On his HBO show Last Week Tonight this week, John Oliver took on science — more precisely, the news media's tendency to oversimplify the studies they talk about, and the way certain researchers talk about the work they do.
"Science is constantly producing new studies, as you would know if you've ever watched TV," Oliver says, proceeding to make fun of some recent headline run by TV news shows, like ones that suggest late-night snacking could damage your memory, or that a glass of red wine a day has the same effect as going to the gym. "That last one doesn't even sound like science!" Oliver exclaims. "It's more like something your sassy aunt would wear on a t-shirt." Even reputable news sources like Time magazine have fallen short, he adds, citing an article on a study that supposedly said smelling farts might prevent cancer. (In fact, the study never mentioned either farts or cancer. Unfortunately, and even though Time corrected the article, Oliver says, the researchers still get calls from people asking them to talk about farts on the news.)
Part of the problem, according to Oliver, is that many studies being published can seem to contradict one another. He adds that it can make people wonder, "Is science bullshit?" And even though the answer is "clearly no," he says, there is "a lot of bullshit masquerading as science." For example, there are less-than-reputable journals that publish studies that shouldn't be published, and there also exists the subtle bias of researchers wanting eye-catching, positive results. There's also a constant pressure to publish, and get tenure and more funding. To get good results, Oliver says, you can tweak a study in all kinds of ways — alter how long it lasts, change the sample size, or engage in p-hacking.
"But even the best designed studies can get flukish results and the best process that science has to guard against that is the replication study. Unfortunately, that happens way less than it should," Oliver says, highlighting another problem. "There's no reward for being the second person to discover something in science. There's no Nobel Prize for fact-checking."
For all those reasons, scientists know not to attach too much significance on one particular study, but rather look at it in the context of the larger field of study. But the lay public doesn't always get that, and the nuances of certain studies tend to get lost, Oliver adds. Scientific organizations sometimes add to the confusion, sending press releases with "sexy" headlines to get attention. If news producers only look at the press release rather than the study, viewers get wrong information.
And it's not always the media's fault, Oliver says. "Sometimes researchers themselves will oversimplify the science," he adds, citing Paul Zak's 2011 TED talk on oxytocin that calls the hormone "the moral molecule" and fails to mention recent studies that show it can also have negative effects on a person's emotions.
The impact of all this misreporting can lead to people thinking science has no idea about anything, Oliver warns. This kind of thinking was what allowed tobacco companies to claim the science on lung cancer and smoking wasn't solid, and has led to some being able to deny science on climate change or others to claim vaccines cause autism.
"Science is by its nature imperfect. But it is hugely important and it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning-show gossip," Oliver says. That means the news media, researchers, and the viewing public all have to work harder to disseminate and receive information, he adds.
As for the "interesting bullshit" people love, Oliver has a solution of his own: