Science, Comedy & Partisanship: Shane Mauss Stands up and Speaks Out

Show Notes, Transcript & Electronic Sources

October 13, 2020

What makes a stand-up comedian wake up one day and decide comedy needs more science? Or science needs more comedy? 

A road comic for 13 years, Shane Mauss made one or both of these enlightened decisions five plus years ago in launching his science podcast, Here We Are. He expanded it with the creation of his Stand Up Science comedy shows, inviting local professors and researchers around the country on stage with him to present research, take questions and hold panel discussions in front of audiences out for a good time. 

We asked Shane about the origins of his scientific interests as well as the challenges of doing regular and Stand Up Science shows across our highly partisan nation at a time when science itself has become polarized. His responses -while often humorous-  are also surprising, articulate, and well-informed. 

Science has a lighter side, and comedy an important edge, on this episode of the Purple Principle, Science Comedy & Partisanship, with featured guest, Shane Mauss. 

Original music composed and created by Ryan Adair Rooney. 

Transcript

Shane Mauss:

And to me, this whole quarantine has been like a psychedelic experience, a global psychedelic trip. 

Robert Pease (Host):

That’s Shane Mauss, stand-up comedian and science podcaster.1

Shane Mauss:

And then all of these interesting cognitive biases are coming to the surface too. Everyone’s the most themselves they’ve ever been. The pessimists are the gloomiest they’ve ever been; the optimists are seeing the most silver linings; the conspiracy theorists are the most conspiratorial. “Oh my gosh,  5G network is causing this virus because I don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation…” and everyone’s doing, like, the “I told you so” thing to justify their own nonsense.

Robert Pease (Host):

Join us as we make sense of the nonsense on the Purple Principle with our featured guest, Shane Mauss. I’m Robert Pease. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

And I’m Emily Crocetti. And in both his long running podcast, ‘Here We Are’, as well as his comedy routines, Shane Mauss has stood up for science at a time when scientific methods and findings are becoming politicized. 

Robert Pease (Host):

Or even vilified. Consider the attacks on the science of vaccines from both ends of the political spectrum and how that could delay the efficacy of a COVID vaccine. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

Or the long running attacks on the scientific global warming consensus. 

Robert Pease (Host): 

And for the first time in 175 years, Scientific American magazine has endorsed a U.S. presidential candidate.2 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter): 

And that makes Mauss’s decision to bring science onto the comedy stage that much more enlightened… if also a bit chaotic. 

[Archival Audio Collage, Stand Up Science]

Robert Pease (Host): 

In better, safer times, Shane’s Stand Up Science show brings local scientists and scholars onstage to describe their current research to an audience looking to laugh, drink and have a great time. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

In our interview, we asked: how does a comedian wake up one day and decide, comedy needs more science? 

Robert Pease (Host):  

Or maybe science needs more comedy. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

Or, America needs a lot more of both.

Shane Mauss:

I’m from a kind of a smaller-ish city in Wisconsin. I had what I would call a pretty conservative, religious upbringing, a blue collar family and everything. And then I always wanted to be a comedian. And I always kind of went against the grain. So, because I was raised religious, I went against that. I’m sure if I would have been raised in a household with some professors or whatever, I would have gone against whatever they were saying. But, regardless, I had an interest in science that grew as I became a comedian and I started a podcast called ‘Here We Are’, where I interview a scientist each week. I started that about five and a half years ago. And that’s when I started trying to do solo shows, integrating science communication into comedy. And so I wanted something that wasn’t as reliant on being punchline-heavy and set-up punch. And so I put together the show of Stand Up Science as a way of bringing science to the masses a little bit more. So each city that I could travel in, they could kind of actually see and hear from local professors and what they were doing in town and start these fun conversations.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter): 

How would you define an independent comedy show?

Shane Mauss:

And so when I say independent comedy shows, I mean, rather than doing a comedy club and going into the Chucklehut in Beaverton or whatever, and working there all weekend, I find little indie music venues that do one night only kind of events. So I find like 200 seat indie venues and I do my own marketing. So that’s what I mean by independent, kind of a DIY model.

