I’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about how #coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces for DAYS, which I feel has created a lot of unnecessary fearmongering regarding how the virus spreads.

The main reason people say that is because of an article in the New England Journal of Medicine however, since nobody read the actual article (and only read news stories about it), there is a wide gap between the data and what people are saying.

First, the study showed that on surfaces such as copper, cardboard, stainless steel, and plastic, viruses that were capable of infecting cells could be found at up to 8 hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard, and 72 hours on stainless steel and plastic. If you look at the graph below, the red dots = current SARS coronavirus and blue dots = SARS from 2002. Any dot above the dashed horizontal line means that there were infectious virus.

Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 9.11.03 AM

That’s horrifying news you say? Viruses can live on surfaces for DAYS AND DAYS! OMG! Well, the issue with that is you have to pay attention to the Y-axis, which says “Titer (TCID50/ml of medium)” What the Y-axis tells you is HOW MANY infectious virus particles were able to be detected at a given time.

Why is that important? Because different viruses have different INFECTIOUS DOSES (essentially the number of virus particles you need to be infected with to actually get sick). While we don’t really know the infectious dose of the current SARS coronavirus the 2002 SARS virus may have had an infectious dose of ~16-160 viruses required for spreading SARS.

Assuming the current SARS coronavirus is anything like what was reported for 2002 SARS, we can ignore any of the dots below 101 (ie 10), which is below the low range (16) of virus particles required for spreading.

Again, the high end of the infectious dose range for 2002 SARS was 160 virus particles. Therefore, some patients required a lot more (>100) virus particles to be infected with SARS, and the dots below 102 (ie, 100) become less relevant for infection.

Looking back at the graph, if you draw a line at number of virus particles relevant for infection in most people (see teal line at 102), the current SARS coronavirus survives 1 hour on copper, 4 hours on cardboard, 8-24 hours on stainless steel, and 24 hours on plastic.

Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 2.56.31 PM

You may be thinking: A whole day surviving on plastic is pretty bad! Well, this data assumes ideal laboratory settings (69.8-73.4° F and 40% relative humidity – which may only apply to Hawaii?), and the fact that surfaces are not wiped, which is unlikely these days.

I’m not trying to say you can’t get the current SARS #coronavirus from touching a surface – you definitely can. But let’s not excessively spread panic when we don’t need it.

On the Google Guy, Biology, and Standard Deviation


I’m very late to the game on having a take on this Google manifesto guy, but apparently, as much as I thought he would disappear into the ether, he has become a darling of the conservative news circuit. Much has been made about the points Damore makes, particularly the statements regarding biological differences between men and women.

Yonathan Zunger, a former Google employee, provided a great counterpoint to what James Damore thinks the skills of an engineer should be. But, as I’m not a Google engineer (much to my family’s disappointment), I can’t speak to what skills are necessary to succeed there.

I’d like to discuss the biology behind the arguments Damore, before going into the statistics of the science he discusses, and confirming the general belief that he’s wrong and ignorant.

Damore makes several biological arguments for why women are unable to succeed and progress through the ladders of the company, rather than systemic sexism or socialized gender norms. The arguments he reports to support differences between men and women on a biological level include:

  • They’re universal across human cultures
  • They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
  • Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
  • The underlying traits are highly heritable
  • They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

A lot of these arguments are bizarre and not grounded in anything I’ve ever heard of, but let’s break down Damore’s points about why men and women are different, from a biological context, and show why each of them are wrong.

They’re universal across human cultures

If gender roles that we find in Western culture are universal across human cultures, then there is in fact a biological root for gender disparity, rather than a socialized source. However, a simple Google would have shown Damore that our socialized norms are not universal, and indeed the experience of women and men around the world is fairly heterogenous. For example, the Khasi women of Meghalaya in India control society, men take their mother’s name, and feminine gender is applied to anything useful in their language (tree is masculine, but wood is feminine), and most men fall victim to alcohol/substance abuse because they don’t feel part of the society.  Mosuo women handle all business decisions, Minangkabau marriage is considered a financial “exchange of men”. There are also plenty of examples of third genders, or variations in traditional male/female Western gender roles in other cultures. Hijra in India, berdache in North America, the fa’afafine in the Pacific, and the kathoey in Thailand. There are plenty of examples to refute the idea that male/female gender roles are universal – I’m only listing the top 3 that came from the simplest of Google searches.

They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone

This example is bizarre, because Damore is taking established science and using it to support his bizarre theory. The importance of prenatal testosterone was shown previously in a famous study where male monkeys were shown to have a preference for trucks while female monkeys prefer dolls. The study showed that prenatal testosterone predicted preference for male toys, and that this was evolutionarily conserved (as similar behavior was seen in monkeys).

