UK comedians and pseudoscience

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2009 8:00 am

I have always felt that scientists bashing pseudoscience may be a losing game; the "other side" uses emotional arguments and logical fallacies that appeal to our less rational brains, and can sway people far better than graphs, statistics, and, let’s face it, reality.

So maybe what we need are more comedians tackling these issues, mocking them mercilessly and letting people laugh at those who think diluted water can cure all ills, and that some people have the power to predict the future while never quite seeming to be able to win the lotto.

That’s why I like David Mitchell and Dara O’Briain. They tell it like it is. And they’re really funny.

Tip o’ the jester’s cap to Rebecca.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Humor

Comments (42)

  1. StuartB

    They’re great. Dara O’Briain’s stand-up routine has at least half an hour of anti-antiscience shtick (he’s a physics graduate himself, apparently). However, after the furore on your Welsh-language signposts post(!), I have to make things worse for you by pointing out that there’s only one UK comedian above. Dara O’Briain is Irish.

  2. Phil, you do realise that Dara O’Briain is Irish, and not from the UK?

  3. The Mitchell and Webb skit on the homeopathic ER was absolutely hilarious. I love skeptic comedians.

  4. Pete

    Homeopathy is diluted water?

    What do they dilute it with?

    (I dliute my water the way the great Irish comedian Dave Allen did – with vodka!)

  5. drewski

    My water is usually diluted with various minerals. Not very diluted, admitedly.

  6. Andyo

    Since watching all those brilliant Mitchell and Webb skits, I saw every season of M&W Look and Peep Show, they’re brilliant. Also Mitchell is famous for his TV rants, look up youtube videos of him ranting on other TV shows.

  7. Nomen Publicus

    It’s interesting how one of the longest running kids cartoon series, Scooby-Doo, has almost always presented a sceptical attitude towards the supernatural and for the most part in the end discovered it was the grouchy handyman wot done it. We can excuse the talking dogs, it is a kids cartoon :-)

    But where are the live action equivalents? Jonathan Creek is the only drama I can recall that was completely sceptical in the face of apparent supernatural events.

    Could some clever scriptwriter take a Houdini/Randi like character and made a decent TV drama from exposing how the various scams are performed?

  8. That’s great! I -SO- want to hoist a pint with these lads!
    Frakkin’ hilarious! I always wanted to have red hair!

  9. JgzMan

    OK, I have a new favorite comedian. I’ve been enjoying Izzard since Carlin died, but this guy is better.

  10. Sounds like Bill Maher, Conan O’Brien, John Stewart, etc. lol!

  11. Thanny

    Stop picking on Phil.

    Saying that O’Briain is from the UK is no worse than saying Martin Short is from the US.

    [cue irate Canadians in 3… 2… 1…]

  12. Keith (the first one)

    Two very funny guys that tell it like it is. Good stuff.

  13. PeteC

    Dara OBriain is indeed Irish, and proudly so, but he currently he lives in the UK and appears on British television. The majority of his work is in the UK.

    That doesn’t change the fact that he’s Irish, but it makes it understandable that he gets lumped under “UK comedians” – it’s hard to write titles about “Comedians from multiple ethnic groups and backgrounds who regularly perform in the UK and psuedoscience”. :)

  14. The whole UK/Great Britain/Northern Ireland/England-as-descriptor-of-both-islands thing is generally too complicated to bother with.

    “UK” is fast becoming the default for the entire nation.

  15. J Earley

    Re Scooby Doo:
    I always wished that is the final show of ‘The X-files’ that Casey Kasem (the voice of Shaggy), walking a Great Dane, would have walked up to Muldaur and said “Its all just guys in rubber suits and masks. You’ve been had.” And then walked off. It would have been way too cool.
    Oh well, I think they missed a great chance…

  16. Spooky

    Nomen Publicus … you may want to check out The Mentalist. Starring (Australia’s own!) Simon Baker as an ex-TV-Psychic who now works with the police. His character will often explain the tricks used by purveyors of woo.

