Anti-Science

We regret to inform you that we are not funny.

Christopher Hitchens (who many skeptics may know from his excellent book Missionary Position) begins his most recent article in Vanity Fair by pointing to the fact that countless women name “sense of humor” as a desirable trait in the opposite sex, while one rarely if ever hears a man describe a new love interest with “man, does she ever make ’em laugh.” He uses this observation as a way to spur us to ask ourselves, “Yes, that’s so true — why aren’t women funny?” It doesn’t take a team of researchers to discover the gap that lies between reality and observation, let alone the gap between the observation and the conclusion it supposedly inspired. By the same logic, one might ponder why the bulk of the male gender is no good at oral sex, since men rave about such a talent in women with little of the same when the situation is reversed. In the spirit of Mr. Hitchen’s article, I think I’ll write a paper on it and submit it not as “Are men terrible at oral sex?” but “Why are men terrible at oral sex?” Let’s ignore the sad fact that there probably are a good number of men who could benefit from such an article and forge ahead.

NOT SEXYWhat other differences does one see in the traits admired by men versus women, and what conclusions can we draw? One that immediately springs to mind is the common male exclamation that a particular female “sure has a great rack,” a comment rarely heard from females. We can extrapolate from this that men do not have desirable thoracic regions at all, a discovery that unfortunately may bring financial ruin to the sexy fireman calendar industry.*

We can similarly deduce that women make absolutely awful parental figures. Why, you ask? I recently overheard a female aquaintence relate that the man with whom she was involved would “be a great father one day” to her as-yet unborn children. While I have often heard males comment upon their girlfriend or wife’s superior ability to mate, I have never witnessed one of the men claiming that his partner would “sure squeeze out a baby like a pro and raise him or her in a responsible and loving manner.” Therefore, we can assume that men have developed an innate ability to become a successful parent, while women pathetically fail to grasp even the most fundamental aspects of birthing and nurturing a child.

To get back to the original article, all of this is not to say that Mr. Hitchen’s assertion is not based in reality. Despite his fallacious anecdotal evidence, his lack of supporting evidence, and his out-of-left-field conclusion, I regret to inform my readers that he is in fact absolutely correct — women just are not funny. I estimate that in my lifetime to date, I have met and interacted with approximately 15,000 women. Of these, I can only recall the names of approximately 28 who made me laugh. (By “laugh,” it should be noted, I’m referring to a spontaneous emission and not the forced “uh-heh” we sometimes affect to save the feelings of unfunny women [and the occasional unfunny man, rarely found in nature].) This results in less than .2% of the female population that might be considered humorous, a paltry amount by any standard. Therefore, while I appreciate Mr. Hitchens bringing this to light, I am disturbed by the fact that he offers no real solutions to the problem. It takes little talent to point out a problem — the real challenge lies in affecting change.

It is with this in mind that I implore directly on behalf of all women: please, Mr. Hitchens. Please help us be funny. I humbly await instruction.

Thanks to Jeff Wagg for the link to the article.

*The Skepdude calendar, of course, will remain marketable thanks to an emphasis on more cerebral aspects in addition to tasty chests.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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40 Comments

  1. December 14, 2006 at 7:22 am —

    "One that immediately springs to mind is the common male exclamation that a particular female “sure has a great rack,” a comment rarely heard from females. We can extrapolate from this that men do not have desirable thoracic regions at all"

    I used to sport a codpiece in public every day, thrusting it proudly in women's general direction. Not allowed to anymore though. Court order.

  2. December 14, 2006 at 7:35 am —

    We should first observe two facts: first, apparently women are really great at oral sex, and second, apparently women, as described in Hitchens' article, are not funny.

    There is one and only one conclusion that it is even remotely possible to draw from this: oral sex is serious business.

  3. December 14, 2006 at 7:37 am —

    I suppose men look at other physical attributes than women. But I also assume that pointing out that a particular woman has "a great rack" is probably not an indication that that is the only thing being looked at, merely the first and/or most obvious.

    Although I wonder what it is women look at when ogling a guy …

  4. December 14, 2006 at 8:04 am —

    Not to divert from Rebecca's excellent points, but I do have to say that despite the fact that women SAY they look for a man's sense of humor, it doesn't add up in practice.

    I can't tell you how many times I've been told, "Oh, you're funny! You're SO funny" by women who claim this to be a criterion for them, only to receive the "but you're a friend. You're like a brother" response when I try to put two and two together. Someone's coming up with five, here!