However, while the research around toy preference and prenatal testosterone is fairly well supported, it remains unclear what impact prenatal testosterone has on gender identity or sexual preference. For example, females exposed to elevated prenatal testosterone will also prefer to play with trucks and weapons, and males that cannot respond to prenatal testosterone will prefer female-typical toys. So, just because you like playing with toys not typical of your gender, that does not mean that you will not be the gender/sex of your birth.

So, even though most men are exposed to prenatal testosterone, that does not mean that women are not exposed to prenatal testosterone (or that some men won’t be exposed to testosterone). While it is true that there are biological underpinnings to gender behavior, AGAIN, this is not universal.

Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males

WTF? No idea where he’s coming up with this. To my knowledge, the most common reasons for castration of males is with sex offenders, religious sects, court servants, and as a treatment for prostate cancer. Regardless, the common medical consequences of castration include reduction of sex drive, loss of muscle mass, memory, body hair, hot flashes like those that women at menopause, osteoporosis, shrinking of the penis, and almost complete loss of erectile function. I’d imagine that these physiological changes would severely hamper the ability of biological males to “act like males”, as Damore would view “maleness” anyway.

If Damore is referring specifically to one horrifically unethical instance that this happened, a psychologist who took a biological male child who had a botched circumcision and castrated him and forced his parents to raise him as a girl with the name “Brenda”. At age 9, he was convinced that this experiment was a complete success, because “Her behaviour is so normally that of an active little girl, and so clearly different by contrast from the boyish ways of her twin brother”. When the child reached puberty, he became suicidal and his parents finally told him that he was born a boy. He changed his name to “David” weeks later, and continued to be depressed and eventually killed himself. So, long story short, I’m not sure that this is a text book example of gender identity being rooted in biology. [As a note, I kept the pronouns for “David” male since he was born biologically male, and outside of this experiment forcing him to be female, he preferred a male identity. I kept the female pronoun since that’s what the psychologist, Dr. Money (seriously), used when describing him.]

The underlying traits are highly heritable

Again, not sure what traits Damore is referring to, but the previous points reflect the significant influence of hormones such as testosterone and estradiol on development of males and females, respectively. Biologically, sex is determined by inheritance of an X or Y chromosome. Obviously, there are associated sex-linked traits with inheritance of the sex-specific chromosome, but considering that at least 5% of all pregnancies have a sex chromosome disorder, this limits the possibility that sex-traits being purely heritable.

The issue of heritability gets even muddier as behaviors are some combination of environmental, genetic, and epigenetic factors. So, it is unclear A) which behaviors are products purely of genetic/epigenetic (heritable) factors, and B) what traits are 100% heritable (vs a response to environment).

They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Damore makes probably the greatest leap here – that evolutionary psychology is genuine science, rather than hand-wavey pseudoscience. Most people have a very limited understanding of evolutionary science, which is why many fall into the traps of evolutionary psychology. Briefly, the idea behind evolutionary psychology is that human psychological behavior is driven by natural selection. Therefore, women are nurturing beings because they raise children while men are aggressive and violent because they are competing for women and to kill animals for food. The most nurturing women and the most aggressive high status men are going to have the most surviving offspring, and therefore will win out over other men/women pairs. Sounds very simple and easy to comprehend within traditional gender roles.

THAT BEING SAID, we assume traits like nurturing, empathy, aggressiveness, strength are 100% heritable (which as I mentioned earlier may not be true). A truly nurturing and empathetic female could get killed before she can have offspring, and a truly violent/aggressive male could get killed by an animal or get sick and die before he has offspring. Therefore, this “evolutionary psychology” notion overlooks the vast history of selective pressures driving human behaviors over time. Perhaps it was better evolutionarily to be a male coward and hide away while the other aggro males killed each other? Or it was better to be less nurturing so as to not get diseases from your children that would kill you?

Even if natural selection was uniform throughout human evolution, that does not mean that the traits we currently ascribe to men or women have been selected for. Exaptation, the coopting of traits not for their original purposes, may serve as a counterargument to the traditional explanations of gender roles. For example, the adaptive development of feathers may have originally served as selective features for birds to attract mates, but they also allowed birds to fly. A sexual feature was coopted to become a physiological feature. Comparably, it is believed that neurons in your brain involved in movement (mirror neurons), may also have been coopted for human empathy. So, behaviors we observe may not be due to natural selection FOR those behaviors, but are a product of natural selection producing these behaviors.

Adding to the complexity of variation in selection over time is the idea that not all genes are beneficial to human selection. Around 45% of our DNA is composed of retrotransposons and endogenous retroviruses (collectively called “retroelements). Compared to only 2% that encodes heritable information (genes), you can see that the vast majority of our DNA are retroelements. These are segments of DNA that spontaneously copy and paste themselves into other parts of your DNA. So, our DNA is replicating and changing itself, doing whatever it wants, independently of how it may affect us physiologically. Retroelements in mice are responsible for driving androgen (testosterone) expression, and our understanding of retroelement function in humans is still in the early stages.

