Use Humor (and Facts) to Counter Pseudoscience

I’m often asked by my colleagues why science professionals should use video to share their work. My response is that video is one of the most effective and popular ways to share information today. If you want to share your science, you need to adopt modern means. Video has become the most crowd-pleasing way to reach an audience, especially a global audience. So much so, that science skeptics and people pushing pseudoscience theories have enthusiastically adopted the medium of video to spread their beliefs. And, some of them have gotten really good at it. To effectively counter videos that promote, for example, the idea that the earth is flat, that vaccines cause autism, or that NASA faked the moon landing, there must be equally compelling videos that debunk these blatantly false ideas (I’m not providing links because I don’t want to promote any of these fake science sites; you can find multiple videos supporting such theories on YouTube….or you can just take my word for it).

I should hasten to add that not everyone is cut out to be a debunker of pseudoscience, and I’m not recommending that the average scientist attempt it. However, there are science organizations, science professionals, and knowledgeable laypeople who try to set the record straight. Some use just the facts. Some use humor. Some use the original research published in the scientific literature. All use video to deliver their death blows to the purveyors of fake science.

Below are three examples that take one of these approaches.

7 Minutes of Terror (NASA) – How NOT to Bore Your Video Audience

Scientists are increasingly using video to share their work with colleagues and the public, but struggle to make their information interesting and understandable. In the video review embedded below, I used the NASA/JPL-Caltech video, 7 Minutes of Terror, to discuss ways to improve science videos.

The NASA video provides several great examples of techniques to sustain viewer interest and to improve understanding and retention of technical information—in this case, it’s literally “rocket science”. I break down the NASA video to illustrate how the use of visuals, metaphors, non-technical language, and a 3-part story structure can help science video makers avoid boring their audience to death. Take a look:

If you find this review useful, please “like” my video on YouTube. Want more video reviews like this? Leave a comment here or on YouTube to let me know what you would like to see.

NASA’s Ocean Garbage Patch Visualization Experiment

Tons of garbage are floating around in the world’s oceans. Where does it go? What might the patterns of garbage movement reveal about ocean currents?

NASA’s Data Visualization Studio has created a series of animations of the so-called ocean garbage patches. They used data collected by floating, scientific buoys that NOAA has been deploying for the past 35 years. The resultant videos dramatically illustrate how large garbage patches develop in the ocean.

In a series of videos, NASA animators show the buoys as white dots against a world map and where they have moved over time. You can see where the buoys move in two different simulations: one based on the actual deployment date and one in which all buoys are released simultaneously. The animations clearly show garbage migration patterns.The buoys end up in one of five known gyres in the ocean, where the largest ocean garbage patches develop.

NASA animators also used a computational model of ocean currents called ECCO-2 to see how ocean currents would move simulated buoys if they were released evenly around the world. In all these visualizations, the buoys end up in the same regions of the ocean.

Below, is one of the NASA videos that summarizes the above information:

GoPro in a Water Bubble

Here’s something you can’t do with your GoPro on Earth: Suspend it within a floating bubble of water. Astronauts on the International Space Station created a large water bubble in the microgravity environment and then slipped a GoPro Hero camera inside to film from within the floating bubble. They were supposedly studying surface tension in microgravity, but produced a really neat video in the process. Take a look:

NASA Visualizers Win NSF-Science Magazine Video Contest

“What safeguards our solar system is our star. The sun provides a shield stretching dynamicearthstillbeyond the last planet in its orbit..a force field that deflects these cosmic rays. But these solar winds can be dangerous, too. Especially during outbursts called coronal mass ejections. Want a vision of Earth gone wrong? Just look at what solar storms do to our sister planet, Venus.”

That is the opening narration (by actor Liam Neeson) of the NASA film, “Coronal Mass Ejection and Ocean/Wind Circulation”, that has won first place in a contest sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Science Magazine. What follows are outstanding animations of cosmic particles spreading across the solar system and sweeping around Venus and the Earth. The video goes on to explain how Earth has avoided the fate of Venus and then describes how most of the solar energy is deflected but what is absorbed is enough to drive our climate. The latter is illustrated by animations of wind and ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream. This video is an excerpt from a larger movie called the Dynamic Earth, which is being shown in planetariums around the world.

Watch the winning video (with Liam Neeson narration):

Watch the version submitted to contest on YouTube:

More about Dynamic Earth:

More about the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge:

Image Credit: Still from “Dynamic Earth”, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The NASA video and most of the videos that won Honorable Mention in this contest were created by skilled teams of animators and videographers. However, one of the Honorable Mentions was produced by a team of scientists led by Geoffrey Harlow, a biology student: