Humor and General Systems

© Michael Bolton

Jonathan Miller is one of the great Renaissance men of popular culture. He has been a medical doctor, an opera director, a television documentary writer and producer, but he first gained prominence as a performer in the British comedy revue Beyond the Fringe. Several years ago, I attended a lecture by Dr. Miller at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. The topic was “Humour in Science”.

Dr. Miller began with an apology and an explanation. When the Science Centre had approached him to present a lecture, he had been given a title for the talk, but nothing more. He apologized for those who were anticipating “Laughs In The Lab” or “Six Pranks You Can Play With Bunsen Burners”. Instead, he had chosen to speak on what science had to say about humour—why people had developed it in the first place.

He remarked that all humans smile and laugh in the same characteristic way. He also remarked that when biologists look for an explanation for some characteristic of a species, they look for biological advantages — the ways in which that trait would allow a species to adapt to its environment. Humans were by no means the fastest or strongest animals in their environment; the most dramatic adaptation that humans had made was to develop their intelligence, and Dr. Miller contended that humour was a part of that. Humour, he said, allowed us “to alter our categories, to see things from a different perspective.” That ability, in turn, allowed us to deal with new information, and to develop new models of the world. This, he suggested, explained everything from children’s play to gallows humour.

Over the years, I’ve heard many very smart people (some of them funny) suggest the same kind of thing. Marshall McLuhan used subtle jokes and wordplay as a means of probing ideas. Richard Feynman was an inveterate prankster. Martin Gardner used humour and parody as a means of disposing of ideas that he considered foolish; “one horselaugh,” he said, “is worth a thousand syllogisms.” Wade Davis, the great Canadian explorer and anthropologist, remarked that the Inuit made laughter and jokes central to their culture as a means of helping them to maintain social ties that were essential to survival in Canada’s north.

In the last few years, I’ve begun to notice how certain jokes neatly express general systems ideas and problems with requirements. (I note that there’s a risk here: analyzing a joke is one of the most unfunny things that one can do. Oh well.)

George Carlin is, to me, one of the best observational comics of all time. One of his lines:

Some say the glass is half-full. Some say the glass is half empty. I say the glass is too big.

The observer who can only see the contents of the glass may not have insight into the problem; the dominating observer will recognize the possibility that what we think of as the ground might be the figure. On the other hand, one dominating observer might miss something that another kind of dominating observer would see; a student recently remarked to me that the glass was completely full… of air and water.

Here’s another one from George Carlin:

When it’s time to board, people come running around say “Get on the plane! Get on the plane!” To hell with that; I’m getting in the plane.

In a document, a single preposition can change everything. Some people recognize these little differences and their significance. These people get to sit in seats that are less windy than others.

This next joke doesn’t come from any particular comedian; it’s just out there in the popular culture, and no one knows where it came from. (If you find the reference to blondes insulting, please mentally substitute “balding Canadian guy in his mid-forties”, and change “she” to “he”.)

A blonde is walking along the edge of a river. She wants to cross, but sees no bridge and no tunnel. After a while, she sees another blonde across the way. She shouts, “How do you get to the other side?” After a brief pause comes the reply: “You’re ON the other side.”

Like general systems thinking, this joke teaches us to recognize the significance of where we are relative to the thing that we’re observing.

Steven Wright says:

I have a full scale map of the United States. It took me all last year to fold it.

Models are designed to make it easier to understand something. The value of a model lies in the way that it shows certain information while leaving out other information. A model might not be so useful if it fails to simplify the problem in certain dimensions.

Here, by the way, is the same joke told in a somewhat more sophisticated way. A colleague, Mark Garnett, supplied a story from Del Rigor en la Ciencia, from a book called El Hacedor by Jorge Luis Borges:

“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography reached such perfection that the map of a single Province occupied a whole city, and the map of the Empire a whole Province. With time, these outsized maps failed to satisfy and the Colleges of Cartographers created a Map of the Empire which was the same size as the Empire and which completely coincided with it. Less addicted to the study of Cartography, subsequent generations understood that this extended map was useless and not without impiety handed it over to the justice of the sun and the elements. In the Western Deserts some rootless remnants of the map remain, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; there is no other relic of the Geographical Disciplines in all of the Country.”

As Mark points out, Steve Wright’s story is simpler, and perhaps models the problem more efficiently. Or maybe Borges’ Empire was bigger than the United States.

One important general systems lesson is that the notational system shouldn’t affect the result. In English, we overload certain words in certain ways. Here’s a joke that takes advantage of that—and if we notice the paradox, the joke helps us to understand both the transitive property and the difference between the null set and the empty set:

How is a cheese sandwich better than complete happiness? Nothing is better than complete happiness, and a cheese sandwich is certainly better than nothing.

Like general systems thinking, comedy encourages us to see things from different perspectives, the better to understand them. I look forward to the day when we can go to nightclubs, and see general systems thinkers riff for half an hour on the similarities between epidemiology and corporate communication.

Nah; I’m just kidding.

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