Robert Pease (Host): 

Got it. So Shane, have there been any occasions when the audience has kind of pushed back on the scientist when there’s things they just don’t accept or understand?

Shane Mauss:

So if I were to bring Stand Up Science to just a regular comedy club – Hey, it’s Saturday date night and we’re all going up for a comedy show – I mean, people would just f*#$ing hate it. They just wouldn’t understand what was going on and it just wouldn’t work. And so, I mean, once in a while, there’s people who are just not interested in the topic. The problem with Stand Up Science is that just because you’re into science doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be interested in zebra mussel research or whatever the topic that one of my guests happens to be studying and presenting on. And so it’s a scary show to do. It doesn’t always go perfectly. It’s fairly experimental. But that also adds a really exciting element to it at the same time. 

Robert Pease (Host):  

And Emily, there’s definitely some interesting improv moments during these standup science shows.

[Archival Audio Collage, Stand Up Science]

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

And also some informative and provocative insights.

Robert Pease (Host):   

Such as this University of Washington professor, sharing research on sports teams that have Native American names. Turns out his findings cut both ways against our current political divide.3 

[Archival Audio, Stand Up Science]

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

But let’s bring it back to Dr. Abigail Marsh for a moment. 

Robert Pease (Host): 

You’re thinking about that comment in the ‘Herd from the Herd’ episode. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

Yes, exactly. The one about how people with different perspectives come together through shared experience. 

[Previously recorded audio, Abigail Marsh]

You know, I really think that contact hypothesis is really all that it comes down to. And that’s one of the oldest theories in psychology, which is that just contact with people who are different from yourself, especially in a non-antagonistic setting, is a great way to heal these divides. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):    

We need more of that contact in this partisan age. 

Robert Pease (Host):  

So we asked Shane about performing his shows all across our red, blue and purple nation. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):    

Around the potential landmines of hyperpartisanship, echo chambers, and conspiracy theories.

Shane Mauss:

If you’re going to be a full time road comic, you’re going to find that much of your bread and butter is probably going to be more in conservative rooms. But at the same time, artistically, I definitely have kind of a fondness for more of the independent rooms that might err toward the side of being too hipster pretentious or whatever, or also just like a hair more comedy savvy. And so I’ve always prided myself on being able to perform in both types of rooms. So the liberal side of things ends up getting things on television. And then the conservative side of things I end up doing more while touring. And so people often ask me how much I need to change my material going from a red or blue state. And it’s less about geography and more about what the room is. I could be in a really conservative room in Boston and then go and do a hip room in Dallas, Texas. So that makes a much bigger difference than geography does.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

So, for the liberal rooms versus conservative rooms, do you find one to be funnier than the other?

Shane Mauss:

I would say that conservative rooms are a little more 101, 102 level comedy, a little more accessible. And it’s more of just like a “Hey comedy club! That sounds like a neat thing to try out!” rather than, you know, just going to play paintball or something like that. Whereas I would say the more liberal rooms tend to be a little more like comedy savvy. Just like if you don’t ever listen to music, you’re fine with listening to the oldies and the classic rock mix that you grew up on. And if you listen to music all day long, every day, you’re constantly going to be on the lookout for the new hip bands and the people doing these more subtle things.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

What about independent voters, who aren’t purely conservative or liberal, or moderates who kind of fall in the middle? Is there anything funny about them?

Shane Mauss:

Well, I mean, first off, much of comedy is taking things and making them really outrageous. And as someone who’s a science communicator and someone who does like a lot of material about mindfulness and whatnot, it definitely is challenging to be like, “here’s the funny way of looking at the nuance and complexity of the many different views in life”. 

Robert Pease (Host):  

That’s true. It must be very difficult. But I’m also wondering about other comedians. Are there other comedians you follow, who you don’t agree with politically, but you think they’re pretty funny? 

Shane Mauss:

Well, yeah, there’s a lot of them…I really, really dislike conspiracy theorists and there’s a fair amount of that.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):   

So you’re not a fan?