If this [brief] discussion of evolution seems confusing and convoluted, I believe that underscores the point that evolutionary psychology is a vast oversimplification of the complex and varied processes involved in natural selection, and that the behaviors we observe in current humans have almost as much of a chance of being attributed to selection as they do to random chance.

Randomness and statistics

Hopefully by this point it’s clear that most of the biological arguments that Damore makes come from a VERY limited understanding of biology. One of the most egregious extrapolations of Damore’s arguments is that female brains are fundamentally different from male brains. Again, a simple Google would confirm that there are no differences between male and female brains.

Most interestingly, a study in 2015 examined 1500 brains and found no difference between male and female brains, stating “human brains do not belong to one of two distinct categories.”

However, there have been a few studies that suggest there are differences between male and female brains. These reports have been lapped up by popular media saying “men are good at directions, and women are more compassionate“, without a very important caveat. Differences found between male and female brain are significant, but what does that mean?

When you look at the studies on male vs female brains (particularly the one looking at men being good at directions and the one looking at male vs female brain size), you’ll notice that the results are significant, but this is comparing the “average” male vs the “average” female. If you look at these studies, you’ll see that the standard deviations, that is how far individuals in a population deviate from average, overlap. So, around 60-90% of male brains overlap with 60-90% of female brains. Further underscoring the point that there are no differences (really) between male and female brains.

Lastly, Republican brains have a diminished anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain involved in problem solving, which makes them less effective problem solvers (and probably worse engineers). So, there’s that.


  • There are no biological justifications to explain why women are not able to succeed in various professions. There are plenty of social justifications (sexism being the biggest).
  • F*** this dude.


MUSLIMS AREN’T VIOLENT – Debunking Bill Maher and Sam Harris

I pay for my mother’s cable bill for the sole purpose that I can get access to HBO Go. One of my joys of watching HBO is Real Time with Bill Maher, despite his sense of humor that hasn’t changed since the 80’s, and his bizarre opinions on antibiotics, drone strikes, and his recent rant against Islam.

You’ve probably seen this exchange between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris/Bill Maher posted online last week:

Now, despite my displeasure at non-HBO subscribers getting to watch HBO shows, I was really annoyed at Harris/Maher’s continual reliance upon data arguing that Islam is an inherently violent religion, and that Muslims some Muslims are therefore violent.

I’ve read the Koran and the Bible, and both documents are filled with bizarre quotes that can be taken out of context:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (Sura 4: 34 from Qur’an)
Seems pretty anti-women. How about this:

They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing.  Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” (Genesis 19:5-8)

Lot just offered up his daughters to be gang-raped. And he was the GOOD guy in Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are so many examples of violent behavior from every religion (even the good ones, like Hinduism and Buddhism). Reza Aslan had a fantastic soundbite from an otherwise horrible interview showcasing the stupidity of CNN: “If you’re a violent person you’re [religion] is violent.”

Bill Maher and Sam Harris rely on data from Pew asking Muslims whether they believe that people should be whipped or have their hands cut off for theft, stoned for adultery, or killed for leaving Islam. The results, according to Pew, look like this:

They of course cite the 76% of South Asians who wish the death penalty for those who leave Islam (the data actually breaks down into 79% in Afghanistan, 75% in Pakistan, and 43% in the more moderate Bangladesh). Meanwhile 3 regions of the world (Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Southern-Eastern Europe), comprising about 800 million muslims who all overwhelmingly do not believe that you should execute people who leave Islam.

Often times with these major polling studies, people don’t read the fine print. Another study by Pew shows that in Sub-Saharan Africa (notably omitted from this table that is frequently cited), 64% of respondents DO NOT believe you should execute people who leave Islam.

The most interesting aspect of this poll for Sub-Saharan Africa is the section on religious law, which has the following results:

Christians Muslims
Favor making religious book the law of the land 57.25 58.25
Favor judges using religious beliefs to settle disputes 42.83333333 64.16666667
Favor whipping/cutting off of hands for theft/robbery 21.5 43
Favor stoning adulterers 15.16666667 36.16666667

At face value, this seems pretty bad. While both Christians and Muslims have the same attitude to wanting a theocracy, Muslims overwhelmingly more than Christians want their judges to be religious, hands to be cut off for theft, and adulterers stoned. 

All of this could be spun to make Muslims (and by proxy Islam) out to be a violent religion, but we are viewing this with our own lens of how justice should be mediated. Stoning, and cutting off hands are all aspects of sharia law, particularly a portion of the law, called Hudud. Hudud punishments are fixed, and have been predetermined by God. By answering these questions in the affirmative, the data does not get at what people believe, but rather count the number of people who say “Who am I to question God?”

