The Rise of the Science Commentator 2/7/19


By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

Today, on my social media account, I decided to take a chance with an “ask me anything” post. My friends (like me) tend to be pretty twisted and hilarious, so I was expecting a plethora of completely inappropriate questions. What I did get was rather surprising, including the first question “how does gravity cause the tides?”

Another friend of mine replied with an apparently snarky video claiming that it is due to magnetic attraction by an apparent “flat-earther”. Assuming this was intended to be an analogy, I just corrected the original poster’s response explaining that, yes, it is similar as magnetic attraction and gravity are both forces, and we talked a bit about the nuances of the size of the bodies of water, and relative strength of these forces without actually watching the video. Eventually, my responder friend posted a “legitimate” science video explaining gravity.

My friend who posted the original question suggested that perhaps I should start my own video series explaining certain topics of science. This is an idea that I have been toying with (and have put together a series of videos to help some friends with math), but it seems unlikely. I’m rather late to the game. There are several popular series now that are beautifully polished, clearly well financed with very good editing and graphic effects. Anything I would do would be amateurish at best.

But, this got me thinking. The reader might wonder what my qualifications would be to take on such an endeavor. I would respond by discussing my interest in all disciplines of science, mathematics and computer science, refer to my Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry (spanning chemistry, physics, biochemistry, mathematics and computer science), list my history of research and publications (not as impressive as many academicians but not bad), and my twenty plus years of experience in teaching chemistry, physics, earth science and mathematics at the college level.

So, am I qualified? I like to think so. What about the people of these popular series?

The goal of this blog is not to cast aspersions on these series. In fact, from what I have seen, I’ve rarely disagreed with anything I’ve seen or noticed glaring errors. No doubt, if the “hosts” are not scientists, I’m sure that there are people writing the dialogue for them that do know the subject matter. But, I’ve noticed something else as well. Rarely, if ever, have I ever seen information on the qualifications of the video producers.

As a child, we had television shows. Typically once a week, we would get a new episode from somebody on the topic of their choice, and they were pretty cool. Today, it’s easy to find videos on demand for most topics online. Some are pretty rough (and some produced by unqualified people like the “flat-earthers”), but others are beautiful. But, how important is beauty? How many people check the source of these videos?

One of the things that I can’t help but notice about these videos are the hosts. I’m not a terribly bad looking man, but I’m showing my age, and my voice is anything but smooth. The hosts of these videos tend to be young, attractive, with smooth voices, enchanting accents, and perky attitudes.

I have heard it hypothesized that the reason we are drawn to good-looking people is related to survival of the species. This makes some intuitive sense to me. Studies have shown that we are most attracted to people with symmetrical features, which is related to being generally healthy, and people associated with the features of the gender to which we are attracted (feminine females and masculine males), related to the amount of hormone of the gender in the person. But, how does this relate to trusting them in videos.

Now, there are exceptions to this. I would prefer not to mention names here, but let’s be real; some of the recent television science experts do not fit this stereotype, but on the other hand, they also tend to have the proper credentials. But recently, I’ve come across a story of a former bingo caller who has quadrupled her income with a video series where she has been commenting on people playing video games. What strikes me is that this individual is young, gorgeous, with all of the properties of an attractive female. I wonder how successful she would be if she were my age, with more masculine features, and heavier.

Science videos, spiritual videos, and empowerment videos that I have seen all have the same common thread; they are hosted by gorgeous young men and women. “Be like me, believe in yourself, and you can be healthy, wealthy and happy.” Sure, maybe, if I were enough like you to be young, hip and gorgeous.

So, as a society, why do we put more value in age and beauty over experience and background? If you follow a video series, it might be worth asking why you enjoy the series so much. Regardless of the topic, maybe we need to start asking some basic questions. What is the education and/or experience of the narrator? If the narrator is just a host, what are the qualifications of the writers? Who is producing the series (that is to say, is it produced by the National Science Foundation or the Flat Earthers)? Is there an agenda by the producers (are they selling products that will profit by the position of their videos)? It’s time to start putting qualifications over appearance.

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