Shane Mauss:

I think they’re kind of a little bit sad and pathetic actually, but I mean, I think it’s kind of almost bordering on mental health issues. But, you know – and I know, I have good friends of mine that kind of got themselves lost in the conspiracy worlds, and alienated everyone that they knew and ended up becoming these real hateful people and it was just really sad to see. But there’s a lot of people that are very, very funny that are into conspiracies. I mean, comedians by and large have these personality traits of… usually they’re pretty intelligent. Usually, they don’t have a classical education. And so they haven’t been taught, say, like I mentioned, correlation versus causation. And so just simple things like that, that a 101 science class could’ve easily saved you some real embarrassing ideas. And, you know, comedians also have a fondness for really novel ideas. And it’s fun to think that you’re the only one that’s figured this thing out about shape-shifting lizard people or whatever. And so you have the wrong mix of those otherwise really admirable, useful, great traits, and you have yourself a conspiracy theorist and it’s unfortunate.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

Do you ever filter things out because of the heightened sensitivity that’s going on today? Or do you just kind of do what you want to do?

Shane Mauss:

I mostly do what I want to do. I’m here in Wisconsin right now and, like I said, I had a conservative upbringing and I have a lot of respect for many conservative beliefs. But I personally don’t think that – I think Donald Trump is a con man. I think that he would be a Democrat if it got him the votes. And so I think that the Trump thing is a different thing than political affiliation. And so that’s my own bias. And so as much as I’m for everyone getting along and no one having these in and out group biases – life’s short, and I don’t have the time to be bickering with a bunch of Trump supporters. And so I can’t put “No Trump supporters allowed” in my shows, but I can put the word “science” in the title and it seems to do a pretty nice job… But we should be grateful that we now live in a country where we’re allowed to openly criticize the President of the United States, because that was something that used to be more controversial than it is now. Whatever party – if Joe Biden wins this next election, whatever party is in charge – you better believe I’m going to be critical of them.

Robert Pease (Host):  

Well, that leads to a question we ask every guest on the show. Our country is really more a mixture of red and blue, and our audience is primarily independents. Can you show us a little bit of purple by pointing to a prominent Democrat or Republican candidate or position that you either respect or support?

Shane Mauss:

No one in particular stands out in terms of individuals. I will say that I’ve always thought that the idea of having a president and one party at a time, trading who gets to take the reins for a while has always seemed silly to me. I’ve never understood why it’s not more of a panel or something like that. And I don’t know why there isn’t someone representing several different parties kind of in charge at the same time. And the idea that one individual checks off all of your boxes has always seemed crazy to me; the idea that because I think one way about abortion, I need to think this certain way about the economy. And I need to think this certain way about freedom of religion and this certain way about drugs.

Robert Pease (Host): 

You sound like an independent. 

Shane Mauss:

Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, again, I think that we all like to say that, where I like to think of myself as this independent, free thinking person, free of biases and whatnot. And I just can’t rightfully, confidently say that I am. I’m sure I have just as many biases as every other human out there.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

So, we’re getting close to an election. And presumably people are going to be a little touchy and sensitive the closer we get to November. And if you’re performing, are you going to stay away from that topic, or are you going to try and make people, you know, laugh into it?

Shane Mauss:

When I say I don’t talk about politics on my show, I mean, I don’t talk about politics in the way you’d talk about politics on the news. I talk about politics in terms of, say, the genetic underpinnings that lead to personality differences that lead to these political predispositions, for things like I expressed with the openness stuff. So I’ll talk about something like that. That’s a little bit outside of the norm. Or, I just had someone on, Deborah Lieberman and Carlton Patrick, talking about their book Objection: Disgust, Morality and the Law.4 And it’s all about how our evolutionary mechanisms, meant for disgust so that how we avoid eating the wrong things, have been built on top, or are in use, to assess our moral judgments. So we have this, once you have built this capacity for disgust, then you can use it to persuade people in a political climate. So I dig into some more of the subtle nuances if I am going to touch politics at all.

