Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Proof that the Best Satire Makes Fun of Everbody

Haven't laughed this hard in awhile. And since this is of such clear relevance to ongoing topics of conversation on this blog, I'm inspired to make the effort to post a video. (Thanks go to John Shook for calling this to my attention). Enjoy:


  1. Cleese is incredibly sharp. Thanks.

    The ironic thing is that the only time a gene is typically "for" something is when it is completely defective. The gene for blue eyes is really one of many genes that make brown pigments and position them in the eye. So in defense, I would say that reductionism isn't the inherent problem, but facile representations of it.

    Ditto with "emergent" phenomena, which are as material and open to reduction as any other, but so complex that prediction may be impossible, and where extra levels of analysis exist where we may be able to make sense of them. Indeed the video link probably came from the nice piece in the NYT about cognitive science and the proper level of explanation/analysis.

  2. I think Cleese was far far funnier as a young man, when he did truly have an instinct to make fun of everybody and everything. These days he seems too close to his material.

    What's he actually sending up here? The view that individual genes make us do things? Well mostly they don't and mostly we know that. But modify that to, our genes influence the way we think and behave, through a beautiful system of developmental feedback, and most of us accept that's true (there's a major longitudinal study out of Dunedin, NZ that's beginning to produce tantalising stuff on this).

    And this throwaway gag about quantum physics somehow showing us this can't be true? Not so much, actually.

    I suppose my grumpiness stems from the convenient shyness of any alternative hypothesis. If this isn't how the brain works, then pray tell, what is? And where are the studies investigating the details of such an intriguing possibility?


  3. Humour is a question of taste and it's not something we can argue about: it works or it doesn't. I found Cleese's gag too predictable (or too literal) and offering no surprising twist. Whether it succeeds as a caricature (where it would find its relevance) depends on our view of the target and, in this respect, I think it's too far off the mark to work. However, as a caricature of an ignorant humorist trying to make fun of scientists (with all the clichés), it might work very well and becomes, in fact, very funny.

    It reminds me of a one liner I heard some while ago making fun of climate science, making the point that *these* scientists claim to predict climate a hundred year in the future but can't figure out if it will rain next week – followed by a big laugh. I found that troubling because only someone with no understanding of the subject can really find that funny and widespread ignorance of the basics of climate science is a frightening thing to contemplate. Now, ignorance of genetics may have less dangerous social consequences but I'd rather have humour using knowledge of a subject in a subtle way than the other way around.

    In this spirit, here's a cartoon making fun or software developers (this is what I do). If you've done software you may find it absolutely hilarious (and it is, in a self-deprecating way). If not, you may not get the point at all.

  4. "However, as a caricature of an ignorant humorist trying to make fun of scientists (with all the clichés), it might work very well and becomes, in fact, very funny."

    That's how I took it. Cleese knows very well that scientists don't ascribe to such an absurd form of genetic reductionism. But I THINK the piece was operating at several levels at once--that is, caricaturing a certain philosophical idea about the meaning of science while also making fun of the absurdly distorted picture of scientists embraced by, for example, religious fundamentalists.

    Either that, or he was just being silly.

  5. I love this guy, I seen him live twice these last two years. But I agree that he was much funnier in his Python/Fawlty Towers era. His latest "Alimony" tour is not half bad (the world premiere was in Oslo - we rule!), since it's basically a review of his career with some brilliant comments reminiscent of his prime years.
    I know he considers himself religious and a believes in God (he has even had a serious (sic) lecture on the topic http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/04/10.28.04/Cleese_lect.html), although not necessarily in a traditional sense. Half the books in his quite extensive library is on religion according to an interview.

    The sketch is obviously a pun on those who wish to discredit religion by means of reductionist materialism, but I'm not sure if has any particular of the New Atheists in mind. Anyway, I would love to see a conversation on religion between Cleese and Dawkins. They are both hilarious!

  6. It's a great bit.

    I think it's ultimate target is the faulty state of mind we can reach when we think we can get a totally objective "outside" view of the universe while being a part of that universe.

    It could be genes or forces or whatnot - "this is the gene that makes us think this, now this is the gene that made me notice the previous gene, now this is the gene that made me say that, now....."

    Everything has a reason, but we cannot step outside that chain of causation to explain everything.

  7. I just found the gene that made me leave that last comment. It was under my left ear, so I scratched it off.

    Now I realize that the comment was BS. The gene made me do it!

    Fortunately, I am now thinking independently of any genetic influence.