At Reddit’s r/shittyaskscience, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s hilarious. It’s also, well, shitty.
Reddit, often referred to as a social news site, could just as easily be called a social learning site. It hosts its own university, a forum for quizzing some brilliant scientific minds, and dozens of other sections for asking questions, learning obscure facts, or mastering the little things in life.
And then there’s r/shittyaskscience: a uniquely educational community, where about 30,000 people congregate daily to worship the stinky, fecal antithesis of learning.
“If we regularly threw a large number of people out of a plane, would humanity evolve wings?” asked one aspiring shitty scientist recently. (“It is much more likely that humanity would evolve to be really bouncy,” redditor gortallmighty helpfully observed.)
Started by Irish redditor PotatoMusicBinge in September 2011, the humor subreddit has grown at an amazing pace, buoyed by word of mouth and a particularly rabid fan base. Like a lot of places on Reddit, it’s the mutant offspring of another popular subreddit. In this case, that’s r/askscience, a much-loved section where real scientists answer redditors’ questions, and frivolous or unscientific comments are downvoted to shameful oblivion.
“One day I was having a tough old time harvesting downvotes, posting terrible comments in /r/askscience, and I thought ‘there must be a better way!’”
So r/shittyaskscience was born. Soon PotatoMusicBinge added a small team of fellow moderators. They run the gamut from a Canadian computer science student to a 40-year-old single mother and graphic designer, to a 34 year-old Norwegian foundry foreman. It’s an eclectic mix.
All it takes for a subreddit to take off is a simple, good idea, along with some good moderating. Once the crowd falls in love with a concept, it runs with it. And one thing the Reddit crowd has embraced is hilariously shitty advice.
In fact, there’s a whole network of shitty question subreddit’s on Reddit, from the progenitor r/ShittyAdvice (which also provided r/shittyaskscience with its first traffic boost), to r/ShittyTechSupport and r/AskAShittyDoctor. Most of these are very funny in their own right and prove how Reddit is quickly becoming a place as much a hub for original humor as social news or learning.
But there’s something special about r/shittyaskscience: It reflects the science ignorance residing in the deepest (or shallowest) recesses of our brains. The terrible questions at r/shittyaskscience sure seem to come from intelligences of otherworldly stupidity, but we know they’re all too mundane and real. Just about everyone, no matter how smart, probably has some kind of shitty science question. Somewhere on planet earth, someone really does want to know if humanity can evolve wings if a resolutely murderous scientist tosses people from a plane.
PotatoMusicBinge had this simple take: “Redditors love science, and redditors love humor”
When I interviewed the subreddit’s moderators last month, I asked each to come up with their favority “shitty scientists.” It was pretty much a lark. I wasn’t expecting them to actually know any shitty scientists. But most of them had an answer, proving that these guys truly appreciate their spiritual predecessors. One chose John Hunter, a British surgeon who injected himself with gonorrhea and syphilis just to prove they were caused by the same pathogen. He misinterpreted the data and subsequently set back the understanding of syphilis 50 years (and contracted both venereal diseases, of course).
Moderator jesushx, meanwhile, spoke reverently of Franz Reichelt (pictured above). In 1912, the Austrian-born French tailor decided to test his homemade body-parachute himself, leapt from the Eiffel Tower. He died.
Shitty science, clearly, has a long and deadly history. Thank goodness there’s now a safe, judgment free place online, where the world’s shittiest scientists can congregate without fear of harming themselves or others.
Here are some of the best examples of Reddit’s sciencehumor I’ve seen:
- Can I boost my WiFi signal by placing a fan behind my router?
- If jellyfish are 99% water, if I inject 1% of water into it. Will it turn into water?
- If having a shower uses less water than having a bath, why don't we simply fill the bath using a shower?
- Is being sterile hereditary?
- Almost every night for as long as I can remember I start to feel terrible and then go unconscious for about 1/3 of the day. What is this and what can I do to stop this?
- What is the speed of time? (about 1 second per second, redditor wokkachikka replied.)