How Satire Challenges Misconceptions about Science

How Satire Challenges Misconceptions about Science

In the June issue of National Geographic there is an article by  Paul Brewer and Jessica McKnight entitled, “To challenge misguided beliefs about science, try satire”.  In it they show from various studies how the use of satire can change people’s minds about controversial scientific issues.  They say:

Since 2013, Paul has conducted three studies of how satire can influence people’s beliefs about issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods, and vaccinations. We worked together on two of these studies, and with other colleagues Jessica recently tested whether late-night television can debunk misperceptions of vaccines. Our and others’ research has shown that if you want to interest people in science and shape their views on hot-button science issues, satirical humor can work better than a straitlaced approach.

As our favorite science officer might say, “Fascinating”.  The article notes that most Americans pay little attention to scientific issues and the media they usually consume is a veritable desert of actual scientific information.  Yet Brewer and McKnight note that satirical humor can reach viewers who would never watch NOVA or read—well, National Geographic.  Shows like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”, Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show”, Noah Trevor’s “The Daily Show”, and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” are quite popular and well-watched (especially by younger people).  The article notes in 2016, when Brewer, his colleague Barbara Ley, and the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication polled a nationally representative sample of Americans, nearly one in 10 said they learned about science from late-night television shows and this figure was even higher among young people.

It’s not hard to see why this relationship between science and satire should exist.  By making science entertaining to audience members with little knowledge of the topic, satirical television is acting as a gateway to science engagement.  But does it effectively change minds?  Brewer and McKnight cite a number of studies that purport to demonstrate just that.  In 2013 they tested how watching a clip from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report influenced audience members’ beliefs about climate change. Viewers who saw Jon Stewart say that global warming is real came away more certain that climate change is happening.

In a 2015 follow-up study, they found that late-night humor can influence how viewers perceive climate science itself. They tested the effects of a Last Week Tonight segment in which host John Oliver and guest Bill Nye hold a “statistically representative climate change debate” to illustrate the scientific consensus on the issue. Their “debate” shows Nye and 96 other scientists drowning out three global warming doubters. Watching this segment swayed study participants to see scientists as believing in human-caused climate change—which, in turn, bolstered participants’ own certainty that global warming is happening. The effect was strongest among those least interested in science.

They note other research has revealed the same sorts of effects.  A study by Ashley Anderson and Amy Becker found that after watching a satirical video produced by The Onion, formerly apathetic viewers felt more certain that climate change is taking place and is a serious problem.  Late-night TV hosts have also derided groups that, for example, cite a single discredited study to blame autism on vaccines, or push for teaching creationism in public schools despite the mountain of evidence for evolution.  They theorize that humor may be more effective at debunking scientific nonsense because it doesn’t elicit the backlash that traditional science communication efforts seem to produce.  The article says:

And late-night humor can spark science engagement as well. A national survey by researchers Lauren Feldman, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Edward Maibach found that watching satirical comedy programs went hand in hand with paying more attention to science stories. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that satirical shows had the biggest impact among the least educated viewers, thereby helping to narrow a gap in attention to science.

I can bring my own personal testimony to this article.  My involvement as a participant in evangelicalism brought the belief in “pre-tribulation rapture” and the attendant belief in “Seven-year tribulation” and other such interpretations of Revelation made popular by Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, Tim Lahaye, and others.  I had read counter theology from preterists and others, but reading the series of satirical takedowns of the Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins’ “Left Behind” books by Fred Clark on his Slacktivist blog completely convinced me of the utter impossibility that the scenario Left Behind described could in any way be true or a true interpretation of the scriptures.  Through his satire, Clark completely demolished the pre-trib theology more thoroughly than any straight-forward theological tome possibly could.  And it was funny, too!

The article concludes:

At its best, late-night satire encourages viewers not only to follow science but also to think critically about it. An episode of Last Week Tonight made that point with a poke at how news outlets cover scientific studies. Host John Oliver warned against “thinking that science is à la carte and if you don’t like one study, don’t worry, another will be along soon.” He ridiculed media coverage of science that oversimplifies and sensationalizes findings, misuses statistics, and cherry-picks results. And he parodied such presentations with his own brand of “TODD talks”—for Trends, Observations, and Dangerous Drivel.  The members of his audience may be laughing, but they seem to be learning as well.

