Brainwave 2013: The Humorist

Expectation and contrast are elements of every joke, yet there is nothing funny about that—humor withers under analysis. When experimental psychologist Steven Pinker and humorist Fran Lebowitz met for the first time this Wednesday for an event at the Rubin Museum of Art (a Brain Awareness Week partner), their contrasting perspectives provided a night of laughter.

Michael palma for rma fran lebowitz_016(Credit: Michael Palma for The Rubin Museum of Art)

Despite having never met, their conversation fell into a playful cycle where Pinker would elaborate academically on a subject and Lebowitz would interject some pithy retort. Pinker brought up how trends in attractiveness shape society: the more average a person’s face, the more attractive they are to others; in effect this contributes to the phenotypic (physical trait) homogeneity of our species. Studies also support that slight exaggeration of the sexually-dimorphic facial features in men (such as brow and jaw bones) and women (full lips and a smaller nose) result in higher ratings of attractiveness. To Pinker, “attractiveness is a shortcut to fitness.” He reminded the audience that attractive traits provide us with a foggy window into the quality of another person’s genome, “our early substitute for genetic testing.” Humor and personality factor into attractiveness as well, but are much harder to quantify. Thankfully, the unmarried Lebowitz gave her curt analysis: “None of these things factor into my preferences.”

However, when an audience member asked, “What are your criteria for beauty?” Lebowitz responded, “Beauty. Everyone knows what beautiful is. People are always saying ‘I don’t really care if people look beautiful; I care if they’re interesting.’ I care if they look beautiful. I’m interesting. No one is everything.” This dynamic played out over and over again, where Pinker would assemble a logical argument and Lebowitz would playfully disagree despite acknowledging its validity. Lebowitz, a master of comedy, frequently took whatever position ran antithetical to Pinker and academia in general.

After admitting his innate lack of humor, Pinker brought up how he trained himself to become funnier in order to better capture the attention of his distracted students. Lebowitz interjected, unable to resist the opportunity for sarcasm:  “Learning to be funny is like learning to have blue eyes.”

As the discussion shifted to academia, Lebowitz, who proudly never went college, brought up how academic writing “… is literally unreadable, it’s like trying to read cement.” In response, Pinker attributed the erudite style of academics to a phenomenon called the curse of knowledge: “It is really hard to go back in your mind to the state you were in before you knew something and explain it to others…[an academic] can’t tease apart his own knowledge from someone else’s…can’t imagine what it’s like not to know this stuff.”

Lebowitz added with a smile, “Do you feel like pretention has anything to do with it?”

Pinker, with degrees from Harvard and MIT, responded, “Every academic will think, ‘Well, I’m not pretentious; of course my colleagues, well, they’re pretentious.’” Apparently, in a circle of academics, everyone blames the person to their right.

To Lebowitz, the inaccessible academic writing style is evidence that good writing comes from talent, not training: “Like height, you can’t improve people’s writing”

Pinker responded: “I’d like to think you can improve people’s writing. My next book is going to be a book on writing.”

“I’m sure it will sell,” Lebowitz said.

Pinker and Lebowitz showed us how much science and humor need each other. Science without opposing perspective is much like humor without a tether to reality; both become illusionary.

Brainwave runs through April and there are many opportunities to catch other great discussions and films that relate to this year’s theme, illusion. The Rubin Museum is a Brain Awareness Week partner.

– Charles Jake Sadle

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