Fishing by Wolves

A group of scientists just published a paper in the journal Mammalian Biology that describes wolves catching and eating freshwater fish. The researchers had put tracking collars on wolves, which showed that one group of wolves was spending an unusual amount of time in one spot. They set up cameras to see why the wolves were staying in one location and not moving as much as other groups. The cameras showed that the wolves were catching fish in a particular spot along a stream. That video was included in the online article. You can see it here.

I’ve talked before about using video to document wildlife, which could be used to augment a journal article. In this case, the video showed the reader exactly how the wolves were catching fish and supported the authors’ verbal description of this behavior.

Use Video to Debunk Bad Science

You’ve probably seen viral videos claiming some medical breakthrough and cleverly titled “Use this weird trick to cure [insert ailment]”. People seem to find this teaser title irresistible. Jonathan Jarry and colleagues at McGill University’s Office for Science and Society use a similar title for a video that has a surprising twist in store for gullible viewers: “This natural trick can cure your cancer”.

The video initially claims to present a cure for cancer based on a species of moss (Funariidae karkinolytae), that has been known since the 1800s. The reason you’ve not heard about it, the video claims, is because the knowledge has been suppressed by pharmaceutical companies. The video then shows an old, black and white photograph of a Dr. Johan R. Tarjany, who looks very professorial in his three-piece suit and bow tie, and describes him as the discoverer of the moss’s cancer-killing trait. The video then goes on to tell the story of the moss and how it kills cancer cells by altering their DNA. And, of course, Dr. Tarjany added the moss to his diet and guess what? He never developed cancer.

At this point, the viewer is probably impressed with Dr. Tarjany and his discovery. Except there is no Dr. Tarjany and everything so far presented is untrue. In the remaining minute, the video deconstructs the claims it made earlier about Dr. Tarjany and the cancer-killing moss. In the process, the video’s creators provide a blueprint for viewers to follow when confronted by such a claim–how to evaluate the “evidence” and look for inconsistencies in the “facts” presented.

In just a couple of minutes, this video shows how viewers can be fooled into believing a pseudoscientific idea and how to avoid it–and did it in a way that was entertaining. Using the pseudoscience playbook to make the video was particularly clever and effective. Check it out below (the comments are also interesting–see the link to YouTube):

Video As A Scientific Research Tool

Video has been used to record scientific phenomena for decades. Such recordings may simply serve to document an important event such as a volcanic eruption or give a glimpse of a rare animal, even one that no longer exists. For example, thanks to audio-visual records, we can watch footage of now extinct animals such as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (1935) and the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger (1933). Wildlife recordings were not only made by scientists, but by naturalists, resource managers, and professional photographers. Over time, researchers expanded the use of video to record experimental subjects—especially in fields such as animal behavior and child development—in an attempt to capture ephemeral behavior and transform it into more objective, quantitative information.

In a few cases, researchers have used video to create the experimental material presented to study subjects. For example, a study of wild marmosets used film footage of laboratory-trained monkeys performing tasks (opening a lid or a drawer) to see if the wild animals could learn by watching a video.The researchers made an “instructional video” with the laboratory footage of trained marmosets and set up a monitor in the field to display the video to wild marmosets. Then they tested the wild marmosets to see if they adopted any of the techniques shown in the video. You can watch the video here to see what happened.

The Heider-Simmel animation is another example of how video might be used in research. I’ve written before (Bully Triangles and Terrified Circles) about the fascinating animation video used by psychologists Heider and Simmel in their research on people’s propensity to anthropomorphize everything they see, including inanimate objects. The researchers showed the video to participants and assessed their reactions to it. If you’ve not seen this animation, I’ve embedded it below. It’s almost impossible not to make up a story about (or assign intent to) the geometric objects in the film clip.

Prior to digital cameras, personal computers, and editing software, however, film-based research required expensive equipment and technical skills to capture and process footage useful for research purposes. Consequently, video was not a common research tool, particularly in my field of ecology. How things have changed! The use of video in scientific research to record physical, chemical, and biological phenomena has exploded in recent years, and researchers in many disciplines are discovering video. Scientists now have access to affordable digital cameras that can be used to conduct research in various environments, such as underwater to measure fish populations or inside a colony of leafcutter ants.

Despite the recent uptick in use of video to conduct research, there are not a lot of technical guidelines or how-to manuals. Most scientists are working out the filming, editing, and analytical details themselves. For example, a student, Austin Taylor (Bodega Marine Laboratory Spring Class, 2012), studied the effect of wave action on the behavior of the intertidal black turban snails, which he filmed with a GoPro Hero 2 camera attached to a DIY tripod designed withstand waves. In addition to figuring out how to process the video to extract data on snail movement, he and his coauthors had to design and fabricate a unique camera mount to withstand the force of waves striking their intertidal field site.

You can read his technical paper, “Underwater video reveals decreased activity of rocky intertidal snails during high tides and cooler days”, published in Marine Ecology, to see details of camera setup and post-processing of the footage to quantify snail movements. Below is an example of the film he captured during the research:

As more researchers become aware of the possibilities of video, we’ll likely see more researchers experimenting with how video can be used to attain new research insights.

Yanny vs. Laurel

By now you should have heard about the audio clip in which a spoken word is perceived as “Yanny” or “Laurel” depending on the listener (I hear “Laurel”). Here is a brief video by AsapSCIENCE that concisely explains this auditory illusion and reveals which of the two words was actually recorded.

It’s a good example of how video can be used to explain the science behind a fascinating phenomenon. The creators used an electronic white board to create their video (see this post for a how-to tutorial).

Put a Human Face on Science by Filming Your Research

In my latest series of posts, I’ve been focusing on why scientists and other science professionals should be using video to share their experiences and to explain why their work matters to society. One reason is to combat the false information about science topics (the Earth is flat, NASA faked the moon landing, vaccines cause autism, etc.) and the anti-science movement, which questions the need for research and the motives of scientists. Such groups are technically savvy and understand the power of video to spread their message.

Now I’m not suggesting that you take on these anti-science folks.

Instead, you can make a video highlighting why your research is important and at the same time show your enthusiasm and dedication to finding solutions to problems. In other words, put a human face on the science. Videos featuring women and minorities are particularly needed to help inspire a more diverse scientific community. The following video accomplishes that objective by interviewing a South African scientist talking not only about what she researches but what attracted her to science in the first place.

Another video showing a large team of scientists on an expedition to collect deep ocean cores counters the outdated idea of the lone scientist working in an isolated laboratory. The video features scientists from different countries working together, day and night, to accomplish their research goals. In addition, the video shows the great care the scientists take in collecting, storing, and analyzing their core samples. Such videos give a more accurate picture of how and where scientists work and the diverse makeup of scientific teams.