Blogging, Science

On the Utility of Video for Scientists

When many people hear the words science, research, or anything that ends in the Greek suffix -ology, they immediately conjure images of complex diagrams, abstruse concepts, or thick tomes filled with recondite knowledge. Indeed, in 2013 only 42 % of Canadians polled  were found to be scientifically literate—to wit, able to understand and evaluate the scientific process, experimentation, reasoning, and basic scientific principles as they relate to everyday decision making (there are numerous definitions of scientific literacy; you can read some of them here). While these polling results are a vast improvement over the approximately 15 % of Canadians surveyed who were scientifically literate in 1989, there are still an estimated 4.6 million Canadians today who are unaware that the earth orbits the sun (assuming survey results are representative of Canadian society as a whole).

This is concerning on several levels.

First, Copernicus presented a mathematical model to describe the heliocentric orbit of the solar system’s planets in the 16th century; that’s a long time for something to not set in.

But perhaps more importantly, if 4.6 million Canadians don’t understand why or how we have four distinct, sometimes very harsh, seasons then they aren’t likely to understand genetically modified crops, nuclear power, or—the perennially popular topic—vaccines.

This lack of basic scientific understanding has given rise to a plethora of pseudoscientific views and self-proclaimed experts that peddle unsound advice or products to unwitting consumers. More appallingly, it has allowed governments to stifle debate on important national policies and legislation that have far-reaching, long-term implications for citizens simply by ignoring scientific evidence and muzzling the voices of objective researchers.

A scientifically literate citizenry is essential to any modern, free democracy.

But that’s all a topic for another blog post. Today, I want to focus specifically on how scientists and science communicators are trying to increase our scientific know-how through video.

Flipping through the science section of your city’s newspaper can be a demanding experience (if you can first find the science section) and often leads to abandonment in favour of the sunny skies and tranquil shores of the travel section. However, science videos, if done right, can be equally engaging and informative and far more stimulating than any travel vlog or photo essay.

While scientists have struggled to disseminate the results of near-inscrutable discoveries to the masses for as long as people have been flying kites, sitting under apple trees, or watching the moon glide slowly across the night sky, today, thousands of scientific concepts are waiting to be uncovered by inquisitive citizens at the click of a button.

If you found yourself looking up heliocentric while reading this post or feel that you may need to reacquaint yourself with the scientific method then I encourage you to head over to YouTube to discover some of these concepts for yourself:

  • The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada recently hosted a video contest where current graduate students from across the country were encouraged to share their research with the world in a video under 1 minute in length. That may seem like a daunting task but Morgan Jackson—who happens to study in my department—from the University of Guelph took home top prize with his take on why flies might not be the pests most people think of them as.
  • For those looking upgrade their fundamental science knowledge to help out when homework questions arise, Khan Academy offers the complete low-down on chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, and medicine with easy to follow videos, all for free.
  • Last up is AsapSCIENCE, a weekly video series produced by two Guelph grads with a passion for communicating tricky bits of scientific knowledge in easy-to-digest, bite-sized morsels (like what would happen if you stopped going outside?). These two curious communicators started uploading videos in 2012 and now have over 3.8 million subscribers; some of their videos have been viewed over 15 million times!

One thing you’ll notice as you watch these videos is that they’re all very short, most of them coming in under four minutes. While not everyone has the time to sit down and watch an entire episode of Cosmos, almost everyone has five minutes to spare to expand his or her scientific knowledge on YouTube. And that’s why video is such an effective tool for science communicators; it provides viewers with a visual medium to learn as little or a much as they wish, at their own pace.

As video production tools become more and more accessible we’re only going to see the number of science communicators increase, and that can only be a good thing.

Do you have a favourite science video from YouTube? I’d love to hear about something that piqued your curiosity.


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