The internet can make you an instant expert, at least it may seem that way. You only have to do a Google search and you can find pages of videos explaining science, and this can be a real minefield for public (mis)understanding. I am certainly not trying to discredit any particular creators of topics; I have used many of these resources in a previous life as a science teacher. Pupils used to love it when I showed them a video rather than have me explain it to them. They are concise and simple with visuals to help the information stick. However, is there a dark side?
This is entertainment! This means that some liberties have to be taken in these explanations, sometimes, perhaps often, sacrificing the crucial but complicated stuff for the sake of clarity. Or, sometimes a topic may not be fully researched or balanced. Science communicators can get caught up with their content, especially if it’s an emotionally charged topic. Authors can get lost in the issue and lose focus of the big picture. More insidiously, facts can also get in the way of an interesting story, resulting in the creation of “clickbait” or over-sensationalising headlines. If something doubles your risk of developing cancer, that certainly sounds scary, but if that is only raising your chances from 0.005% to 0.01% in a study on mice, that certainly changes things. This may seem like semantics, but it muddies the waters for how the general public perceive information, and if trust in scientific validity is eroded, it could have and already has had repercussions.
This problem is not limited to quacks peddling snake oil. Experts can fall into these traps. Getting work published in reputable scientific journals is difficult, with only high impact research making it onto the page. This means there is an epidemic of only the most buzzworthy papers being brought to the wider scientific community, leaving less interesting confirmation experiments (essential to solidify understanding), or experiments which lack a probability of significance (results due to random chance), unpublished.
So, what is to be done? There are examples of good and bad pop science out there; even seasoned veterans such as TED talks have videos which hit and miss the mark (e.g. power posing does not affect you physiologically – but if it makes you feel powerful, you do you). If these videos inspire people to go and learn more about a topic…….. great.
However, like all other things, science is hard. Getting a little taste of a subject from a video is a good start, but we need to be critical, be aware of bias and like all good scientists, we need to do research.
An edited version of this article featured in The Sunday Times of Malta, November 3, 2019