HBO’s John Oliver has joined the ranks of Daily Show alumni who have gone on to absolutely delight in their own subsequent endeavors (see also Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, John Hodgman, etc.). Oliver’s show, Last Week Tonight, takes the Daily Show’s format and extends it more into longform analysis, rather than the quick hits scored by Jon Stewart and company.
Last May, Oliver had a perceptive (and funny) piece about the way the media covers controversial science, and I’ve been wanting to post it here for a while. But a recent Scholarly Kitchen post by Phil Davis has made me rethink my initial enthusiasm for Oliver’s approach.
Oliver’s segment is below, and it gets to the confounding nature of news media which requires everything to be “fair and balanced”. When any statement is made, no matter how factual, there seems a requirement to present someone with the opposing viewpoint. Which brings us to climate change, and a recent poll showing that 25% of Americans are skeptical about it. As Oliver states,
You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking which number is bigger, 15 or 5? Or do owls exist?
As he points out though, every news media outlet presents established fact as something open to debate, requiring one pro- commenter and one anti-. This is non-representative, given that the vast majority of the scientific community falls on one side of the supposed debate. Oliver’s response is to show the numbers more accurately:
It’s a funny bit and it gets to the real point about how flawed our media currently presents facts. If someone claims the earth is round, a flat earth representative must be included to represent the opposition, an author writing about the Holocaust must be accompanied by a neo-Nazi denying the whole thing ever happened.
I was really happy with Oliver’s piece until last week, when Phil Davis did yet another masterful analysis of a shoddy piece of research regarding the question of how citation relates to access for scholarly articles. If one looks at the raw numbers of studies done asking about the effects of open access on citation, the results are overwhelming: dozens of studies suggest a citation advantage, while only one (at least to my knowledge) shows that no such advantage exists.
So, using Oliver’s criterion, the question is answered. But the raw numbers don’t tell the real story in this case. One must look at the actual research itself, separate out the observational studies which suggest a correlation from the one study that performed the actual experiment and included the proper controls. The single experiment shows that the observational studies are showing correlation and not causation. But if you just tallied up the raw numbers…
So while Oliver is right in his skewering of the media, it’s hard to endorse a “majority rules” approach to deciding which science is right. Science sometimes works by having groundbreaking papers that overturn decades worth of dogma and well established beliefs. Quality matters more than quantity and while there’s an infinite number of incorrect theories, there’s only one right answer.
Perhaps a better approach is to try to separate facts from opinions, and not require an opposing viewpoint for the former, rather than trying to take a headcount on every issue.
*Please note that the comments below will be heavily moderated. We don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of climate change debate (there are plenty of outlets on the internet for that) and prefer to stick with the relevant subject here, how the media presents science to the public and how we make judgements about what’s right. Off topic comments will not be posted.