Synergy, Humor, and Paradigm Shift

Synergy, Humor, and Paradigm Shift

Almost every day, I worry about the science we will need if we’re ever going to make it to the stars. For a start, there’s the existential danger from industrial-scale technology that threatens our long-term survival with unrecoverable war or environmental damage. This is largely supported by corporate priorities governing from the top of our societal power pyramid. Such priorities and corporations possessing them don’t measure systemic risk. Adam Smith, inventor of free market theory, pointed out free market systemic risk can only be ignored until things become unlivable for the vast majority. Ironically this majority is predominantly at the low end of the power pyramid. It constitutes what some polls estimate may be more than half of the U.S. population and is another source of the same risk.

The groups comprising this segment reject the fact that brain death extinguishes our consciousness. For them, death is not real and our physical reality and home planet is temporary & disposable – proving one’s willingness to reject reality is seen as a virtue. One of the most extreme and dramatic examples of dedication to such beliefs occurred in 1997.

 Members of a UFO group named Heaven’s Gate stated: “To be eligible for membership in the Next Level, humans would have to shed every attachment to the planet.” The group included the brother of Nichelle Nichols, Uhura from Star Trek. Members were taught that at death, their consciousness could move to a place that was waiting to receive them. Typical of such cognitive frameworks, certainty in beliefs for which there was no independent evidence was touted as a virtue. This is the opposite of scientific skepticism. Many people and cultures possess beliefs that our planet, and indeed our entire reality is temporary. Some version of this UFO group’s “Next Level” is envisioned, and always described as better and more important than our shared reality. History demonstrates such cognitive frames are incredibly hard to overcome.
Home of Brave

Other groups, like those into militaristic patriotism, anti-government capitalism, and other beliefs adding to long-term planetary risk share equal certainty of the correctness of their positions. Thus, reasonable debate is considered inappropriate: it can only lead them away from truths they already believe. As the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine pointed out: any particular belief can be saved no matter what counter-evidence appears by adjusting our “web of belief”. Although I find it distressing that people make a virtue out of dogmatic faith, neither these nor the legions of those engaged in pseudo-science are my main focus.

Because my field is management best practices, and my product is more intelligent organizations, I put perhaps irrational significance on how scientific processes can be improved organizationally. I’m also interested in the planning that starship-related research organizations will need to conduct for our dreams of interstellar flight to become reality. We need quantum leaps in our technology and techniques.


We call our most valuable leaps like this “game-changers”, “revolutions”, or “transformations”, and the top science administrative bodies in the world have been working on how to foster such changes. What worries me is the miserable state of our understanding of the goal: revolutionary science. When it comes to transformative research, we may live in “the twenteens”, but our research processes are designed for the 1950’s, even at the highest levels of science administration.

Piscopo National Science Board report NSB07-32 quotes a widely held opinion that distinguishing between innovative and transformative research may only be possible in hindsight. Nevertheless, it encourages efforts based on the contrary view that such research potential can be identified with some reliability. This is reminiscent of the treatment of humor by Joe Piscopo’s character “The Comic” in Star Trek, The Next Generation. Humor is treated in Piscopo’s vignette largely as indefinable any more closely than offering: “it’s whatever makes you laugh”. In fact, we may view humor, transformation, and learning as manifestations of a common, specific kind of synergistic growth.

Let’s use a random comic to illustrate, from the wonderful XKCD blog:

For this to be funny, we must believe in rules for the appropriateness of naming telescopes. In cognitive science terms, this means we possess a web of connected concepts in our brain which defines what we believe constitute valid potential names for important scientific instruments. Elder Scrolls and World of Warcraft names for special weapons and armor belong to an entirely different class of names within a cognitive web we would never link. The names are funny because they make sense, but only by linking a completely inappropriate framework.

Mashups are predictably popular from this perspective, and if you’re reading this, you probably appreciate gags like this.


 When we see a violation to our rules, it’s what neuroscientists call “unexpected events”, to which our brain responds.(Orenstein, 2011)

When our brain interprets something as positive surprise, it attempts to reinforce the behavior which produced it with a shot of hormones, as opposed to when the surprise is processed as negative or confusing. There’s even scientific research focused on triggering different reactions of surprise from humor like this. It’s called language expectancy theory, and it also accounts for our astonishingly fast audio comprehension.

Preliminary evidence suggests surprises are priority experiences for our brains. We are hardwired to learn from surprise. The question then becomes: what makes a gag funny and not just confusing? Confusion is the response to surprises that are not clearly perceived as positive or negative. The answer to that is the foundation of what makes a new joke funny, a new science transformative, and a new business game-changing.


Game-changing potential in business is frequently referred to in the literature as “synergy”: The way one plus one equals three.

