On Mother’s Day, John Oliver delivered the mother of all scientific mockeries. His aim: to debunk the type of “studies” typically cited on morning talk shows such as NBC’s Today that purport to challenge conventional medical wisdom with surprising new data.
Illustrating how such information gets blown out of proportion by a revved-up news cycle that thrives on out-of-context and unconfirmed breakthroughs of limited scientific merit, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight delivered a trash-talking civics lesson as a comedy of errors.
“There are so many studies being thrown around, they can seem to contradict one another,” Oliver said Sunday. “In just the last few months, we’ve seen studies about coffee that claim it may reverse the effects of liver damage, help prevent colon cancer, decrease the risk of endometrial cancer and increase the risk of miscarriage.”
“Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament,” he continued. “It will either save you or kill you depending on how much you believe in its magic powers.”
Problem A, according to the British satirist’s report, is a rush to marketplace that finds scientists under constant pressure to publish research papers in order to land funding and academic tenure. In academia, as in Hollywood, sexy sells. “Scientists know nobody is publishing a study called “Nothing is Up with Acai Berries,” Oliver noted.
Worse, such exploratory studies are seldom double checked by other scientists. “There is no reward for being the second person to discover something,” the host said. “There is no Nobel Prize for fact checking. Incidentally, ‘There is no Nobel Prize for fact checking’ is a motivational poster in Brian Williams’ MSNBC dressing room.”
Dumbed down science
From there, he explained, scientific press releases further dumb-down and misrepresent the studies’ informational content. And by the time broadcast news reports mainline those into popular consciousness, the unconfirmed facts take on a life of their own. “Some of this is on us, the viewing audience,” Oliver said. “We like fun, poppy science that we can share like gossip. And TV news producers know it.”
Exhibit A: KTVU News report from last year stating that drinking one to three glasses of champagne per week may delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. “Fantastic news!” an anchorman snorted.
“No it isn’t!” said Oliver. “Aside from the fact that if you are celebrating with champagne three times a week, your standards of celebration need to be much higher!”
More to the point, it turns out that widely cited study was conducted on rats. Which is problematic considering tests conducted on lab rodents are not always applicable to humans.
“How do you not tell people that? And how do you not show them photos of the experiments?” Oliver railed, cutting away to a supposed photo of the experiments: a pair of hipster rats wearing fashionable hats and holding flutes of champagne near giant lines of cocaine. “Those are chic rats!”
Even Ted Talks are suspect
But Oliver made clear that “morning show-style science” isn’t the exclusive province of television. He pointed toward a 2011 Ted Talk by Paul Zak, during which the neuroeconomist extolled a “moral molecule:" the hormone oxytocin which is manufactured by the human body during a certain physical exchange. “Here’s your prescription from Dr. Love,” Zak says, referring to himself in the third person in a clip from the Ted Talk. “Eight hugs a day. We have found that people who release more oxytocin are happier.”
Grimacing, Oliver proceeded to gleefully shred "Dr. Love."
“First of all, don’t call yourself Dr. Love,” he said. “That’s the name a tabloid gives a dentist who ejaculated on his sedated patients. And second, there’s no way I would be happier giving eight hugs a day. I’m English! That’s four lifetimes’ worth of hugs.”
From there, Oliver pointed out another scientific research paper from the journal Biological Psychiatry views the idea of increased oxytocin leading to increased happiness “with skepticism.” Ergo: “When a stranger calling himself Dr. Love offers to hug you eight times a day, say no!” the comedian exclaimed.
Up next on "Today"
Oliver saved his most potent vitriol for NBC’s Today which “lives for scientific studies” according to its own self-description. That much was teed up in a clip featuring co-hosts Natalie Morales and Tamron Hall gently arguing about the health benefits of whole milk vis a vis scientific studies regarding its pros and cons. They were interrupted by weatherman Al Roker, who opined: “You find the study that sounds best to you. And go with that.”
“No! No! No!” Oliver said, slamming his hand against his desk. “If you start thinking that science is a la carte and if you don’t like it, another study will be along soon, that is what leads people to believe man-made climate change isn’t real. Or that vaccines cause autism—both of which the scientific consensus is pretty clear on.”
“Is science bullshit?” Oliver asked at one point. “No, but there is a lot of bullshit currently masquerading as science.”
Watch the entire segment below:
Chris Lee is a former staff writer forEntertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek andThe Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.