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.