This morning, I read a Psychology Today article written by Steven Kotler called “Why We Laugh.” that discussed humor and referred to Alistair Clarke’s article/book on “An Introduction to The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor.” In it, Mr. Kotler provided a humorous anecdote and said it was

” … a perfect example of what British science writer Alastair Clarke has dubbed: “The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor,” a new theory in a field in need of one.”

I understand the difference between primary and secondary sources of scientific information. I also am interested in both pattern recognition and humor. I am familiar with the incongruity theory of humor and wondered how Clarke’s pattern recognition theory differed from incongruity theory. Consequently, I looked in PsycInfo (the psychology journal article database) to find the research on which Alistair Clarke’s theory was based.  There was none.

I thought maybe Alistair Clarke wasn’t publishing in psychology journals, so I used Google Scholar to try to locate the primary research on which his theory was based. This search was also unsuccessful at identifying such research.

Further searching brought me to Mr. Clarke’s website in which I found that he was not affiliated with any university and had left graduate school without receiving an advanced degree. Let me say at this point that I have no problems with Mr. Clarke developing his own theory of humor and writing a book about it. As far as I can tell, he has not made any unjustified claims about his qualifications in regards to developing theories of humor.  What I DO have problems with are the various science-based blogs treating his work as “science,” when in fact, the theory is just rationalism (at best) or opinion (at worst).

I say this because what I DID find when searching for primary source information on the pattern recognition theory of humor was a series of science-based blogs and websites that treated Mr. Clarke’s work as science. For example, the Science Daily news website (“Your Source for the Latest Research News”) reports Mr. Clarke’s theory as follows:

“First universal theory of humour answers how and why we find things funny. Published June 12, The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humour by Alastair Clarke answers the centuries old question of what is humour.”

The rest of the Science Daily article just quotes Mr. Clarke.  They also provide instructions following the article about how to “cite this story in your essay, paper or report.”

The website, ScienceBlogging, reported Clarke’s theory similarly, introducing it as

“Published today, The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humour, by Alastair Clarke, answers the eternal question about the nature of humor. Clarke explains how and why we find things funny and identifies the reason humor is common to all human societies, its fundamental role in the evolution of humans and its continuing importance in the cognitive development of infants.”

I believe this gives the impression that the information being reported is science with all the credibility that goes along with something being scientific. However, the theory they are reporting is anything but scientific.

I’m sorry to say that the original article in Psychology Today that got me started on this rant is no better. In it, the author says the following:

“Author Arnold Glasow argued that laughter is “a tranquilizer with no side effects,” while the political commentator Norman Cousins felt is ‘a powerful way to tap positive emotions.’ While neither of these men are psychologists their answers represent some of the earlier ideas about where humor comes from and why we use it.

Robert Provine, on the other hand, spent over a decade studying the topic and later wrote in the pages of this magazine: “laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together….a hidden language we all speak. It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes.”
Clarke disagrees with all of them. In his just published theory, he had gone hunting for a ‘global theory of laughter.’ Because researchers have been interested more in what we laugh at (content) rather than mechanism, this kind of universal theory is one many thought impossible. But what Clarke realized is that laughter is just another example of our brain’s pattern recognition system at work.”

The blog author then explains Mr. Clarke’s ideas about why Robert Provine is wrong and his Pattern Recognition of Humor is correct.

I looked up Robert Provine’s work in the PsycInfo database and found 38 articles in which he was one of the authors. He was first author on many of the articles which dealt with issues of language, laughter, emotion and, yes, even evolution.

Dr. Provine’s work IS science. His understanding of laughter and his opinions about the nature of laughter are based in science and deserved to be reported as science. It annoys me that his opinions are so lightly brushed aside by Steven Kotler in his Psychology Today blog.

In fact, Dr. Provine is one of many top-notch scientists who blog for Psychology Today. Two psychologists I know and for which I have the highest respect have Psychology Today blogs. Though they sometimes post on topics outside their area of research, they make very clear the distinction between science-based information and opinion-based information when discussing those topics. I only wish the other science blogs would do the same.

By failing to critically evaluate the science they are reporting, science blogs are potentially guilty of promulgating misinformation, pseudoscience or out-and-out falsehoods to the general public. It is my opinion that if you are making yourself out to be a science-based purveyor of information, you are obligated to critically evaluate the scientific integrity of that information.

Why do I believe that critically evaluating the information is up to those reporting that information rather than those consuming the information? Because it takes training to effectively engage in the kind of critical analysis that is sometimes necessary to distinguish science from pseudoscience. One has to understand the scientific process and know how to determine whether the information being communicated was obtained through a scientific process. Though the general public should be thinking critically about the information they consume, they may never have had the training necessary in order to verify the scientific integrity of the information. Consequently, they rely on the expertise of those publishing the science blogs to report scientific information accurately.

As science bloggers, how are we to inspire public acceptance, understanding and enthusiasm for science if we don’t report good science? Education should not be sacrificed in favor of entertainment.