64 thoughts on “How Satire Challenges Misconceptions about Science

  1. yes, I can see your meaning now and I agree that among those with certain agendas, both science and faith become ‘useful’ when ‘weaponized’, or as ‘targets’ of contempt;
    and I think this is a sad situation when innocent people are made to suffer because of these agendas

    Thank you for your kind thoughts . . . grieving is a ‘process’, a journey, and I appreciate your good wishes very much – God Bless!


  2. “obvious one sided political propaganda with the veneer of edgy humor, preaching to the Nextflix crowd.”

    The “netflix crowd”? Who is that? Are they some kind of unified one side crowd?


  3. There is a lot of chaff among scientists, sure. Still a lot better than when others opines about science and scientific findings – that is guaranteed to be all chaff.


  4. Yeah, I also know a lot of Christians who are also scientists, with PHDs & years of work & research in their field. I would count your friend one of them.

    I was pointing much more to the misconception of science held by a certain kind of culture warrior,which pits science & faith against each other.

    Wishing you continuing peace even in grief.


  5. And I thought the “Starsky and Hutch” and “21 Jump Street” parody films were not funny at all. But then, I never liked either of the original shows.


  6. thank you, Rick Ro.

    I feel that my husband is still ‘with’ me in some way, and that is very comforting . . . . I hope it lasts, this feeling

    am I in denial? I hope not. More than likely, after so long a marriage, my dear husband is now become a part of my soul and I sense he stays near and I do count on the Scripture: ‘and the sea shall give up the dead that were in it’

    I do have my moments, sure. But then, ‘peace’, which is also a great comfort and which I attribute to ‘the peace of Christ’ . . . I wrote something on another blog in response to the prayers of some blogging friends and I can share it here, together with a Scottish lament that helps me with the thought of my husband being ‘buried at sea’ by the Navy, as was his wish, this:

    “Christiane said…
    thank you WADE, LISSA, and REX RAY, so much, so much

    Blessings to you all.

    I have a journey ahead and your prayers are helping to give me strength.
    Please, hold your dear ones close. You are all so kind.
    Peace of Christ, give us shelter

    ‘On the tall, slender, new masts
    Lord, that is my darling there on top
    I can still see my love,
    Walking on deck under sail

    Blow softly, gently, oh North Wind’ ”

    thanks again for your concern, Rick Ro. God Bless !


  7. I don’t know. I didn’t say you couldn’t reason someone out of a bad idea. I said you couldn’t reason them out of something they didn’t reason themselves into. If they were led by emotional reaction, reasoning against that deeply felt emotion is difficult to make happen. The intuition sees it as an attack on what is held dear, as true and right, and fed by the tribe or the fear of losing place in the tribe. The amygdala is lighting up like a strobe. Reason And prefrontal cortex can only take over once that calms to a quiet level. I see it in our foster kids all the time. You got to meet those basic needs to calm that reptile part of our brains before the elephant rider can steer that elephant where he thinks it needs to go. That doesn’t happen overnight with a well-crafted argument that says aha, see, I’m right and you’re wrong.That comes with calm, met needs, safe space (not the kind we were arguing about a few months ago! Must be some big deal going on to pull us away from that!) and relationship. Chap
    Mike said something in a post sometime ago to the effect that we make terrible decisions out of fear. Same thing I’m saying. Much too verbosely.


  8. How are you holding up, Christiane? Praying God’s peace and comfort upon you this evening.


  9. That’s OK.
    I’ve never understood how Seinfeld and that “Borak” guy were supposed to be funny.


  10. Art can be put to good and bad uses. Leni Riefenstahl used art to the utmost in the production of extremely effective propaganda films of the Nazi rallies.

    Ol’ Adolf really knew how to work an audience and whip his Base into a frenzy.
    And Triumph of the Will is one of the most effective “informercials” of all time.

