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SCIENCE, CULTURED

Colbert Retorts

The “Reality-Based Community” on Comedy Central

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Green, Chris Mooney, Stephen Colbert SOURCE: Comedy Central All the things I didn't get to say to Stephen Colbert, and other thoughts on the comedics of science.

I’m pretty naïve. I actually prepared for my appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” thinking I might get to say at least a few of my intended lines.

Luckily for me, I didn’t.

Colbert’s segment was entitled “Obama’s New Science Policy.” For as he pointed out, our new president now acknowledges that science “exists.” Obama will restore science to its “rightful place,” Colbert observed—which, under Bush, had been solely for the purpose of outfitting Dick Cheney with new parts.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

To get ready for this segment, I emailed friends and people I knew who had already been on the show, asking them what kinds of questions Colbert’s faux right-winger would be likely to ask the author of The Republican War on Science. Easily the most memorable response came from science journalist Eric Roston, who suggested: “Why do hurricanes hate America?”

So lest they go completely unused, here are a few of my painstakingly prepared replies to hypothetical questions, none of which he asked, none of which I answered:

Didn’t scientists start the “war” in the first place? Didn’t they commit acts of aggression?

Yes, if you mean by learning things.

Why should I care about science?

Because America is really good at it—much better than France.

Is there really a “war” on science? Where are the bodies?

Well, there haven’t been heads spitted on pikes—but there has been the equivalent of torture. Scientific studies have been confined in dark places for long periods of time. And they’ve been put on the rack and twisted until they can be made to say anything. (This last one I ripped off from Tom Toles.)

And so on. In retrospect, it’s probably good that I didn’t get to use my “wit” in this way. The whole point of “The Colbert Report” is that the host is funny, not you. If you’re trying to be funny, you’re very likely to be annoying, or worse.

So rather than eliciting any further groans, allow me to try something I’m somewhat more competent in than humor: Remarking upon Stephen Colbert’s role in the mass communication of science today. As Dan Vergano, USA Today‘s science correspondent, wrote recently on my blog:

A think piece is out there on how much science Colbert does (from Tiktaalik to astronomy.) He is the modern-day heir to Johnny Carson, who used to bring anthropologists and Paul Ehrlich onto his show.

Here it goes, Dan.

It’s absolutely true that as host of a show that regularly draws over a million viewers, Colbert features an astonishing amount of science content. Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson is a frequent guest, as is Columbia University string theorist Brian Greene. Other scientists who have appeared include Brown University’s Kenneth Miller, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins (making the non-scientific case for atheism), human genome project head Francis Collins, and numerous others.

And in addition to its many scientist guests, the show has also featured numerous science-related segments, such as “America’s Galaxy is Big” and several concerning the Pluto-demotion saga. In each case—always in the context of Colbert’s role-playing—the show conveys a large amount of scientific information, raises very important questions about the nature of scientific knowledge, and explores and its relationship to others areas like politics. And the viewers—or at least those viewers who get the jokes—come away with good reasons for trusting in science, rather than in “truthiness.”

In other words, you might say that George W. Bush’s anti-intellectual administration created a perfect opening for Stephen Colbert’s hugely popular caricature of anti-intellectualism; and this in turn transformed Colbert into possibly our most important defender and explainer of scientific knowledge. (Again, if you get the jokes.)

That might sound surprising at first, but as Dan Vergano noted above, television talk show hosts have often played an important role in bringing science to the public. Johnny Carson helped make a star of Carl Sagan. Recently David Letterman featured President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, in a kind of educational/public service segment about climate change.

Nowadays Colbert is doing as much mass science communication as anyone, but the question then becomes: How do you keep the joke going in the wake of Obama’s restoration of the so-called “reality-based community”? Our new president isn’t going to be nearly so easy to make fun of—not for trusting to his gut over his head, anyway. Ironically, the restoration of science in Washington might make the communication of science through comedy a more difficult endeavor. Reality is resurgent now, and truthiness is tumbling. This is the challenge of our times—for comedians, anyway.

Still, I would never underestimate Stephen Colbert’s ability to find humor in any situation. Who else would say, in a discussion of the difference between basic research and technology, “Are you telling me there are stem cells in my iPhone?”

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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