And then along comes John Oliver: How a brilliant comedian became an indispensable public educator and policy analyst.

John Oliver

And then along comes John:

I can’t believe it. I get to be effusive about something.

For almost 20 years,  I have been on a tear against the phony experts and purveyors of pseudo-facts and pseudoscience who are regularly asked to serve as news sources. I once even promised — on the cover of the Washington Post Sunday opinion section — to keep my mouth shut when it was clear I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about.

We are victims of 24-hour panic-news outlets who cover serious social problems without even the minimal complexity they deserve. Instead, we are treated to “experts” like chiropractors without serious, evidence-based, graduate training in either immunology or virology who tell us to avoid childhood vaccines that have saved millions of lives.

The result?

All sorts of genuinely urgent threats to health and safety are virtually ignored while reporters in the 24-hour shoutocracy hyperventilate about incidents that, however genuinely painful and tragic, are extraordinarily rare. Yet problems that objectively pose a threat to enormous numbers of people remain all but invisible.

Take the problem of the injuries and fatalities that result from the accidental falls of seniors. These are statistics from the CDC:

Data on Senior Falls

So while we are treated to endless nonsense about incredibly rare things that worry us more than they should, we rarely get accurate, evidence-based information about social problems that, because of their frequency, should worry us.

And then along comes John Oliver.

It took a while for this to sink in, but I’m absolutely convinced that what John Oliver is accomplishing on his weekly HBO show represents an extraordinary contribution to serious public discussion about a host of serious problems that we have all but ignored in the past.

Week by week, using his gut-splittingly hilarious comic style, Oliver has been engaged in an effort to educate the public about what seems to be every possible under-publicized social problem. Whether prescription drug marketing, civil forfeiture, food wasting, or prisoner reentry, he has taken problem after problem out of the shadows and made incredibly persuasive arguments for why we should be more concerned.

In an ideal world, this kind of responsible public education would be anything but revolutionary. But in the confusing media mess of arguing pseudo experts, accompanied by a soundtrack of screaming and shouting that passes for debate on tabloid television, what Oliver is doing is nothing short of extraordinary.

Obviously, Oliver comes to us from one place on a wonderfully crowded ideological spectrum. I admit it is probably close to the place I reside. And I know  there  are many other interesting points of view on these problems that should also be heard. The problem, though,  is that no one else from anywhere on the political spectrum has ever tried to do what he is doing with anything close to the elegant style and razor-sharp wit that he brings to the table.

Some years back, I was at a meeting of FDA consultants working on the question of how to get the public concerned about legitimate threats to health and safety. The whole session kept returning to the same questions: Why does it seem to be impossible to get people to care about W or X? Or to pay attention to  Y or Z?

Thanks to John Oliver, we have an answer.

It isn’t impossible.

Find someone brilliant, someone who combines the analytical skills of a policy analyst and the humor of a hilarious  social satirist, put him in the same room as a little understood problem like civil forfeiture (the name alone is a sleep aid!), and — poof! —  suddenly it’s an issue of broad public concern.

Are the mainstream media capable of illuminating serious threats to health, safety, and social welfare? Absolutely.

His name is John Oliver.

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