On Sunday evening (8 May 2016), John Oliver, the English comedian and political satirist, talked about science and how we should embrace it during his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. The upshot is that John Oliver promotes real science – and critical thinking about bad science. And states that vaccines don’t cause autism.
Oliver is one of the best satirists on TV. His attacks on stupidity in politics and culture are classics. He’s been doing his shtick for many years on American TV, being one of featured correspondents for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I always looked forward to his reports, though always funny, they were generally pointed and quite intelligent.
His recent segment on science on his HBO show was a classic. And let’s take a look at how John Oliver promotes real science – and why it’s kind of sad that a comedian has to hit it out of the park.
If you haven’t seen it, here’s the video. It’s well worth the investment of 20 minutes – it’s funny, incisive and caustic. And this reptilian carnivore appreciates that kind of humor. And Oliver’s take on the topic is going to be quite a bit funnier than mine.
Well, he gets paid to be funny. I get Shill Checks™ for making fun of anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists.
John Oliver promotes real science
The best quote in the whole video was this:
There were plenty of good ones, but that was just the best. What he’s describing is confirmation bias, that is the tendency for individuals to favor information or data that support their beliefs. It is also the penchant for people to only seek out information that supports their a priori, or pre-existing, conclusions, and subsequently ignore evidence that might refute that pre-existing conclusion.
More than that, science is not a religion despite the anti-science crowd trying to claim it is. Science is a methodology to logically uncover evidence to support or refute a claim (called a hypothesis). Unsurprisingly, this is called the scientific method.
One of the several points that Oliver was trying to make was that journalists tend to overhype some scientific results. And, more often than not, they misstate what the research actually says, probably as clickbait – they want people to watch their news programs or read their websites.
I see this issue frequently on social media. Despite the total lack of evidence, people still claim that ripe bananas prevent cancer. This trope is based on a complete misinterpretation of a one-off, unrepeated study published in an obscure journal. I don’t want to go into the details (read all about it in the link, if you want), but there is simply no plausibility nor evidence that supports the belief.
The other belief that is prevalent on social media vastly overstates the medical benefits of marijuana. Look, I don’t care if you want to smoke cannabis or not, but inventing medical benefits to justify or rationalize the consumption of the drug just doesn’t pass the basic skeptical examination of the evidence.
There are dozens of claims that “pot cures cancer.” The problem is that most of those claims are based on cell culture or animal studies that rarely translate to clinical success in humans. And even if, eventually, that cell culture study bears fruit in clinical trials, you aren’t going to smoke a joint to cure the disease.
If you read the studies carefully, the amount of cannabis required to kill those breast cancer cells are the equivalent of smoking 1000 joints to raise the blood level enough to have an effect on the cancer cells. And you need to smoke that amount every day. You’d die of CO2 poisoning before you treated the cancer. I guess that does treat the cancer in a meta sense.
In other words, if cannabis treats a cancer (and that’s a big if), a pharmaceutical company is going to purify some active ingredient and then invent a delivery system that safely gets the drug to the cancer site.
The overhype of preliminary scientific studies, whether it’s for cannabis or anything else you might read, ignores some important statistics. Let’s look at some of them in detail:
- Less than 1% of early scientific research in the biomedical sciences ever becomes clinically useful. There are so many failures, it actually adds to the cost of research into new medications.
- A study of hyped medical research shows that around 90% never end up being used clinically.
- Additionally, only around 10-13% of drugs that enter clinical trials ever get approved by the FDA. Not only does this refute the myth that the FDA is in the pocket of Big Pharma, but that the system really does a good job at weeding out the bad science.
What does this mean? Like John Oliver stated in his video, hyped medical studies more often than not end up being worthless. And as I keep saying, the only thing that matters is the quality and quantity of evidence supporting a medical claim.
Of course, if you’re getting your science information from a Facebook meme, I’m not sure you’ll spend the 15 minutes to read this article, because a meme is so much easier.
What is good science?
If you want to be a real scientific skeptic, and not a scientific denier pretending to be a skeptic, then it requires several careful steps to begin accepting a new biomedical claim:
- It has to be plausible. You cannot use special pleading or any other logical fallacy to force the data to fit your beliefs. Homeopathy should be rejected not only because there’s no clinical evidence supporting its efficacy, but also because it is implausible that a simple water molecule can “remember” anything, a key component of the homeopathy belief set.
- The results must be repeated by independent researchers. Unfortunately, Oliver claims that repeating research never wins a Nobel Prize. OK, maybe not, but outstanding research is often repeated, over and over. That’s why primary research (the first study out on a topic) are often deprecated – using the first bit of published research as gospel is neither scientific or very logical. Of course, I’m not sure that people who push these myths care about scientific or logical rigor.
- The hierarchy of biomedical research has, at its pinnacle, meta-reviews based on data from a large number of clinical trials that include a lot of individual data points, that is, a lot of patients.
- Finally, research must be published in high quality, prestigious journals. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to get published in them, but that’s the system. A champion football (either American or soccer) team has to play at the highest level of the sport to be considered true champions. I love sports metaphors.
To make a claim that XYZ cures cancer (and I will continue to rant that there are 250 different cancers, and that one substance curing all 250 is implausible at best) based on a study on some rodents or in vitro cell cultures is ridiculous. Call me when you have a few thousand human patients included in randomized clinical trials that have been rolled up into high powered meta-review published in a high quality journal. A poor quality epidemiological study that uses bad statistics and bad methodologies published in an obscure, disreputable journal should be disregarded.
Again, science is not magic. It is not a religion. It is based on a logical process that is subject to criticism and further analysis. That’s why, at least with biomedical sciences, we wait to hype an idea when we have a boatload of high quality evidence.
And now this…
John Oliver also clearly stated that the scientific consensus states that vaccines do not cause autism, and claims that humans cause global warming.
The evidence that support these two consensuses are massive, both in quantity and quality of data derived from the scientific method.