One Englishman named John knows more about science than all Americans

If that headline sounds like it can’t possibly be true, that’s because it isn’t.  But British comedian John Oliver did recently give Americans a great lesson in bad “science,” during a segment of his show, Last Week Tonight.

Oliver often uses humor to take on serious social issues.  And what could be more serious than the news that smelling farts might prevent cancer?

Lots of things, actually, as it turns out that claim — reported by TIME magazine on July 11, 2014 — is completely unproven.  The actual research supposedly referenced in the article has nothing to do with either farts or cancer.  But that’s Oliver’s very serious point.  Many media reports (and Facebook or Twitter posts) citing attention-grabbing results of scientific studies are at best gross exaggerations or misunderstandings of the findings, and at worst completely untrue.  Not just incredible but uncredible, as Oliver’s segment concludes in a mock TODD Talk (a send-up of TED talks, hilariously highlighting Trends, Observations, and Dangerous Drivel).

While it’s easy to blame media outlets like TIME or TED talks or the TODAY show, Oliver notes that some of the culpability sits in the scientific community, in terms of study design, cherry-picking of results, and the issuing of tantalizing press releases.

Perhaps some of that culpability also sits with all of us — even those of us who think we are healthy skeptics yet who succumb to the tease of the incredible.  When I wrote the headline for this article, I thought hard about how to get you to click on it.  “One Englishman” versus “all Americans” was intentionally provocative, an us-versus-him that is rooted in the truth (although it is not actually true), given that Oliver is from England and the audience of his show is primarily American.  Throwing in the “John” gave just the right amount of specificity, even though the name of the individual would be irrelevant even if the rest of the headline were true.  Moreover, the conceit assumes the segment was Oliver’s work alone, obscuring for dramatic effect all the researchers, writers, producers, and other staff who contributed to the piece.  But the most powerful part of the headline is that even if you read it and thought “that can’t be” but clicked anyway, you may have confirmed your doubts at the cost of pushing the article higher in search-engine ratings.

Which is exactly what I was hoping for — not because I wanted to circulate the false belief that there really is one Englishman named John who knows more about science than all Americans, but because Oliver’s story has important implications for medicine and health care.  As Oliver notes, one problem resulting from the way the public learns about “scientific studies” is that people end up believing things that not only aren’t true, but that are actually harmful.  (The claim that vaccines cause autism is one pressing example.)

But there’s also just the tendency to become so overwhelmed by contradictory health reports (Whole-fat dairy foods are bad for you!  Whole-fat dairy foods are good for you!) that it seems easiest to just give up on “science” entirely.  And that’s dangerous in terms of individual health decisions — and also in terms of how (or even if) we set health policy or fund research.  That one Englishman may not know more about science than all Americans, but all Americans need a better understanding of science, and of how to parse scientific “studies.”

Lois Leveen is the author of the Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser can be reached at her self-titled site, Lois Leveen.

Image credit: Ovidiu Hrubaru / Shutterstock.com

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