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About Sigma Xi » News » An Interview with Derek Muller

August 11, 2014

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Heather Thorstensen
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Communicating Science to the Public

Derek Muller, who makes science videos for his popular YouTube channel Veritasium, has been named a Sigma Xi honorary member. He will be a speaker November 8 during the Society's Annual Meeting in Glendale, Arizona. Fenella Saunders, managing editor of American Scientist, recently spoke with Muller about his tips for researchers who wish to share science with the public. The recording of the interview is below, followed by excerpts from the conversation.

Let's talk generally about why you put out these videos on YouTube. What is it that you want to accomplish?
What I want to help people do is to question their assumptions, to question the way things seem, and help them uncover the scientific truths that we've been able to discover. I also want people to embrace that kind of methodology, that kind of way of thinking, to start thinking about things more critically and more scientifically.

I wondered if you could discuss ways that scientists could help to make their research more accessible, in the sense of the common ways that scientists mess up and make their science inaccessible.
I guess the biggest thing for me is that scientists should be having conversations with people, and they should be having conversations with people outside of their field, intelligent people who are just uninformed about the area that they're researching. And I think that will give perspective about what people do and don't know … You're always surprised by what people really think about different topics. So if you say the word "atom" or "molecule" or "entropy" or "acceleration" and you think that that means something, because it clearly means something to you, it doesn't mean that to everyone else. And that's where you really have to be careful with science communication, is just making sure that you know the level where other people are at.

Do you think scientists should be asking more questions of the people they're talking to?
Absolutely. And I think when you're giving a talk or a lecture, there should be questions up on the slides. You should be doing a show of hands or flash cards or something. The key should be to get their opinions and get them early and then try to work with that, work that into your talk rather than just saying "this is the talk I'm going to make." This is basic communication, regardless of what you're really talking about.

There's obviously some advantages, some things for scientists to be showing their work and to be communicating more deeply about it that's good for them. It can feed back into their work, it can get them better grants possibly, it can get them more recognition. But some scientists still get pushback from doing things like that, even within their own departments. I wondered if you've ever talked about that with scientists and if you have any advice for them.
I can speak for my own experience and say that I wrote a PhD [dissertation] and a bunch of papers in international journals and I guess the expectation with most PhDs is that no one's ever going to read it. But I know for a fact that as a result of making YouTube videos about my PhD that many, many, many more people have read that than I ever would have thought … When I look at my citations for the papers that I've published, I think they are way more cited than they ever would have been if I hadn't started a YouTube channel. I'm in kind of a unique area but I think that general principle holds true: You publish something in an academic journal and it may attract a bit of attention but if you can draw attention to it in other ways, you can really bring it to the top, bring it to the surface for a lot of other researchers and a lot of different disciplines, which I think can then lead to better research outcomes down the track, better citation records. As an academic, I think the strong counterargument to make is to say "this outreach that I'm doing, this communication to the public, is not just a good idea because the public are funding what I do and they should know where their money is going, but it's also a good idea because it's going to lead to better research outcomes for this institution." I think that there is a real, practical case to be made for the fact that doing outreach and communication leads to better uptake of the research that you're doing.

This article was originally published in the September-October issue of Sigma Xi Today.

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society is the international honor society of science and engineering. One of the oldest and largest scientific organizations in the world, Sigma Xi has a distinguished history of service to science and society for more than a century. Scientists and engineers, whose research spans the disciplines of science and technology, comprise the membership of the Society. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Noble Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. www.sigmaxi.org. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety.

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