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Why I won’t watch that video

January 12, 2022

Video is great for some purposes. It can entertain. It can show quite vividly why climbing a tree is a lousy way to escape a bear. Teaching typically is done visually because it can lay an easier introduction for those new a subject. 3Blue1Brown is a youtube channel that provides visual insight to a variety of math. Their explanation of Bayes theorem is worth watching by anyone trying to understand basic probability theory. And there is the rare person who is both entertaining and informative. I can watch most any video Sabine Hossenfelder makes, such as her explanation of hyperloops and the technical challenges they face.

Those accolades made, there are reasons research papers and most serious discussions at the edges of knowledge are written, rather than spoken into a camera.

  • Reading is faster. College students who are native English speakers typically read about 300 words per minute. Spoken English is half that or less. No one wants to commit to an hour video without good expectation of its worth. (The ones linked above are mercifully short.)
  • Reading proceeds at each reader’s own pace. Which means a passage that is difficult or questionable or presents an idea new to the reader can be digested slowly, while those that are more straightforward can be more rapidly done.
  • Text more readily carries the technical details that matter. It can be tricky to speak an equation or formula, and even more difficult to understand it spoken, rather than written. Even conveying correct units is more difficult in speech than in text.
  • Text is easier to navigate. Someone reading a research paper may read through the abstract and methodology, then look at some of the graphs and visualizations, thinking on alternate explanations, including data collection issues, then read the discussion, then go back and dig into some of the thornier theoretical content, then look at some of the references to see if they actually provide what is claimed, then return to the methodology or discussion. Different readers will take different paths. In a video, the maker chooses the path, and it’s not so easy to jump back and forth.
  • Text lends itself to excerpt and cite. I had to play with the pause and rewind in that hyperloop video to get this not-quite-sarcastic quote on the vibration problem: “Passengers may be willing to accept the risk of dying from leaks in a capsule surrounded by near vaccuum. But only as long as they are comfortable before they die.” Now that it is in text, it can be copied and pasted. With correct attribution, please.
  • All of which makes text a better object of revision and idea evolution. Someone who reads a paper can spot ambiguous phrasing, quote arguments they think need sharpening, list what is missing, explain that some graph doesn’t really show what is claimed, question the methdology and analysis. Their respondent can address those issues with reference to what is in the paper, by quote and heading and page.  Video is not so easily treated.
  • Which is why it is papers that get submitted to journals and refereed. That is a meaningful process. Especially for readers outside the field. I can read and understand some medical papers. But without the field background, I am largely dependent on the authors and reviewers that there isn’t something wrong in an important way, and in a way that isn’t obvious to readers like me who have some background in biology, but who lack medical expertise.

While Dr. Hossenfelder makes fun videos, when she wants to present a novel piece of physics, such as showing that the Born rule follows from some assumptions about transition probabilities, she writes a paper on that. Having written papers, I will guarantee the one published went through a variety of revisions. And that she has started quite a few papers that never made it through that process.

So no, I’m not going to watch a video by some doctor offering an alternate viewpoint on some medical issue, or by someone alleging an unheralded advance in science, or by many others who want to persuade us of some factual matter that, were their research good, should be shown with studies and papers. Were those studies done? Were those papers written? Were they reviewed by those in the field? Have you — who want us to watch that video — read them? If those exist behind the presentation, that is where you should point us. If they don’t, why are you so convinced by a mere video?

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