    Some time ago on YouTube, one channel that does a lot of WW2 history had a compilation of the few surviving audios of AH’s everyday “normal” speaking voice. VERY different from his public-speaking voice. Sounded very ordinary and normal:


  11. My second problem with your comment is what is the alternative to listen to experts? Listen to non-experts? Listen to people who have no training and no experience?

    Listen to CELEBRITIES both Temporal and Spiritual?
    Open your Bible and hammer the verses into the proper shape?
    Listen to the Bible Code?


  12. Have you seen the actual US Space Force flag?
    Only seen a thumbnail, but it looked like it was designed by a Trekkie!
    (Doooo deee, doo doo doo doo dooooooo…)


  13. Don’t forget Ego-Boo as a benefit.

    But as for financial benefit, “alternative medicine” that sounds like either woo-woo or a duck.


  14. In a way, this is a variant of Teaching by Parable.
    A narrative (especially a snarky or funny one) is much better at getting a point across than a dull lecture of Axiom Axiom Axiom Fact Fact Fact.


  15. I can only assume that someone at the top exerted political pressure to omit that guideline from the official CDC policy, as they were anxious to pander to churches by calling them essential services, and getting them open and back to “normal” ASAP.

    Pandering to the Base.
    Like Monday’s big photo op holding up a Bible in front of St John’s Cathedral.
    Christians are the easiest ot Easy Marks.


  16. Yes. And with evangelicals, science tends to become, “I’m okay with it, until it tells me something I don’t want to do!”


  17. “Projections (predictions) into the future is tricky no matter how accomplished a scientist is.” Geo Mike

    As for the “scientists” beware; it’s truly hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    And again, beware the experts.

    [I kinda like the Magic 8 ball myself.]


  18. My brother is a ‘scientist’, if you call a physician for over forty years with a background in biochemistry research in the area of blood chemistry;
    and he also co-teaches Methodist Sunday School (adult class). He is a kind person and has a great faith in God, so I am not seeing in him such a great ‘distancing’ of a learned scientist from a person of faith, no. If anything, he has said his profession has witnessed to him of God. He approaches retirement with dread as he IS in himself a physician who loves his work and identifies with it deeply, as he is a believer that the life of a human person IS in the Hand of God, and this has informed the way he approaches his work with reverence for the Giver of Life and with respect for the lives of those in his care as patients.

    I’m not seeing the ‘contempt’ for science among certain Americans as anything other than the result of propaganda that has permitted corporations to pollute and destroy the natural world in pursuit of profit. The profiteers have done a good job of belittling those who would preserve air quality and water quality and protect the food supply from contamination, sure; but they have NOT succeeded in corrupting everyone, no.
    So when it comes down to ‘WHO MAKES A BUCK’ from the destruction of nature, don’t blame people who need work and want jobs; blame those who OWN the corporations and bribe the politicians and are not held accountable for the oil leaks, the threats to the great Ogallala Aquifer water reserve that lies beneath eight states from the Dakotas to Texas, from Wyoming to Nebraska, from Colorado to Kansas, from eastern New Mexico to western Oklahoma, ’cause when that great aquifer that lies so deep in the heart of our nation is poisoned, what will become of the heartland we love? On and on we can look at how greed of the powerful has valued ‘the bottom line’ over the lives and futures of our people, and sold a bill of goods to the ‘faithful’ who support unwholesome policies with consequences that lead to lung illnesses and rashes and a lower quality of life for those who cannot afford to escape the bad water quality, the fetid polluted air, the extreme weather of the new climate situation and a fear of the very medicines that have kept our children safe from horrific diseases since physicians have had access to them. . . .

    a rant? or maybe an expression of a truth that behind all those who say ‘look away, nothing to see here, keep quiet, don’t speak out’, are those who stand to profit from the misery they have foisted on their willing victims who ‘trust’ that ‘science’ is the problem. . . . . and the satirical? well, it’s the over-simplification of ‘you can’t’ fix stupid’ and a laugh at the ‘crazy’ that bows before the toffs and the wealthy paid off from the profits of a destroyed future for everyone’s children. . . . . not a pretty rant, nope, but there it is


  19. I think Haidt is right but your final conclusion doesn’t follow. Intelligent people are better at rationalizing their dang fool notions than unintelligent ones for sure. But that doesn’t mean reason is impotent. I reasoned myself out of my youthful fundamentalism. Education does work. .Few people are swayed by reason because few people are trained to reason. I was lucky. I had good teachers.


