3 lessons in video from science, hip-hop, and politics

When I first started ScienceByDesign, I decided that I wouldn’t talk politics. This decision didn’t come naturally. I study policy as a scientist, and I talk about policy as a communicator, so it felt odd to eschew policy as a business. But it didn’t fit our mission. The purpose of ScienceByDesign is to help scientists get their message out, not take political stances.

With that in mind, it might seem odd that I’m posting 3 videos about 3 politically charged topics: soda taxes, drug wars, and climate change. Especially when the videos were made by people all over the political spectrum. However, each video is a great lesson in science communication, either through its content or as an example of how video can be effective.

Video #1 summarizes a study on soda taxes that was published on Tuesday. (The study can be found here and a summary of it can be found here.) 

The simplicity of the video belies what a complex, gargantuan study this was. Though published as a single paper, it was really 4 papers rolled into 1. Remarkably, the research team boiled all the results into this video that was short, easy to digest, and (heaven forbid) fun to watch!  

Video summaries of research are not new; it’s relatively common now for academic journals to ask authors to record video abstracts. But have you ever watched one of these video abstracts?? Many authors look like they’d rather be stabbing themselves in the eyeball with a fork. Simple animated videos like this would be a more useful sidekick to a lot of research.


Video #2 is more advanced in technique, from a guy who knows something about art: Jay Z.

It was a commentary on the war on drugs, published on the New York Times op-ed video page in September 2016. The video is educational, backed by data and science, but here's the key - it doesn’t throw data in your face. It uses data to tell a clear story in a creative, visual, compelling way. The video might rub some people the wrong way, but so what?

That’s how you get people talking - often an important goal.

Video #3 might be my favorite of all. A far cry from Jay-Z, it stars one of the co-founders of the Tea Party movement, Debbie Dooley, discussing how to talk to conservatives about climate change. It was published on Vox on Tuesday.

Her basic point – know your audience – is one of the most fundamental ideas to science communication. Again, throwing data points at people never works. Speak to your audience in their language about things they value.

In my area of research, obesity, experts have learned the same thing. If you talk about obesity as a public health issue, it doesn't resonate with people. But similar to what Dooley says about climate change, conservatives listen if you talk about obesity as a national security issue. Research has shown that if obesity is framed as a military issue, then it makes conservatives more supportive of policy to address obesity.

No matter where you stand on soda taxes, the war on drugs, or climate change, these videos show how science can and should be communicated. And as social media continues to evolve to focus more on video, it’s going to be a critical tool for scientists to adopt.