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  • J D
  • South Ozone Park, NY
  • United States

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Why don't we treat science experiments like primetime TV?

Hodgkin and Huxley are credited with explaining the ionic mechanisms that underlie action potentials in neurons. Their experiment involved thrusting an electrode down the giant axon of a squid. They demonstrated their experimental methods on video, which can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/5vqscw There's something hypnotizing about watching meticulous lab preparation. On YouTube, the Hodgkin-Huxley squid video has over 14,000 views. I think it's reasonable to say that there are far more people today watching the video than there are people reading about the experimental method as described in their 1952 papers: http://tinyurl.com/ayta342

But low readership should be expected. Scientific papers are filled with jargon because they're written primarily for people who are an expert in the field. Videos, on the other hand, use visual language and can be appreciated by anyone.

When the findings of elaborate experiments have mass appeal, news sources may reduce the procedure and apparatus to only one paragraph. Imagine if news journalists supplemented their headlines about latest cancer-preventing diet with video footage of the experiment. I think the audience would be more critical, and some would be more likely to look for the original paper. Videos invite curiosity more effectively than text, and can inspire new uses for highly-specialized lab equipment.

But the biggest barrier to that ideal is intellectual property law. The Journal of Visual Experiments ( www.jove.com ) has an archive of high-quality, well-edited videos of research experiments, but the audience is limited to paying customers and institutions. Perhaps the distribution of such videos can be funded with web advertising alone.

The show "How it's Made" glorifies the manufacturing industry. Do you think footage and video editing of will similarly transform the public's perception of scientific research someday? If not, who or what is standing in its way?


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    Feb 21 2013: Hi Jay,

    I definitely appreciate your question as I think about this idea frequently. With creation of organizations, such as TED, society has been able to access ideas and experiments more than ever before. This allows for us to contemplate different concepts that we might not necessarily focus on in our life. This flux of new ideas is definitely very beneficial in many respects.

    As you mention, with short scientific videos displaying experimental methods becoming more available, we have a unique opportunity to discover the ways in which various theories were developed. However, there are some risks with transforming to this way of conveying information. These videos tend to be short and to the point. For many, this is actually very convenient. But I fear that we might lose some of the depth and knowledge that is behind these experiments.

    With our high-paced moving lives, we rarely have the time to read rigorously about experiments that don't pertain to us. These quick videos provide us with an opportunity to be exposed to numerous research Yet, we won't achieve expertise without the dense scientific papers. I worry that with increasing quantity, we might lose quality.
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      J D

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      Feb 22 2013: Yeah, there are a lot of tradeoffs to consider. When we teach someone a difficult subject by simplifying it, we pose the risk of making them overconfident in their knowledge. This is important when they plan on passing that knowledge on in some form, like if they're going to do an experiment and share the results, or if they're going to take that knowledge and teach someone else (which will often distort the information). It's a lot like how the news often distorts science. Whoever makes the videos should be very careful not to mislead.

      But I think that we can remedy these problems by always pointing to more detailed sources, and including a disclaimer. The potential for innovation that comes with increasing people's interest in science, to me, outweighs the risks.

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