  20. I would recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Some of you may disagree with his premise, but he says human reasoning evolved to support the decisions of the intuition. we reason to support our gut reaction. our gut reactions are tuned to keep from being mocked or shamed or shunned by our group, our tribe. we react against mockery and shame from outside our tribe, to maintain solidarity WITH our tribe. reason is a rider on an elephant of intuition. if the elephant reacts and runs away or toward something, the rider is along for the ride, justifying to himself why the elephant went that way. when the elephant is calm, the rider can nudge him where he should go. so it’s no surprise that satire moves people more effectively. very few people are swayed by reason. plus you cant reason someone out of a notion he didn’t reason himself into.


  21. I think there’s quite a big difference between what scientists think of science as being, & what Evangelicals think of science as being. It’s presented as a clashing worldview making metaphysical truth claims, rather than an ongoing mode of looking for truth of how various physical phenomena do, or may in future, work, such as this virus in a population.


  22. –> “The Great Dictator by Chaplin again, Catch 22 and Dr. Stranglove and many others that were well done and not heavy handed…”

    I’m pretty sure those movies were viewed as heavy-handed by those who the movies were making fun of!


  23. Does satire actually change someone’s mind? Doesn’t most satire work because it fits with what we already believe? For instance, I know several people who post Babylon Bee articles when the satirical skewering fits with their own political/religious belief system, but when faced with a DIFFERENT Babylon Bee article that skewers THEIR political/religious belief system, they get all offended.

    By the way, I’m pretty sure satire only works with certain minds and/or intelligences. I know some people who don’t understand satire even when it hits them upside the head. In another for instance, I went to see “This Is Spinal Tap” way back on its opening night, and half the audience was comprised of rockers thinking they were seeing an actual concert film while the other half kind of knew a little what to expect. It was interesting witness half the crowd laughing almost every 10-20 seconds while the other half sat stone-faced.

    I also have several friends who openly admit, “I just don’t get what’s so funny” when watching something satirical.


  24. I would suppose that if satire properly used could change people’s minds to be more accepting of scientific facts then satire could also, when improperly used, could sway people’s minds towards anti-scientific “alternate facts.”


  25. Yes.

    And besides that, dealing with this virus is on-the-job training for all the experts, because nobody knows how it’s going to behave. You can’t predict what you haven’t yet experienced. Even comparing with other viruses, statistics are only numbers and cannot truly “predict”.



  26. Art can be put to good and bad uses. Leni Riefenstahl used art to the utmost in the production of extremely effective propaganda films of the Nazi rallies. Satire is no different : it can help us to see the reasonableness of science, or it can support antiscience positions, such as the anti-vaccination movement.


  27. Many people seem to expect science to perform instantaneous miracles, even though science is not in that business. When it doesn’t perform those miracles, the same people can’t seem to wait to point out that science hasn’t delivered, even though science never promised to make that overnight delivery.


  28. That’s true, about the federal-level official seeming to have been muzzled recently. In fact, the CDC is no longer saying that choral/congregational singing should not occur in churches until a vaccine is developed, even though according to the consensus of experts it is an especially crucial guideline now that churches in many places are on the cusp of reopening, and singing together is a way of super-spreading the virus. I can only assume that someone at the top exerted political pressure to omit that guideline from the official CDC policy, as they were anxious to pander to churches by calling them essential services, and getting them open and back to “normal” ASAP.


  29. Seneca, you’ve given yet another example of how people misunderstand “science”

    Of course, along the way scientific statements and projections are going to be seen later as “wrong”! That’s because science is a PROCESS — say it again, a PROCESS of learning. The vast majority of experiments and preliminary results will be failures and incomplete. They may represent chasing any one of a thousand dead ends or they may provide only a limited perspective on the full story.

    Please stop using the word “science” as though we’re talking about a settled body of TRUTH.


