Mammals sleep because they hate themselves. Human intelligence evolved thanks to alcohol. Fish are stupid because they’d be too sad if they knew how boring their lives were. These are a few of the asinine arguments from BAHfest, the festival of bad ad hoc hypotheses—or as the organizers put it “a celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect scientific theories.”
Born from the brain of illustrator and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic creator Zach Weinersmith, the comedy night is part stand-up, part TED talk, and 100% untrue. The shows have been growing in popularity since their inaugural event in 2013, so Science caught up with Weinersmith on the eve of his San Francisco, California, show to chat about where the idea came from and what makes for funny, phony science.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for BAHfest?
A: It started as a joke. I drew a comic about an event where you would propose bad evolutionary theories, then back it up with substantial research. Actually, our original version of the show was only evolutionary theory.
Q: Do you have a background in science?
A: I have about half a degree in physics. I have a degree in literature and then later I went back for a physics degree. The short version is, at some point I felt like I had to choose between an arts career or spending more time learning physics, and I figured I would do the arts career and learn physics on the side.
Q: What makes for a good BAHfest hypothesis?
A: The ones that we really like are when you have theory that is very clearly stupid, but then you bring some really good data—either from actual literature, or a model that’s very mathematically heavy, or you find some surprising connection between fields that argues for your point. Essentially bad theory, really, really strong substantiation. Those are our favorites.
Q: Speaking of favorites, do you have one?
A: There are a lot of good ones, but there’s a special place in my heart for one from our very first show in a talk by Tomer Ullman. The question he was trying to answer was, “Why do babies scream?” If you think about crying, it’s really irritating for parents, it exposes your location to potential predators … it just doesn’t seem like it makes sense that babies cry. So his explanation was that hearing babies cry provides a short-term adrenaline boost—and this is actually true—and so the idea was that you might strap your baby onto your back and then go into battle and the scream would encourage you in your efforts.
Clearly an implausible theory, but he had historical data, he had the data on the adrenaline stuff, and I think he even built a relatively simple model to show how you would expect the population to change under a couple different dynamics, which of course supported his theory. That was probably the first really great talk we had and it was at the first show and so it set the format for us going forward.
Q: Have any of these talks inspired actual scientific studies?
A: I have had people once or twice say to me, “I started on this crazy idea and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense so I’m not going to submit it,” so it’s possible we’ve inspired some brainstorming, but I haven’t heard of any publishing coming out of it.
But one of the types of submissions that we’ve had to reject repeatedly is when you get these ideas that are actually probably true, like they’re a little too close to reality to be funny. So for example, it seems like every other show someone submits a proposal that goes something like, “Cats are cute because they resemble babies and they’re preying on our desire for babylike characteristics.” Something like that is probably actually true because we select [cats] based on criteria we like, and we probably base some of that on the same stuff that makes us like babies. That’s a theory that’s out there; I don’t know how much the evolutionary biology community believes it, but it’s pretty plausible, and it’s just not that funny if you have a theory that’s too plausible. A good one should be pretty clearly wrong, so I don’t think we’ve had any that have been proven true.
Q: Do you see this as fun, or is there some greater point you’re hoping to make?
A: I would say it this way: As the guy running the show, my goal is entirely to entertain, and I’m just trying to make comedy for a certain sort of nerd. I’m not in favor of saying we have to have a reason to make this sort of humor. We do it because we enjoy it, but I have seen it used for educational purposes—I’ve been told a number of groups use it as an example when teaching logic—and I do find that gratifying. It’s just not my goal.
At the end of our last MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] show, there was a really nice speech by the winner, Dr. James Propp, who’s a mathematician at [the University of Massachusetts in] Lowell. He said what’s nice about this show is that, unlike a lot of untrue things that get said these days, with this show, everyone knows it’s lying. So we’re not setting out to have an agenda, but it would be gratifying to me if I found out we had done some good things. The closest thing I have to an agenda is we really like getting together nerds from different disciplines to kind of hang out and talk and go drinking together.
Q: Do you ever worry that people may misinterpret what’s going on? Flat Earth started off as a joke …
A: I would say that was more of a concern early on for a couple reasons: One, it was early and we didn’t know what the response was going to be, but two, we used to only do evolution jokes, and I think the majority of the country still doesn’t believe in evolution. So that was something we did worry about. But the thought at the time was something like, “We’re not gonna not tell jokes amongst each other just because some ignorant person might get confused.” We’ve kind of loosened up about that; I used to start each show with a little spiel about how we’re just having fun here tonight, but it just turned out as far as we can tell that that hasn’t happened.
Then there have been a couple of creationist groups that have said, “Look! These evolution people know how stupid they are, and they’re making fun of themselves,” but I’d like to think a reasonably unbiased observer wouldn’t make that argument. Who would hold a conference to make fun of how they’re all in on this conspiracy? That doesn’t make any sense.
Q: What keeps you wanting to do more?
A: The nights just have a really nice vibe about them. It just seems to keep growing and people seem to love coming. So I kind of feel like we have to keep going because it’s just such a wonderful night with amazing people. A lot of nerd humor is relational, where it’s like, “Don’t you get this reference?” We’re actually trying to provide a comedy night for nerds that—at its best—is actual top-quality comedy. It’s not trying to do in-humor, it’s just jokes for people who are a little high on the dork scale.