Science vs. Popularity on YouTube

People have always been easily impressed by completely made-up information or suggestions that lack any valid source of information.  Simple examples include religion and claims that are made in typical everyday marketing.  And, I’m not even getting into the effects of direct-to-consumer drug advertising, fad diets, and media outlets like Fox News.  It seems that everyone’s OK with spending a million dollars per minute on the war in Iraq, but if someone like Anna Nicole Smith dies, our entire nation is paying attention.

In many ways, the Internet can make it much easier for crackpot theories, hatred, prejudice, and the like to become commonplace.  In the past, most media outlets would provide a filtering/editing function.  Now, anyone with access to a computer can create and post on a blog.  That’s good in many ways, but it makes it difficult for people who have never tried to use critical thinking skills to determine credibility.

ArsTechnica reports in YouTube users prefer lousy science over the real deal:

The big message in the data, however, appears to be that viewers don’t find the information being put out by public health authorities compelling at all. Even among the positive videos (which were poorly viewed and rated), public service announcements grabbed the smallest audience and the worst ratings; even among videos with a small audience, they stood out as being ignored.

Even without this data, it was obvious that the effort involved in producing a video is not a significant barrier to entry. Anyone with strange ideas and the urge to have them heard can easily reach the public via YouTube. What is clear from the data is that those with a vested interest in making sure accurate information is available, such as the public health community, need to make sure that their message is packaged in a compelling manner, so that it drowns the bad information out. Simply dumping the movies we ignored during high school health class on the Internet isn’t going to cut it in the YouTube era.

This article is based on a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Freedom of speech and expression are extremely important today (especially under the reign of the Bush Administration).  However, consumers of information must be able to critically evaluate data and separate facts from overly-dramatized speculation.

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