The problem with boffins
Earlier this week, BBC Four broadcast a programme featuring a few people I know telling jokes. It's part of a series called Some People Telling Jokes, with each episode themed by a certain trait which all the people telling the jokes share. What the people I know all have in common is that they are scientists. The idea of the programme was to show that scientists are capable of being funny. Not being based in the UK, I haven't seen the show itself. However, I have been told the title: Some Boffins With Jokes.
I'm not one to judge a book by its cover (except sometimes), so I'll not comment on the quality or otherwise of the jokes. Instead, my focus here will be on the word "boffin". For those of you who aren't familiar with this particular nugget of British English, it is used to designate an expert. Of course, that would normally be totally fine. After all, scientists have a great deal of knowledge about their field. The problem is that it doesn't stop there. There are some quite negative connotations. These include being aloof, disconnected, and socially inept.
While not all scientists are completely immune to these traits, neither are all [any other profession].
Here's an extract from an email discussion sent to one of the performers by someone working for the programme, before filming took place:
The concept is extremely simple. We take a group of people who have a similar interest, or profession, or vocation, or cultural identity, and ask them to tell us their favourite jokes. That's it. No bells, no whistles, no celebrities, no voting. Just people standing in front of a camera enjoying telling their favourite jokes for the enjoyment of people at home.[...]
we're looking to extend the series further because we began to realise what an interesting experiment this was turning out to be - how enjoying jokes is universal, of course, but also that showcasing different jokes told by different people is actually really interesting in itself. How and why are the jokes different? Which jokes (if any) overlap? How do joke-telling styles vary?
Looking for a new group, we thought it would be fascinating to search for biologists, chemists, quantum physicists, mathematicians - in short, ANY scientists - who might be interested in telling us their favourite jokes on camera. Are there classic science-based jokes out there that the general public may not have heard, just as there are classic copper jokes among the police or medical jokes among doctors and nurses?
That all seems fair enough. If I had been able to come to London on the date in question and thought of myself as a proper scientist, I might have applied to take part. (I and several others seem to remember an email on a list we all follow, but no-one seems to be able to find it now...) It's worth noticing, however, that the email contains not one mention of the word "boffin". It does repeatedly refer to people from Liverpool as "Scousers", although I don't know how bad that is really (would any Liverpudlians out there care to comment?). The working title throughout the filming, apparently, was Scientists Telling Jokes.
There were several tweets from people who took issue with the term.
We'll return to the issue of the word "boffin" in a moment. First, I want to look at how my friends and acquaintances were treated in the making of the programme.
To spell someone's name incorrectly on national, pre-recorded TV seems like a fairly shocking error to me. I don't work in TV, but it seems like a fairly straightforward thing to get right. They also mistakenly called Jamie Gallagher a biologist.
Furthermore, it seems that while some performers were paid expenses, others were not, which seems unfair. But again, that might just be how things are in TV-land. Anyway, these seem to be minor points which just "come with the territory", and beyond the scope of this post. Such behind-the-scenes problems, while not helpful to the relationships between scientists and the media, do not directly affect the TV-watching public's perception of scientists.
Indeed, the main issue with how the TV company in question behaved is that performers were not told in advance that they would be called "boffins". Several would not have taken part had they been told as much. Others even assumed such a spin might be on the cards, so they avoided the call entirely. Overall, the change in name probably isn't quite as bad on the scale of offensiveness as giving the programme Old Jews Telling Jokes an anti-semitic title would be. Let's not forget that no-one has a right not be offended, but the issues here are broader than that.
While some had less of an issue with the term boffin...
... it is nonetheless problematic in general. When it comes to labeling groups of people, I think the criterion for acceptability is that members of the supposed group should feel comfortable using it about themselves. Having grown up in France, I might call myself a bit French, by upbringing if not by passport. But I wouldn't want anyone to say I was a "cheese-eating surrender-monkey", especially if I was doing them a favour.
Similarly, the words "geek" and "nerd" have a lot of baggage. Personally, I try not to have too strong feelings on the matter, but it does seem to polarise the science advocacy community. (See also this study on the real distinction between geeks and nerds.)
Some very serious issues around bullying crop up here. While I was never bullied in a violent way over getting good marks in school, I do remember being called un intello, the French shortening of "an intellectual". I used to vehemently deny being such, though I wasn't sure why. It seemed to me that working hard and learning as much as possible would be a good thing, for its own sake as well to please the grown-ups. I think it's sad that intellectualism should be derided in our society. The pursuit of knowledge is a noble one, and children (and grown-ups) should be made more aware of that.
As ever, there's also a Mitchell and Webb sketch that gets to the heart of the matter. The role of the boffin is to provide a short, snappy, definitive answer. there is no room for uncertainty or humanity in the debate.
You're not meant to relate to boffins. They aren't real people.
This whole affair reminds of a critique I recently read about the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. In essence, TBBT encourages viewers to laugh at the geeks/nerds/boffins, rather than with them. You wouldn't want to spend hours on a train with Sheldon - he would bore you with his endless facts and fascination for knowledge for its own sake. You wouldn't want that. (This is not to say that Penny's character promotes the out-of-work actress stereotype either...)
Don't get me wrong, the show is funny. But the humour does not turn me on to science or scientists. I feel bad laughing at it, because I know some people who really are a lot like Sheldon and who I very much like spending time with.
Meanwhile, the use of humour for proper science communication is not especially new. Particularly in the last few years, and especially in the UK, science and comedy have been combining with increasing popularity. There are professional comedians telling jokes about science, professional scientists trying their hand at stand-up, and an increasing number of people who are somewhere in between. It's a largely healthy environment. It's happening in writing, live and online. For example, this blog post gives a good analysis of how YouTubers are getting it right. But does traditional TV have some catching up to do?
The full article is worth reading as it gives many examples along the way, culminating in this gem:
The post's conclusion is
Humor, animation, and goofball hosts draw in online viewers. Their methods may not be perfect for science journalism, but we think there’s a lot to learn from people who can get 10 million viewers using nothing but a cat, a cardboard box, and a low-quality camera. To get beyond science “infotainment” may take adapting these “YouTube lessons” in new ways. That’s where journalistic creativity comes in.
Admittedly, the Some Boffins With Jokes show was never meant as "journalism" per se. But I think that overall we need to go from laughing at scientists to laughing with them, and the word "boffin" does not achieve this (unlike the general principle of having scientists telling jokes).
For now, boffins still have a hard time on TV. For example, Rob Wix has the inside story on how Terry "Professor Boffin" Harvey-Chadwick was effectively tricked into making something of a fool of himself for Britain's Got Talent last year, which I also wrote about at the time.
In this case, the TV company knew the story it wanted to tell. Either it would get a great demonstration that they had seen on the US version of the show and would thrill and surprise the UK audience, or they could present a stereotypical "boffin", trying in earnest but failing horribly to impress anyone with little tricks.
So overall, I think it's important that scientists be seen as real people. We tell jokes, we go to the pub, we dance, we support sports teams, we enjoy fashion, we watch films... we do everything that everyone else does. So would the media please stop labeling us as weird, unapproachable boffins, please?
Over to you:
- What do you think of the word "boffin"? What about "geek" or "nerd"
- Are there similar words in other languages?
- Have you had any experience with TV production companies making a show about science?
- Do you think science/knowledge enthusiasts should try to re-claim the word "boffin", like the gay movement did so successfully?
- What is the role of humour in science communication?