An amazingly recent discovery in the field of psychosomatic medicine could well have a most dramatic effect on current efforts to revise the college science curriculum. A group of philosophically-oriented clinicians studying various occupational diseases has just reported that, almost pandemic among scientists, there are certain sets of behavioral symptoms that correlate quite highly with certain abnormalities of a previously little-appreciated portion of the human skeleton. According to these clinician-philosophers, once they have determined which one of three major personality types a scientist is – the unwitting, the half-wit or the whole wit – they can accurately predict the pathological condition of his os jesticum, or funny bone. A brief description of the behavioral syndromes involved will enable us to appreciate the enormous educational consequences of this major medical discovery.
In the unwitting scientist, the os jesticum is totally lacking or completely atrophied. Anyone suffering from this condition typically finds the professional journals as titillating as Tom Jones and believes, above all, that science is a serious, sober and somber occupation. Not being able to recognize a joke when exposed to one, he comes to fear humor and develops paranoid feelings of inadequacy when he discovers those around him laughing at something the wit of which escapes him. To compensate for his feared inferiority, the unwitting scientist often spends longer hours in his laboratory than do his more jocular colleagues, he accomplishes more, publishes more, and wins more prizes. However, since he lacks humility and is blinded by the morbidity of his condition, he seldom understands what science is really all about or why he’s doing it.
The half-witted scientist has an immature funny bone, os jesticum arrestum. He can often recognize a joke when he hears one, and occasionally he may even pass along a funny tale someone else has told him. Indeed, he commonly prides himself on his sense of humor, but he likes to keep his categories straight. Humor is what appears in Mad Magazine or in the annual graduate student satire; science is what appears in Science; and never the twain should meet. Although he enjoys hearing a witty talk at a symposium or conference, it usually confuses him to find comedy and science thusly intermingled (it never happens in the journals!). And what confuses him, he tends to denigrate. He yearns to be as respectable and productive as the unwitting scientist but he also secretly envies the facile, crowd-pleasing talents of the humorist. Following the course of inordinate moderation, the half-wit often achieves a deservedly moderate reputation. The whole-witted scientist, os jesticum robustum, has such a over-developed funny bone that it has been known to choke him to death professionally. In the terminal stages of the disease, his optic tract is affected and he comes to see his own scientific activities in rather cruel, comic perspective. While recognizing the importance and ultimate value of his life’s work, he sees also the trace of ineffable buffoonery in his own and his colleagues’ posturings. He is as incapable of withholding laughter at this sight as he is of explaining to his dim-witted colleagues why he laughs. But his laughter gives him insight, if not into the workings of science, at least into the workings of scientists. Knowing he will often make mistakes, and being willing to admit to them when they happen, he is often bolder and more imaginative than those scientists who are terrified of being wrong and hence are seldom right. Having perspective, he maintains an aloofness and detachment about his work that his colleagues cannot emulate. By keeping his wits about him, he remains whole-wittedly objective about his work.
There is no cure on record for any of the three pathological conditions described above. The clinician-philosophers do suggest, however, that it may be possible to increase the development of the os jesticum by massaging it, if the treatment is begun early enough in life.
We spend a great deal of time attempting to teach our science students to be objective about their work. Keeping the symptoms described above in mind, perhaps we should infect them with humor and hence teach them to laugh instead.