    That said, I used to jokingly boast of having a "nice rack" (despite my being as skinny as half a skeleton) and female friends would indeed compliment me on my 'assets,' so I guess it's just a matter of diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks, there :-P

  5. December 14, 2006 at 8:05 am —

    @exarch: the fireman picture should give you a good idea ;)

  6. December 14, 2006 at 8:30 am —

    OH NOOOO not the "I like you you're a great friend" kiss of death. Add the "you're just like a brother to me" and you might as well just hang it up.

    My wife says I'm good at oral sex (which IS serious business) but I think she's trying to be funny.

  7. December 14, 2006 at 8:47 am —

    There are so many science projects that are begging to be done. Comedy and oral sex have just not been looked at enough in a proper scientific study. Perhaps someone can design some experiments for TAM5. Get on your infrared goggles – there's science to be done!

  8. December 14, 2006 at 8:50 am —

    I think the issue is that we're looking at this based on sex rather than character. The types of people who are interested in a long-term relationship can be found in both sexes, and those are the types of people who care about humour, child-rearing, etc. Now, I think you can fairly say that the majority of this group are female, but that doesn't mean that all women are this way or that all men aren't.

    For the record, as someone who grew up around Christians (having been one), comments about a gal's potential abilities as a wife and mother were certainly in play (far more so than their rack), so maybe it is just your peer group.

  9. December 14, 2006 at 8:51 am —

    The linguistics blog Language Log (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003909.html#more)
    critiques the study behind the Hitchens article (VERY small sample size), as well as multiple articles based on the same study that make similar misinterpretations.

    "The first thing is that journalists, as a group, misdescribed the study's findings. Big surprise. It's pretty clear that none of those whose reports I've scanned actually read the paper, relying instead on the press release and on other journalists' stories. … And it's striking that Hitchens, who would never take a politician's press release at face value, is so completely uninterested in the facts of the science that he chooses to cite. This reinforces my conclusion that in today's public discourse, science is treated not as a search for the truth, but as source of edifying fables."

    Language Log is also a good source for critiques of journalistic/pop culture misinterpretations of neuroscience, linguistics, and psychology.

  10. December 14, 2006 at 8:53 am —

    I just thought of something. Maybe Hitchens's observation is the explanation for why women hate other women (as long as we're running with stereotypes like men being terrible at oral sex and women not being funny). Guys are likeable because they're funny, women aren't likeable because they're not. Most guys will attest to the fact that they'd rather hang out with their buds than almost anything, even sex (especially because an evening of hanging out with the lads will sometimes lead to the latter).

    As Homer responded when Marge observed that a store owner "prefers the company of men": "Who doesn't?"

  11. December 14, 2006 at 9:31 am —

    I guess at the next Skepchick's Pajama party, you gals will have to get lessons from Julia Sweeny on how to be funny.

    However, this does mean that there will have to be a Skepdude's Pajama party where the guys take lessons on…

    you know, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to view this page from work through the site filters…

  12. December 14, 2006 at 9:40 am —

    'Ere, I LOOK funny…Is that good enough–?

  13. December 14, 2006 at 9:45 am —

    Can you post some more pics of hot firemen, Rebecca? Please?

  14. December 14, 2006 at 10:07 am —

    Slashnull:

    Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

    (That's at least my second Simpsons quotation on this one sight in the last couple of days. Why am I even wondering why I'm single?)

    sporkfancier:

    'As Homer responded when Marge observed that a store owner “prefers the company of men”: “Who doesn’t?” '

    Well, at least I'm not the ONLY one making with the quotes… :)

    'Most guys will attest to the fact that they’d rather hang out with their buds than almost anything, even sex'

    Really? I always thought that was a TV Sitcom-dad stereotype…I can't believe that it's actually true. But then again, maybe it's a case of 'the grass is always greener'

    Infophile

    Your logic is flawless!

  15. December 14, 2006 at 10:18 am —

    Zing!

  16. December 14, 2006 at 10:42 am —

    Infophile: "Look at how many women versus how many men make their living as professional comedians."

    Even stacking up the best female comedians against some of the best male comics(I'd prefer to exclude the likes of Pryor, Carlin, etc – they're legendary, no one should have to be compared to them), there's no contest. Most female comics [i]stink[/i] on stage. I think there's a lack of self-depreciation, hatred, and enjoyment in miserable events, that just doesn't give them the right angle to work a stage. Kathleen Madigan is pretty good, I dig Bonnie MacFarland, Roseanne Barr(best line ever, "some people say I'm not very feminine" audience member: "you're not!" Roseanne: "suck my dick!") – hell, even Ellen Degeneres was funny back in the day. But they just don't slay on stage. They don't compare to dudes like Brian Regan(greatest clean act of all time), Jim Norton, Joe Rogan

    It could be a result of the fact that women have been kept out of…well, pretty much everything, for so many years. Or maybe we're just different.

