Hailed as a “scientific Playboy,” for 20 years the Worm Runner’s Digest poked fun at the pomposity
of science, with spoofs by B.F. Skinner, James V. McConnell and other psychology luminaries.
BY LARRY STERN
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.
Click here to read articles and view cartoons from the Worm
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