Making Accurate Science Accessible: An Interview with YouTuber Simon Clark
Tom Dormer, Online Science Editor, talks to YouTube Scientist and Wikicast co-host, Simon Clark, about how he makes accurate and informative science videos for a large audience.
Why is it important to communicate science?
Well, funnily enough I just read part of the ‘Oxford History of Science’, and there’s a chapter on science communication. When you actually look back through history, a lot of science communication is really, very limited in scope.
The emphasis was very much on science as like a technological agent of change in society. It was also, to a certain extent ‘glorifying nature’ and ‘isn’t science just amazing’.
And I feel like both of those are rational arguments for talking to people about science, because I think the world is enriched when we understand more about our surroundings.
“My philosophy when it comes to writing scripts, is basically that people are more intelligent than the media gives them credit for.”
It’s also the way of looking at things rather than the actual facts that are important. You want people to say ‘Ok, I’ve heard this thing – how can I verify it? Where does the data come from? What is the reputation of that scientific journal?’
I think that your life is improved if you can look at information in different ways, and the more perspectives you can cast on a subject, then the richer your understanding of it is.
How do you try and make science more accessible for a larger audience?
My philosophy when it comes to writing scripts, is basically that people are more intelligent than the media gives them credit for. I think that people unnecessarily dumb things down.
There’s definitely a balancing point between the full complexity of the IPCC Papers, and Newsround, but I genuinely think that people assume a lowest common denominator which is too low.
In my experience the best way to make something broadly appealing, is to make a simplified version (so it’s not making things wrong but it’s stripping out some of the complexity), and then going through and filling in that complexity.
Especially in the case of a long YouTube video, people (if they’re not interested) will just tune out, but they have still got some of the basic information there.
As well as that, something I’ve been trying to pioneer is actually using proper referencing, so if I mention a paper, I actually have a link to that paper as an on-screen citation.
I think if you give people the details and say, ‘if you’d like to learn more, this is where it is’, people appreciate not being babied.
How do you make interesting videos which are also informative and accurate?
There’s this perception that you have to compromise between educational quality and storytelling, and I think people go about it completely the wrong way. You should be approaching education as storytelling.
I remember the best lecture I ever had in my life was about solving the 3-dimensional heat equation and cooking a spherical chicken.
The layout to the lecture was: Introduce a problem, BUT do this, THEREFORE this happens – and those are the key two words actually.
The guys who made South Park did a University Talk where they basically said: you should write out your story and between every story scene you should have the words ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. I think you can do that in education and you can view any kind of educational experience as a story that you’re telling.
I remember I tried that really explicitly on the Etymology of Sin and Cos, where I wrote out the script on post-it notes, before I put the words ‘but’ and ‘therefore’ in between each note.
That went on to be really successful and it’s something that I actually need to come back to since I’ve gone to massively big productions like the one I did on Planet’s in the MCU.
How do you tackle misinformation online through social media and your videos?
So, on social media there is a very difficult decision to be made. By responding to somebody, you necessarily legitimise their point because it makes it seem that it’s worth responding too.
However, if you don’t reply then you are allowing that community to fester unchallenged, and letting them think that they’re not being challenged because they’re right. So, you kind of have an impossible dilemma there.
In terms of videos, what I’ve learned is that, I think you have to be very careful about where you are taking the discourse. A video I’ve been asked to make so many times is “Reacting to Climate Change Comments” and I’ve been really reluctant to because you’re elevating them and giving them a platform.
“That’s really the essence of how to be successful in any media – have a thick skin, self-criticise and keep going (and be very clear about what you are trying to do).”
I very nearly just outright banned comments on one of my videos because climate deniers were basically using it as a messaging board. The fact that I have a large YouTube channel and you’re commenting this, means that hundreds of thousands of people are also going to see these comments.
I decided not to the end, because where does that leave the discourse? Is it leaving it into an inclusive or exclusive place? You don’t want to belittle these people because you want to win them over, and if not them, then the people who think they may have a point.
Do you have any advice to people wanting to get into science communication through videos or other means?
Definitely on YouTube, and this is probably applicable elsewhere as well, because the marketplace is so saturated (I think there’s 300 hours are uploaded every minute) you have to stand out in some way.
In order to do that, you have to be very clear about what you’re doing and specialise in what your YouTube channel is. It has to be summed up in a sentence.
I think Twitch and live streaming generally is a more interesting one. I would encourage people to try and do science communication on Twitch, because the audience on Twitch is largely young (it’s largely people at school) and people are already on the site and eager for new interesting content. I definitely think that there’s an untapped potential for science communication on Twitch specifically.
In all media however, it’s a case of ‘keep making stuff’. The best piece of advice I was ever given was, “your first 50 videos are going to be crap, then your next 100 will be ok, and then they’ll get good”.
You learn by making mistakes. That’s really the essence of how to be successful in any media – have a thick skin, self-criticise and keep going (and be very clear about what you are trying to do).
If people reading this have an idea which they think is their big idea, then pursue it. The only way to find out if it’s a good idea or not, is to try it. If it doesn’t work, you’ve gained experience, if it does work, you’ve had a great idea.