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John Oliver’s right on science – until he’s really wrong!

John Oliver is a British comedian with the immensely popular show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO and usually available to watch on YouTube. Each week he gets down to the facts behind many diverse subjects that effect Americans. On May 8, 2016, he attacked science in the media and the famous mantra parroted by many TV presenters and newspaper journalists alike, i.e.: “Studies show…”

Just Question It watched with interest, given this issue is the heart of this blog. He started off great, pointing out the usual problems with many of these studies – the way studies continuously contradict each other such, the appearance of articles in less than legitimate journals, scientists feeling pressured to publish results – and new and striking results at that, small sample sizes, studies done on animals and not humans, no control groups, conflict of interest and “P-hacking” which he distils down to collecting lots of data and playing with the variables until you find something that is slightly anomalous and therefore ‘statistically significant’ – but probably meaningless.

So far so good. Really good. He even populates it with lots of funny examples.

It began to get interesting at the 4 minute 20 second, mark where he began talking about the gold standard of science was for studies to be reproducible. Unfortunately, in most scientific studies, no one independently ever attempts to reproduce the results (as he puts it, there are no prizes for being the second person to discover something…), or if they do, they rarely manage to succeed in getting the same results as the same study.

Given John Oliver’s already very unconvincingly done a spiel on climate change and man’s “terrible” influence on it, I was really curious where this was going to go. And he didn’t disappoint…

At the 5 minute and 20 second mark, he begins to talk about how a small study with a nuanced finding will get blown out of proportion. So far so good…No arguments there… He then goes onto give an example of chocolate and pregnancy and how the news release, which was a thoroughly sensationalised piece of nonsense summarising some fairly ho hum scientific results, and then blown out of proportion by the media. Ok. This is exactly what has gone on with the IPCC – with the IPCC Summary of Policy Makers usually being significantly more sensationalised than the actual IPCC Assessment Reports themselves. (Worse… because the IPCC has released so many versions now, people seem to only remember the results of the one they like the best, not the more later, considerably toned down IPCC comments).

Then there was some more stuff which all builds to the climax at then round the 15 minute mark he starts to really get into the dangers of people cherry-picking the science they want to hear and then at the 15 minute 16 second mark, he says it is dangerous to pick the scientific studies that you want because “that’s what allows people to believe man-made climate change isn’t real or that vaccines cause autism”

To paraphrase John Oliver when he is in dismay at his own shows results, this is where Just Question It began going, “NO! NO!’ NO! NoNoNoNO!”

He can’t say that – did he not before say scientific studies have to be reproducible? You cannot, cannot, cannot say ‘man-made climate change isn’t real” in the same sentence that you mention vaccines causing autism!

And if that wasn’t enough, he then goes on to say the very thing that means you ABSOLUTELY cannot say the above – he talks about these two topics being something  ‘scientific consensus are pretty clear on.

Again, NO! NO! No!!!!!!!

Let’s be crystal clear here – NO ONE has ever been able to reproduce the so-called study that vaccines cause autism.

There maybe claims by ‘whistleblowers‘ and people who WANT to believe, but that said, no medical scientist or professional has been able to prove there is a connection between autism and vaccines. Probably the one thing that should always absolutely undermine the ludicrous connection between autism and the MMR vaccine is that autistic people were “recorded” as far back as 1911, certainly the subject of studies in the 1940s, and the MMR vaccine came along significantly later, in 1963.

However, equally, no one has ever been able to reproduce the study that “97% of climate scientists think man is causing climate change therefore there is a consensus.” This “research” may have been done by a scientists under the guise of science, but once its methods were disclosed, it has not been reproduced. Don’t believe me? Read here and here and here… It can’t be reproduced – there is so much subjectivite bias in the interpretation of what constitutes a paper saying ‘man is causing climate change’ (although that would have been a start!) that it makes it difficult to reproduce the same result.

And if you want to step back one pace on climate change, again, the results are not reproducible. The entire hysteria over catastrophic man-induced warming is based on computer-driven mathematical modelling, and when it comes to that, your input data and assumptions are everything – if you don’t put in every variable, you will not get it right, and all the computer power in the world is not enough to yet model every variable – if we even knew every variable. And to date, the climate modelling is not matching up to the reality. Climate models have been around since the 1960s. Yet, despite increasing computing power, more variables being added, and funding being thrown at the models, despite all the headlines screaming about each successive year being ‘the hottest in recorded history…’ (recorded history only being a 160 years or so…), the reality is, the actual recoded global temperature – not modelled, but bonafide temperatures, taken with scientific instruments, is still well below just about all the climate models. To reiterate, even after taking into account ‘mathematical smoothing of the collected temperature data‘, the poor location of many temperature gauges and the fact that the means of measurement have evolved over the 160 years of recorded history necessitating even more mathematical smoothing to reconcile the different data, the actual recoded temperature of the planet is still below that predicted by climate models. (suffice to say, it is time to rerun the models with the recorded data…). Which is why the last IPCC no longer threatens with world with a 4-6C rise in temperatures and 1m sea level changes this century – assuming we do some mitigation (which it had a high confidence we would!).

[NB: The latest IPCC Summary report does appear to threaten the world with about 4C maximum should CO2 emissions rise 2.5 times what they are today – or to about 1000 ppm CO2, but not more! ! Not that you’d know that from the media hysteria over climate change which still favours a 4-6C rise in temperatures and one brave soul at the Washington Post was recently prophesying a fantastic 7m sea level change in the next 84 years as well – even the IPCC and any scientist promoting the alarmist trend has never gone that far because there is no evidence that the sea polar ice can melt that fast!]

John Oliver can be immensely entertaining when dissecting government, political and other news worthy stuff, but he does tend to fall a little short when it comes to truly understanding science – which he’s allowed to because he’s not a scientist. But, sad to see falling into the very trap he spent 15 minutes debunking!



About Sally G

Sally is an Earth Scientist with experience in geology and geomorphology. She has always had an interest in general science.