Finding science in unexpected locations

Did you know that in the United States, for every five hours of news coverage, less than one minute is devoted to science? This statistic seems a little bit ludicrous once we consider how science affects our daily lives: not only in terms of the “big” questions like climate change and the energy crisis, but also how we are constantly adjusting to new technologies around us.

One defender of all things science, whom we discovered in an unexpected place, is Stephen Colbert. You may have heard of his popular faux- news television program The Colbert Report, which keeps the public up-to-date on recent news, with a satirical twist. Indeed, this show has enjoyed strong success, being nominated for seven Primetime Emmy Awards (2006 – 2012). But, what we find most interesting about this political humorist is the messages he is transmitting.

The online magazine Slate published an article entitled “Stephen Colbert Is the Best Source of Science on TV”. Perhaps this isn’t saying much, as we have already stated that competition for broadcasting science is clearly low – but, we find his guests and segments on science entertaining, refreshing, and extremely relatable for the general public.

He frequently invites scientists to his show for interviews, and hosts a segment called The Craziest F#?king Thing I’ve Ever Heard, which often features interesting scientific topics, such as the Large Hadron Collider, the TomTato (a plant that grows both tomatoes and potatoes) , and the Barreleye fish (which happens to have a transparent head).

Of course, women scientists have also made appearances on The Colbert Report, including primatologist Jane Goodall, astronaut Sunita Williams, and Sheril Kirshenbaum, coauthor of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future and advocate of bringing scientific knowledge to the general public. Her website states that she “works to enhance public understanding of science and energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public.”

Colbert has also drawn our attention to the World Science Festival, an initiative based in New York City, and a part of the larger Science Festival Foundation. Their mission is “to cultivate a general public informed by science, inspired by its wonder, convinced of its value, and prepared to engage with its implications for the future.” This dynamic organization has attracted more than a million visitors to its annual festival since it was launched in 2008, helping to generate and nurture a genuine interest in the science fields.

As the Slate article states, “Colbert can’t cure public science illiteracy associated with declining news coverage, but by presenting scientific information to his huge audience in a fun and entertaining way, he has certainly helped.” We agree!

While Colbert may not specifically focus on the topic of women in science, he is certainly making science more accessible to the general public, and presenting it in a fun and relatable way. Who knows, his segments and interviews may spark the interest of girls and encourage them to pursue scientific studies in the future.

He even presented a small piece on Skylar Bayer, a PhD student in marine biology, who somehow misplaced the scallop gonad samples for her research. She showed the segment to high school students and reported during an interview with Slate magazine that “I asked them what they thought about scientists afterwards. They said I seemed pretty normal. I asked them if they learned anything about scallop reproduction. They said they got that it was important to fishery. Getting some high-schoolers to get those two pieces of information out of a TV segment while laughing hysterically is a huge accomplishment.”

We will keep an eye out for more interesting guests and segments on Colbert’s show, until he moves to a different series sometime in 2015. Although he presents everything with a twist of sarcasm and a dose of humor, we tip our hat to Mr. Colbert, who is (knowingly or not) helping to advance and motivate women in science. 

For Women in Science

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