Time Capsule

Science, we all know, is serious stuff. If it is to retain its cultural and cognitive authority, it must be seen as an objective, dispassionate and value-free enterprise. But science, at its core, is a human enterprise populated by all types of people. And science and scientists can be awfully funny — without jeopardizing the objectivity of what comes to count (however provisionally) as certified knowledge.

Comedians and cartoonists have been poking fun at science — and especially at psychologists — for decades. But one need not look outside the halls of academia to find such humor. Indeed, for my money, nothing beats the humor contained in the Worm Runner's Digest, published between 1959 and 1979. If your library subscribed, you might find it and its twin, the Journal of Biological Psychology, nestled between the serious Journal of Applied Psychology and Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology.

The brainchild of James V. McConnell, then an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, the Worm Runner's Digest burst on the scene as a new 1960s counterculture was beginning to take form. Devoted in part to puncturing the pretentiousness and pomposity of that sacred cow known as "science," it was, as McConnell noted, one of the first scientific journals that knowingly published satire.

What, then, prompted the creation of this peculiar journal?

It began with a paper McConnell presented on the morning of Sept. 8, 1959, at APA's 67th Annual Convention. In this paper, "Apparent Retention of a Conditioned Response Following Total Regeneration in the Planarian," McConnell reported data collected by one of his honors students, Reeva Jacobson, which indicated that separate pieces of trained worms, after being allowed to regenerate their missing parts, retained the initial training of the original uncut worm. Moreover, after several regenerations, worms that contained none of the structure of the originally trained animal also retained some memory of the initial conditioning.

On Sept. 21, Newsweek published a summary of this work, triggering a series of events that no one — certainly not McConnell — ever expected.

Two years earlier, the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik sparked fears that the United States lagged behind the Soviets in science and technology. One result, designed to ignite the youth of America's interest in science, was a renewed emphasis on local science fairs.

Shortly after the Newsweek coverage, McConnell was inundated with letters from high school students from around the country asking where they could obtain worms for their projects and how they should go about caring for and training them. Some students, according to McConnell, demanded that he send a few hundred trained worms at once since their projects were due within days.

After answering the first few letters McConnell realized that something more efficient was needed. So he and his students wrote what amounted to a training manual describing their work and how to repeat their experiments.

McConnell firmly believed that "anyone who takes himself, or his work, too seriously is in a perilous state of mental health." So as a joke, he affixed the name Worm Runner's Digest to the top of the manual. Adorning the front page was a crest that one of his students designed, complete with a two-headed worm with pharynx fully exposed, a pair of diagonal stripes in the maize and blue colors of Michigan across the escutcheon of said planarian, a coronet made up of a Hebbian cell assembly, a ¥ for psychology, a homage to the stimulus-response of behaviorism, and a motto, ignotum, ignotius which, loosely translated, means "When I get through explaining this to you, you will know even less than before I started." To top things off, McConnell labeled it Volume I, No. 1.

To McConnell's astonishment, word of this new "journal" got out and he started receiving submissions. So he decided to "pep things up a bit" by scattering poems, jokes, satires, cartoons, spoofs and short stories more or less randomly among the more serious articles.

McConnell wrote some of these spoofs himself, including one on learning theory that should be mandatory reading. In it, a psychology professor is walking in the woods thinking about how to teach his intro students the finer points of learning theory when he suddenly finds himself in a giant Skinner box on an alien spaceship, complete with a nipple on the wall that delivers "a slightly cool and somewhat sweetish flow of liquid" and, later, a lever that when pulled delivers protein balls of food. The "experiments" the subject endures are classic, and if the denouement does not bring a smile, well, perhaps you are in a perilous state of mental health.

Dozens of reputable psychologists contributed humor to the digest as well. Harry Harlow had two pieces: "Fundamental Principles for Preparing Psychology Journal Articles" and a poem, "Yearning and Learning," a somewhat bawdy look at how monkeys learn to copulate.

B.F. Skinner contributed two parodies of behaviorism: "A Christmas Caramel, or A Plum from the Hasty Pudding," in which he plays the role of Professor Skinnybox, and "On the Relation Between Mathematical and Statistical Competence and Significant Scientific Productivity," which he published under the pseudonym of F. Galton Pennywhistle.

Spoofs of Freudian theory also appeared. "Some Comments on an Addition to the Theory of Psychosexual Development" by Sigmund Fraud introduced the "nasal stage," occurring between the anal and phallic stages, in which the libido is localized primarily in the mucous linings of the nose. Though the consequences of poor nasal training might not be as drastic as those accompanying poor toilet training, two pathologies might ensue: feelings of superiority that lead you to turn your nose up at others, and/or being a busybody and constantly sticking your nose in others' business.

Other notable contributions that graced the Digest's pages include faux reports on "The Effects of Physical Torture on the Learning and Retention of Nonsense Syllables," "The Gesundheits Test" and "Operant Conditioning in the Domestic Darning Needle (Spina ferrica)."

But bona fide experimental reports were included in the Digest as well, and the publication of serious articles side-by-side with spoofs apparently posed a problem for some scientists who complained that they weren't able to distinguish between the serious reports and the parodies.

To deal with this problem, McConnell banished all of the so-called funny stuff to the back of the journal, printing it upside down to make sure that no one would confuse it with the serious work. This began in October 1964. Three years later, the split became formal when McConnell renamed the front part of the journal containing the serious scientific work the Journal of Biological Psychology, retaining the name Worm Runner's Digest for the back half of the journal.

At its peak, the Digest had roughly 2,500 subscribers scattered throughout the world. Since humorous cartoons appear regularly in best-selling psychology textbooks today, it is easy to forget how extraordinary and subversive the Digest was when it first appeared. Responses to the Digest were mixed, reflecting some of the schisms found in the larger society at the time.

While admirers hailed the Digest as a "scientific Playboy," reveling in its wit, McConnell's more austere critics referred to it pejoratively as a "scientific comic book," arguing that science is not the place for such sophomoric humor. McConnell, in fact, believed that the Digest cost him research grants.

McConnell's bottom line — that science could and should be fun — is perhaps as important today as it was when he began to champion the cause in 1959. If your library does not hold copies of the Digest, you can find the "greatest hits" in two anthologies — The Worm Re-turns and Science, Sex, and Sacred Cows — in used bookstores, or online.

Larry Stern is a professor of sociology and chair of social and behavioral sciences at Collin College in Plano, Texas. Katharine S. Milar is historical editor for "Time Capsule."

Selected readings

  • McConnell, J.V. (1957). Learning theory. Retrieved from web.utk.edu/~wverplan/learning.html

  • McConnell, J.V. (1969). Confessions of a scientific humorist. Impact of Science on Society, 19(3), 241–252.

  • Travis, D. (1981). On the construction of creativity: The "memory transfer" phenomenon and the importance of being earnest. In K. D. Knorr, R. Krohn, & R. Whitley (Eds.), The social process of scientific investigation (pp. 165–193). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing.