A long history of medical satire

Dara O’Briain is one of my favourite comedians and he frequently deals with science issues in his stand up routines. A mathematics and theoretical physics graduate, he is also the host of the BBC programmes Dara O’Briain’s Science Club and School of Hard Sums. These programmes educate viewers about maths, physics, chemistry and biology through a series of silly brainteasers and conundrums. As comedy shows they try to change the way that people think about science by making them laugh.

However, taking a light-hearted look at scientific ideas is not new and historical examples of cartoons and caricatures making fun of bad science abound. In particular, medical practitioners viewed as quack doctors – like Dara’s homeopaths – have long been a target of satirists. To read about the various ways that medical practitioners have been lampooned throughout history, check out this amusing post by Dr Mark Bryant.

When pseudoscience benefits real science

All serious scientists are opposed to pseudoscience – those theories and beliefs that claim scientific legitimacy but are in fact invalidated, irrational and unproven. Yet history shows us that interest in many of the disciplines later dismissed as pseudoscience has resulted in a number of genuine scientific advances. The fields of chemistry, meteorology and neurobiology emerged from ideas developed in alchemy, astrology and phrenology. Many of the subjects described as pseudoscientific today played important roles in scientific debates and promoted the development of various scientific disciplines.

Of course, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is “real” science and what is not. Many of the beliefs that now seem unreasonable were at some point regarded as proper science. In a similar vein, pioneering scientists responsible for radical discoveries or innovative speculations have always had to contend with their ideas being dismissed by the scientific community as utter nonsense.

The distinctions between real science and pseudoscience not always clear cut. However, by considering the historical development of scientific theories and disciplines we can derive some benefit from the things that are discredited. For a more in-depth look at the history of pseudoscience, there is an interesting post here.