Last Week Tonight returned on Sunday with an all-new episode. Before launching into the way the media reports scientific studies, host John Oliver and his team began with a recap of last week's events. Unfortunately, this included the news that "sentient circus peanut" Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
In order to put Trump's victory into perspective for American audiences, Oliver discussed the current political state of the Philippines "Earth's Rorschach test". Their election is today (Monday), and their current frontrunner is every bit as terrifying as the thought of a Trump victory. Rodrigo Duterte is known for his off the cuff statements, and strange stunts including kissing female supporters and calling the Pope a "son of a bitch". Reuters has even gone so far as to label him the "Trump of the East", "a title previously held by a burnt wonton and scarecrow pubes". His policies on the death penalty include killing "at least" five criminals per week, and is known for his death squads during his time as mayor just as much as he's known for his less dangerous political stunts.
Oliver discussed how Duterte seems to "test the limits of basic human decency", and highlighted a particularly disgusting comment made at one of his rallies. When discussing a horrific incident that happened in 1989, while he was mayor, a woman was gang raped and murdered. Duterte commented that as mayor, he should have been permitted to go first. Duterte is leading in the polls still, however, and is very likely to win today's election.
The show's main segment dealt with science, or more specifically, scientific studies. Oliver discussed how often studies are discussed on TV or cluttering up your Facebook feed, and demonstrated that some of those don't even really make sense and may even seem to contradict one another. He pointed out that after seeing all these conflicting studies, it has to make you wonder "is science bullshit?" Obviously, it's not, but "there is currently a lot of bullshit masquerading as science", which is where we start to run into trouble. Last Week Tonight opted to take this opportunity to educate viewers as to why this is the case.
Oliver cautioned viewers that "not all scientific studies are created equal", some appear in less than reputable publications, and others may be subjected to some degree of bias due to sources of funding. In addition, the pressure to publish new and interesting results can be overwhelming. Tenure, continued funding, and success depend on being continuously published - and to do so, you need to have results that the public at large wants to read.
To overcome the odds against getting their work published, scientists often engage in a number of practices, consciously or subconsciously, to get eye catching results. Some of these include altering the length of the study, making a "random" sample group too small to produce truly random results, or a practice referred to as "p-hacking".
P-hacking is a complex way scientists can alter the outcomes of their studies. Simply put, it involves collecting a number of variables and then "playing with your data until you find something that counts as statistically significant but is probably meaningless". These studies often result in false correlations, something Oliver demonstrated by referring to how FiveThirtyEight was able to collect a bunch of data and found that there was a connection between such unrelated things as eating cabbage and having an innie belly button, and drinking iced tea and thinking that Crash didn't deserve to win Best Picture.
Even when these practices aren't used, scientists can still come up with fluke results. This is why replication studies are so important. These are studies in which other scientists try to replicate the results of the initial study, in order to confirm or refute the findings. Unfortunately, these studies are not often funded, and happen far less than they should. Scientists, then, understand that one study may not have a lot of significance, but when that information is presented to the public, it can get blown out of proportion.
This can sometimes happen because of a press release put out by a scientific body or agency, summarizing the results for the scientific reader. Since most producers, and quite frankly the public at large, only read headlines, and perhaps the first paragraph, the information contained in the study as a whole gets lost among a sexy headline. This can lead to television and media outlets misreporting the study entirely.
It can also happen when studies are conducted on mice and lab rats, and the reported in the media as though the results can be easily replicated in humans. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those results cannot be duplicated on humans, meaning that these results are entirely misrepresented in the news upon reporting.
Sometimes it's the researches themselves who are at fault. Over-simplifying the studies and the results can sometimes result in misrepresenting the data itself.
Oliver suggested that the media ought to speak about the potential bias or need for skepticism when reporting those scientific studies. Media outlets should provide "sourcing and context" or avoid discussing the study altogether.
If we start thinking that science is a la carte, and if you don't like one study, don't worry another one will be along soon, that is what leads people to think that man-made climate change isn't real, or that vaccines cause autism...Science is by its nature imperfect but it is hugely important and it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip.
You can watch the entire segment on scientific studies, including their "bullshit science" advertisement, below. Last Week Tonight returns next week at 11:00 pm on HBO.
"[Donald Trump] now holds the future of a political party in his tiny racoon paw sized hands".
"Not knowing the amount of people you've killed is a lot like not knowing how many Vicodin you took. If you don't know the exact number, the answer is way too fucking many."
"Let's move on to some lighter news, in North Korea".
"Scientific study shows bears engage in fellatio, and by the way, I'm not interested. Let me know when bears start engaging in some mutually pleasurable 69ing. #BearPleasure #Feminism."
"That's 'p-hacking' with a hyphen, not to be confused with 'phacking', which as I think everyone knows is a euphemism for fucking the Philly Fanatic."
"Incidentally, there's no Nobel Prize for fact checking is the motivational poster that appears in Brian Williams' dressing room."
"You cannot presume that 20 women speak for all women. This is science, not the United States senate".
"There is no way I would be happier giving eight hugs a day. I'm English, that's four lifetimes worth of hugs."
"In science you to get to just cherry pick the parts you were going to do anyway. That's religion; you're thinking of religion."