I used to feel inexplicably uneasy every time I watched videos by Wendover Productions. It is one of the channels which topics genuinely intrigue me. But, something always felt off.
Thanks to Alan Fisher, now I know why.
Fisher is another Youtuber whose content shares thematic similarities with Wendover, albeit his is more niche. He criticises Wendover’s videos for being hollow shells. Lots of technical information on the surface, no humanness underneath. That critique explains my uneasiness.
While there aren’t that many, I found comments critical of Fisher’s take, saying they would love science and tech videos free from personal opinions.
I do understand their frustration; they are coming only for the technical information. But, we should not forget one thing about STEM: they were created to benefit mankind. Sooner or later, we have to have discussions about how they affect us.
(Note: the following topics are not something Wendover has discussed in its videos. They are just something I have talked about with other people)
You can explain the differences between metric and imperial measurement systems. But, you also have to acknowledge that a system which conversion simply requires moving the decimal point is significantly more dependable and less likely to cause accidents than a system which requires one conversion formula for every pair of unit. Not to mention that metric is much easier to people who suck in math.
You can explain the technical details of man-made physical environments (e.g. buildings and urban planning) and machinery of different modes of transportation. But, you should also talk about how they affect our physical, financial, social and psychological well-being, both on collective and individual levels.
You can explain the technical details of information technology. But, you should also talk about how to ethically and cautiously utilising it, making sure it improves interconnectivity instead of stoking divisions, spreading misinformation and violating privacy.
You can explain the technical details of GMOs, pharmaceutical products and nuclear energy. But, you should also mention their political and/or corporate misuse, which distract the masses from seeing the actual benefits.
You can elaborate on the latest technological breakthroughs. But, you should discuss whether they are actually beneficial and sustainable in the long run or they are just symptoms of fake futurism which may or may not exacerbate humanity’s existing problems.
You can elaborate on evolution theory. But, you should also talk about the taboo attached to it. Is it because of literal interpretations of the scriptures? Is it because of anthropocentrism? Is it both? Is it because of a reason I have never thought of before?
If we want to know which technical knowledge is the most beneficial, we must take a look at the data. If it is clear, then we must take a stance by choosing the empirically-proven approaches and ditching the ones that aren’t. If the data isn’t clear, then we must have discussions, which inevitably involve lots and lots opinions.
If we want to know how theoretical knowledge affects us, we must observe people’s responses to it. Do they embrace it to widen their horizon? Do they reject it for contradicting their personal beliefs? Do they believe certain knowledge is useless if it does not bring immediate practical benefits?
Why do humans have such varying responses? How can we spread science appreciation to the wider society? How can we convince people to change their beliefs when faced with refuting evidences? How can we convince them that expansing one’s horizon is also an actual benefit?
If you think science communication must convey nothing but technical information, why bother?
Why bother with science communication – which is meant to make the masses appreciate STEM even more – when you disregard its significance in our human lives? Why bother when you could have just written and read textbooks and scientific papers?
It sounds like I absolutely hate Wendover. While I do think most of his videos aren’t that great, there are two which I truly love: The World’s Most Useful Airport and The Final Years of Majuro.
The former is about an airport in an extremely isolated island called St. Helena. It covers the airport’s arduous technical aspects and its impacts on the islanders’ lives. He interviewed the locals, including a couple whose baby received urgent life-saving treatment thanks to the airport.
The latter is about how climate change is threatening to swallow the entirety of Marshall Islands, which means the Marshallese people will lose their ancestral homeland soon. He interviewed them as well, even ones who lived abroad.
They tackle issues which can be solved using STEM and warn us about the consequences of our refusal to solve them. Unless you are a robot or one of those Ayn Rand-esque selfish bastards, hearing the human side of the stories would make you more appreciative of STEM’s existence and more concerned about its use.
The thing is Wendover does not need to travel to a far flung place and interview its residents. If he compliments his STEM content with some dashes of social sciences and humanities and he acknowledges that it is okay to add personal opinions as long as they are well-reasoned and respectful of facts, his other videos would have been much more profound.
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