Use Video To Tell Interesting Stories About How Science Works

When I first began making videos in 2008 about my scientific research (published on the U.S. Geological Survey’s YouTube Channel), my objective was to more widely report the findings of my projects and to help advertise my journal articles. For example, the video “Chasing the Mud” was designed to explain how I and colleagues studied the effects of the historic 2011 Mississippi River flood and to summarize the results of our paper published in Nature Geoscience. When I was interviewed by a news agency about the paper, I provided the link to the video, which the journalist then embedded in the news article. The video, which has had almost 12,000 views, thus served to augment the academic article in a format that was more accessible to the general public.

However, beyond reporting the results of our study, that video also featured the unique wetlands we visited during our sampling surveys and showed how we used a helicopter to access remote study sites in the Mississippi River Delta Complex. In later videos, such as this one about a study conducted in mangrove forests in Belize, I often emphasized my experiences doing fieldwork and the methods required. In other words, these videos showed the viewer how science gets done and some of the interesting places where scientists work.

Since those early videos, I’ve tried to encourage colleagues to make videos highlighting interesting aspects of their work and to avoid boring the viewer with a lot of data. Another point is that you can make a video about your work even before the final results are in or before you publish the paper. For example, you can make a video about why your research is important to society, to describe your field of research, obstacles you’ve overcome, your unique research setting or methods, or to overturn stereotypes about scientists. All such videos can be done without research results and are likely to be more interesting to the average viewer.

A recent essay and video illustrate my point nicely. Adrian Smith, who studies ants, filmed himself being bitten. In the video (see below), he basically answered the question as to whether it would hurt to be bitten by a trap-jaw ant, which can shut its jaws “faster than almost any other recorded animal movement”. In the essay, Smith said that this experience changed his outlook on communicating science. He realized that, by mainly focusing on conveying the results of scientific endeavors, he had missed opportunities to tell more compelling stories about his experiences doing science. By emphasizing a fascinating observation or answering a question that viewers might have, it’s possible to reach a wider audience and interest them in your research topic. His video below shows an example of this approach.

You, too, can take advantage of this approach and make a video about an interesting or inspiring aspect of your scientific research. Below, I repeat a list of suggested topics to use as the focus of a brief video.

  • Share your joy about doing science.
  • Describe what you like most about being a scientist or your particular science discipline.
  • Talk about a challenge that you faced and how you overcame it.
  • Describe a failure and what you learned from it.
  • Show where you work (laboratory or field) and explain what you like about it.
  • Demonstrate your passion for your scientific topic and why you think it is important.
  • Describe how your curiosity led you to a discovery.
  • Talk about scientific integrity and how you strive to avoid bias.
  • Point out the challenge of finding sufficient funding to conduct your research.
  • Show how your research is helping a local community cope with a health or environmental issue.
  • Have citizens, resource managers, farmers, doctors, or other end users of science information describe the importance of your research to them.

Metafact

There is a new fact-checking platform for science questions being developed called Metafact. This effort is designed to make valid science information readily accessible to the average citizen. To accomplish this objective, the platform matches verified scientists and experts to questions posed by users. So far, Metafact has verified 11,398 experts in 389 specialties from 555 institutions.

I visited the founder, Ben McNeil, at the University of New South Wales in 2015. At the time, Ben had just initiated a program called Thinkable to help researchers find funding. I was in Australia to attend a conference and made time to visit Ben to give a talk and to discuss science communication (see this post for more details).

To find out more about this new effort and to support it, check out Metafact’s Kickstarter page. To sign up as an expert, go here.

But I’m Not Artistic!

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, public domain

“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced” – Vincent Van Gogh

That quote by Van Gogh is about our internal censor—the voice that erodes our confidence and prevents us from trying something new or challenging. Whenever I talk to a group of students or colleagues about making videos about their scientific research, someone invariably responds by saying that they aren’t very artistic and thus cannot be very good at videography. So, why even try?

I understand why they might think this way. Many people are reluctant to engage in any activity that presupposes creativity or artistic ability. Musicians and artists are believed to be somehow different—that they possess inherent talents the average person lacks.

However, as children, we all happily and unselfconsciously draw vivid pictures and make up imaginative stories. Then something happens. A teacher or parent says something discouraging, or our peers make fun of us. Or, as we grow older, other activities draw our attention, and that artistic spark fails to evolve.

I was lucky in that I continued to draw and sketch through childhood. I was an aspiring scientist and spent a lot of time drawing plants, insects, and protozoa that I could see with my microscope. I knew that such detailed drawings were important records for a biologist or ecologist to create. Even after digital devices came on the scene, I continued to sketch in my field notebooks and in the personal journals I kept. My ability to capture an image using only pencil and paper matured. Each drawing was better than the last one. I even became good enough to work as a free-lance scientific illustrator for a while.

