Not everything you hear about science may be entirely reputable, says John Oliver. On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, Oliver skewers the absurd ways talk shows, news outlets, and scientists themselves cater to the public desire for sensationalist science studies by reporting on studies that “deserve better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip.” It’s even becoming a problem, because people are starting to associate all science with the kind of mundane reports that make the news, leading to doubt and skepticism about real science that proves climate change is occurring or that vaccines do not cause autism.
The problem has a range of causes, and scientists are not immune to criticism themselves. As Oliver points out, scientists earn tenure and receive funding on the basis of their publications. With so much riding on the success of their studies, it’s not hard to image juicing up results or even “p-hacking” to seek out interesting, if meaningless, findings. Oliver cites a Vox report that found statistically significant results between eating cabbage and innie bellybuttons as well as eating raw tomatoes and Judaism.
“And the only thing that tomatoes have in common with Judaism is that neither of them feel really at home in the Upper Midwest,” Oliver quips.
The scientific discord sowed by the media desire to report startling conclusions leads to bizarre understandings of science. In a clip Oliver shows from The Today Show, Al Roker makes a strange suggestion about the lesson he has learned from science.
“I think the way to live your life is that you find the study that sounds best to you, and you go with that one,” Roker said.
In response, Oliver joked, “No, no, no, no, no. In science you don’t just get to cherry pick the parts that justify what you were going to do anyway, that’s religion. You’re thinking of religion.”
Even Ted Talks can be susceptible to the craze, so Oliver debuted the first-ever Todd Talks on his show, “where the format of Ted Talks meets the intellectual rigor of morning news shows.”
“Chocolate, mmmh, it will kill you,” one presenter says. “What if I were to tell you all that the cure to racism is coffee,” another pronounces. It’s only slightly more absurd than the usual fare on television every day, so Todd Talks may sound familiar to the morning shows, but it’s definitely funnier.