedy the article postulates that women are the cause of male aggression, arguing that male aggression stems from the testosterone males were exposed to in their mothers’ wombs.

    People’s gullibility combined with their cultural assumptions dictates that at least some of the readers of this BBC authenticated “health” article now believe that male testosterone is good (it produces humour and fun) and female testosterone is bad (it produces male aggression and nastiness). To some this could be final proof that women should be banned from writing comedy, giving birth, positions of power and all of their established rights.

    I enjoyed the original article (see here) – especially the methodology described and its scientific reasoning which led the conductor of the experiment to ride his unicycle in a “neutral” manner – I’m pleased that the retired professor achieved such coverage. But google returned almost 10,000 related articles “shuster, testosterone, humour” and most of those I read upheld the the gullible assumers’ profile and deductions described above. Accordingly, I’m now extremely worried about the effects that spoofs such as this could have in the future or have already had. Will history show that spoofers cause more trouble than they’re worth? Do we need laws against spoofers and their activities?

    Spoof is an excellent means of pointing out ridiculous behaviour. For instance Wilma Proops (a spoof Agony Aunt who has the ONLY Comedy Problem Page in the world), The Goddess of Football (who decides which teams wins and dictates HER followers be in touch with their feminine sides) and Theodore Parker Bowles (the Arts Czar who calls for the education of the plebeians via the Arts) bat out ad hoc agitations on issues as diverse as employment laws, men, the wearing of perfume, yobbish behaviour and the undeniable rights of the middle class to dominate the Arts. Without the laws called for above, these spoofs alone could be held responsible for the lack of toilet facilities for office workers, the daily ladling on of pungent perfumes, congratulations to men who behave like shits, belch, puke and stalk and yet more pretentious crap on screen and in poetry.

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