Coming full circle: from study to comedy sketch to study

Over five years ago, our team published "Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature" (Cook et al. 2013) which caused quite a stir - and that, even though it wasn't the first peer-reviewed paper to find a 97% consensus on human-caused global warming. In 2014 we learned, that our study had been voted ERL's best article of 2013 and as of right now it has been downloaded a whopping 829,000+ times.

Last Week Tonight: Climate Change Debate

One of the best and arguably funniest treatments our study received, was a sketch put together in 2014 for John Oliver's HBO show "Last Week Tonight". In the segment, John Oliver illustrated to great comic effect what a statistically representative climate change debate would look like. You can view it below (warning: the video includes some profane language).

From sketch to study

As of this writing, the video has been viewed 7.8+ million times. With this many views, it's not too surprising that some researchers got curious and wanted to find out if a comedy sketch like this could have an impact on how people think about human-caused climate change. And this is exactly what Paul R. Brewer from the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware and Jessica McKnight of the School of Communication at Ohio State University set out to do at the end of 2014. Their study "A Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate: Satirical Television News, Scientific Consensus, and Public Perceptions of Global Warming" was published in the Atlantic Journal of Communication on June 30, 2017.

Here is the study's abstract:

Satirical television news programs provide the public with potential sources of information about climate change. This study uses a segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver as a test case for exploring how coverage from such programs that features consensus messaging may influence viewers’ perceptions of global warming. The segment presents a “statistically representative climate change debate” to affirm the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change and satirize television news coverage “balancing” this consensus with skeptics’ arguments. Results from a randomized experiment demonstrate that watching the segment increased viewers’ own belief in global warming, as well as viewers’ perceptions that most scientists believe in global warming. The latter effect was stronger among participants with low interest in the environment and global warming than among those with high interest. The segment’s impact on perceptions of scientists’ views may have mediated its effects on viewers’ own beliefs about global warming.

For the study, students in a course at a mid-Atlantic public university were each responsible for recruiting at least 20 participants. In all, 288 participants completed the survey and of the participants, 45% were students at the researchers’ university, 26% were students at another university, and 29% were not students. With a median age of 21 the participants were fairly young - not really suprising considering the method used  to recruit them. The authors are aware that the sampling method can be considered a shortcoming and discuss this in their paper as it raises the question how much the results can be generalized.

The participants in the study were divided into a control group (150 people) and a treatment group (138 people). The control group watched a "Last Week Tonight" video clip unrelated to climate change, while the treatment group watched the "Last Week Tonight" clip shown above. After the viewing, each participant answered questions to gauge their views on climate change, their perceptions of scientists' views on climate change, their interest in the environment and global warming, and their political party identification.

Some important take-aways from the paper

1) Brewer and McKnight's study builds on the idea of "gateway beliefs" where it says:

Here, the present study builds on the “gateway belief model,” which posits that messages highlighting the scientific consensus surrounding climate change can promote belief in human-caused climate change by fostering perceptions of scientific agreement on the topic (van der Linden et al., 2015).

Simply put, when people realize that there is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that climate change is real and human-caused, they too accept that climate change is real and human-caused. Brewer and McKnight point to a 2014 study (van der Linden, et al. 2014) which "found that the message, '97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening' — the same central message illustrated by Oliver’s staged debate — influenced public perceptions of the scientific consensus when presented in the form of text, metaphors, or a pie chart." Of these three, the pie chart had the greatest impact among Republicans.


This portion of the paper, describing a snippet of the Oliver sketch, gets to the key point that the usual depiction of the 50:50 "debate" in the media is very powerful misinformation, but Oliver's "statistically representative" debate with 97 vs 3, completely skewers the 50:50 misinformation:

[Oliver says,] "I think I know why people still think this issue is open to debate, because on TV it is, and it’s always one person for and one person against, and it’s usually the same person for.” Here, the segment cuts to a montage of video clips from cable television news programs, each of which features a debate between a climate change skeptic and Bill Nye, the Science Guy (the former host of a popular children’s science television program). Oliver comments, “Yeah, that’s right, more often than not it’s Bill Nye the Science Guy versus some dude, and when you look at the screen, it’s 50-50, which is inherently misleading.”

A visual depiction of "the 97%", like a pie chart, is a simple, clear way to communicate; the visual depiction of 97 scientists on a stage versus 3 deniers, as in the Oliver sketch, is an even more striking representation, which is why it is so effective.

2) For participants who were disinterested in the environment or global warming — the "disengaged"— the study's "treatment" had the greatest impact. And the greatest impact was on participants' perception of scientists' views about global warming:

Put another way, watching Last Week Tonight’s coverage of climate change narrowed a “belief gap” between those with high levels of interest in the topic and those with low levels of interest.

People with high levels of interest in climate change have, most likely, already encountered "the 97%" statistic. But for disinterested people, this statistic may be brand-new information; and seeing the statistic in such a dramatic fashion, as in the Oliver clip, has an even greater impact.

And this is obviously good news as it shows or at least hints at an effective way to reach the "undecided" / "disinterested".

3) Humor may be able to counteract partisan motivated reasoning!

[T]he results yielded no evidence that partisanship moderated the impact of the segment on viewers. This finding suggests that viewers did not engage in motivated reasoning in response to satirical consensus messaging, a result that is consistent with previous research on nonsatirical consensus messaging.

Everyone has biases, often unconscious, which color their view of information. This "motivated reasoning" (as opposed to totally open-minded reasoning) is often difficult to overcome. If someone reads about "the 97%" in a news article/blog from a newspaper they deem to be "liberal" or "conservative" then their own view of the information may be skewed based on whether they self-identify as "liberal" or "conservative". Brewer and McKnight found that the humorous treatment of "the 97%" in the Oliver sketch may have offset the participants' motivated reasoning.

More good news for science communicators: don't be afraid to "make 'em laugh".

Last but not least, the authors' conclusion contains this important take-away:

[...]Oliver may have led viewers to express greater belief in anthropogenic climate change by leading them to believe that an over whelming majority of scientists agreed on the topic. This result, which extends van der Linden et al.’s (2015) gateway belief model to the context of satirical television news, reinforces the argument that consensus messaging can be an effective tool at fostering belief in global warming.

We'd like to thank Paul Brewer and Jessica McKnight for conducting and publishing their study as we think that it provides some interesting and encouraging results. What could be better than having a situation where people can actually learn something while watching a fun and enjoyable comedy sketch? And this is as good an excuse as any to highlight John Oliver's statistically representative climate change debate yet again via this blog post!


Brewer & McKnight (2017). “A Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate”: Satirical Television News, Scientific Consensus, and Public Perceptions of Global Warming. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 25(3), 166-180. Link to abstract

Posted by BaerbelW on Wednesday, 1 August, 2018

Creative Commons License The Skeptical Science website by Skeptical Science is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.