The US legal tradition originates from canon law, based upon a judicial system of inquisition, which was “improved” upon by the English system of juries and adversarial advocates. This judicial system has evolved over the centuries away from a strict definition of punishments as either “eye for an eye” or the death penalty. So, we may view stoning and chopping off of hands as wrong, but we still perform the death penalty. And not well at that.

While most of the criticisms of Sharia law fall under the Hudud punishments described before, maybe we can take a moment to consider the BENEFITS of being in a country governed by Sharia law.

  • Islam discourages the hoarding of wealth (Sura 9:35). Billionaire CEOs in a Sharia country would be abolished.
  • There is an economic safety net paid for by the zakat (Sura 2:110). People do not have to worry about living in poverty.
  • …OK, look, I’m not here to make the argument that sharia law is GREAT. There are strengths and weaknesses of any legal system.

My point is that we can’t make blanket statements about Muslims being violent because of some polling data that we misinterpreted. The violence we see in Islamic countries does not originate from Islam, it originates from a disenfranchisement of a minority within a country. It is less the religion itself, and rather the roots of this disenfranchisement (be it exploitation of the poor, government oppression, persecution of the minority, or any number of other factors) that are the cause for violence.

As Ben Affleck said (can’t believe I started a sentence this way), Islam is a religion of over a billion people, who each have varying opinions on a lot of issues. To say that Muslims are all “this” or all “that” is coming from a completely misinformed and inarticulate position.

That being said, I’m still kinda annoyed at having to pay for HBO Go and people just posting everything on Youtube. DEATH TO THE INFIDELS!!!*

*If you’re my NSA tracker, I’m just kidding.

Laughter vs. Outrage – The Science of Racist Jokes

If you’ve been milling around social media at all the last couple weeks, you’ve probably seen the #CancelColbert campaign being spread on Twitter, followed by immediate backlash of Colbert fans using the hashtag to issue threats to the creator of the hashtag. Then the successful cancelling of Colbert (by promotion to Late Show host), followed by a continuation of the #CancelColbert movement.

The usefulness of hashtags in activism is to bring about unity, assembling disparate groups of people through social media to identify behind a single cause. This has been observed to be effective for popular uprisings in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and now the Ukraine. This hashtagtivism promoted by people such as Suey Park is intended to bring fringe/minority communities together into an inclusive space.

A theory of laughter I’ve proposed with my research group, NERHD, proposes that laughter serves the same function as a hashtagtivism. Groups are brought together based upon shared laughter tastes. Conversely, groups are also segregated based upon laughter tastes. All of this is based upon the evolutionary concept of “play” where animals develop relationships with other animals by playing with them, usually by tickling. Laughter is an evolutionary response for a playful stimulus and signals that the stimulus is appropriate.  For example, you’ll laugh when someone you like tickles you, but when someone you dislike or don’t know tries to tickle you, it feels very offensive.

In that same, way, jokes can either be inclusionary or exclusionary, depending on the nature of the humor. I’ve written before on how exclusionary jokes aimed towards a minority group promotes negative attitudes towards that group (in the case of women, this is manifested through sexist jokes promoting “rape culture”).

Several studies have also shown that humor enforces racial stereotypes of minorities. Like sexist jokes, these jokes are clearly exclusionary in nature; however, the identity of the joke teller is important to determine the response of the audience. A white male telling jokes about how “Jews are cheap” is very different from an Jewish person telling the same joke. Interestingly, studies show that when minorities tell racist jokes or when women tell sexist jokes, audiences are more likely to have their racist/sexist attitudes reinforced than when a white male tells them. You heard that right – minorities normalize racial stereotypes more than white people (I’m as disappointed about this point as you).

Articles expressing outrage over the Colbert piece muse about how the writing staff and Colbert are all white, and come from a place of privilege and are therefore not permitted to tell anti-Asian jokes. However, this criticism is offset by the notion that a white male telling an anti-Asian will promote more outrage and less normalization of anti-Asian attitudes than an Asian person telling the same anti-Asian joke.

Comedy is inclusionary by nature. It is well documented that people will fake laughter to pretend to be in on the joke. Less documented, though equally prevalent, is that individuals will take offense to the joke to deny the rhetoric of the joke-teller. The normative attitude in America is that white people cannot make jokes about minorities.  Therefore, Colbert’s whiteness simultaneously makes anti-Asian jokes offensive as well as prevents normalization of anti-Asian stereotypes among Colbert’s audience.

By being offended by the joke, the audience is less likely to want to hear what the performer has to say.  Just ask any white comedian how hard it is to tell a joke that includes the N-word. As soon as the word is dropped, the audience becomes very tense, and is preparing to either: A) hear proper justification for using that word, or B) to be able to dismiss the white performer as racist and not laugh at any other joke they tell (the more likely response).