Robert Pease (Host): 

That’s interesting, Emily. Right there, Shane brought up one of the key points neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel made in our “Brain on Partisanship” episode.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

About the surprisingly biological foundations of political belief.

[Previously recorded audio, Jay Van Bavel]

The genetic stuff I think is really compelling. And I remember the first time I heard about it, I was shocked. It changed how I thought about politics. What they find is that identical twins are dramatically more likely to have the same political preferences. And so what that says is that politics or policy preferences and political preferences are heavily shaped by our genes. In fact, if you took an identical twin from a Democratic family and separated them at birth, and raised another one in a Republican family, those twins would still be very likely to share the same politics.5

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

Maybe it’s not so surprising that Shane would be familiar with this research. He’s been interviewing a wide range of scientists on his podcast for 5 years now.

[Archival Audio Collage, Here We Are]

Robert Pease (Host): 

In this final part of the interview we hear from Shane, who is, remember, a stand-up comedian by profession. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter): 

About the respect he has for good science and scientists, whether they’re famous or not so famous. 

Shane Mauss:

One of my favorite things about my science podcast is that I figure out how wrong I am all of the time. I can go into an interview thinking that I’m an expert on a subject, and then I talk with someone who’s an actual expert. And every assumption that I have, they go, “Oh, actually, there’s this other way of looking at it”. And then I get to feel, I get to be corrected and see how wrong I was, which is a privilege.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

What do you think about that then, in terms of politics? Because on this podcast, we talk about that, you know, that none of us know everything and we all have different views.

Shane Mauss:

You know, there’s a lot of personality differences in that within personality research. There’s these big five personality categories: conscientiousness, agreeability, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness. And neuroticism, meaning susceptibility to low emotional affects.6 So, openness is, what is your threshold for uncertainty and change and new ideas? And so if you’re lower in openness, you probably have this trait, meaning a higher need for closure. And this is something where you can put someone in an MRI and you can see their need for closure. And so, a lot of the stuff is less politically charged and more just personality traits. 

And then at the same time, I’m a low conscientious individual who right now is looking at maybe the messiest room the world has ever seen.  And I’m bad at scheduling things. And I forget stuff, and I screw things up. And so, you know, it’s hard for me to necessarily judge someone for having this need for closure–which by the way, is a little higher correlated with conservatism. And it’s hard for me to feel smarter than anyone when I just look back on my life and see just how much I’ve messed up over and over. And so I definitely don’t think that I’m smarter than anyone. The only thing that I think is smart that I do is trying to acquire more knowledge.

Robert Pease (Host): 

And it seems like your podcast, Here We Are, is a great way to do that. Do you have a favorite guest or two who just kind of blew you away with some insight?

Shane Mauss:

Robert Sapolsky is probably my favorite scientist ever. And I think that the world would be a better place if people got into his work. He especially does a lot of stress research stuff, which is as relevant and important now more than ever.7 

And I had this woman, Nina Fefferman, who is a mathematician, and she spent a career theoretically modeling pandemics, and is now an applied mathematician, as there’s a real pandemic to work on.8 And she explained this issue from both what is a virus and what is this flattening the curve stuff about and why are there different political takes on it. And it’s really, really unbiased. And so that was a really, really, really cool one. I was super proud of it. It just felt very important. 

But I’ve had so many incredible people in. One of the most wonderful things about doing my podcast is that I don’t just get, you know, I could just try to get like Malcolm Gladwell or something like that – or Steven Pinker, for example, I’ve had him on Stand Up Science. And so it’s cool to get these big names and everything. But it’s more of a treat for me to get to bring some unknown scientist who has 50 Twitter followers and has never gotten to share their work publicly before. And they’re doing some really incredible, interesting facet of science. And that brings me a lot of fulfillment that I get to do that.

Robert Pease (Host): 

You’re listening to The Purple Principle, and that was our featured guest today, comedian and podcaster Shane Mauss, creator of the Stand Up Science comedy show and host of the long running science podcast, “Here We Are”. 