When we have two unrelated concepts, and we come to recognize a new connection between them that we’ve never seen before, we now have a third, new concept. This process is a common denominator for learning, humor, and synergy. The use of electric wires changed our meaning of sending a message from transporting pieces of mashed-up trees, to anything that conveyed our intention to another person. We’re still performing the same functional task of communicating our thoughts and feelings, but how we accomplish that desire changed so much, it would have appeared frighteningly magical to people of the past.

Just like we can’t laugh at a joke the second time, we can’t regard heliocentrism or the fax machine as revolutionary. The development of double-entry bookkeeping is no longer game-changing. These illustrate common features to humor, innovation, and synergy, but what makes some particular instances in each of these areas so uniquely funny, revolutionary, or important?

1 plus 1
Fox Say

Especially funny jokes surprise a large number of people positively with unexpected connections between concept areas in which they (and perhaps we) are especially interested or familiar.

The recipe for a YouTube viral video: take something common and treat it in a dramatically unexpected way that reflects positively on those who share it. Mix with a dash of luck, and voilá! You’ve got a winner. While we cannot say whether any particular video on YouTube will go viral, the ones which do share these characteristics to a unique degree.


On the other hand, jokes others find funny but which confuse us offer an important insight: those who experience the humor often have a conceptual framework we either lack, or we fail to relate it properly for the humor to be revealed.  

I once spent considerable weeks in the latter situation, unable to understand “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana” as I puzzled over what could possibly be so hilarious about banana flight applied to flying fruit generally. In that case, my failure to recognize the key ambiguous term meant my brain was unable to trigger the critical relevant frame, even though it was in there somewhere.

Perhaps most often from a global perspective, linguistic jokes’ humor aren’t appreciated due to conceptual frames of culture that depend on slang or more complex etymology for key terms.

Examining failure to appreciate synergistic business processes, transformative science theories, and humorous jokes, reveals conceptual framework processing is the source of both success and failure. Let’s review examples in humor, science, and business management.


Wordplay jokes usually don’t translate to anything funny in other languages, children don’t understand sex jokes, and we don’t experience humor as they did 3500 years ago in Sumeria: “What has never occurred since time immemorial? A young woman who did not fart in her husband’s lap.” We recognize its basic form, and can guess at potential linguistic tricks that probably made this literally worth carving in stone, but certainly it wouldn’t make it into the script for an episode of Archer.

Only a handful of specialists are alive who understand the conceptual frameworks that make that joke funny. Stephen Colbert explained this specific Sumerian howler as: “It’s funny because it pleases the River God.”



Revolutions in science are similarly specific to culture, and the complexity of science as a whole gives rise to the impression that these kinds of surprising connections are rare.

I recently had a discussion on this topic in an online forum with a critical thinking enthusiast and college professor. He argued against the idea that we can facilitate transformative science by using project management best practices: “We have only seen a tiny number of identifiable ‘revolutions’ [in science]. Every such revolution occurred in a dramatically different world, context, knowledge-base, etc. than the previous one.” This view echoes the prevailing attitude within the National Science Board and in the science community generally that revolutions are rare.

Are they?


I argued the number of revolutions we see depends greatly on exactly who we mean when we say “we only observe X”. Two years ago, an investigation of transformative change in the sciences gave me the opportunity to talk to specialists in various disciplines. Every interview I did with proposal review panel leaders and members at the National Science Foundation regarding examples of transformative concepts got citations of stuff I didn’t think was especially revolutionary. This seemed to be because I had no detailed and elaborate cognitive frame governing my understanding of that specialty, which means there existed few opportunities for the kind of violation that defines revolutionary concepts. In my specialization of information and organizational management sciences however, it is easy for members of our community to cite the Gantt Chart or Agile PM as revolutionary tools & techniques.



I spoke with a group where mathematics of particle turbulence in fluids having varying viscosities was widely and enthusiastically cited as being a major revolution. Another was evolution of galactic super-clusters among astrophysicists. While none of these had any special significance to me or any of the other groups, in each case the specialists in that field were very excited about it, and I take them at their word: these ideas were the most revolutionary advances in years or decades.

Since everyone I spoke with exhibited this, it seems our lack of expertise as individuals in multiple fields accounts for the apparent scarcity of transformative ideas. From “Aberration Optics” to “Zonal Wind Research”, it appears that specialist knowledge of paradigm creates the opportunity for revolutions. Transformative science is not only definable, but best defined in terms of what it is: a relative change which depends on context, as is humor and learning generally.



Educating science researchers, administrators, and policy makers to this state of affairs offers us the chance to obtain clarity on our vision of success for transformative research support, which is the first step in successfully accomplishing it.

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