Laughter is an effective tool in building bonds among people, as seen by its use in mediation between conflicting parties and use in management of employees. However, rejection of laughter creates tension between the joke-teller and the audience, and actually will lead to rejection of stereotypes proposed by the joke-teller.

So, what makes an audience take offense to a joke rather than laugh along with it?

Most audiences are composed of individuals of various races and genders; however, the comedy process homogenizes all the individuals into an “audience”. People no longer are Frank, Kim, Fernando, Sonia, etc., but instead are just “audience”. Through this process, they conform to an identity that is open and receptive to the comedic rhetoric of the performer.

However, that new “audience” identity is still constrained by the pre-existing prejudices and convictions of each individual member.  One unaddressed question about research on racist or sexist jokes is: “Do racist/sexist jokes make people MORE racist/sexist, or simply reaffirm inherent prejudices within people?” An audience that is racist may find anti-minority jokes funnier than one that is not racist. Conversely, an audience that does not tolerate racism will not find anti-minority jokes funny at all.

Suey Park is depicted as being humorless, stupid, attention seeker. Yet, it really appears that she is simply highly sensitive to Asian stereotypes. While she clearly finds Colbert’s piece HIGHLY offensive, the general consensus is that the piece was not exclusionary towards Asians. This means one of two things:

  1. Suey Park has not subscribed to the Colbert “audience” identity and recognizes that the Colbert jokes ARE racist.
  2. Suey Park’s intrinsic anti-white sentiment precludes her from perceiving any Asian stereotype as inoffensive.

Reading articles on websites like Salon and Jezebel, you can’t help but be bombarded with the notion of “privilege”, implying that a person who is white or male or cis-gendered has privilege and is not permitted to understand the space of the oppressed minority community. However, rather than creating dialogue through humor from minority communities (historically achieved with great success), they dismiss the ability of the “privileged” to empathize simply because they are not of that community, and would rather exclude the privileged from oppressed communities than engage them in open dialogue and build bridges.

I’ve tried to make the case for how comedy can build bridges, even though in some instances humor can be exclusionary. Social media activism, on the other hand, has been summed up quite eloquently elsewhere:

While experienced activists seek to build bridges and establish empathy between cultures, these elitists’ ideas of success involve extracting apologies from media figures for perceived slights. This just drives intolerance underground, where it manifests in more pernicious ways, winning very few over to a new way of thinking and entrenching everyone. Witness #CancelColbert.

Perhaps the response to an racist/sexist joke is to respond with your own humor that builds and engages others to your viewpoint, rather than simply express outrage?

After all, the world could do with more laughter and less exclusion.

Can’t Stand “Stand Your Ground”

While I have been busy working on a dumber, more labor-intensive post (watch this space), this George Zimmerman verdict has really annoyed me.  It’s not so much the injustice of verdict, it’s the whole “stand your ground” law that helped acquit him.

What’s shocking for me is that the question for the jury wasn’t “Did George Zimmerman kill Trayvon Martin?”, instead it was “Did George Zimmerman unjustly kill Trayvon Martin?” The reason that question of justified homicide is entertained is because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to murder others in perceived “self-defense”.  The Tampa-Bay Times did a really interesting piece reviewing all the cases where the “stand your ground” defense was used.  Here’s a telling infographic:

Out of over 150 cases, 135 times the victim killed was unarmed.  When you break down how each confrontation went down, the data is even more troubling:

Screen shot 2013-07-14 at 8.37.12 PM

It turns out that the accused killer initiated the confrontation twice as often as not (104 instances vs. 48 when they did not initiate the confrontation).  And in 189 instances out of 240, the victim was not committing a crime at the time of being killed.  So, it really doesn’t seem like this law is applied reasonably.  Finally, if you look at the race statistics of this law, it’s clear that it’s being applied unevenly.


If you’re a Black or Hispanic person, the person who kills you is 2-4 times more likely to be acquitted than if you’re a White victim.  That’s independent of the race of the killer (though most crime is White on White, Black on Black, Hispanic on Hispanic).

“Stand your ground” defense has been applied almost twice as often for White accused killers as for Black or Hispanic accused killers. I couldn’t find Florida statistics on violent crime committed by race, but Black and Hispanic people are incarcerated almost 5 times as frequently as white people.

I will definitely not claim legal scholarship, but considering the fact that the concept of “self-defense” is so liberally and unevenly applied, one wonders: “Who gets to stand their ground and who gets their ground stood on?”

A Scientific Case Against Rape Jokes

Imagine you are offered the opportunity to run a business.  You are welcome to sell whatever you want, so you think to yourself, “What do I want to sell?”  You notice that a lot of businesses are selling matches and gasoline, so you think, “I’ll open up a Match and Gasoline store!” and business does really well (better than those other idiots who decided to open up cupcake shops).  You’re making lots of money selling matches and gasoline, but over time, people start mentioning to you that some people who shop at your store burn down buildings.