  17. December 14, 2006 at 10:42 am —

    I was going to mention the Language Log smackdown of Christopher Hitchens's article but I see that aarons beat me to it. Go, read, enjoy. Language Log rocks, and I don't just say that because they've quoted me in the updates.

  18. December 14, 2006 at 10:52 am —

    Two parts of Mike Liberman's Language Log post are worth quoting. Aarons quoted one of them earlier, but I think it's worth saying again, complete with fancy HTML:

    The first thing is that journalists, as a group, misdescribed the study's findings. Big surprise. It's pretty clear that none of those whose reports I've scanned actually read the paper, relying instead on the press release and on other journalists' stories. Stanford's PR department — and perhaps Dr. Reiss — appear to deserve a share of the blame for the resulting misrepresentations. But it's strange that a science-oriented publication like Discover would employ a writer who doesn't bother to look past the blurbs. And it's striking that Hitchens, who would never take a politician's press release at face value, is so completely uninterested in the facts of the science that he chooses to cite. This reinforces my conclusion that in today's public discourse, science is treated not as a search for the truth, but as source of edifying fables.

    The second bit:

    So the subjects in this study were 10 males and 10 females, average age 22, recruited at Stanford Medical School. Presumably they were medical students, or grad students, or pre-med students. Anyhow, they were all between 20 and 24 years old, and they were all at Stanford.

    But the paper's conclusions aren't about how Stanford med students' brains work. Instead, the conclusions are about what "males and females share" and what "females … activate .. more than males" and so on.

    Would anyone accept a characterization of Americans' political or religious opinions, or their product preferences, based on a sample of 10 first-year Stanford medical students? Would a newspaper try to predict a national election from such a sample? Would a network executive rely solely on such a sample in estimating the response to a new comedy show? You'd have to unusually stupid or gullible to believe predictions about the population at large that are based on 10 22-year-olds enrolled at Stanford.

    So why are Dr. Reiss and his colleagues willing to treat such a sample as acccurately characterizing the nature of the brain responses to humor of human females and human males, taken as a whole? And why does a savvy political journalist like Hitchens accept this extrapolation as truth?

    Read the whole thing for details.

  19. December 14, 2006 at 10:55 am —

    >sporkfancier said,

    >Most guys will attest to the fact that they’d rather hang out with their buds >than almost anything, even sex

    Un can I just go on record here as saying…. um.. no..

    and the day I do someone (probably my wife) needs to shoot me.

  20. December 14, 2006 at 10:58 am —

    Nice, thanks for the Language Lab link, guys. Interesting to see the details of the actual study.

  21. December 14, 2006 at 11:56 am —

    Having now read Hitchens' article, to be fair to him, he wasn't really relying on the study to any real degree, just using it as one point in the larger rant he want having about women and humour. (I.e. he took it to be true because it supported his view.)

  22. December 14, 2006 at 12:02 pm —

    Thad, yes, that's why in my response I didn't bother with the study at all. But the criticisms of it and the resulting hype are very interesting.

  23. December 14, 2006 at 12:10 pm —

    I've long suspected that women are funnier when we aren't around.

    The whole couple dynamic where the guy tells the jokes and the woman laughs drives me nuts. Sure, it feels good to make a woman laugh…if it is the right sort of laugh anyway…but keeping it going all by yourself is tiring, and I want to laugh too. I'm not above laughing at my own jokes, mind you, but eventually enough is enough.

    Also, don't place too much stock in what anyone of any sex says they are looking for in a relationship. People lie like crazy on this subject, often to themselves.

  24. December 14, 2006 at 1:01 pm —

    There’s actually a rather easy way to determine whether or not women are less funny than men: Look at how many women versus how many men make their living as professional comedians.

    Now, to throw good logic out the window, let’s do some extrapolation here: Canadians are the funniest people (that’s just a fact). There are fewer funny women than men. Therefore there are too few Canadian women. Women of the world! Canada needs you! Preferably in the Waterloo region of Ontario.

  25. December 14, 2006 at 4:14 pm —

    Hey Astrogirl2100 (you're not an astroblonde, are you?)

    If that hot fireman picture is any indication (and apparently it is, since Evelyn seems to concur) I'd say women like suspenders and abdominal muscles.

    I've looked everywhere, but I don't think I've owned any suspenders since I was 8 years old. Will just my abs be sufficient?

  26. December 14, 2006 at 6:41 pm —

    ill rebbecca!

    I didn't need to see that.

