As we know, explaining complicated science concepts and implications of research findings in a way that is understandable, interesting, and entertaining to diverse audiences is not easy. One of the important science issues of the day, which decision-makers and the general public need to understand, is climate change. Several organizations, such as RealClimate, have attempted to communicate climate science via their websites, blogs, and other media.
This past spring (2012), the World Resources Institute (WRI), supported by google.org, ran a survey to find out which type of video format (“webcam”, “conversation”, and “whiteboard”) worked best for scientists to get across some complex information about climate change. Three scientists, Paul Higgins (American Meteorological Society), Brian Helmuth (University of South Carolina), and Andy Dessler (Texas A&M), were recruited for the project. For the “webcam” version, all three scientists filmed their own videos. The “conversation” version was composed of a slideshow with the scientists’ voiceover. The “whiteboard” videos were filmed at the WRI’s offices, where each scientist conducted their talk using a whiteboard to illustrate their points.
You can see all the videos here, but I’ve inserted three below (by Paul Higgins) so you can see how well (or not) they worked. Then, about 1500 people voted on which ones that most effectively communicated the science topic.
As you can see, none is very effective at communicating the science of climate change. And that’s not just my opinion. If you read the review comments, you see that a number of viewers thought the videos failed to engage. One commenter suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the bad videos were a ploy to get donations to make more professional videos about climate change (give us money or we’ll use these videos to communicate climate science to the public!). I actually had similar thoughts upon viewing these awkward and very dull presentations.
Also like the above commenter, I am not trying to disparage the scientists who participated in this project. They were given poor options of bad, bad, and worse, so no wonder they did not do well. Few of us could do better, given these three choices. The videos done by Dr. Helmuth were marginally better because he seems to be a bit less “stuck in his head” than Dr. Higgins; also, his topic (climate change effects on sea stars) is a bit more accessible to the average person than the carbon cycle. If you are a scientist and your topic deals with more abstract concepts, then you will have to work harder than someone who studies charismatic organisms or ecosystems, e.g., the Giant Panda or coral reefs.
Much better videos about climate change have been produced by Peter Sinclair (Climate Crock of the Week), which are usually well-done, include data from peer-reviewed publications as well as interviews with real scientists explaining their work and clips from the media and movies that add some humor and entertainment to the topic. Even the ones he’s done that are mostly composed of interviews with scientists are more engaging than the WRI videos. The most recent such video shot at the 2012 American Geophysical Union conference, even features one of the WRI scientists, Dr. Andrew Dressler, who comes across much better in this off-the-cuff interview than in the WRI videos.
Note how Sinclair inter-cuts footage, images, and graphics to supplement and support what the interviewees are saying. Not as well done as some of his other videos but the video has a spontaneous, unrehearsed feel to it, and most of the scientists sound sincere and natural in their comments.
I was additionally annoyed by the fact that the scientists selected for the WRI exercise were all older white males. I mean, really, couldn’t they find one female or minority to record a set of videos? If you are trying to reach a diverse audience, you need to show scientists to whom viewers can relate. A perfect example is the video of Katharine Hayhoe (a real climate scientist) answering 10 questions about her work and her religious beliefs:
Now, Dr. Hayhoe’s video was not designed to explain climate science or research findings and is not directly comparable to the WRI videos in that aspect. My point in showing it, however, is to emphasize how important it is for the scientist to be engaging and believable (as opposed to being preachy or appearing to have an agenda)….if you are going to do a “talking heads” type of video. Also, having a scientist with whom your target audience can relate (young or religious people, for example) is key to effectively communicating your message.
The intended audience of Dr. Hayhoe’s video was clearly people with strong religious beliefs and who’ve been targeted by the climate science misinformation campaign. The WRI videos are less clear about their target audience and appear to suffer from the common problem of the scientist failing to understand their audience (or expecting the audience to educate themselves so that they can understand the video topic). Most scientists think that facts, facts, and more facts are what is convincing to non-scientists, when the reverse is more often the case. Note how the video with Dr. Hayhoe focused on her beliefs, emotions, and humor….all effective in reaching the viewer at more than just an intellectual level. The scientists in the WRI videos appear to be robotic by comparison. Only after the viewer has come to “know” and “like” Dr. Hayhoe does the video ask and have her answer the key question: Is climate change real and are humans causing it?
If you must have a senior scientist explaining the main points, then have segments showing younger scientists or students working in the lab or field or, better yet, explaining their interest in the topic and why they’ve chosen to work on it. This approach will at least have some person with whom the younger or non-scientist viewer can relate. Unless you’re a TED-worthy speaker, capable of entrancing an audience by talking about incredible ideas or innovations, then you can’t do a video with just you talking.
The WRI videos followed few of the guidelines we’ve been discussing on this site, whereas the one with Katharine Hayhoe did, especially in terms of reaching an audience at an emotional level. In future posts, I’ll do a more in-depth assessment of these videos and why they did or did not work well.
Finally, it seemed that the idea for the WRI videos was to survey formats that scientists, with their apparent lack of videography skills, might use. Well, if these are the only options, scientists just shouldn’t bother and leave the filmmaking to professionals. However, as I’ve tried to demonstrate with this blog, most scientists can learn enough basics about filming and editing to create very effective videos.