How Jon Stewart made people laugh while teaching them about climate change

By Camille von Kaenel | 08/11/2015 08:29 AM EDT

A bowl full of ice cubes, talking almonds, and many, many puns: These were some of Jon Stewart’s weapons in his war against climate change denialism. His quips made people laugh, but they also got them thinking.

A bowl full of ice cubes, talking almonds, and many, many puns: These were some of Jon Stewart’s weapons in his war against climate change denialism. His quips made people laugh, but they also got them thinking.

After 16 years on Comedy Central’s satirical news program "The Daily Show," which he left Thursday, Stewart will be remembered by loyal viewers for his biting political commentary — but he also offered refreshingly critical science coverage. That could have shaped how his audience viewed climate change, according to a new study released Friday. The paper joins a growing body of research into "the Stewart/Colbert effect," or the influence of news satire.

Paul Brewer, a communications professor at the University of Delaware, and Jessica McKnight, a doctoral student, published their most recent paper in Science Communication. They showed two groups of clips of Stewart and Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report" talking about a climate study. A third control group saw an unrelated clip.


In the "Daily Show" clip, aired in October 2011, Stewart goes over new research by University of California, Berkeley, physics professor Richard Muller, whose biggest private funders were the oil-rich Koch brothers.

"Whoa, global warming is real. Did not see that coming," Stewart jested. "The Earth is getting warmer. Or, judging by this graphic, getting more embarrassed."

The groups who saw the satirical news clips were slightly more likely to believe in climate change after the experiment, the study found.

"It can make a difference, though not a huge difference," said Brewer, the lead author.

The research had limitations: The 400 or so participants skewed toward college students, for example. Other media coverage of climate change can influence viewers’ opinions just as much.

But Stewart didn’t cover climate change like other news outlets, Brewer said.

Filling a hole in media coverage

Stewart’s show included more science than traditional news. A review by the Pew Research Center found that "The Daily Show" dedicated 2.6 percent of its "news hole" to science and technology, twice the amount of a traditional news source. Stewart took on the anti-vaccine movement and stem cells. And he talked about global warming two times more than traditional media.

He explicitly stated climate change was real around 70 percent of the time, according to an analysis by Lauren Feldman, a communications professor at Rutgers University. Some of the jokes by Stewart and Colbert could have undermined their statements, she found, especially in the case of Colbert’s heavy irony. But Stewart did bring in a variety of guests to talk about climate change.

Jon Stewart
Not running for anything. Jon Stewart presides at the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, D.C., in October 2010. | Photo courtesy of Flickr.

"The interviews were really important in broadening the range of analysis, they had such a wide range of interviewees that really highlighted different aspects, like the public health aspects," Feldman said.

In another study, she and her colleagues found that people watching shows like "The Daily Show" were more likely to be paying attention to science and policy topics. That was even more true for people with a lower level of education.

"The barriers for following science are much higher, so when it’s packaged in this entertaining format, it’s much easier for them to follow along," she said.

Even people who watched Stewart just for laughs, or for the politics, got spooned some hard science along the way.

Take, for example, a social media darling: his skewering of the members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Sept. 22, 2014. In the segment, he played clips from a hearing on President Obama’s plan to slash carbon dioxide emissions.

When Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) said he didn’t believe scientists because they were being paid to do research, Stewart pointed out that Bucshon’s own three main supporters were coal and oil companies Murray Energy Corp., Koch Enterprises Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp.

"If scientists could be bought, these motherf***ers would have already made it rain in nerd town," Stewart quipped.

Former Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) then suggested that melting ice does not cause sea-level rise — just "displacement."

"How far back to the elementary school core curriculum do we have to go to get someone on House Committee on Space, Science and Technology caught up?" exploded Stewart. He brought out a bowl of ice cubes and a glass of water. Dumping the bowl, which represented land ice, into the overflowing glass, he flailed around and yelled, "It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!"

The end of an era?

In another segment, called "La la la climate change doesn’t exist la la la," he covered his ears and sang to bring attention to the difference between local weather and global climate change.

He then poked fun at Florida officials trying to avoid using the words "climate change" in an attempt to abide by the governor’s alleged ban on the words. Stewart suggested several alternatives to "sea-level rise": "moisture inconvenience," "statewide jacuzzification" or "surprise pool party."

"There’s something in the accessibility of his jokes and humor that makes it resonate, really," Feldman said. "Stewart was such a straight shooter, just his expression and pauses, everything he did for 16 years on that show, it was so powerful. I do think, with some sort of these science topics, it needs that ‘hit yourself on your head, this stuff is so simple, just get it already.’"

Stewart often said he didn’t consider what he did journalism, though many audience members ranked him high on their list of favored journalists, according to a Pew Research Center report. Unlike a traditional journalist, he didn’t need to go in-depth on the issues he covered or be fair.

"The format [objectivity] takes is the climate change believer said this and the climate change skeptic said that," Brewer said. "That upholds the norm of objectivity but might give a distorted perception of climate change science. But [Stewart and Colbert] don’t have the same pressure to be fair and balanced, and they can say this side is right and this side wrong."

Stewart was free to say what he wanted, and he skewered everyone from mainstream media to Donald Trump. But now, he won’t be doing it four times a week on "The Daily Show."

"I don’t think satirical news can replace traditional journalism, but it’s also important to have a critical voice," Feldman said. "We’re losing a really important forum for discussion and analysis about lots of concepts of salience, climate change perhaps chief among them."

The researchers said they would direct their attention to John Oliver of "Last Week Tonight"; Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah; and other comedians to see if they can keep that critical science coverage up.