Funny Thing Happened Last Week: John Oliver, Dalai Lama, Mongolia

By Julian Dierkes

One of the reasons I encourage graduate students to be strategic about communicating their research results is that you never know when and on what topic the public comes knocking on your door.

Sometimes the public comes in the form of a John Oliver interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, viewed more than 4.5 million in the first five days since it was posted.

Obviously, the Dalai Lama is well-known for his sense of humour, so perhaps not surprising that he would be interviewed for a comedy news show.

In this vein, perhaps it is also not so surprising that he ended up talking about fermented mare’s milk in Mongolia. Hey, why not?

And as Tsogtbaatar B says (more about that below),

Well, who am I to judge Dalai Lama?

Sudden Interest in Alcoholism in Mongolia

Obviously, when the Dalai Lama mentions something, and even more when he does so in response to a John Oliver question, the world appears to get interested.

In the case of our Mongolia Focus blog, that means the world suddenly got interested in a post that Mendee wrote in 2012: “Mongolia – Without Vodka, Cheers with Milk“.

Now, as blogs are organized chronologically, a 2012 post is buried pretty deeply on our blog. We have written over 450 posts in the 5 1/2 years of operation of our blog until today (March 2017), so it is highly unlikely that anyone would find this blog post by clicking on <next post>.

But, somehow, someone found the post and posted a link on a scientific skepticism site. I can’t quite figure out whether it is this post that has driven traffic, but more than 500 people read that post in the days after the John Oliver segment aired.

Just to put this in perspective, apart from election coverage when we see huge spikes in readership, a regular blog post does well when it gets over 100 readers in the first couple of days after posting. There are exceptions, like Marissa Smith’s recent guest post on the Erdenet NoSale which has been read more than 500 times since it came out already, but 500 readers for a 2012 post is a very big number, even in the grand scheme of things, i.e. the over of a quarter million page views that our blog has had since we started writing.

In the world of blogging about Mongolia, that’s about as viral as you’re going to get, even if it is only 0.01% of the viewership of the John Oliver video.

And then, the Media

Not surprisingly, as John Oliver’s brand of news comedy seems to be popular with journalists and the public, this mention of Mongolian alcohol abuse also caught the attention of journalists.

And sure enough, some days after the interview, a post showed up on U.S. National Public Radio’s Goats and Soda blog: “Looking into the Horse Milk Story that the Dalai Lama Told John Oliver“. An aside: the name for this health blog “Goats and Soda” apparently derived from some travel in Africa where goats and carbonated sugar water seemed ubiquitous, but obviously, any blog that has “goats” in the name seems an appropriate place for writing about Mongolia.

Since Pres. Elbegdorj’ office didn’t respond to a request for an interview (perhaps, the Dalai Lama remains too controversial a topic for officials following the recent spat with China over HHDL’s visit in November 2016), NPR’s Angus Chen turned to blogging experts on Mongolia. The story thus cites Mendee J, co-founded and frequent contributor to this blog, but also Tsogtbaatar B. Not only was I a member of Tsogoo’s dissertation committee, but he has also written for this blog in the past while now serving as the director of the Public Health Institute of Mongolia. Since his work is directly related to this story, I hope that the sudden media attention raises awareness of public health issues Mongolia is facing in Mongolia itself and abroad.

Who Cares?

Allyson Seaborn along with many other people most likely, was somewhat annoyed by the John Oliver-HHDL hoopla after a few days.

I will note here that the substance of the Oliver-HHDL interview is not really quite worth commenting on.

Of course, the Dalai Lama did not cure alcoholism. Of course, horse milk is typically consumed as airag, i.e. fermented, and thus alcoholic. Of course, Mongolians and many other people have been consuming fermented mare’s milk for many centuries. And of course, Oliver and HHDL both capitalize on the exoticization of Mongolia as “Outer Mongolia” and of fermented mare’s milk.

But the fact that Mendee’s very old blog post has found hundreds of readers is of interest to me. Some of those readers were hopefully interested in other blog posts. Maybe some of them even got more interested in Mongolia than an initial “oh, how exotic way”. That is often not easy to achieve when you’re offering analysis of contemporary Mongolia.


As researchers, we should be ready to leverage the attention that sometimes random connections might bring, to raise awareness of our analyses and the issues we care about.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
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