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‘BAHFest’ puts satire in science

A little comedy can go a long way in sorting real from ‘alternative’ facts.

Art: Justine Landis-Hanley Art: Justine Landis-Hanley

Last week was science week, but chances are that if you aren’t a science student (or perhaps even if you are a science student), science week passed you by.

One of my nerdy friends invited me along to “BAHFest” — the Festival of Bad Ad hoc Hypotheses — a hilarious improvisational performance of well-reasoned but false scientific theory. Originally from the United States, the show pits five budding scientists against each other in a competitive showdown to see who can think of the most hilarious hypothesis, the catch being that they are all completely incorrect. While some could argue that this show has no place in our ‘post-truth’ world, its satirical and celebratory tone might be exactly what is needed to make science accessible for everyone.

The event was an opportunity for science geeks to unleash their inner nerd, and for us mere mortals to gain an insight into the inner workings of the scientific mind. This, when combined with the strong satirical voices of each of the judges, left me walking out of the Powerhouse Theatre quietly impressed by such an experimental form of live comedy.

The contestants hypothesised about scientific ideas you always wanted to know the answers to but were too afraid to ask about. These included “where does fat go when you lose weight?” and “why might slow walking be an adaptation to life in modern cities?” If science had been this entertaining when I was at high school, there’s a chance I would be studying biochemical engineering rather than media and communications.

But the night was not just hilarious; it was a thought-provoking look into the need for adequate scientific communication.

In a climate where science denialism is rife and both the Australian and US governments are cutting funding from many scientific organisations, one could suggest this type of event — one that treats science as a joke and spouts false truths — is counterproductive. However, it is very much the opposite. The use of comedy to humanise and simplify the idea of scientific theory actually highlights the need for evidence-based research.

Touching on issues such as climate change, evolution and overpopulation in a light-hearted, accessible manner seemed to break down the barriers that many people seem to experience between science and the real world.

“I feel like science can be very elitist and people can feel a disconnection to scientists,” said Pauline Tan, a UTS science student who attended the event.  She remarked that if science “was shown in a more comedic manner, people would feel the desire to learn more”.

Twenty-nine per cent of Australians still do not believe that climate change is real, according to recent Australian Institute research. Even more concerning is the fact that the number of climate change sceptics has increased by 6 per cent since 2016. The number of people questioning the merits of vaccination are on the rise, and the flat earth society still exists, with members around the globe. But the question is: can we win over denialists? And if so, how?

The way that scientific information is presented is crucial to how people respond to its content. Facts alone are usually not enough to convince people of certain realities, and it takes more than statistics to change fundamental beliefs. Perhaps an antidote to living in a ‘post-truth’ world is to use comedy to sort the alternative facts from the real ones.