What Are the Most Sucessful Examples of New Media Science Communication?

By Chris Mooney | November 13, 2009 12:54 pm

This is a subject I’m thinking about this morning, as I’m presenting to my fellow Knight Fellows about the new media, and specifically about blogging. Ironically, though, I’m going to argue that blogging is not the best or most effective form of existing science communication online, for many of the reasons outlined in Unscientific America. But trying to be positive rather than negative, I’m also going to point out what is: Viral YouTube videos that introduce nonscientific audiences, in the millions, to scientific thinking in a very thoughtful and memorable way.

What are the best examples of such videos? Well, I’m open to suggestions, but I see two particularly outstanding cases out there. In first place, viewed by over 5 million people, is the hilarious “Large Hadron Rap,” probably the best PR move CERN ever made:

In second place, meanwhile, I’d highlight Oregon high school teacher Greg Craven’s “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See,” explaining in a truly convincing fashion that whether or not you believe global warming is caused by humans, logic still compels you to support the need to take action. This one clocks in at well over 2 million views:

In my view, these videos are by far the best examples of using new media to get the word out about science. What do others think, either about the best and most widely watched YouTube vids or other new media innovations? And does anyone want to argue back with the case for blogs?

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Comments (21)

Links to this Post

  1. Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 11/16/2009 | November 16, 2009
  1. Gaythia

    I don’t think that this has to be an elimination, either/or decision. Some of us do actually still read books, after all. (That should come as a relief to those of you who write them). And of course, we are obviously blog readers or we wouldn’t be here reading this blog.

    All kinds of media can be utilized to get the message across. For example the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University is trying cartoons, as this article I found on Grist shows: http://www.grist.org/article/2009-11-05-climate-psychology-in-cartoons-clues-for-solving-the-messaging/P1

    But I agree, YouTube videos are hot, and very effective.

  2. John Kwok

    Consistently I regard Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy and Carl Zimmer’s Loom as two of the very best blogs out there (Don’t know whether David Grinspoon is keeping a blog, but if he is, then I would also have to nominate him.).

  3. Guy

    Shows like NOVA a great for science education.

    Lately, I’ve been watching the PBS series “Becoming Human.” It’s not a big budget production but it does present the science in an interesting way. No doubt the kids who watch it will be more interested in learning about evolution and some will choose science careers.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/

  4. Leibnitzjr

    There is also http://www.scivee.tv, which is a dedicated science video and community site targeted at both professional scholars as well as educators and students.

  5. What is the evidence that nonscientific audiences have watched the videos in question? It seems unlikely that most of the 5 million who have watched the LHC video were non-scientists, because the LHC is a relatively obscure scientific facility.

    Something like this They Might Be Giants video stands a better chance of reaching more nonscientists.

  6. bilbo

    The feeling I get from blogs is that, while they get a ton of views, a majority of those views come from a relatively small cadre of frequent readers (although there are exceptions). This hold true especially for those who comment on blogs (go to almost any blog and you see the same names coming up again and again and again and again and….).

    Something else about blogs (again just speculation) is that they almost tend to quash debate. “Debate” in the blogosphere almost always takes the form of “I said X. Bill said he didn’t disagree with part of X. Therefore, Bill is a complete idiot (not just about X but about everything else) and I’m completely right.” There doesn’t seem to be a ton of ability out there for bloggers to critically examine themselves and admit when they’re being silly and/or making weak points. That goes for science blogs as much as it does any kind of blog – political, entertainment, sports, you name it. It’s less about discussion and more about fighting and playing to your sidelines.

    My .02, anyway.

  7. Somite

    Yes!! The best example of science communication I have EVER seen is the They Might be Giants album “Here Comes Science” Everything a child needs to know about science in general until they reach high school. Case in point. My 5th grader’s teacher asks in class for examples of chemical reactions, my son retorts immediately and loudly “Silicone and Oxygen make concrete, bricks and glass”.

    Maybe the album would not be to the standards of this blog because is includes sentences like “I enjoy stories about elves and Angels but for the truth I prefer science”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0zION8xjbM

  8. Gaythia

    But how many parents who select “There Might Be Giants” for their children also select analogous material for themselves?

  9. Somite

    Rational parents?

  10. If there’s any objection on this blog to “Here Comes Science” it’s likely to be from where TMBG stands on Pluto.

    As for analogous material for the parents, citing philosopher Rudolf Carnap in the video for “Science is Real” suggests the band doesn’t have a bright wall separating their audiences on this album.