You say, “That’s not really my problem.”

They say, “But you supply them with matches and gasoline. You are complicit in their arson!”


They say, “We’re just trying to inform you that your actions might be responsible for certain people to burn down people’s homes.”

You say, “I hope someone burns down your home!”

Does this sound familiar?  Perhaps inflammatory (pun intended!), this analogy is similar to a recent kerfuffle in the standup comedy community which arose from disagreements between two parties, standup comedians and female bloggers, on whether rape jokes promote a culture that normalizes rape.

I’ve been working on a project with Jono Zalay* on what makes things funny and why audiences laugh.  We felt that what was lacking in this “rape joke” conversation is actual scientific evidence linking humor and the creation of rape culture.  We (mostly me, but Jono helped out when he was awake) recently began an investigation into scientific studies regarding the impact of humor on rape culture, and were astonished to discover the wealth of literature supporting the notion that humor can be used to create social norms that justify prejudice.  Not only is there a link between certain types of humor and rape culture, but it’s strong and supported by several independent research groups.

That being said, we’d like to make a case for comedians to re-assess what they are doing with their humor, particularly “rape jokes”, for the following reasons:

  • Humor can be used to covertly deliver messages that can reinforce negative attitudes towards women
  • Enhanced negative attitudes towards individuals can lead to aggressive behavior
  • Jokes delivered by a comedian are perceived to reflect the views of the comedian


It’s pretty well known that advertisers use humor as a persuasion device to convince consumers to buy their product.  Why does this work?  It’s believed by many psychologists that the human brain operates in two forms: serious mode and humor mode. In serious mode, our brain takes incongruous notions and tries to rationalize them critically and logically, trying to find an explanation to strange events, sort of like figuring out a Rubik’s cube or becoming a conspiracy theorist.  However, in humor mode, our brain takes the “leap of faith” on incongruity and basically says “Ahhh… Screw it! This is fun!”  We throw away the Rubik’s cube and go off frolicking in the meadow.  Why are we in a meadow? Doesn’t matter.  We’re in humor mode now.

The decision to make the switch from serious mode to humor mode occurs through a series of events.  What those are is poorly understood by scientists who do this research (i.e. Jono and myself). Typically, all of those priming events are present at a comedy show, which leads us to tell our brain, “Ok, switch off.  Let the yuk-yuks just flow on through.”  Having our brain shut off isn’t normally a big deal for the comedians who are joking about how disgusting Hot Pockets are or how dumb and chubby their cousin is.  In fact, it can work to a comedian’s benefit.  Shifts in culture are often ascribed to comedians such as Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce who, likely, were able to deliver cultural messages to audiences whose critical brains shut off to hear jokes.  The use of humor essentially hypnotizes us to have our opinions “massaged” in one direction or another.

Where this can lead to problems is when comics do material on the topics of rape or sexism.  We’ll get into the motivations of why comedians do this type of material later, but, because our brain is in humor mode, we’ll lap up whatever opinions a comedian proposes. For instance, if a comedian says a joke to the effect of: “Hispanics are lazy”, or “Black people are stupid”, or “Women are asking to be raped”, the response falls in one of three categories in the audience:

  • CATEGORY 1: “HA! THAT’S SO TRUE!” (genuine laugh)
  • CATEGORY 2: “I DIDN’T KNOW THAT, BUT SINCE MOST PEOPLE THINK IT’S FUNNY, IT MUST BE TRUE!” (genuine laugh, or feigned laugh to support genuine laugh of CATEGORY 1)
  • CATEGORY 3: “WHAT THE F***? THAT’S NOT TRUE!” (no laugh, brain switches back on to serious mode)

It’s worth noting that every person we create in CATEGORY 3 is an indication of our failure to make a person laugh.  So, that’s the first argument against doing rape-jokes – getting fewer laughs.  Furthermore, based upon studies, people in Categories 1 & 2 would be described as hostile or benevolent sexists (which could also be applied to racism, so we’ll just use “bigots” instead). Hostile bigots are people who genuinely and aggressively believe in their individual superiority and inferiority of other, different groups.  Benevolent bigots are people who believe that other groups are inferior but it is their job to help those inferior people because they’re so inferior (i.e. White Man’s Burden).  Basically, the only groups laughing are people who believe in inequality (more on the issues with this later).


“Ok, big deal, so I laughed at an offensive joke.  That doesn’t mean anything!”

