John Oliver trashes bad science and worse media coverage of it

The show featured a parody of a TED talk, in which a speaker concluded that coffee cures cancer. But the non-scientist was wearing a lab coat, so clearly he had credibility.

2015 Summer TCA Tour - 31st Annual Television Critics Association Awards

Comedian John Oliver has done it again.

His hour-long, commercial-free “Last Week Tonight” on HBO gives him the flexibility to present long-form pieces (and curse to his heart’s content), and that’s just what he did Sunday in a 19-minute segment on misleading scientific studies.

“There is a lot of bullshit currently masquerading as science,” Oliver said. The news coverage of such studies may even be worse.

“A new study showing that drinking a glass of red wine is just as good as spending an hour at the gym,” proclaimed one TV news teaser he showed. “That last one doesn’t even sound like science. It’s more like something your sassy aunt would wear on a t-shirt,” Oliver quipped.

He then discussed a much-publicized recent story. “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer,” is how a Time headline put it. “It turns out the study never mentioned either of those,” Oliver said.

The public takes cues from such bending of reality. “In science, you don’t just get to cherry-pick the parts that justify what you were going to do anyway. That’s religion. You’re thinking of religion,” the biting comedian said.

Oliver also talked about “P-hacking” — sometimes called data dredging or data fishing — the practice of manipulating data to find something that counts as statistically significant but probably has no real correlation to the conclusion.

Even TED talks have been filled with bad science. Oliver boiled one case down to this: “When a strange man calling himself Dr. Love offers to hug you eight times a day, say no.”

The show featured a parody of TED, in which a speaker concluded that coffee cures cancer. But the non-scientist was wearing a lab coat, so clearly he had credibility.

Watch the entire segment below:

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Topics