This story appears in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It might have been Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel, or any of the other sharp-tongued talk show hosts of late-night TV. In this instance, it was Samantha Bee, on her program Full Frontal, doing a stand-up routine about opposition to childhood vaccinations. “The anti-vax movement has been spreading faster than Legionnaires’ disease at the Playboy Mansion,” Bee declared, barely pausing for audience laughter. Claims that these vaccines are harmful rest on shoddy science, she said; the vaccines have been deemed safe by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Who are you going to believe?” she asked. “Leading authorities on medical science, or 800 memes on your cousin’s Facebook page?”
Joking about science can have serious effects, according to studies by communication scholars, us among them. Since 2013, Paul has conducted three studies of how satire can influence people’s beliefs about issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods, and vaccinations. We worked together on two of these studies, and with other colleagues Jessica recently tested whether late-night television can debunk misperceptions of vaccines. Our and others’ research has shown that if you want to interest people in science and shape their views on hot-button science issues, satirical humor can work better than a straitlaced approach.
We completed our research before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, but many of the insights might apply to satire addressing public health issues during the pandemic. And some of the comedians we mention—including John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee—have featured a steady stream of coronavirus-related satire on their programs.
Many Americans pay little attention to science. Even people who regularly watch broadcast television news or cable news channels receive only scraps of science information in their media diet, because mainstream outlets devote so little airtime to the subject. On top of that, some Americans may regard science as intimidating and hard to understand, so they avoid the topic altogether.
Yet satirical humor can reach viewers who would never watch NOVA or read—well, National Geographic. Millions of people watch late-night television programs live, and videos of these shows get tens of millions of views on streaming services or YouTube. In 2016, when Paul, his colleague Barbara Ley, and the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication polled a nationally representative sample of Americans, nearly one in 10 said they learned about science from late-night television shows such as The Late Show and Last Week Tonight. This figure was even higher among young people.
Late-night television programs have mined laughs from science for decades. Even before Carl Sagan became known for the 1980 TV series Cosmos, he was a guest of comedian Johnny Carson, who spoofed the astronomer with an exaggerated pronunciation of “billion” (as in “100 billion galaxies”). Other scientists who’ve appeared on late-night programs include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, and Jane Goodall.
It’s not hard to see why the relationship between satire and science would be symbiotic. Late-night hosts may occasionally poke fun at scientists, portraying them as oddballs working on obscure projects. Much more often, however, the hosts promote a positive image of science. Take Colbert, whose NASA-themed humor led the space agency to name a zero-gravity treadmill after him; or Kimmel, whose show features science demonstrations with exploding pumpkins and flying Ping-Pong balls. By making science entertaining to audience members with little knowledge of the topic, late-night television could be a gateway to science engagement. But if these viewers do tune in to science topics, will their opinions change?
Our first experiment in 2013 tested how watching a clip from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report influenced audience members’ beliefs about climate change. Viewers who saw Jon Stewart say that global warming is real came away more certain that climate change is happening. Colbert’s show had a similar effect, even though some viewers misinterpreted his deadpan humor and mistook the host for a real climate change doubter.
In a 2015 follow-up study, we found that late-night humor can influence how viewers perceive climate science itself. This time, we tested the effects of a Last Week Tonight segment in which host John Oliver and guest Bill Nye hold a “statistically representative climate change debate” to illustrate the scientific consensus on the issue. Their “debate” shows Nye and 96 other scientists drowning out three global warming doubters. Watching this segment swayed study participants to see scientists as believing in human-caused climate change—which, in turn, bolstered participants’ own certainty that global warming is happening. The effect was strongest among those least interested in science.
Other research has revealed the same sorts of effects. A study by Ashley Anderson and Amy Becker found that after watching a satirical video produced by The Onion, formerly apathetic viewers felt more certain that climate change is taking place and is a serious problem. In another study, Chris Skurka, Jeff Niederdeppe, and Robin Nabi showed that a segment from Jimmy Kimmel Live! led audience members to perceive greater risks from climate change.
Late-night hosts have also derided groups that, for example, cite a single discredited study to blame autism on vaccines, or push for teaching creationism in public schools despite the mountain of evidence for evolution. Kimmel has skewered fears about genetically modified foods—which most scientists say are safe to eat—by showing anti-GMO produce shoppers struggle to explain on camera what the acronym means. And on that Full Frontal episode mentioned earlier, a skit depicted fictional high school students mocking anti-vaxxers’ claims (“Wow, you make vaccinations sound so cool; maybe it is bad to get diseases from the Middle Ages”). The 2016 poll that Paul conducted with Barbara Ley found that late-night viewers were more likely than nonviewers to agree with scientists on both GMOs and vaccines, even after accounting for many other factors that also shape science attitudes.
Late-night humor may be particularly effective at debunking scientific misconceptions because it avoids triggering the backlash that traditional science communication efforts can elicit. And late-night humor can spark science engagement as well. A national survey by researchers Lauren Feldman, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Edward Maibach found that watching satirical comedy programs went hand in hand with paying more attention to science stories. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that satirical shows had the biggest impact among the least educated viewers, thereby helping to narrow a gap in attention to science.
Though late-night satirical humor can boost science interest and awareness, it has its limits. Science is complex, and conveying that complexity in a few minutes while cracking jokes can be a challenge.
At its best, late-night satire encourages viewers not only to follow science but also to think critically about it. An episode of Last Week Tonight made that point with a poke at how news outlets cover scientific studies. Host John Oliver warned against “thinking that science is à la carte and if you don’t like one study, don’t worry, another will be along soon.” He ridiculed media coverage of science that oversimplifies and sensationalizes findings, misuses statistics, and cherry-picks results. And he parodied such presentations with his own brand of “TODD talks”—for Trends, Observations, and Dangerous Drivel.
The members of his audience may be laughing, but they seem to be learning as well.
Paul R. Brewer is a professor of communication at the University of Delaware and co-editor in chief of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research. His research focuses on science communication and public opinion. Jessica McKnight is a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University. Her research centers on science and policy issues that often have important impacts on people’s daily lives, such as public health and environmental sustainability.