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By Guest Author 10/12/2020

Krishna Chandrasekar

Colbert, Oliver, Meyers, Kimmel… The low profile that we were expected to keep, courtesy COVID-19 lockdown, had me paying more attention to the Late-Night Shows hosts, who have all been “working from their homes”.

Oh yes, Fallon and Noah figure in there somewhere too. But what struck me as interesting was how all of them derided Trump mercilessly for his “scientific” opinions, some more so than the others. But ALL of them did. Now, we know that the hosts have staff writing for them. But then, all of these hosts, among many more, are considered different degrees of “liberal”, with the “conservatives” whining about their underrepresentation on the Late-Night Show scene.

Now, you might be thinking, where am I going with this? Please, don’t get political? I’m afraid it’s about to get muckier. Be prepared for a lot of “liberals” vs “conservatives” talk. Getting right to it, while there’s debate about the scientific character of social science, what about the “social” character of science itself? Science is performed by humans and funded by humans, after all. So then, science is social. Which means, science is political.

Sticking with science, among the countless debates, there’s one on whether science itself is “liberal” or “conservative”. While there’s a strong tendency to think of science as having a “liberal” colour, there’s debate around that. The content on Late Night Shows tends to support the “liberal” notion, as they are generally seen to support science. Hold that thought.

Now, let’s talk humour. Borrowing from science, there’s some research which strongly suggests that humour is more “liberal” than “conservative”, that “conservatives” are more likely to be offended by humour than the “liberals”. Make more sense now? The Late-Night Shows hosts’ derision for claims unscientific? But it made me dig deeper. What is happening as a result of scientific wisdom being imparted via satire? Especially, when Oliver rolls his eyes at Trump administration for being “averse to science” in the COVID context or when Colbert mocks Trump’s claims to have a “natural instinct for science” on climate change? Of course, it turns off the Trump supporters and the non-believers of science and, maybe, even those on the fringe. But then, humour or satire, has always been like that, hasn’t it? Humour isn’t really all noble and happiness-spreading. It can potentially inflict serious mental blocks and pain. But, I thought further, sarcasm makes science… appealing? You may argue, “only to the liberals”. To which I’d say, maybe so, but at least it is bringing down the “elitism” of science. Let me explain.

Science enjoys the exclusivity of being performed by professionally trained thinkers and, hence, is “elitist”. Respecting and believing in science and scientists aside, science needs to lose its “elitism” and be open to be torn apart by the common public. Satirical talk of science accomplishes just that. It may turn off a certain section, making the divide more pronounced, but the “other side” is welcome to contest the science. If satire works for liberals, there must something else that works for the conservatives. Maybe use that for getting back at the liberals?

Now, why am I instigating and encouraging this bloodbath? Because, at the very least, it enhances scientific literacy, the same way that political satire enhances political literacy. Not everyone enjoys politics or understands it, but they are made to not just listen to it, see it in the news, read about it and entertain those talking about it, but also made to entertain those making a living out of ridiculing politicians. Relatable analogies and metaphors with references to sports or pop culture cut through the political jargon and explain the news. Heck, I think there must be economic and financial communication through satire, but that’s a different topic. Satire is extremely effective in initiating a debate, especially on complex topics across disciplines. It hooks you on. And that’s why, I suggest the same for science, so that people know which science is good for democracy and which isn’t. It’s easy for science to be used as a mask of nobility, behind which leaders can hide. So, all this science talk and debate which has become household in COVID times need to be kept alive. Science needs to be game for some serious derision, which will be required.

And let’s not blunder it by restricting science satire on National Geographic or the Discovery channel because that’ll be going back to square one. Because then, all the scientific satire will become elitist. Science isn’t perfect, and people need to be reminded that constantly, whether or not they believe in it. Science needs to be brought down from the pedestal, questioned, challenged and satirised. There’s only one basic rule for all sides of a debate to agree on and it is to get to the truth of the matter. Everything else is just transport!

Krishna Chandrasekar has recently completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication at Victoria University of Wellington and has a goal of working as a science journalist. This blog was written as part of SCIS 410 – Science Communication.