On last night's episode of his HBO show "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," host John Oliver focused his attention on the prevalence of scientific studies making seemingly groundbreaking claims, and especially on the news media's presentation of those studies' findings to a general audience.
Oliver passionately argued for looking at individual studies in context and for remembering that progress in scientific investigation is a process that often results in "nuanced, tentative findings" rather than definitive, argument-ending fact.
"Even the best-designed studies can get flukish events," Oliver said, emphasizing the necessary but less-sexy replication study, in which scientists look into whether the results of one study will hold true upon further investigation.
Of course, media like the morning shows Oliver takes to task aren't always critical of studies that, upon further examination, seem pretty bogus — and there's always the danger of social media presenting complicated findings with shareable but ultimately reductive #BecauseScience enthusiasm. Oliver also warned against the danger of cherry-picking what to believe from studies that, independent of context, seem to contradict one another. "If we start thinking that science is a la carte, and you don't like one study, don't worry another will be along soon, that is what leads people to think that man-made climate change isn't real or that vaccines cause autism," he said, "both of which the scientific consensus is pretty clear on."
He also made clear that those presenting the results of scientific studies have a responsibility to report not just on the findings, but also on how the studies are conducted. "Just because a study is industry funded or its sample size was small or it was done on mice, doesn't mean it's automatically flawed," said Oliver, "but it is something the media reporting on it should probably tell you about."
"Science is by nature imperfect, but it is hugely important," Oliver said last night. We couldn't agree more.