242: The Difference

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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The Difference
How could you choose avoiding a little pain over understanding a magic lightning machine?
Title text: How could you choose avoiding a little pain over understanding a magic lightning machine?


Cueball pulls a lever. A bolt of lightning comes down and strikes him.

After being dazed for a moment, the comic then takes one of two routes; the first is that of a normal person, the second that of a scientist.

In Randall's example, the normal person would decide not to pull the lever anymore, because it seems to cause him to get struck by a bolt of lightning.

But the scientist would pull the lever again to see if it was just a coincidence or if the lever actually caused the bolt of lightning. A scientist requires that results be repeatable before he accepts the results.

The title text refers to the scientist's method of pulling the lever again and again, trying to understand how the machine works, as opposed to the normal person, just avoiding pain. This could be a nod towards how scientists sometimes go to extreme measures for knowledge.

For a different view on the topic of repetition in experimentation, see 1657: Insanity.


[All the panels are circular.]
[Cueball pulls a lever.]
[Lightning hits Cueball.]
[Cueball still stands, obviously battered.]
[An arrow labelled "normal person" points to a panel of Cueball thinking.]
Cueball (thinking): I guess I shouldn't do that.
[An arrow labelled "scientist" points to a panel of Cueball about to pull the level again.]
Cueball (thinking): I wonder if that happens every time.


This comic used to be available as a signed print in the xkcd store before it was shut down.

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After reading this, I was just waiting for Hatguy to lure various animals over to the lever in order to test it without being harmed in the process... 11:06, 2 July 2013 (UTC)

Oh, please. Black Hat wouldn't use animals when people are readily available. Trogdor147 (talk) 23:15, 18 May 2023 (UTC)

"Cueball pulls a lever. The lever causes a bolt of lightning to come down and strike him." I doubt that. "Cueball pulls a lever. A bolt of lightning comes down and strikes him." is correct. It may be coincidence, we cannot know that without testing. Undee (talk) 10:32, 18 October 2013 (UTC)

Agreed. And fixed. -- 07:59, 8 November 2013 (UTC)

This makes me think that scientists are, in essence... insane... because isn't that the definition of insanity... pulling the lever again... and expecting different results? 02:46, 11 June 2014 (UTC)

It actually isn't the definition of insanity. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
https://xkcd.com/1657/ 02:34, 29 January 2019 (UTC)

What makes you think the result is expected to change? The scientist path isn't pulling the lever again because he's expecting a different result. He's pulling it again to see what happens. Learning more about lightning machines is worth the pain. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Timothy Wilson, UVa, tested if people (or rather college sophmores, i imagine) perfer sitting queitly or getting shocked. For males, it played out as shown. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I once (purely as a scientific endeavor and not as a dare) touched an electrified wire (the ones for cattle). I actually HEARD the electricity hit. I have never done that again, and will never ever do that again, no not never in a million years. ONCE. IS. ENOUGH.Jakee308 (talk) 19:52, 24 April 2015 (UTC)

Reminds me of elementary school, in which I would often repeatedly slide down a slide and shock myself on the metal pole on the bottom (demonstrating static electricity) purely for the science of it. It's awesome to see how I was preparing for a life of science even then. Also interesting: a side effect of doing this was that I seemed to build up a tolerance for the static shock, so could slide down and shock someone at the bottom without it hurting much, while they seemed to feel it much more strongly. PotatoGod (talk) 17:15, 25 August 2017 (UTC)

If you touch electricity and another person at the same time, the other person will feel the shock more. That has nothing to do with tolerance being built up, but with physics. I never understood why though, to be honest. --Lupo (talk) 10:37, 26 September 2019 (UTC)