The marketplace of ideas would be a lot stodgier and less fluid—and more dangerously larded with lies—if it weren’t for humor. As Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert show night after night, often the best way to edify an audience is by making them laugh. HBO late-night host John Oliver did just that the other day, delivering this brutally effective 16-minute take-down of the wildly successful snake-oil salesman known as Dr. Oz:
Many research studies show how useful laughter can be to learning. Consider, for example, this report from the American Psychological Association:
One study pointing to humor’s benefits appeared this year…psychologist Randy Garner, PhD, found that students were more likely to recall a statistics lecture when it was interjected with jokes about relevant topics. For example, in a lecture segment on reporting research findings, Garner used a metaphorical joke about a planned escape by one of two prisoners in a desert jail. One prisoner tries to escape after unsuccessfully persuading the other to go with him, only learning–after breaking out–that escape is futile as there is nothing but sand for hundreds of miles. After he’s captured and returned to his cell, he tells the story of failed escape to the other prisoner who subsequently shares that he tried to escape a few years earlier. Incredulous, the first prisoner exclaimed, “You knew! Why didn’t you tell me?” whereupon the other remarks, “Silly man, you should know that no one reports negative results.”
“Well-planned, appropriate, contextual humor can help students ingrain information,” explains Garner, who in his introduction to psychology course uses TV programs like the audition episodes from “American Idol” to demonstrate such psychological concepts as self-handicapping and selection bias.
In taking on Dr. Oz’s science-flouting endorsements of nutritional supplements, Mr. Oliver is performing a value public service. With an audience so large and so willing to be led by the nose—and to the store—Dr. Oz has encouraged millions of Americans to shell out money for “magic” pills that are anything but, and may in some cases even be harmful. Here’s hoping some of those Oz faithful will catch this viral video and think twice before loading up on the latest supplement he touts as the next big thing in healthful living.
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