That is the general response when you call a person out about laughing at a bigoted joke.  The recent debate on Totally Biased focused on the notion of rape jokes leading to normalization of rape in society.  So, does hearing rape jokes lead people to rape?  Well, that is difficult to assess, as it would require scientists to allow people to get raped (which is relatively unethical… depending on your predisposed attitudes towards rape).  However, several studies have shown that appreciation of sexist jokes and just being shown sexist jokes leads to:

  • Increased blame attached to victims of rape
  • Increased acceptance of desire to rape
  • Decreased view of rape as a “serious” problem
  • Decreased desire to punish rapists

So, all the evidence point to rape jokes promoting rape culture. Even still, that only reflects people’s attitudes towards rape after hearing sexist jokes; it doesn’t mean that jokes lead to actionable violence.  One study provides evidence that humor affects behavior by using the Buss aggression machine technique to observe the relationship between disparaging humor and non-disparaging humor on people.

In the experiment, students who had received either derogatory criticism or positive criticism from a person were shown disparaging humor, non-disparaging humor, or no humor (pictures of furniture).  They then had an opportunity to “shock” that person who gave criticism (the person wasn’t really shocked, just an actor who pretended he was shocked).  If students received negative criticism and heard disparaging jokes, they generally gave a person a long, strong electric “shock”.  However, if they received positive criticism, there was no difference between whether they heard disparaging jokes or non-disparaging jokes (which was overall a low, weak “shock”).  Most interestingly, listening to non-disparaging jokes after hearing the derogatory criticism decreased the “shock” level BELOW what was administered if the person gave positive criticism.

In one study there was a clear action that resulted after hearing offensive humor compared to inoffensive humor.  In another study, women who heard offensive humor (Don Rickles) made them more likely to aggressively reject female job applicants than when they heard inoffensive humor (George Carlin…apparently).  Clearly, hearing certain types of humor can lead people to perform actions that ultimately hurt others (in the former, perceived physical pain, in the latter, discrimination).

Although there is no smoking gun that shows that rape jokes lead to rape, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates that predispositions towards rape are enhanced by hearing rape jokes (or jokes that normalize rape). And if a potential rapist uses a joke as justification for raping someone, shouldn’t that be good enough reason to not want to perform that joke anymore?


Nobody wants to be portrayed as the “Joke Police”, and we don’t claim to either (as we lack the discipline and racial profiling techniques necessary to be policemen).  Nevertheless, we view the purpose of comedy is two-fold: provide entertainment and promote the betterment of society.  If you’re not doing one, you should be doing the other, and most great comedians do both.  Based upon existing literature, it would seem clear that telling sexist or rape jokes doesn’t promote social welfare.  In fact, the only people rape jokes entertain are those who are against the betterment of society (they are sexist).

Comedy by its nature is inclusive.  The origins of laughter stem from social bonding among early primates. Despite this, rape jokes promote social division, as we described previously.  Still, some comedians are OK being branded as a “controversial comic”, like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks.  But there is a difference – controversial comedians lose fans because of the fans’ inherent prejudices, not because of the comedian’s prejudices.

One of the main arguments by comedians in this debate is the “it’s just a joke” argument.  A study in 1990 showed that many people believed that when they told a joke that might be offensive, it did not reflect their attitudes towards a certain group; yet, when other people told offensive jokes, it reflected their attitudes towards that group.  In essence, saying “it’s just a joke” allows comedians to de-commit from owning their opinion, and allows a person to hide their prejudices behind a “well-structured” joke.

For example, when a comedian makes an observation about a homeless man sleeping on a Central Park bench.  Many comedians will likely make fun of the behavior of this man, calling him lazy, or making fun of his attire.  The underlying message of his joke “homeless people are less than us”.  Why not make fun of the rich people who pay millions of dollars to live around Central Park, while he gets to live in Central Park for free? As comedians, we have a choice about what we choose to laugh at.  The point about this whole debate is let’s stop attacking victims, and start attacking oppressors.

On this point, we are not trying to attack comedians, who we feel have their heart in the right place (NOTE: Though most comedy clubs won’t tell you in a showcase, comedians are different from people who just do open mics for less than a year, and we recognize that).  What if a comedian’s experience is that they don’t like women, or they don’t like Asians?  That informs their hypothetical non-sexist/racist comedy, which is otherwise quite funny.  Nevertheless, a comedian who is racist/sexist needs to limit prejudice in their audiences, as it will eventually limit their fanbase.  Just ask the Republican Party.

Fortunately, it has been shown that when people are made aware that jokes are prejudiced, they are less likely to accept the prejudiced viewpoints.  So, even if audiences’ brains are lapping up sexism in humor mode, a comedian can take a step back and say “Hey, that’s a messed up thing I just said, and you’re OK with it!  WTF?”  The good news is that though comedy promotes rape-normal attitudes in audiences, these attitudes are very labile.  So, if a comedian decided to keep telling a rape joke, they can still prevent rape culture by saying, “Yeah, that’s a messed up joke.”

Finally, while this may seem a lot of white male-bashing, female comedians are not exempt from promotion of rape culture. In fact, sexist jokes delivered by women or from a genderless source [i.e. a joke book (in English, as joke book in French is masculine)] increase tolerance of sexism more than sex jokes delivered by men.

