Using Comedy to Increase Public Interest and Understanding of Political and Science Issues

Friday, February 12, 2016: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM
Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Amy Bree Becker, Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore, MD
Empirical research has consistently shown that exposure to political comedy content influences voter’s attitudes toward politicians, their knowledge about political campaigns and issues, their desire to seek out additional political information from traditional news sources, and their likelihood of participating in the political process. While research connecting political comedy exposure and scientific issues is still growing, recent work has already offered evidence of a similar set of attitudinal, learning, and behavioral effects given exposure to political satire that focuses on contemporary science topics like climate change.

The talk begins with an overview of the generalized effects of political comedy exposure. The focus then shifts toward a discussion of how political satire programming covers science. Not only do programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report feature 50% more science content than traditional network and cable news broadcasts, but they also focus on the findings of science, rather than the political conflict over controversial science policy issues. On balance, political comedy is critical of the war on science and public skepticism of key scientific realities like climate change. Interviews with scientists make up a large part of political comedy’s coverage of science. These informal conversations help to make science seem more accessible, while still promoting a healthy level of deference to scientific authority.

Viewing political comedy programming encourages viewers to pay greater attention to news about science, technology, and the environment from traditional news sources. Research suggests that those exposed to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report’s coverage of the climate change issue are more certain of climate change existing and can more accurately locate the comedians’ views on the issue.  

I conclude by suggesting that much like politics, viewing coverage of science issues on political comedy can act as a catalyst for scientific engagement. Exposure to science-driven comedy content can help to increase interest in science issues, encourage viewers to pay attention to science stories across traditional news outlets, result in modest increases in scientific literacy and understanding, enhance the public perception of scientists, and mobilize citizens to engage in low-cost political acts to advance science policy. The talk concludes with some constructive suggestions for how to further connect comedy and science, thus promoting greater public engagement with science.