Science is a lot of things — necessary to sustaining mankind, endlessly fascinating — but rarely is it sexy. One problem science faces these days is companies that stand to make a lot of money from advertisers in television, print and news media aren’t satisfied with delivering the clear, stale facts. They have to reach as wide an audience as possible and, to do that, those facts are going to need an air-brushed tan and Victoria’s Secret Angel hair.
On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver focused his segment on so-called scientific studies, the confusing and contradictory ones we read and hear about daily, the ones that tell us coffee is the devil and then flick a switch and decide it can prevent all forms of cancer. We read snippets of studies we like, ones that justify a behavior or lifestyle choice we already engage in, and then, in seconds, share them with 300 of our closest Facebook friends. As Oliver argued, this kind of half-arsed scientific engagement ultimately keeps us in the dark and prevents science — real science — from getting the attention and funding it needs and desperately deserves.
“After a certain posting all of that ridiculous information can make you wonder: is science bullshit?” Oliver said. It’s not that all forms of media are actively trying to deceive viewers by feeding them false scientific facts. But there’s a good chance the info we are digesting comes from a four-paragraph press release sent to that TV station about the study. And, if you take things back even further, there are certain important facts about the study itself that most media outlets either aren’t privy to or aren’t sharing.
Oliver discussed “p-hacking”, which is the act of collecting variables and playing with data in order to come up with “statistically significant” results that are often useless. He also reminds us that many studies use just a handful of subjects and spin the facts to make it sound like the outcome would happen to most people. And then there’s the matter of who is funding these studies and whether they have anything to gain from a result — if a big-name company is footing the bill, alarm bells should ring inside our heads.
And remember how you were always instructed by your biology teacher to check your results — two, three, 10 times? Well, apparently, actual scientists, who would probably love nothing more than to be able to test the same results until they can sleep at night knowing they’re pretty darn accurate, aren’t often given the opportunity to do so.
“Replication studies are rarely funded and never get published,” one expert on the show said. “There’s simply no reward for being the first person to discover something in science,” Oliver said, and for those reasons, scientists know not to put so much stock in one scientific study.
But most of us watching The Today Show aren’t scientists. We may be skeptical after hearing, countless times, how one food can destroy us before “science” decides it may actually prolong our lives, but if a study claims chocolate can give you a healthier pregnancy, who isn’t going to at least give that a listen? Maybe Al Roker was right: “I think the way to live your life is, you find the study that sounds best to you, and go with it.”
Oliver shouts “No!” from the rooftops and most of us know in our hearts that isn’t the way we should regard science. He calls that sentiment “dangerous” and points out that thinking science is á la carte is what leads to people believing vaccines cause autism or climate change isn’t really happening.
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So, what’s the solution? How can we convince news outlets and ourselves that science doesn’t have to be a sexy, drama-filled television series on Bravo? It’s quite simple, as Oliver explained: if the words “scientific study” are used, readers and viewers should also be told the source of the study and pertinent information they need to know about it so they can look it up and read it in its entirety and then make an informed decision about whether they feel it could be accurate.
Be honest, clear and upfront, and if you find there isn’t enough solid information in a study to link it to an absolute conclusion, maybe hold on to it a little longer until a better study is released.
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