New kinds of media, like television in the last century or the internet in this one, first register doubt in the eyes of society, followed by fear of societal harm. Next comes an adulation as the economic and practical benefits become inarguable and vast. Lastly, cultural opinion settles on normalcy: the media reflects and boosts both the better and worse things people do and like.
This was even true of books, which Socrates famously expressed suspicion and doubt about. The internet has been no different, and after years of derision, now dominates all other media in daily consumption. It is at last settling into the final stage, a channel that simply amplifies better and worse human interests and activities. One of the better is the nearly zero-cost high quality science and learning content. Every new form of media has worked to democratize and expand the availability of top-notch science and knowledge. So today I would like to share some of my favorite YouTube channels that do that. This is not an exhaustive list, I am sure there may be great stuff out there that I have not heard of; the tubes are vast. If you direct me to some in the comments I may add them to the list here.
In no particular order,
SciShow discusses science news and history and concepts.
With equal parts skepticism and enthusiasm, we go a little deeper…without going off the deep end.
Most of the time, anyway.
Produced by the amiably geeky Hank Green and his team, SciShow has hundreds of videos on a broad range of topics, from historical science figures to medicine and astronomy. Most of the videos are 2-5 minutes, and professionally edited. SciShow sometimes comments on awesome natural phenomena or news of the day, and sometimes answers vexing or fascinating questions such as why do we yawn? and How do we measure the distance of stars? I also enjoy some of the themed series, such as the World’s Most Asked Questions and “I don’t think it means what you think it means“.
Produced by Michael Stevens since 2010, Vsauce is more stylized and philosophical than SciShow. Michael often relates scientific knowledge as a base for exploring weird and mind-expanding questions, perhaps for the sake of expanding how we think about our world. Like SciShow, Vsauce’s short videos are impeccably edited and always engaging.
German for “in a nutshell”, Kurzgesagt is produced by a Munich-based team founded by Philipp Dettmer and Stephan Rether. While not as prolific as some others, Kurzgesagt makes up for it with its marriage of beautiful, minimalist graphics to explain exceedingly complicated ideas. Art and information, knowledge and form, Kurzgesagt is in a class of its own.
Khan Academy is among the most well-known YouTube-based projects aimed at providing free educational material to the masses. It is hard to generalize about the quality of its content, because it is produced by a large number of contributors, but my experience has been largely positive. It may not have the production values of the other channels I have mentioned, but it has depth and breadth they lack. It is also purely educational, designed to confer knowledge and teach skills, not to entertain.
The Yale Courses channel provides entry into the core of the University–its classrooms and academic programs–including complete sets of lectures from the Open Yale Courses initiative.
Yale offers many free “open courses” based on lectures in YouTube videos. These are conducted by distinguished professors, and are what they sound like, the equivalent of taking undergraduate classes at a quality university.
Cinema Sins might seem out of place on this list. A snarky know-it-all nerdishly pointing out errors in movies is hardly educational or instructive. Education is not just a pile of facts or acquired skills; those are great, but all but useless without the means to critically examine and analyze. Those means include two things most people do not have that Cinema Sins might help you get.
The first is vigilance. The awareness that a baseline of critical thinking, including self-critical thinking, is almost always useful. It is not a special hat you put on to go do thinkery for a project, assignment, or to resolve a moral conundrum. You need it any time you are dealing with other human beings or with your own beliefs and thoughts. The second is humility. Watch the Cinema Sins video for some of your favorite movies (if they exist) and think about how many unbelievably obvious bits of total nonsense went right over your head. Sure, movies are just fun distractions, but really, what makes you so sure you missed no important details in more serious parts of your life? No movie is without sin, reads the tagline.
The genius of Cinema Sins is that it reveals just how easy it is to fool people, even unintentionally. Movies are fictional stories painted by writers, actors, and so on, and in this way are untruths meant to fool you, albeit for innocent purposes of entertainment. But, for me, Sins has inadvertently made me much more aware of the modes of deception, the common mistakes made by the storyteller that you are not supposed to notice. More than before, I attend to the intent of the storyteller as revealed by subtle choices and conspicuous omissions. I now attend to such intents more when reading nonfiction produced by people as well, and their stories and actions, too.