  30. One thing some people do not appreciate is the “bandwidth” of the Civic pipe. It is extremely difficult for a ‘society’ to discuss more than one thing at a time. Sometimes, while issues remain vitally important, one steps back, because “what’s the point?”, if you are not going to be heard.

    Does that erode credibility? Probably, somewhat. But the only real solution to that is: have fewer calamities.


  31. I’ve seen a few too, but not many given the seriousness of the threat of disease spread from the unrest. It may not be the experts fault; it may be the media neglecting to offer them much platform while the unrest is happening, since the optics of unrest are occupying so much of that platform.


  32. Umm… just searching for “protests spreading coronavirus” on Google News brought up numerous articles on sites like CNN, CBS, NBC, etc. quoting numerous governors, mayors, and public health officials warning people about the risk of the protests spreading the virus. That includes direct quotes from de Blasio, Cuomo, Tim Walz (governor of MN), Keisha Lance Bottoms (mayor of Atlanta), Larry Hogan (governor of MD), Muriel Bowser (mayor of Washington, DC), etc. There are also quotes from at least a dozen public health experts at universities, hospitals, and state-level government. SO progressives are not being silent about the risks.

    I couldn’t find any federal-level public health officials speaking out, but that may just be because they’re essentially under a gag order – how often has Fauci been allowed to speak publicly about *anything* in the past few weeks?


  33. Thanks for that link. Love me some Malcolm Gladwell and I’ll be interested to see what he has to say!


  34. Anonymous, check out Robert F. comments at 717 am. The Space Force movie is not good, subtle, clever or even well done satire/humor. It is more of a political and policy statement designed to convey a political thought than promote thinking though clever writing . Compared Space Force to real satire movies such as Modern Times by Chaplin Network, the movie , The Great Dictator by Chaplin again, Catch 22 and Dr. Stranglove and many others that were well done and not heavy handed , obvious one sided political propaganda with the veneer of edgy humor, preaching to the Nextflix crowd. It is the kind of heavy handed, poorly done , lowest common denominator work that is becoming common and expected.


  35. I’ll tell you one of the sins of omission I’ve seen over the last week on the part of public health experts. They have not had much to say about how the current unrest in our cities is definitely going to cause much spread of coronavirus. Even though I”m a progressive myself, and support the message and goals of political street activists protesting police brutality, which I believe is widespread, I can’t help but get the impression that the experts are pulling back from being too loud about how this is going to spread coronavirus because of fear. That hesitation puts a significant dent in their credibility with large sections of the population, and will result in less compliance with their recommendations in the future when more outbreaks occur.


  36. Robert F. I think you are right on in your observation. I just came across this as I was looking for other info and it shows the power of media to influence. I think most Americans attribute the Fey quote to Palin.


  37. I have two problems with your comment. 1) people who have expertise (based on University credentials and real-life experience) are called on to make projections so governmental authorities can plan on actions they may have to take. Projections (predictions) into the future is tricky no matter how accomplished a scientist is. It is usually based on mapping what is known and then extrapolating that trend forward in time. There is no other way to make a projection. Everybody does this all the time. You say, “If i keep doing what I’m doing and nothing else changes, then I can guess what is going to happen.” The problem is that the ground conditions do change, in ways that are impossible to foresee, and your prediction turns out wrong. I sympathize with the Governor’s frustration but it can’t be helped. Should he not call for projections?

    My second problem with your comment is what is the alternative to listen to experts? Listen to non-experts? Listen to people who have no training and no experience? Your reply will no doubt be to listen with a healthy skepticism. Well fine, I agree. But when you come down to it — there is no reasonable alternative to listening to people who have a long history of studying and working with some issue i.e. experts.


  38. Geo Mike; your May 21st column was entitled “the Death of Expertise” where I-monkers seemed to unanimously mourn that our current leaders do not listen to the experts. If they did, all would be much better.

    Well Andrew Cuomo has chimed in.

    By Eric Felten, RealClearInvestigations
    June 4, 2020
    COVID-19 has proved to be a crisis not only for public health but for public policy. As credentialed experts, media commentators, and elected officials have insisted that ordinary men and women heed “the science,” the statistical models cited by scientists to predict the spread of contagion and justify the lockdown of the national economy have proven to be far off-base.

    Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York complained this week about the “guessing business” experts had presented to him dressed up as scientific fact: “All the early national experts [said]: Here’s my projection model. Here’s my projection model,” Cuomo said. “They were all wrong. They were all wrong.”

    Sadly this isn’t satire


  39. Last Week Tonight is seriously one of the most educational shows on TV right now. I’m always amazed when they pick some topic that seems completely esoteric, and then provide a clear and concise explanation of why it should matter to us.

    On the other hand, John Oliver is so hard on some of the sacred cows of conservatism that I suspect only the younger and more liberal crowd is regularly watching the show. So, it’s not necessarily helping the country as a whole to gain scientific knowledge.


  40. They “came away more certain” of climate change; that doesn’t mean they changed their minds about its existence.


  41. > But did it motivate them to follow up and actually

    That isn’t a “but”, that is an entirely separate question. A question which is extremely difficult to measure.

    Also if you knew how to term assent-into-action you’d be a Billionaire. 🙂 Nobody knows how to do that.

    Yet ‘mere’ assent does matter. When assent reaches some critical mass (nobody knows what that is) it squelches the alternatives, and then systems do change.


  42. Viewers who saw Jon Stewart say that global warming is real came away more certain that climate change is happening.

    But did it motivate them to follow up and actually do something about climate change in their own live, or support policies that do something about it? Did it change their behavior?


  43. Twitter and other social media are full of satire from the other political side, anonymous, some of it funny and not altogether untrue. But highlighting the foibles of the other side in an acutely perceptive and funny way– and using a bit of truth to do it — is what the best, most effective propaganda does.


  44. Well, I don’t watch TV so I won’t see this program, but if I did I’m sure it would make me laugh and I would agree with many of the of the political points it pokes at, or jab at. But, like the political satire skits on Saturday Night Live — some of which I have seen on Youtube — which I do find funny and on target, it would be preaching to the choir. And I believe that’s what a lot of satirical humor does — preach to the choir. Neither this show you’re talking about, nor the SNL skits, nor a whole host of other examples of satire, is likely to make anyone “see the light” or change their minds


  45. I tend to agree with you here. Satire has to be used very carefully to defuse misunderstanding and misinformation. When it veers over into ridicule — which it easily and often does, the two often appearing side by side as if they were the same — it can have the opposite effect, making people feel like the butt of its jokes and making them defensive and reactive. And satire mixed with ridicule can just as easily be used to support disinformation and bad thinking as to deflate it. Tread carefully when deploying satire, especially be careful to make sure what you’re doing is not really just ridicule, otherwise you may end up feeding the monster you meant to cure.


  46. speaking of ‘satire’ and its uses, there’s a new NETFLIX about ‘space force’ and satirical it IS . . . . right down to POTUS ordering the new Space Force commandant to turn over US tech secrets to ‘Bobby’, aka a Russian ‘pal’ of Putin’s, that POTUS wants to be on the good side of

    it’s ‘funny’ until you realize there’s more ‘truth’ to what is being presented as a joke than what is tolerable, so it is maddening to watch after the first portion . . . . gets progressively ‘funnier’ (worse) as it goes along

    enjoy, if you love Russia

    or if not, check it out for a lesson in ‘satire’ where a political hot potato is made fun of without anyone realizing it who should know better (yes, him) 🙂


  47. This is a subject that needs to be addressed and this is a good start. My concern is that due to the shrinking attention span and the lack of intellectual curiosity by so many Americans, good , well timed humor can substitute for fact and limit personal research into a subject. Good comedy always has a base in truth but much of it involves about a punchline and a interpretation and presentation of the facts to get a laugh. The job of a comedian is not to present facts but to get laughs. Bill Maher at one time went into a anti vaccine stance and you know he has great influence. Our internet culture with all its influencers and hidden agenda has made it easy to get knowledge , that is great but it also makes us lazy to make our own minds up based on more that a comedy sound bite or SNL skit. I appreciate bringing up the subject as it pertains not only to science but all of our important issues as we try to make valid decisions.


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