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):

And even if you think you’re not interested in science,

Robert Pease (Host):  

Or maybe especially if you know you’re not,

Emily Crocetti (Reporter): 

It’s highly recommended and available on all major streaming apps. 

Robert Pease (Host):  

Next up for the Purple Principle, we’ll look at two cases where non-partisanship takes on  hyperpartisanship in this 2020 election.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter): 

Featured guest David Krucoff is running as an independent for Congress in Washington, D.C.

Robert Pease (Host):   

Without much hope of winning a long-held Democratic seat…

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):  

But to highlight a nonpartisan solution for the half million U.S. citizens of D.C. who do not have, and have never had, a voting representative in the U.S. Congress.

David Krucoff:

In addition to running for delegate, which is the Congress position in the District of Columbia, it’s a non-voting position, I am the leader, in many respects, of the retrocessionists. So I’m the creator of something called Douglass County, Maryland, which is the future of the District of Columbia. 

Robert Pease (Host):  

And we’ll take a close look at Ballot Question Two in the great and highly independent state of Alaska. This is very likely the most ambitious attempt at electoral reform in U.S. history.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):   

This includes opening primaries to independents.

Robert Pease (Host):   

Instituting top four ranked choice voting.

Emily Crocetti (Reporter):    

And creating campaign finance transparency.

Robert Pease (Host):  

We’ll be speaking with the campaign manager, Shea Siegert, about what’s at stake, not just for Alaska, but for the rest of our not so United States.

Shea Siegert: 

We can’t make this ballot measure about a certain party. We can’t make this about a certain politician, because it’s simply not. Its genesis was, how are we going to provide the best election system to the Alaska voter? How are we going to provide Alaska voters with the most voice, the most choice, and the most power, and we found that open primaries and ranked choice voting and financial disclosure was that way. And the parties coming out against us just kind of proves case in point, that they really don’t want to give up this power. 

Robert Pease (Host):  

Join us on the Purple Principle as we take a 360 degree tour around partisanship, asking these questions: How did we get so partisan? How could we get less partisan? And can independent-minded Americans in D.C, Alaska, and points in between, help heal the divide? 

This is Robert Pease for the Purple Principle team. Emily Crocetti, staff reporter; Kevin Kline, audio engineer; Janice Murphy, marketing and outreach; Emily Holloway, research and fact-checking. 

All music on today’s episode was composed and created by Ryan Adair Rooney. Here’s more info and connectivity via social media and on our website, purpleprinciple.com.

Electronic Sources

Shane Mauss. 

‘Here We Are’ Podcast.

Deborah Lieberman and Carlton Patrick (2018). Objection: Disgust, Morality and the Law. Oxford University Press. 

The Editors (October 2020). “Scientific American Endorses Joe Biden.” Scientific American.

Justin Angle et. al. (2017). “Activating stereotypes with brand imagery: The role of viewer political identity.” Journal of Consumer Psychology 27(1): 84-90.

“Big Five Personality Traits.” Psychology Today. 

Dr. Robert Sapolsky. Stanford University 

Dr. Nina Fefferman. University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Eric Lofgren, N. H. Fefferman, Y. N. Naumov, J. Gorski, E. N. Naumova (2007). “Influenza Seasonality: Underlying Causes and Modeling Theories.” Journal of Virology, 81 (11) 5429-5436.

Carolyn Funk et. al. (10/17/12). Genetic and Environmental Transmission of Political Orientations. Political Psychology 34 (6). 

1994
2017

In 1986, 34 Democratic and 29 Republican Senators signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, creating a citizenship path for illegal immigrants while making it a Federal crime to employ illegal workers. The House also voted in favor, 238 to 173. The bill was signed into law on November 6, 1986. 

congress.gov

In 1972, 17 Republican Senators joined 35 Democratic Senators to override the Nixon Administration veto of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of environmental legislation. The House override vote was 247 to 23, including 96 Republicans and 151 Democrats in the majority.

govtrack.us

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