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!
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.