Ultimately, we can’t just open up a Match and Gasoline store and not imagine that some of our customers might be arsonists.  Hopefully, this discussion will lead to more introspection among comedians on what we’re doing with the time that audiences yield their humor mode brains to us, and comedy will be better because of it.

*This post was originally intended for the NERHD blog, but we figured it made sense to explain what we were researching first before actually delving into “rape”.  So, that’s why I’m writing in the first person plural.

What’s So Bad About Rape Jokes?

In a recent episode of Totally Biased, W. Kamau Bell moderates a discussion between a comedian (Jim Norton) and a feminist (Lindy West) over the topics of censorship and sexist (rape) jokes.

It’s an interesting discussion, and I believe both parties sort of dance around the same point – much of comedy is contextual, most rape jokes are performed by bad comedians, and while rape jokes are permissible, they should generally be avoided.

As a comedian, I’ve always felt that comedians should be able to talk about whatever they want on stage.  However, I feel many people take this privilege to be a right to say whatever they want, opinions of audience members be damned.  So, in the mind of many (mostly male) comedians, “Sorry if you’ve been raped, but I’ve got this really well-structured joke that makes people laugh, and therefore validates me as a comic.”

If you go into sociology (and other lesser sciences), there are a few intriguing theories that are worth discussing regarding the use of rape and other “edgy” humor.  One is Intergroup Conflict Theory, which proposes that “groups” are created based upon competition over perceived (or actual) limited resources.  Within Intergroup Conflict Theory is another theory called Prejudiced Norm Theory, which proposes that in-groups are maintained and stabilized by legitimizing myths about the out-groups.  So, for instance, a myth that “women get raped because they dress too sexy” could be legitimized by certain jokes.

A key aspect of the humor theory developed by me and Jono Zalay is that humor is used to segregate between in-groups and out-groups.  What we find funny defines how we socialize and how we create hierarchies.  Humor has the power to transcend race and tear down power structures, but it simultaneously has the power to reinforce oppression and justify bigotry.

Many comedians (again, mostly male) dismiss sexist jokes by saying “jokes don’t influence rape”.  Meanwhile, feminists (mostly female) argue “jokes perpetuate victimization of those who have been raped.”  Just doing a cursory glance through the literature, it shows that there is strong evidence that while sexist jokes do not make rapists, they do make men with hostile sexist tendencies (i.e. they view women as being innately inferior to men) more favorable towards rape.

Two papers show that when presented with sexist jokes compared to non-sexist jokes, a random sampling of college-aged and older men are more likely to have:

  • Increased likelihood of blaming victims of rape
  • Increased tendency towards rape
  • Decreased view of rape as a “serious” problem
  • Decreased desire to punish rapists

While the studies were slightly different, they are interesting in that they just randomly grouped men and presented them with either sexist jokes or non-sexist jokes and observed what their attitudes would be to various scenarios of rape.  What are sexist and non-sexist jokes?  Here are the examples of jokes:


  • Why are women like carpets? If you lay them properly the first time, you can walk all over them for years.
  • Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!
  • How many men does it take to change a light bulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.
  • What is the best thing about a blowjob? Ten minutes silence.


  • Psychiatrist: What’s your problem? Patient: I think I’m a chicken. Psychiatrist: How long has this been going on? Patient: Ever since I was an egg!
  • How do you know when elephants have had sex in your house? The trash can liners are missing!
  • What’s the difference between a golfer and a skydiver? A golfer goes whack… “Damn!” A skydiver goes “Damn!” … whack.
  • Why was the leper stopped for speeding? He couldn’t take his foot off the accelerator!

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of these studies is that just FOUR of these jokes is enough to affect the tendency of these men towards rape.  And these jokes were just generally sexist, not even jokes that validated rape specifically.

So, it begs the question, should comedians be held to a higher standard when it comes to joke creation?  While these studies don’t conclude that men with higher rape tendencies are more likely to rape, they do suggest that men with attitudes towards misogyny will feel more comfortable in their anti-female attitudes just from these sexist jokes.  How these attitudes manifest in behavior is unclear, but it would not be surprising if increased rape and abuse are functions of these fortified anti-female attitudes.

As comedians, I think it’s probably worth assessing what type of material we use for jokes.  Do our jokes demean a certain demographic or legitimize myths about them?  Is it OK to insult certain types of people, as long as they are in the context of funny jokes?  I think we as comics really need to evaluate what we’re doing with our comedy, and we should be using humor to speak truth to power, not using our pulpit to further oppression.  My conclusion is that the only demographic I’m willing to make fun of is ME (other comedians are also welcome to make fun of me for a nominal fee).

If you want to read the papers:

J Interpers Violence-2010-Romero-Sánchez-2339-50