This is traditionally the time of the week when internet headlines announce what it was that John Oliver “eviscerated,” “destroyed,” “shellacked,” “murdered,” or “literally gave birth to” this week. It’s a tradition for a reason: Last Week Tonight does a pretty fantastic, consistently hilarious job taking on big subjects, whether Donald Drumpf or televangelists, in its in-depth main segments.
Last night’s episode, though, was a particularly exciting one for anyone in the social-science world. I think it’s safe to say it featured the most Science of Us–y subject that will ever be on Last Week Tonight: overhyped junk science. Specifically, Oliver took aim at the many, many ways the “findings” that reach news consumers — Sugar causes cancer! Late-night snacks harm your brain’s ability to create memories! Coffee will kill you and/or extend your life! — don’t stand up to basic scrutiny and are distorted by a myriad of different factors:
Oliver and his staff really, really nailed it. They covered all of the important facets here: the media’s thirst for splashy findings that they can use to gin up page views and ratings (those jerks); the publishing and funding incentives that nudge researchers into less-than-rigorous territory; the over-reliance on one-off study results in general; and — my own personal bugaboo — those damn misleading press releases put out every day by research institutions. The segment was just a very solid, very funny distillation of an extremely complicated subject, and it’s genuinely impressive how much was packed into it. I’d gladly nitpick if there were nits to pick, but there really aren’t — last night, John Oliver absolutely p-hacked shoddy pop science (sorry).
He summed things up very pithily toward the end of the segment: “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. So if [the media] are going to keep saying ‘a study says … ’ they should have to provide sourcing and context, or not mention it at all.” Amen.
So yes: Definitely watch the segment if you’re at all interested in or concerned about this stuff. And make sure to stick around all the way through for a look at TODD Talks, a TED Talks spinoff you won’t want to miss.