    Not exactly supernatural, but it’s a good start! :)

  17. Gary Ansorge

    I count Psyche in the skeptic camp, since he’s a FAKE psychic (with mad detective skills) who can con nearly anyone into BELIEVING he’s a real psychic. Then of course, there’s Lie to Me, which goes a long way toward enhancing our understanding of one way people seem to always know what’s really on someones mind.

    Gary 7

  18. Gobaskof

    ““UK” is fast becoming the default for the entire nation.”

    Yeah, UK is the whole nation, but Ireland is a DIFFERENT nation. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, Ireland is a different country, with its own government, currency and everything!

  19. I think I quite fancy Robert Webb just a bit (this is the other bloke with fair/redish hair, in Peep Show) not shown here. Super comedians here. Get the piont of the post. Direct hit.

    Claire

  20. Jeremy Henderson

    Scooby-Doo a skeptical show? Hardly. As a kid I always found the show more than a little insulting, since the villains were always running the exact same scam, and yet the gang were incredulous enough that each time they’d be fooled by it, at least at the start.

    Just once, I’d have liked to see them at the beginning go “Ghost sighting, huh? Probably just a projection, or a guy in a costume covered in fluorescent dust. Again.”

  21. mike burkhart

    Why do think I make jokes on this blog about this stuff . But I worry that some of these people may have mental problems (like the moon landing hoax advocate who attacked a womans car )or fantics . by the way I liked scobby-do but recently they have made scobb-do cartoons were the mosters are supernatural this ruined it

  22. Petrolonfire

    The pen may be mightier than the sword but a good comedian beats both of them easily! ;-)

    Yes, I’m all for humour and mockery as great weapons in the unending fight against woo. 8)

    @ 21 mike burkhart : Humour the nutcases ya reckon? Shall we hold a “Be nice to the fruitcakes” day maybe? :roll:

    Nah! These people damage and meme-etically infect other guillible folks and humouring them also just reinforces their delusions in their own minds. Kinder & better for everyone to tell the truth until they believe it.(Or end up in straightjackets getting the treatment they need!) Politely, or sort of so, natch.

  23. Eamon

    Dara may be Irish, but as a UK resident he has all the rights of a British Citizen, courtesy of the Republic of Ireland act 1949.

    As to Ireland being a different nation – it is not. Ireland is an island, containing both Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (Independent Nation).

  24. Brian

    @Eamon The constitution of Ireland defines the name of the state as Ireland in English. The “Republic of Ireland” is merely a description of the state. This has been upheld in the Irish Supreme court numerous times, and is plainly visible in the constitution, all state documents, etc. Ireland describes a state, and an island.

  25. Stargazer

    Get in the sack!

  26. Martin Moran

    Love them both, I read an excellent article this week written by David Mitchell that I thought you guys may be interested in: http://bit.ly/70oby

  27. Eamon

    @Brian

    If the state called ‘Ireland’, on the the Island of Ireland doesn’t encompass all of Ireland then it’s got a pretty confusing name.

    In Northern Ireland we call it “The South”, ‘The Free State” or “The Republic” – for obvious reasons: you’d look like a fool if you said “I’m going to Ireland” every time you popped ‘down South’.

  28. gopher65

    I’d also put the various Star Trek series in the skeptical camp. No matter now many magical or supernatural seeming situations they run across, it’s always either some alien impersonator or a previously unknown natural (but explainable) phenomenon. Even in Star Trek V, horrible though that movie was:P. In fact, I’d label Star Trek as not just a skeptical show (for the most part), but as one of the few shows ever to have existed that has espoused the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism (ie, “there is nothing beyond nature. No God, gods, spirituality, or magic”).

  29. groverpm

    @#4.

    Hey Pete, Dave Allen didn’t drink vodka but rather whiskey.

  30. Cory

    @18, not their “own” currency, mind you. :P

    I think the true default is “British”, even though some Irish will get mad about it. They’re the British Isles after all.

  31. GDC

    A haiku for the birthers

    Like Schroedinger’s cat,
    he was in two states at once:
    Hawaii, Kenya.

