John Oliver on Science

Just in time for my blog to start up, one of my favorite comedians, John Oliver, has decided to do a segment about science as presented to us in the media. I think the segment really speaks for itself, but I highlighted some key points below in case you’re interested – and then I offer my take.

1:32 “There are now so many studies being thrown around that they can seem to contradict one another.”

And in science, sometimes studies do contradict one another! Depending on the environmental conditions, experimenter bias, technology that exists at the time, events like speciation that were previously unknown, and other scientific advances,  two studies can get vastly different results. That’s why replicating experiments over and over is so important; it decreases the likelihood that the results achieved are erroneous or biased. This relates to what Oliver says about science being a work in progress – our understanding, our experiments, our techniques are always getting better, collectively, as we continue to make progress!

4:19 “Even the best designed studies can get flukish results and the best safeguard science has against that is the replication study…replication studies are so under-appreciated…so you just have all of these exploratory studies out there that are taken as fact.” and 5:10 “Scientists themselves know not to attach too much significance to particular studies until they’re placed in the much larger context of all the work taking place in that field but too often a small study with nuanced, tentative findings gets blown out of all proportion when it’s presented to us, the lay public.”

If you ever look at the back of a published, credible scientific study, you’ll see a huge list of resources. Scientists know we can’t just accept one study’s word on the matter; there needs to be a considerable amount of work done in an area for us to accept it as ‘a working fact’. I use the term ‘a working fact’ because there are hardly any things in science we accept as 100% definitely true – most things we accept as highly statistically likely.

Even so, science is not glamorous like the news media (and often our books, TV shows, and movies) represent. Science is slow and frustrating; we take baby step after baby step, and all of these steps can take years of small, almost ‘insignificant’ advances before it finally all builds into something bigger. Some of the most glamorous recent advances in biology – for example the CRISPR system –  were discovered the first time completely by accident. It was a baby step that led to a whole new field of really exciting work, still in its infancy almost thirty years later. Can we start presenting this process – the slow, steady, frustrating process of research – to a lay audience so that the time, effort, materials, dedication, philosophy, and background research that goes into each study can be more fully understood?

7:45 “And there’s no doubt some of this is on us, the viewing audience. We like fun, pop-y science that we can share like gossip.”

We need to be demanding accurate science from our media! Who is funding the science? Where is the bias? Sourcing and context or nada! More than that, we need to change how we chose to see and portray science. We need to give funding to replication studies to make sure the exploratory studies are accurate. We need to portray the whole process of science – from the background research to the Eureka! to the replication studies that back up our first ‘Eureka’ claims. We need to try to dig a little deeper into understanding those long, complex titles scientists submit to journals even though it’s not fun or pop-y and often the results seem minuscule.

Not only does science deserve more respect, but we need to respect ourselves, out intelligence, and our society more by putting in this work. We hurt ourselves when we choose not to vaccinate our children (or go around smelling farts all day) because of faulty science; we hurt ourselves when we don’t hold big oil, pharma, fishery, tobacco, etc. companies accountable for their actions because we feel we can’t trust the contradictory nature of science. We hurt ourselves when we are brainwashed into believing we, a lay audience, are not capable of understanding what science brings to the table.

A lot of this boils down to an essential point: look for consensus among several studies and scientists in order to determine the most likely truth in science. We’ll all be better off for it.


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