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Satirists As a Source of Science News

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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How many times have you read a science-themed article from The Onion or watched a science-themed segment on The Daily Show (TDS) or The Colbert Report (CR) and remarked at how “spot on” they are? News satirists have the ability to break rules of typical reporting to reveal the truth about situations, and possibly contribute to a wider consumption of science because the humor of science-themed segments in particular make science accessible and enjoyable.

Take a look at this video story about the Large Hadron Collider from The Onion

or this segment about genetic engineering, with a twist, as only The Onion can do:

Both of those videos entertain using science as the base for the piece, even if the premises are ludicrous. If you are looking for more similar science shenanigans, you can catch up on sci/tech stories from The Onion HERE.

According to communications expert Laura Feldman, one of the contibutors to a book about the new satirist phenomenon, The Stewart / Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News, “… because TDS and CR are unconstrained by traditional journalistic norms and conventions, they are able to speak truths and offer critical perspectives that are often missing from leading print and television news sources.”

For instance, this well watched segment from The Daily Show, “Weathering Fights-Science: What’s It Up To?” highlights the ridiculous assumption that scientists are “grifters” out to make a lot of money:

A colleague of Feldman’s, Paul Brewer, wrote “Science: What’s It Up To?” The Daily Show and the social construction of science” in the International Journal of Communication in January of 2013. (In the same issue one can find a companion piece by Laura Feldman called Cloudy with a Chance of Heat Balls: The Portrayal of Global Warming on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.)

In reference to the above Daily Show segment, Brewer says this:

The Daily Show’s focus in this segment reflects a broader tendency on its part to cover science. In the years since comedian Jon Stewart became the program’s host in 1999, it has run stories on numerous scientific topics, including climate change, evolution, stem cell research, space exploration, cloning, and genetically modified foods. As a result, The Daily Show has, despite its humorous tone, become a leading source of scientific coverage. One study found that it devoted 2.6% of its “news hole” to science and technology–a modest percentage, perhaps, but more than twice the figure for the traditional press. The Daily Show also reaches a sizable audience for a cable television program. For each year from 2006 to 2010, it averaged between 1.5 and 2 million viewers. In April 2012, it averaged 2.2 million viewers ….

Brewer’s and Feldman’s articles go on to compare standard broadcast media’s treatment of climate science and that of The Daily Show

…the traditional U.S. news media have responded to the controversy through balanced coverage. Analyses of coverage in newspapers and broadcast television news reveal a common pattern of stories presenting arguments from both the dominant scientific perspective and climate change skeptics. In constructing balanced coverage, reporters have highlighted scientific uncertainty and relied on climate change skeptics with clear ties to industry to rebut statements reflecting the scientific consensus. Thus, the “institutionalized and professional journalistic practice of balanced reporting has served to amplify a minority view that humans’ role in climate change is debated” by scientists.

For its part, The Daily Show consistently deviates from the practice of balancing in its coverage of global warming, instead presenting the reality of anthropogenic climate change as a settled matter…

It should come as no surprise that John Oliver, a long time Daily Show “correspondent” and now host of his own show on HBO, “Last Week Tonight”, seems to have learned well the ways of standing up for science, as demonstrated in this brilliant segment on climate change:

The Colbert Report, a spin off of the Daily Show has been another go-to source for science, with science books featured prominently in Colbert’s book segment and also pieces like this amusing one about biotechnology:

or this one about the Large Hadron Collider (seems it is quite easy to make fun of):

Of course, with Colbert moving on to take over for David Letterman, it will be interesting to see what happens to the science he supports.

Enjoy the satirical science stories and share them widely. It might be the only accurate science information most will pay attention to!

Joanne Manaster About the Author: Joanne Manaster is a university level cell and molecular biology lecturer with an insatiable passion for science outreach to all ages. Enjoy her quirky videos at www.joannelovesscience.com, on twitter @sciencegoddess and on her Facebook page at JoanneLovesScience Follow on Twitter @sciencegoddess.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bumluck 8:46 pm 08/29/2014

    Sadly, these shows are one of the few places to go for real news of any kind.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jeanannep 4:30 pm 09/12/2014

    Thanks for your article and for the video of John Oliver on Climate Change reporting. Will share it!!

    Link to this

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