A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Simon Clark about using YouTube as a platform to communicate science.
Simon Clark is a video maker and science communicator with a PhD in theoretical atmospheric physics. He has created YouTube content since 2010 and is currently working on communicating science through an educational and science-related series on this platform.
What initially motivated you to start a YouTube channel as a climate scientist? Have your motivations changed since you finished your PhD?
Simon Clark: I initially started the channel when I was an undergraduate student to help kids apply to Oxford and Cambridge. I went to Oxford as a state school student which was quite unusual. This is partly because very few people at a state school know someone who is studying there. When I was applying, there was nothing on YouTube about Oxford so there was a gap in the market and I thought I could do something useful to fill the gap.
Now that I have been invested in by society, who let me do my PhD and spend eight years at university, I feel like I have a social debt to pay. So I am taking distilled versions of what I’ve learnt and distributing it to a general audience.
I think helping the public to understand research is the responsibility of all scientists, particularly when their research is focused on the climate. If you are capable of reading scientific papers and reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I think you have a responsibility to communicate the results. Because if people don’t understand the problem, they won’t fix it. And this is a problem that needs fixing!
Did you see a change in the way science was being communicated during the pandemic?
Simon Clark: There was a definite shift. I think scientists have been on social media more which is great because it helps to contextualise scientific research. It demonstrates to the public that science doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. Individual experts also seem to be getting a growing amount of attention. I think this makes it increasingly important for scientists to support each other and amplify good research. Researchers should share the expertise of their colleagues so that people can see and understand how many other scientists also support it.
There’s also been an uptick in the number of people creating and watching livestreams on platforms such as Twitch. Livestreaming is done in real-time, creating an immediate feedback loop between the content creator and the people consuming it. This allows you to do things that you can’t do elsewhere. Things like Q&A sessions are incredibly easily. As a creator, you can see your audience form new ideas in real-time and that’s incredibly fun!
Should scientists engage with misinformation in the comment section of YouTube and on social media or is it better to ignore it?
Simon Clark: It feels quite authoritarian, but I’ve decided that shadow banning certain commentators is actually a net positive in terms of information flow; commentators who are shadow banned on YouTube are not informed but their comments will no longer be seen by others. Essentially, it means that they are shouting their disinformation into a void and receiving zero engagement.
The problem is, when you decide to debate someone who is spreading misinformation, you actually risk signal boosting their nonsense and the idea that you can reject facts. A video’s comments section is often just as prominent as the video itself and the more engagement a specific comment receives, the more it is promoted and seen by others.
If you can spot something that is clearly a fundamental misunderstanding, and it appears genuine, then I think it is okay to engage with it. It’s also fine to respond if the post already has a lot of engagement and your comment won’t boost it much further.
The other issue is that climate denialists can create a blog post or a video in a single afternoon while a scientific paper will need six months to refute it. So, responses from scientists on social media are still needed to make sure misinformation doesn’t proliferate.
What skills should scientists develop to become effective science communicators?
Simon Clark: Science communication is storytelling. Education is storytelling. It uses exactly the same principles and as soon as you understand that, you become infinitely more engaging as a science communicator. People like being told stories and if those stories end up telling them something about the world or about themselves, so much the better!
So, the skills that scientists should develop are storytelling skills. I learnt these skills from doing public speaking, watching YouTube videos, and learning about how to make movies and write books.
What advice would you give other climate scientists who want to start a YouTube channel as a way of communicating science?
Simon Clark: Formatting is something that everybody forgets about when it comes to making media. Specifically, how your target audience uses the platform and what format they are used to. Scientists also need to identify the audience that they’re trying to reach as well as chose a sub-genre of YouTube videos that they want to use.
For example, I saw somebody who was making ASMR videos, the kind of videos that people listen to when they want to fall asleep, on climate finance. That’s amazing! ASMR has a huge community and a huge potential audience. So, finding the format and the sub-genre that you want to focus on is crucial.
You also have to accept the fact that the first 100 videos that you make are unlikely to be of the desired quality. But eventually, you’ll hit a point where you’ve got all the easy mistakes out of the way and feel like you know what you’re doing.