My point is that any skill, whether artistic or not, improves over time with practice. With videography, your first attempts will likely not be great, perhaps even terrible. But it doesn’t matter because you will improve with each succeeding video you make. This point  is especially relevant for scientists and other professionals who want to use video as a communication tool. We’ll likely never be as good as a trained filmmaker, but we can still produce effective videos.

In fact, the scientist videographer’s goal is not to be a professional filmmaker but is instead to be a more effective science communicator. Scientists must still learn to communicate using traditional means such as writing articles for publication in journals and speaking at conferences. But we must also be able to use other media to communicate, such as video, which is now a popular way for people to get their information.

And by the way, there is no right way or wrong way to make a video. Worrying about making a technical error or being judged from a filmmaking standpoint is paralyzing. I always advise students who suffer from writer’s block to, “Just write and get your ideas down first; go back later and polish.” Most find that once they are freed from the fear of making a technical error or of not writing the perfect sentence, the words begin to flow.

That approach also works for videography. If you find yourself paralyzed with doubts, just start filming—yourself or others conducting field research or working in the laboratory. Film with the thought that you’ll not necessarily use all of the footage in your video. That view will likely free you to capture a variety of footage and give you some much-needed confidence about filming. I think you’ll find that once you’ve got some footage in hand, the creative juices will begin to flow.

So, if you are disappointed in your first attempts at videography (or are hesitant to even try), remember that even the best videographers were once novices. The difference is that they ignored their internal censor, which was gradually silenced as they made each succeeding video.

For more about this topic see: The Stages of Learning Videography (and Other Skills)

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):

Barriers to Science Communication and How to Overcome Them

I embarked on an effort to help colleagues and students use video as a communication tool on May 21, 2012, just over five years ago. During that time, I’ve learned a lot, especially about what can deter science professionals from trying a new means of communicating their science.

One of the most frequent comments I have gotten from colleagues is that they don’t really see the need for them to spend time 1) learning non-traditional ways to communicate (social media, blogs, videos) or 2) engaging the public. While such comments did not surprise me (I had once thought the same thing), I recognized the potential consequences of this attitude. Among other things, I understood that scientists needed to be familiar to and trusted by the general public, but that our traditional behaviors were sometimes interpreted to be arrogant, uncaring, or self-serving.

In my early talks on science communication, I often included a prophetic quote from a British report on science communication: “In modern democratic conditions, science, like any other player in the public arena ignores public attitudes and values at its peril” (Anon. Science and Society Report, House of Lords, 2000). As we’ve all seen in recent months, the scientific community in the U.S. has received a rude wake-up call to the fact that the science enterprise is under attack and that one reason is the failure on the part of science practitioners to effectively communicate why science is important to society. As a consequence, some science professionals are rethinking their past practice of staying sequestered in their ivory towers and avoiding contact with the people who fund their research (i.e., taxpayers). The most dramatic manifestation of this shift was the March for Science, held in Washington, D.C. April 22, 2017 and in various other locations around the world.

Granted, there are lots of pitfalls in putting yourself and your science on public display, especially without the training to do it properly. But I think we’re seeing that staying disengaged from the public is perhaps even more dangerous. We are in a critical transition period—from a time when only a select few scientists communicated with the public to a situation in which anyone with a cell phone and an Internet connection can reach millions of viewers with their science message. At the same time, antiscience groups are on the rise and taking advantage of advances in communication technology. My impression is that those who are attacking science and “facts” are far more skilled at crafting and delivering their messages than those of us in science. And they appear to be far better organized and dedicated to communicating their message than we are. This dichotomy should be disturbing to all science professionals.

Those of us in science are still learning how (and whether) to make use of new means of communication; not surprisingly, there can be mistakes and failures during this learning phase. However, with proper training and preparation, the next generation of science professionals will be better positioned to navigate this new communication landscape. Better training, combined with a new impetus for scientists to engage in non-traditional means of communicating their science, will help to overcome the barriers described above.

When I started this blog, there was some help for scientists interested in learning new communication approaches, but not a lot focused on teaching science professionals how to use video to share their work. In this blog and on my YouTube channel, I’ve aimed my tips and tutorials at the working science professional who doesn’t have the resources to hire a media specialist or the technical skills and training to make their own videos (as opposed to professional science communicators who have formal training in crafting science messages and in the use of audiovisual media to convey those messages). My goal has been to help others avoid mistakes and waste time in preparing science videos.

In celebration of my blog’s anniversary (and reward for reading to the end of this post), I’ve made my book, The Scientist Videographer (text version) available for free at InstaFreebie. It’s part of a 20-author giveaway–check it out!