  11. There’s a fairly straightforward way of thinking about this. What new scientific facts have I learned lately that I can remember off the top of my head, and where did I get them from? Here’s my top 5 list (of non-academic sources, obviously).

    1. Ionization is the separation of electrons from molecules. Wikipedia.
    2. Canadian philosophy graduates make up a small percentage of those hired at Canadian philosophy departments. Leiter Reports blog, via Facebook.
    3. The large Hadron collider is designed to find the Higgs-Boson. The Daily Show (or Colbert, I forget which).
    4. The musical scale is universal (perhaps innate). Youtube.
    5. Under some uses, Pluto and Eris are still referred to as a subspecies of “planet” (dwarf planet). Wikipedia.

    I don’t recall much from either this blog or Pharyngula that fits the bill, so I guess that’s consistent with your thesis. But when I do use blogs (i.e., Leiter reports), and recall something about them, it’s because it fits with some of my life projects and so on, because they pretend to be reliable resources. So for instance I do recall being frequently motivated to look into academic papers of my own accord in order to shore up my arguments in blog comments, but it’s not relevant to your point I take it.

  12. My favorite viral videos depicting science, along the lines of the LHC rap, are the video clips “Beware the Believers” (Dawkins rap, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaGgpGLxLQw) and the awesome “A Glorious Dawn” (Carl Sagan’s remix http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc).

  13. Clark

    My only problem with the “Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See” is that he is basically using Pascal’s Wager in terms of Global Warming as opposed to Religion. This same logic works towards just about anything you can throw out there, like building rocket ships to take the top 1% of the Human Race into space with the impending apocalypse scheduled for 2012. If we don’t do it, and we are wrong, the human race will die. If we do it and we are wrong, then we’ve achieved an amazing feat. We if do it and we are right, then we’ve saved the human race, etc.

    I think a good example of a viral video show casing science is either “The Power of Ten” or “A Glorious Dawn.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wm0bIuAVmOA

  14. Chris,
    This may be too late for your presentation to your fellow Fellows, but “The Most Terrifying Video” has garnered around 7.7 million views total on various websites, mostly Break (1 million), my posting on YouTube (2.6 million), and John4’s posting on YouTube (3.4 million before he took it down a year ago).

    John4’s posting may be useful to chew on as you guys discuss this. Several months after I’d posted the video the views on my YT posting were in the upper hundred thousands, when someone emailed me calling my attention to my video re-posted on John4’s channel. At that point it had almost 2 million. So the re-posting by someone I didn’t know actually ended up going more viral than my own. No idea how that happened. Part of the chaotic nature of complex networks. :-)

    Another mental chew toy for your discussions: the week my book came out I went to my local Border’s, excited to find it with my young daughters. Was distraught to find it buried in the back, spine-out, since I’d hoped it would at least be on the “New non-fiction” shelf at the front . But the interesting point here is that I noticed a book based on *another* viral video (“Where in the Hell is Matt”) *was* face-out in the “New Releases” section. So viral videos don’t necessarily translate to book exposure. I don’t know enough about book publishing to say whether that was because my book sucked, or because there was a marketing problem.

    Cheers,
    Greg Craven
    Corvallis, Oregon

  15. Susan

    There are been some graphic (comic) books that explain science starting with Larry Gonick. More recently there is there is The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA by Mark Schultz, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. Today I heard about Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller, illustrated by Nicolle Rager Fuller.

  16. Somite

    Greg: If it makes you feel any better I recently bought two of your books..:)

    http://twitter.com/Toxicpath/status/5713808688

  17. I have a love story with this video, The Inner Life of Cell:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVvvx5HGpLg

    If you are not a biologist, it is mostly impossible to understand what is it you are seeing, even once you know you are inside a cell.

    But it is absolutely irrelevant. Because it is just beautiful.

  18. NO, not at all “successes”, on the very contrary it is the path to utter debasement of rationality.
    Because, in the appeal to emotional arguments it is the likes of Malcom Gladwell who will win the audience.
    Quite paradoxical that it is Michael Nielsen who linked to both topics, a confused guy if there is one in spite of his brilliance.

  19. John Kwok

    I saw a superb piece of science journalism last night on “60 Minutes” which profiled the ongoing work and career of celebrated vertebrate paleontologist Jack Horner, who was a consultant to (and the role model for the fictitious Alan Grant) the “Jurassic Park” movies. Along with Horner, there were insightful interviews with noted evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll and Horner’s protege, now colleague, Mary Schweitzer. Definitely one of the best examples of televised science journalism not done by a science journalist that I have seen in a while.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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