Even though John Oliver has made a name for himself by looking at topics that aren’t normally covered in the media (or in the various comedy shows that satirize the media), the main segments of his episodes all usually relate in some way to the biggest news stories of the day. This week, though, John’s look at scientific studies and the way that these are reduced and rebranded in the media (especially in morning television shows). This wasn’t a particularly timely story (although we’d wager that some studies will be talked about on The Today Show or Good Morning America this morning), so we wonder if this wasn’t just a placeholder story. That is, we’d guess that the Last Week Tonight research team probably has a few of these kind of general stories on hand in case there isn’t a time-sensitive story to tell that week or in case of unexpected roadblocks in the story that they were preparing. That doesn’t mean that it was of a different quality than the rest of the episodes, just that it didn’t seem to have quite the same immediate relevancy as some of the other topics do.
Anyway, John showed just how dramatically the actual subjects and findings of studies can be manipulated in search of a more attractive headline, a more exciting development, or just something to fill a free 5 minutes of airtime. John pointed out that even if people generally know that statements like “smelling farts might prevent cancer” are absurd, there is a danger to invoking scientific studies all over the place. If scientific studies can be made to say anything, then people start just ignoring all of them, regardless of their individual merits.
In the end, John put forward a new kind of TED Talks, with some help from H. Jon Benjamin and B.D. Wong. TODD Talks (Trends, Observations, and Dangerous Drivel) don’t sound all that different from the way scientific studies are portrayed on morning television, but at least we know they’re being ridiculous.