  32. mike burkhart

    About star trek as a long time treke or is it treker? all the showes and movies did have some supernaturel things some aliens had paranormal powers like the talosans and the famous vulcan mind meld Gary micthel got paranormal powers most aliens had powers because they were higher on the evlotionary scale then we were like orgains the Q and traline(some think he was a Q) in fact in one episode it was reviled that the Greak gods were aliens so star trek is full of aliens with paranormal powers

  33. Gavin Flower

    Hmm…

    Since 2001, the Republic of Ireland uses the the Euro currency, like a lot of the other European nations. I was living in Dublin at the time of the change over.

    Note that the correct plural of Euro, is ‘Euro’ – not ‘Euros’ nor even ‘Euroes’. Similarly for the Euro currency, one should say ’42 cent’ rather than ’42 cents’.

  34. Eamon

    That’s a bit weird with the plurals Gavin – was there a mandated change to the English language, coinage becoming an uncountable noun?

  35. Nigel Depledge

    GuanoLad (14) said:

    The whole UK/Great Britain/Northern Ireland/England-as-descriptor-of-both-islands thing is generally too complicated to bother with.

    “UK” is fast becoming the default for the entire nation.

    Well . . .

    The “nation” actually is the UK. The UK is the political nation state comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is a geographical term – it is the largest of the British Isles (hint – it’s the one that contains most of England, Wales and Scotland). Northen Ireland isn’t part of Great Britain, and nor are Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, the Isle of Wight, Anglesea, Holy Island or the Scilly Isles (although these are part of the UK). The Isle of Man and the Channel Isles are special cases, as these are not technically part of the UK (although they are British dependencies or protectorates or something like that).

    See? It’s not complicated at all!

  36. Ian

    Goodness me, I’m as much in favour of ‘UK’ over ‘England’ et cetera… but come on! All these comments over a fairly insignificant statement!

  37. Re: “I have always felt that scientists bashing pseudoscience may be a losing game; the “other side” uses emotional arguments and logical fallacies that appeal to our less rational brains, and can sway people far better than graphs, statistics, and, let’s face it, reality.”

    That sounds just like the debate strategy of most of the Republican Party.

  38. Slightly off topic, but as someone mentioned the late, great Dave Allen…
    For the benefit of non-British readers, Dave used to ridicule religion mercilessly – especially the Catholic variety, in which he was brought up – and was very funny doing so.
    He once did a truly brilliant monologue, in which he ripped apart the Adam and Eve story, in the way only he could, and demonstrated how hilariously stupid the Bible really is.
    e.g. Adam woke up one morning, and suddenly found a woman lying next to him – but he didn’t say “Who the hell are you? Where did you come from?” Nor did he think, “Somebody’s nicked one of my ribs!” And much more in similar vein – not to mention the talking snake…
    And he concluded with a punchline of sheer genius:
    “And this is the book that you put your hand on in court, and say ‘I swear to tell the truth…'”

  39. Bill

    @darth_borehd (#37):
    > That sounds just like the debate strategy of most of the Republican Party.

    YOU LIE!!!

    (ducking and running…)
    :)

  40. mike burkhart

    If I”ve offended mental ill i am sorry the fact is I suffer from depresion and am being treated for it . About star trek I will say that yes it had skeptical elements but it had other elements that would give skeptics fits like the aliens I mentioned. In one episode it had that starfleet tested for ESP science has not found any evidence that ESP is real (in fact Phills friend James Randi has debunked people who claim to have ESP ) now it is possable that by the 23 century science has proven ESP and made tests for it but right now its looking doubtfull I ‘d like to remind everyone that star trek was on in the 60s and reflects many 60 ideas (I’m not trying to bash the 60s just trying to make a point about star trek )

  41. Ahh,

    It’s wise to be carefull not to offend vunerable people when making humour out of conspiracy theories – Moon landing as an example, or any humour. It’s very difficult getting the right balance. Had posted a jokey coment a couple of months ago (chimney made of cake) but it was certainly not to cause havoc in that respect.

    Also, just found out Mr Webb has a little child (said on TV show), so he’s probably married/taken! Best not going there.

    Mitchell and Webb are hilarious…

    Claire

  42. Lorena

    :S can’t understand a thing they’re saying :S

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