DRMacIver's Notebook

The humour test for expertise

The humour test for expertise

A heuristic I sometimes use is this: You understand something at a reasonably expert level if and only if you get the jokes at a level where you could find it funny.

I started thinking about this when I watched this video:

This video is hilarious. If you don’t play Slay the Spire much you won’t understand why. I can explain why, and I can even explain why well enough that you in some way understand it, but I cannot explain it in a way that allows you to find it funny without teaching you to play Slay the Spire, because the humour derives entirely from an understanding of the game.

Similarly, the quine relay is hilarious, but if you’re not a programmer you absolutely won’t find it funny, it’s just weird and pointless.

The reason for this link between expertise and humour is basically the incongruity theory of humour: You have a particular set of expectations about how the game is played, and the video repeatedly violates those assumptions by playing the game in slightly unexpected ways. This is not how a Defect build is supposed to work, but it’s definitely how this Defect build works.

Because humour derives from incongruity, if you can get the jokes in a field then you must have a sense of incongruity. This means that you’ve internalised the sort of intuition about what the expected normal for the field is - the field’s norms of taste, a working knowledge for how everything typically goes and fits together. These are all signs of expertise, that you’ve progressed to the Unconscious Competence stage.

The humour test for expertise is itself a sort of joke, and the fact that I find it funny is probably an indication that I’ve at least started to get something of a handle on the expertise literature (or just that I’m weird), but it’s also serious and I think probably points in a number of interesting directions.

In particular, although you can’t explain specialist jokes in a way that makes them funny, it may be worth explaining them, as it will often reveal interesting things about expert intuition that might not otherwise be readily accessible.

Another application of the test is that the jokes you find funny probably tell you something about your areas of expertise that you hadn’t realised. This may be an uncomfortable realisation because e.g. it causes you to realise quite how much time you’ve spent playing Slay the Spire.