Jon Stewart engages physics and science with varied humor
Comedy Central's fake-news Daily Show of 26 October merits physics community's attention.
November 7, 2011Published: November 7, 2011
By Steve Corneliussen
Physics specifically and science generally dominated the 26 October edition of Comedy Central's Daily Show. The comedians mocked politicians on science grounds and also engineered a good bit of science-related self-satirizing by Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour. At the end, Jon Stewart interviewed Harvard physicist Lisa Randall about her new book, Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.
Early in the show, moderator Stewart ran some clips from the controversy that some call "Climategate," including Sean Hannity of Fox News condemning climate scientists as "hacks and frauds." Stewart reported a 20-point drop in public belief in the climate consensus, then introduced the news of Richard Muller's reversal of position on global temperature rise. Stewart called the reversal "debunking Climategate," predicted that the debunking would surely draw lots of media attention, and then, for ironic effect, cut to examples of news outlets trumpeting the reappearance of the McRib sandwich at McDonald's. Stewart sewed up his serious point by exclaiming that the "debunking got a total of 24 seconds of cable news coverage."
That was all intro to a fake news piece by Aasif Mandvi. It began with Mandvi satirically in fake agreement with national-level politicians — one disbelieving the climate consensus, one denying evolution, and one condemning vaccine efficacy and safety. Mandvi showed Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry asserting, "There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in." Then he interviewed Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour, who charged that "scientists are scamming the American people right and left for their own financial gain."
Playing along with the condemnations of scientists, satirist Mandvi next introduced a researcher whom he called "one of the most notorious swindlers": Columbia Nobel biologist Martin Chalfie. With a straight face, Mandvi challenged Chalfie with an outrageously false analogy: peer review and a jury full of rapists. "Tell me how you are not a rapist," he asked. Chalfie, apparently not having been fully briefed on the style of the Daily Show, looked off camera and asked, with a hint of desperation, "Am I really supposed to answer this?"
Next Mandvi visited a science fair and spoke with several earnest teenaged researchers. He asked them ludicrous questions that presumed the universal malfeasance of scientists and concluded, "Sadly, the corruption of our children happens every day, right under our noses."
Then the Mandvi send-up piece cut back to Nikpour, who continued contributing to her own satirizing. "We need to offer [children] every theory that's out there. It's all about choice; it's all about freedom," she exclaimed. Mandvi deadpanned, "I mean, it should be up to the American people to decide what's true." Nikpour answered, "Absolutely! Doesn't it make common sense?"
In the more serious but still humorous interview at the end of the half hour, Stewart cited Randall's book title and asked, "Why do we fight so hard not to be illuminated?" They discussed how science gets politicized. They touched on faith versus science. She described what science actually is and gave a concise summary of the long-term payoffs of curiosity-driven basic research. Like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart respects science and scientists enormously. It showed.
So did the contrast between Nikpour's preposterous effusions and Randall's cheerful, accessible, calm elucidations. It seems worth expanding this contrast by appending a pair of cherry-picked excerpts from the two women's personal websites:
Lisa Randall, Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science, Harvard University ... is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was a fellow of the American Physical Society, and is a past winner of an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a DOE Outstanding Junior Investigator Award, and the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. In 2003, she received the Premio Caterina Tomassoni e Felice Pietro Chisesi Award, from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. In 2006, she received the Klopsteg Award from the American Society of Physics Teachers (AAPT) for her lectures and in 2007 she received the Julius Lilienfeld Prize from the American Physical Society for her work on elementary particle physics and cosmology and for communicating this work to the public.
Noelle Nikpour is a Republican Consultant and Strategist. As a native of Arkansas, Noelle has been active nationally on several projects. She raised funds for various national political candidates from Asa Hutchinson, Dick De Vos and Rudy Giuliani.... Noelle feels that the Republican Party is long overdue for a brand and image change.
No hint of irony or double meaning in that final sentence.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are collected each Friday for "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.