Monday, August 18, 2014

What I learned from the podcast: You Are Not So Smart on The New Science Communicators

Host David McRaney begins this episode of his very excellent You Are Not So Smart podcast by reminiscing about Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, James Burke, Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Decades ago, when some of us were kids, the popularity of these entertaining and educational shows made a big contribution to science education beyond what we got in school.

McRaney reckons high returns from reality television programming then got in the way, and these shows all but disappeared or lost out to ones about exploding things. The only bright note on television, and it is a big one, is the recent reappearance of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. At this point I had to pause the podcast to meet a colleague for lunch, wincing a bit over the passing of this golden age of television science.

But when I picked it up again, McRaney’s story became more encouraging as he described a new generation of science communicators who have gained huge audiences through podcasts and video episodes on YouTube. The average audience of Game of Thrones is 7 million people, and the new Cosmos holds its own with an audience of 6 million (if I wrote the numbers down right). According to McRaney most YouTube channels get about the same amount of viewers, or more.

For example, there are 7.5 million subscribers to the Vsauce YouTube channels, and their video on what would happen if everyone earth jumped at the same time has over 13 million views! They passed a milestone in June: one billion views across the entire video series.

McRaney’s guest on the podcast is Joe Hanson from the blog and PBS-sponsored YouTube channel, It’s Okay To Be Smart. Hanson says there have always been curious and intelligent people who think science is fun and want to know more. It’s just that now we can follow our curiosity via podcasts and YouTube programs that circumvent the old gatekeepers: TV producers.

McRaney’s entire conversation with Hanson is well worth the listen. Their discussion ranges from critiques of pop science based on trivia (‘the science of farts’!), to the need to elicit emotional responses in science communication, to the importance of connecting science with meaning. They also talk about why it’s important for people to like the person who’s talking to them about science and what story-telling does for science communication that documentaries can’t.

Their conversation about scientific literacy and ideology was particularly interesting -- making a distinction between folks’ understanding of how scientists view a topic and their acceptance of that as truth. The answers can be a political litmus test on either side. (For more on this topic, I recommend this essay about the importance of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s public statements on GM technology.)

Not only have I found myself talking nonstop about everything I learned from this podcast to anyone who will listen, I’ve also been wondering how this trend applies to those of us with an interest in communicating better about the science around agriculture, food and nutrition. 

Most of the YouTube or video content on agriculture, food and nutrition consists of advocacy pieces produced, hosted and promoted directly by interested parties. There’s not a lot on the science itself.

These new general science videos seem to skew toward engineering, physics, animal or medical sciences. I was able to easily find only a few on topics related to plant science or agriculture. Scishow has episode about bananas which describes how they are cultivated and efforts to combat plant diseases. They also have one on changes in honeybee population (colony collapse disorder), including potential links to agriculture production methods. The Crash Course channel has an episode on the agricultural revolution. But that's as far as it goes, for now.

Maybe we are not so smart!

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