Interview with Jake Roper: science communication and sparking curiosity

Jake Roper is a science communicator and host of the YouTube channel Vsauce3, where he explores issues such as time travel paradoxes, space travel, the bioelectrogenesis powers of the Pokémon character Pikachu, and everything else in between.

After his TEDxVienna talk at our On The Edge conference, he answered a few of our questions about scientific literacy, and the role of science communication in today’s society.

How important do you think scientific literacy is in our time? Is it necessary to have a well informed public? 

J.R.: I think it’s important to have a well informed public and that’s why I love platforms like Youtube. Everyone is curious. All you have to do is phrase a question in a way that gets people interested. Because it does feel like there’s a barrier to that. If you’ve ever read a science journal, you didn’t do it because it was fun. So, what I try to do is take all of that very dense and jargon-filled information and present it in a way that hopefully is palatable to a wider audience. There’s a quote I love, and it goes something like this:

“Assume your audience is very very smart, but with a limited vocabulary.”

You just express things in a way that anyone can understand, and by doing so you’re not talking down to anyone, you’re just explaining it in a way that is hopefully interesting to them. That’s the big issue for me. I think people kind of feel left out of the scientific community because of the high level it seems to be, and that’s just institutionally the way people talk about it. But if we can bring it down to this level that I understand… That’s what I do, I read things and I’m like “ok, great”. Now how do I actually understand this? How can I explain it to you, and if I can’t explain it to a friend, then I don’t understand it.

What level of scientific understanding should the public reach? Should they reach a level similar to experts? Or what would be the level where they can make informed decisions about what technology to use or support?

J.R.: I don’t think they have to be at the level of experts. One, it’s a daunting task, and two, it doesn’t necessarily make sense because the people who are experts do it because that’s their job. If I work in a grocery store, am I really going to want to spend my time reading about gluon plasma or things like that? Maybe for fun, but it’s not what my expertise is, it’s not my job. I believe it’s important to have a basic understanding. If we are talking about technology, let’s take solar power as an example. It’s not about solar power being good and fossil fuels being bad, but understanding the good and bad of each of those categories. And then in your mind weighing which do you think is the better one. And this brings up a larger thing that I always think about, which is that convincing somebody is the wrong way to go about things. You should never tell someone that they’re wrong. Because if you tell them they’re wrong, they’re going to stop listening to you. They’re just going to shut off immediately. So you can explain to them why one is good, why the other is good, why one is bad and the other is bad, and then they can decide by using this very neutral but honest information which one they think is the best option.

One role that is becoming more popular is that of a science communicator. How do you view that role? Is it important? Is it necessary?

J.R.: I think it is important and I think for some it is necessary. I get a lot of people telling me I’m their favorite teacher. I’m not a teacher at all. Teachers do a job that I can never do in my entire life. They have to create an entire lesson plan, I just have to create a 10-minute video. They need to keep kids interested for an hour every day for an entire school year, I have to keep somebody interested for ten minutes once or twice a month, so my job is much easier. But I think those little sprinkles of things are beneficial. There might be something you learned in grad school, a glance of something you had and then you forgot it. But when you watch a video where someone is telling you about it again in a different way, using different examples to help illustrate the point, you get excited again. It’s like that fire inside of you is rekindling. So, I do think it is important, and the more science communicators we have, the better it is because everyone is going to find someone else they connect with.

Thank you Jake for the interview!

Photo by Virag Buza.

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About Radu

Radu studied film & computing, works in EdTech as a content creator, and reads nonfiction books in his spare time.

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