On Sunday evening, John Oliver of HBO's "Last Week Tonight" took a break from talking about Paul Manafort's clothing to talk about public trust in science. Well, sort of. Really, he claimed he wanted to expose "astroturf" groups - fake organizations that look like real "grassroots" ones. You can imagine how I surprised I was on Saturday when I found out he was going to be talking about me.
Not me personally, he doesn't want to make it too limited when he can smear our whole science community, so he instead tried a layup against the entire American Council on Science and Health and its 10,000 advisors over the last 40 years. But in 2018 that means me. And by extension it means you, and all of the people in the Science 2.0 community and its 300,000,000 readers to-date - because that is how Deep State The Vast Corporate Conspiracy To Be Pro-Science is.
Wait, is Deep State the left wing thing or the right wing? I can't keep track. All these conspiracy theory people begin to sound alike after a while.
And his segment on us sounded a lot like stuff I have seen a hundred times, mostly on Huffington Post or Alternet or whatever political sites will let anti-science activists in conspiracy land have their say without any fact-checking. Almost like it is was taken straight from that US Right To Know industry trade group blog, which was copied and pasted from a Sourcewatch wiki page which was copied and pasted from a Mother Jones piece which was copied and pasted from a fired employee who cobbled together our donor list that was publicly available to try and suggest that donors controlled our science. Basically, a whole lot of partisan anti-science people in collusion. (1) Something called A.V. Club also chimed in (2) but they seem to generate pageviews recapping TV shows so that doesn't count. Not that you missed any humor reading a recap rather than watching the program.
You'll see what I mean:
But I knew that would be the case. When I found out on Saturday we would have a "passing mention" on the program and the producer just wanted to do some light fact-checking, I chuckled. First, writing on a Saturday and declaring you are on deadline is a time-honored "gotcha" technique. They hope no one answers if they send it on a weekend and then they can claim whatever ridiculous thing they want and say no one responded otherwise.
Well, I did respond, within 15 minutes, but still did not see anything to "fact check" the afternoon before the segment was to be shown so I wrote to nag.
And I did then get a reply back from Mr. Charles Wilson, Senior Producer at Last Week Tonight, who wrote the even more innocuous, "we have revised script and have only have a brief passing mention of ACSH."
Oh. So why even mention it to us? We get five media links per week from groups who reference our science, they don't write to tell us about it.
But then he 'fessed up, "We were going to briefly say The American Council on Science and Health has received funding from and has fought for, among other things, fracking interests, soda companies, tobacco companies, and chemical manufacturers."
Ohhhh. Well, none of that is true, other than obliquely - we have been around for 40 years, every prominent non-profit has had donations from lots of places in 40 years, but the truth does not matter. The truth is that Greenpeace got more corporate money just last year than we have gotten in our entire history. There is absolutely nothing wrong with corporate funding, science and technology companies should want to help organizations that are not scaremongering everything, but ACSH corporate funding is only 3-4% of our budget, the same percentage of corporate funding Environmental Working Group has, though our revenue from that is 10% of theirs. But they were not doing any real fact checking, that script was in the can and at that point they were just notifying me so they can pretend there was fact checking. It is a comedy program (3), not journalism. (4)
On Saturday when I got the first email I told my staff and the Board of Trustees what their agenda was, even without seeing it: 'If you defend science, you must be a corporate shill. If you attack it, you must be wholesome and pure.' That is the shtick that works in the cultural demographic Mr. Oliver is trying to gain more of, if he ever wants to have a salary within 10% of Jimmy Fallon.
People like him because he has a routine. As I wrote on the American Council on Science and Health, no one wants to watch his actual show, they want to watch viral clips on YouTube where he pretends to be sincere and angry while playing an invisible accordion for three minutes.
if you request tickets in advance, you can see comedian John Oliver talk about politics while he plays his invisible accordion. Credit:HBO
His lazy graphic shows generic Windex (I guess they don't have the budget to buy brand names), dishwashing soap, and e-cigarettes. Maybe that is mouthwash in the background? I can't tell. Those things are bad? Not according to science. But if it has colors and is in a bottle, maybe to him and his audience, it is evil and must be made by nasty corporations in their corporation-y buildings where they just print money for themselves.
He is really just helping the anti-vaccine community by trying to undermine our work. And he is directly undermining American farmers.
To science literate people, it is well-known that the anti-vaccine communities and anti-GMO communities overlap. When I wrote Science Left Behind, I noted that if you made a circle around a Whole Foods, you could put a map of anti-GMO and anti-vaccine behavior on top of it and they line up pretty well. Whole Foods chose its markets to match its political and scientific marketing data. Undermining science and health is exactly the goal of the corporate trade group Organic Consumers Association, whose puppet site mentioned above, U.S. Right To Know, was created by them to attack and harass the science community using any means at their disposal. Some sources allege their cozy links to Russia Today, the propaganda arm of the Kremlin, are a sign of something more sinister. If so, it makes sense. Russia's two biggest exports are energy and food so they definitely want to stop advancements like fracking and GMOs by their biggest geopolitical enemy.
As I said on ACSH, that's not great company to be keeping, Mr. Oliver.
His comedy writers may think they are being funny, or at least insightful, but they are also being "useful idiots" for these activist groups. They throw in the term "dark money" but since they didn't do any research they don't realize that outside interests don't use "donor advised" funds to give donations to pro-science groups anonymously, people and companies want to brag about that, they use them to launder money from political groups to those they want to undermine public confidence in the U.S.
In my email below I asked if John Oliver was going to note that the "source" of their information about us is an industry trade group in cahoots with and also funded by the anti-vaccine community. Then I asked the question actual journalists - not the kind on fake comedy news shows - ask: Is John Oliver opposed to the science consensus on GMOs and vaccines?
They refused to answer.
(1) Lisa Graves, who runs Sourcewatch, is a Democratic attorney who milks her political cred from being in the Clinton administration during his impeachment for profit by attacking all things science or Republican, and she sits on the board of US Right To Know. Mother Jones is obviously a partisan political magazine with too many ads for organic food and supplements to count, so they obviously hate real science and medicine.
(2) When I was a kid, actual a/v club people were smarter than everyone else, and pro-science. Like the term nerd, A.V. Club may have been co-opted by clueless young people doing it ironically, or to earn avocado toast points or however they get paid to write synopses of TV programs that are only 30 minutes long.
(3) And usually it is funny, but there were no laughs during his jab at us. Too many diabetics or people who can afford to heat their homes were in the audience, I suppose.
(4) Unless you write at something called Culturess, which seems to be AV Club, except purple, and they think these programs are actual news. Bustle was the funniest. I got a deadline email from their blogger asking for comment, who then published the article 6 minutes after her email was sent.