The media has brought you the news that chocolate is good for a healthy pregnancy, late-night snacking is bad for your brain, and, most importantly, smelling farts could prevent cancer.
But comedian John Oliver says we need to stop believing everything we hear.
“There is a lot of bullshit currently masquerading as science.”
Oliver didn’t pull any punches Sunday as he rattled off the problems that plague popular science on his “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO. There’s a slew of headlines that make claims such as that coffee can simultaneously kill you and lower your risk of a dozen different cancers, Oliver said, and it’s constantly confusing the public.
One of the causes of the problem is overblown results, Oliver said, noting that scientists can feel pressure to churn out positive results in high-profile journals. And when those results do come out, they’re often translated to the public in the form of press releases, which can lead journalists to overhype findings or wrongly convey the science behind them.
“It’s like a game of telephone,” Oliver said. Morning news shows and websites pick up on the press release. And before you know it, a study about alcohol consumption and exercise turns into “Glass of Red Wine Equivalent to Hour of Gym Time.”
More often than not, the scientific studies that make headlines haven’t been replicated. If another scientist picks up an experiment and runs it again, those findings might not hold up. That leads to science being taken as fact, Oliver said, when it’s actually not.
“There is no reward for being the second person to discover something in science,” he said. “There is no Nobel Prize for fact-checking.”
Oliver also took aim at the problem of p-hacking.
“It’s basically collecting lots of variables and then playing with your data until you find something that counts as statistically significant but is probably meaningless.”
P-hacking can make even the most far-fetched of connections seem feasible, as statistics site FiveThirtyEight discovered. There’s even a correlation between drinking iced tea and believing “Crash” didn’t deserve to win the Best Picture Oscar.
“Today” show host Al Roker offers his strategy to making sense of science news in a clip shared on “Last Week Tonight.”
“The way to live your life is you find the study that sounds best to you, and you go with that.”
Oliver’s response? “No, no, no, no, no!”