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Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Problem With YouTube Educators


Let me begin by saying that I am a fan of educational videos on YouTube. From Isaac Arthur, which explores outer space, to The Corridor Crew, which informs us about the art of visual effects, to the hundreds of thousands of how-to videos uploaded by countless thousands of users, YouTube channels do a great job of presenting us with a wealth knowledge.

However, it's important to remember that YouTube is, first and foremost, about entertainment and not about education. You can glean a lot of surface-level knowledge from its videos, but I wouldn't trust it if I wanted to acquire a deeper understanding of a given subject. (Some may chime in here to say that you can teach yourself a skill like programming based off YouTube videos, but even in that case I'd argue it's probably not the best solution beyond learning the basics.)

I found YouTube educational videos claiming to teach history to be especially dubious. For example, I once watched a video on a popular history YouTube channel about Christopher Columbus, in which the presenter attempted to explain Columbus' intentions towards Native Americans. In it, the presenter, in traditional YouTube style, spoke confidently over expertly cut and edited graphics to argue that, because Columbus stated he simply wanted to convert Indians to Christianity, he didn't really bear any ill-will towards them.

This kind of lack of critical analysis bothered me because I know many people take what YouTube educators say at face value, given their millions of views and thousands of fan comments voicing their approval. Had I not been someone who had gone to graduate school specifically to study early American history, I might not have noticed where this person's evidence ended and his assumptions began. 

That brings me to my central thesis: always think critically when viewing a video on YouTube. Despite how confident that presenter was, realize that, in the field of history, there are not many who view Columbus' intentions towards Indians favorably.  

When I heard this YouTuber say that Columbus meant no harm to Native Americans because he "simply wanted to convert them," alarms went off in my head. What Columbus wrote about in the primary source document cited by the Youtuber described a process known as missionization, which is a colonizing project seeking the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity. Europeans implemented missionization not because they didn't bear ill-will towards them, but because they did, specifically because they felt superior to those they sought to convert. In the case of the Spanish colonizers that followed Columbus, attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity often involved subjecting them to forced labor systems, like encomienda. 

Most YouTube educators get by without any peer-review process or needing to meet any academic standards at all really. Just how much were these folks getting wrong in their quest to make entertaining content?

I remember another clear example of being befuddled by a YouTube educator's conclusions. I was watching a video entitled something like "China's Geography Problem" published by Wendover Productions. About halfway through I found myself 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 by blaming 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.

I know that these kinds of videos serve a purpose, but I do worry that these sweeping and generalized conclusions might fool some into believing that complex historical processes are simple, when they're not. The solution is to take everything we watch on YouTube with a grain of salt, and to do more research on the topics discussed in videos. 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, but we do need to be careful not to base our entire understanding of the world around popular educational YouTube videos. 

Part of the problem relates to the 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 in reality it's rare that I see anybody cite academic sources, or go into in-depth analysis of said sources if they do cite a couple. 

An increasingly popular format on YouTube is the "video essay," where 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 broke 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 the person running this channel, I found that they are in their early 20s and have no experience in the film industry, and indeed are just starting to write their own original material. This of course doesn't take away from the quality of their videos (which are good), but I do wonder whether they're professorial tone might lead many to believe them to be more authoritative than they actually are, leading only to confusion and the spread of more 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 conclusions are infallible. Perhaps they could do more to qualify what they are saying, especially when they are far from experts in their fields. Indeed, from my experience watching history videos, 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. And I'm sure experts in film, geography, etc. would say the same of other popular YouTube educators. 

YouTube is an entertainment website, and we should continue to think of it as such. While it can set you on a path towards further academic enlightenment, you will always be better served by cracking open a book or reading a journal 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 a textbook 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. Above all else, keep thinking critically. 

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