Saturday, August 24, 2019

YouTube's Charlatan Problem: Why Making Education Entertaining Doesn't Always Work

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I would be the first person to admit that I am a fan of educational videos on YouTube. From channels like Isaac Arthur, which explores outer space, to those like The Corridor Crew, which informs us about the art of visual effects, YouTube channels do a great job of presenting us with a wealth of supposedly-expert level knowledge.

But my faith in these kinds of channels was tarnished one day when I happened upon one designed to teach people about history. I won't name the channel here, but it's very popular. On that channel I found a video about Christopher Columbus and his intentions towards Native Americans. In it, the presenter, in traditional YouTube style, confidently presented an expertly cut and edited argument that stated that, because Columbus said he simply wanted to convert Indians to Christianity, he didn't really bear any ill-will towards them.

Normally, I listen to what YouTube presenters have to say, mainly because they have millions of views and receive loads of approval in the comments sections from their fans. But this time I immediately doubted what this person was arguing. What had changed? Well, as this blog advertises, history is my profession. It's what I received a Master's Degree in, and it's what I'm getting my PhD in.

So when I heard this person say that Columbus meant no harm to Native Americans because he "simply wanted to convert them," alarm bells went off in my head. Anyone who has read the hundreds of books you have to read to receive a graduate degree in history could tell you that missionization, as the process he described is normally called, was typically used by European colonizers as a front for treating Native Americans poorly. In the case of the Spanish colonizers, attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity often involved subjecting them to forced labor systems, like the encomienda. 

It was then that a troubling thought crossed my mind: if this YouTube educator was getting things so drastically wrong, couldn't this be true of others as well?

I remember one other clear example of this. I was watching a YouTube video published by Wendover Productions, a popular educational channel run by a 22 year old named Sam Denby. The video was entitled something like "China's Geography Problem." I watched and was astonished by the reductionist analysis of the presenter. He used an analytical tool that historians call "environmental determinism," which is essentially when you make sweeping conclusions about how a society came to be the way it is today and blame it all on climate or geography. Sometimes this kind of analysis makes sense, but not when you're ascribing almost all major shifts and turns in history to it.

And this leads to the core of the issue: I think it's safe to say that we all need to begin taking everything we watch on YouTube with a large grain of salt. We need to remember that everything published there is intended to draw views, make money, and be entertaining. This is not necessarily a bad thing, we just have to be careful not to base our entire understanding of the world via the YouTube videos we watch.

And yet I don't know if this is something that most people are considering as they peruse their daily YouTube suggestions. I'm worried that they are taking everything they see at face value, not questioning the content they consume.

Part of the problem relates the kind of tone YouTube educators take. Whether they are breaking down a film, trying to tell you how to exercise, or detailing how dark matter works, they all put on a confident "I know it all" demeanor that suggests they drew upon a deep reservoir of knowledge and sources to create their content. And maybe they did, but I don't like how most try to act as though they are the end-all-be-all when it comes to the topic they are discussing.

An increasingly popular format on YouTube is the "video essay," whereby the narrator or presenter essentially reads aloud an essay they've written on a topic, in the process making various arguments. Just recently, I watched one such video that attempted to break down a film. From my amateur perspective, it did a good job of critiquing the film's narrative and offering suggestions for how a more effective script might have been written. Other videos on this person's channel suggested a certain level of expertise; one video in particular seemed to advertise the ability to teach you how to write an effective narrative for a fictional story.

When I did more research on this person, I found that they are in their early 20s (like Sam Denby), have no experience in the film industry, and are just starting to write their own original material. This of course doesn't entirely take away from the quality of their videos (which were indeed enjoyable), but I do wonder whether they should be entitled to have such a professorial tone regarding their subject of choice. I worry that this kind of confidence in their own analysis might mislead laymen unfamiliar with the subjects they're talking about. In the end, all that this creates is further confusion and misinformation.

I'm not saying that YouTubers should avoid introducing people to complex ideas, or that they should stop trying to make education entertaining. I do, however, feel that they should all be a bit more careful about acting as though their knowledge is infallible simply because they have a few hundred thousand subscribers. Perhaps they should do more to qualify what they are saying, especially when they are far from experts in their fields. Indeed, from my experience watching videos designed to teach people history, I know for a fact that most YouTube educators aren't as well-versed in the subject matters they teach as they would like you to believe.

YouTube is an entertainment website, and we should continue to think of it as such. While you can learn some interesting things there, you will always be better served by cracking open a book and learning about the subject firsthand, minus the filter of whatever overconfident YouTuber you enjoy watching. When I watch Isaac Arthur's YouTube channel, I know that, most likely, not everything he says is scientifically accurate, peer-reviewed, or thoroughly researched. At the same time, I can enjoy his videos for what they are: an entertaining mix of science fact and science fiction delivered by a gifted storyteller.

That said, I also know that if I really want to learn more about space, I can look at the notes I took during astronomy class in college, or read the textbook I own on the subject. And that's true of most of these kinds of videos on YouTube. People on YouTube aren't successful because they are experts in the fields of history, science, engineering, film, or logistics. They are successful because they know how to make those subjects entertaining. That does not mean that they always know what they're talking about, or that their analysis is always correct. For that reason, you should always remain vigilant.

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