  27. December 14, 2006 at 11:16 pm —

    Hitchens' sometimes talks complete cack. Although, to be fair to the man, he's capable of changing his mind which should be applauded. I know plenty of funny women, and there's loads in the entertainment world. My favourite all women comedy team at present has to be Tittybangbang, watch Lucy Montgomery do possibly the best impression of Tom Cruise on the planet:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6szGQkPVsvo

  28. December 14, 2006 at 11:24 pm —

    @Exarch: No I am not astroblode (or blonde for that matter).

    You have correctly identified the sixpack as an area of interesst, but you missed the chest/pecs and the bulge. Another area not showed in this picture is the bum. Rebecca, you should really do something about that, so Exarch gets an idea what to show off. More fireman pictures please!

  29. December 15, 2006 at 3:18 am —

    Do we prefer to hang around with people of our own sex/gender? I know of too many counter examples, but maybe that's because I'm self selecting due to my panchant for having more female friends than male friends.

  30. December 15, 2006 at 3:33 am —

    so astrogirl, I assume the "love-handles" are not part of the package then, since you seem to have ignored those? :P

    I stopped training my chest/pecs (and my arms generally) because I could feel I had started to use too much strength when swordfighting (and becoming too slow). Oddly enough, too much muscle can apparently be a bad thing sometimes …

  31. December 15, 2006 at 3:58 am —

    exarch:

    I stopped training my chest/pecs (and my arms generally) because I could feel I had started to use too much strength when swordfighting

    Man, I wish I had even half as cool a reason to NOT work out my upper body! I may start using yours and just hope that no-one asks me to swordfight EVER.

    "Yeah…it helps me stay quick with a sword to be this skinny and unmuscular. Really. What? Can I show you? No, I'm afraid that'd be too much AWESOME for you…you'll just have to take my word."

    Good times…

  32. December 15, 2006 at 5:11 am —

    I believe exarch was once advised not to bring up the subject of sword-fighting with members of the opposite sex that he was trying to impress.

    I think because he'd impress them *too* much :)

  33. December 15, 2006 at 6:27 am —

    @Exarch: lovehandles can be good too… but I don't think it is one of the, shall we say, primary oogling focus areas. I am sure the same is true for men oogling women.

    I had a boyfriend once who did swordfighting as a part of this whole medieval reenactment thing he had going. I don't think he took any special work-out considerations because of it.

  34. December 15, 2006 at 6:41 am —

    I stopped working out my upper body because it made it harder to ….. um….. fight the dinosaurs… yeah.. that's it……. the dinosaurs…. gotta keep limber….

    dang …… sword fighting how fuc**** cool is that??

  35. December 15, 2006 at 9:03 am —

    Hey, somebody has to fight the dinosaurs!

  36. December 15, 2006 at 11:14 am —

    You leave the Velociraptors out of this!

    They're my only friends. =(

  37. December 15, 2006 at 12:32 pm —

    Maybe this is the wrong demo to be talking about guys (in the Dave Barry sense). Perhaps I'll continue to troll the hockey boards, as usual.

  38. December 15, 2006 at 12:35 pm —

    "I think I’ll write a paper on it and submit it not as “Are men terrible at oral sex?” but “Why are men terrible at oral sex?” Let’s ignore the sad fact that there probably are a good number of men who could benefit from such an article and forge ahead."

    One wonders why you couldn't have replaced "forge ahead" with "dive right in" you know, just evoke an image…

  39. December 15, 2006 at 1:10 pm —

    I stopped working out my chest,pecks and mussels,

    because I lost my will,and can't seem to find it..

    Seriously though,If sword-fighting is the objective,

    I personally recommend training with bokken,not

    abandon physical fitness.

    They emphasize the delicate attention needed

    when using a sword especially in shonbi style

    weapon-fighting..You learn quickly that your the

    motion and intention are where you place your strength,

    instead of forearms and biceps

    You can have a bulk body yet place your focus while sword fighting

    trying,on over powering your opponient..This is backward thinking

    Instead you can still be Hercules and use the most slightest

    motions to cause you blade to swing perfectly,and with precise

    intention..

    I could go on and on but I don't think this was the topic

    Take care my friends M.Dmon

    PS as for kitty licking,it's not like were born with the tools to be experts,

    and if the lesbians played nice with us,we would gladly welcome

    the education..

    So in my opinion,if we fail to please your Majesty

    it's only because of poor leadership…

    Take care M.Dmon

  40. December 15, 2006 at 1:31 pm —

    Personally I would much rather hang out with women than with guys. Other guys make me feel edgy and competitive. I'm much more myself around woman…. that is unless I find one *really* attractive. When that happens I become a total dork for some reason:P.

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