Kevin Lieber on creativity, Vsauce2 and science communication

TEDxVienna recently got the chance to chat with Kevin Lieber during our 2018 conference SIMPLEXITY. We talked about the role of the science communicator in today’s society, his creative endeavors on Vsauce2, his personal YouTube channel, and his new podcast.

The Interview

Q: As a first question, I’m sure both I and the rest of Vienna would like to know: have been to the Hundertwasserhaus yet? I’m asking because you’ve had a reasonable section of one of your videos dedicated to Hundertwasser and one of his inventions. I’m curious how much of his works you’ve explored in Vienna.

A: I haven’t at all yet, and I’m hoping to do that tomorrow. I really want to see the Hundertwasserhaus. I have a beautiful fabric-bound book of his which is one of the items I used as research for that video. I’ve also been in contact with his estate. So there’s some photographs and videos of Hundertwasser that were actually granted to me from The Hundertwasser Foundation. I found out about him while researching my video and I’ll even mention him in my talk today.

Kevin Lieber/TEDxVienna 2018 Simplexity

Q: You’re part of Vsauce, a network of science communication channels on YouTube. Vsauce has three main channels, with you being the host of Vsauce2 and the missing piece in our collection of TEDx speakers, as we’ve been fortunate to have had the other two hosts, Michael Stevens, and Jake Roper at our conference in the past years. I want to ask you a few things about science communication. Mainly, how important do you think scientific literacy is in our time? Is it necessary to have a well informed public?

A: So, it’s absolutely necessary. The thing that I think is really important is having people that can contextualize things and can explain them in a way that is conversational and relatable, and being able to do that without being sensational. I think that a big problem that we have right now is junk science on the internet. I did a video about junk science a couple of years ago and there were a few things that I learned that were really disturbing. There are a lot of publications online where obviously their business is to get clicks. So they’ll write a headline that is clickable or click-bait that says so and so study links coffee to cancer. But if you actually read the study, if it’s even linked in the article which often times it’s not, that’s not what it says. So there’s a lot of intricacies of scientific research that I don’t expect most people to know. Like correlation does not equal causation or just basic understandings like that.

I think a lot of people get swayed by this kind of poor journalism. The more we have people who can help bridge the gap between what a scientific paper says and what the public should know about it, the better. And I hope that things like Vsauce, Smarter Every Day, Brainscoop, or whatever these YouTube channels are, can help inspire the next generation of people to be more informed. Because we didn’t have that growing up. The best we could do was Bill Nye, who was awesome, but he basically scratched the surface of scientific education, whereas now on YouTube you can go as deep as you want to on any subject, and there’s an audience for that.

Q: Do you feel like the role of a science communicator is changing a bit? It seems to be a role that has more and more participants with more and more channels popping up. Another podcaster and YouTuber, CGP Grey, has mentioned in some of his podcasts how he used to be concerned about what other creators were making. As in someone might publish a video with a similar theme just before he does, beating him to the punch. Do you have the same fear?

A: I used to. Sometimes when I would have an idea, I would search to see if other people have made a video about that. But I ran into a situation recently which really changed my mind on this topic. And it had to do with a video I did called The Invention of Blue. I originally started researching colors, cause I just thought colors were weird. And when I was researching colors, I kept coming back to this idea that blue is a really strange color. It’s not a very natural color, in so far as it’s hard to create artificially. So I made that video, and when I released it, a guy named Joe Hanson, who has a channel called It’s Ok To Be Smart, contacted me on Twitter and he told me I won’t believe it, but he was literally finishing up a script on that same topic. I told him that he’s seen my video, so if there’s any overlap, he can tailor to that since he’ll know, but he can focus on whatever aspect of this topic that he found more interesting or compelling. So he did, he made a video, I believe it’s called Why Is Blue So Rare In Nature. And his video focuses on the biological aspects, so it’s very specifically getting into the science of why blue is biologically rare in nature. There are not a lot of blue things in nature. Like animals, plants, mushrooms, whatever, there’s not a lot of blue. His video did a lot better than mine. It has millions of more views than mine on YouTube. I think that goes to show that just because someone has already done a topic, that doesn’t mean you can’t put your own spin on it, and perhaps make it better.

Kevin Lieber/TEDxVienna 2018 Simplexity

Q: We’ve talked about science, but I want to talk a bit about creativity. In one of your videos, you’ve said that your main inspiration in life is your father who builds guitars. He inspired you to live a creative life. In another interview for Business Insider, you mentioned how your first creative passion was comedy. And we see this especially on your personal channel, where you not only have videos such as Uninformed Video Game reviews, but you also have a film called The Garbage Man. This short film is humorous, but also has an earnest feeling to it; you can see that it’s a purely creative and expressive work. How come you’ve chosen that as the feature video for your personal channel?

A: Well, I don’t really understand creativity, I don’t think anyone does. I think we are really far away from understanding what creativity is. The little research that I’ve read about it hasn’t been particularly conclusive in any way, as far as grasping what it is. But for me, it comes down to having ideas and not being able to stop thinking about them until I get them out of my head and into something else. So when it came to The Garbage Man, that was just a short film idea that I had and I just wanted to make it. I had this idea of this lonely garbage man and I wanted to juxtapose what I would consider is someone who is potentially looked down upon in society, but is just a person like anybody else, with hopes, dreams, feelings, and idiosyncrasies. And maybe that is getting too… it’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding ridiculously pretentious, but that is what I was thinking and that is what I wanted to put online.

I think that for any person who has an interest in comedy, which is what I initially wanted to do, that it comes from a place of being hypersensitive to the world and to other people. And I think that comedians can often make the most poignant work when given the opportunity. So like Robin Williams for example in Good Will Hunting or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. You have these people who are really funny because they’re sensitive to other people’s feelings.

Kevin Lieber/TEDxVienna 2018 Simplexity

Q: To say that creativity is an important part of your life would be an understatement, especially since you’re even starting a podcast this fall entitled The Create Unknown. What’s your take on the need for creativity in science communication videos.

A: Well, I think that they’re two kinds of buckets that you can put science videos in. One is just like really hard math and science, with no thrills. It’s just communicating the information as clearly and as accurately as possible with no flourishes. I think that is extremely important. You have the Khan Academy for example or Vihart to a certain extent. She still has fun with her videos, but at the same time, she’s just doing math problems or explaining numbers. And then there’s a separate bucket where I think Vsauce, Smarter Every Day, and Veritasium would be, where we’re learning along with you. We’re not these lecturers or professors making sure you understand the rules in a mathematical expression. It’s more like “Hei, I didn’t know this thing, so I looked into it, and this is what I found out”.

These videos are going to teach you something, but you’re sort of accidentally learning, it’s not like you clicked on the video because you needed to understand the Pythagorean theorem. You clicked on the video because you wanted to go on a learning journey where you weren’t sure where it would end up but you knew it would be fun to watch.

Q: Let’s talk about your future podcast. First of all, can you give us a teaser? Second, are you making it so that you can understand creativity better?

A: I’m incredibly excited about the podcast for a couple of reasons. It explores creativity, it explores how YouTubers became YouTubers because that’s something that I’ve been doing for so long and I’ve met so many other YouTubers and I’ve always wondered about them. I’m always interested in people, I just naturally have that inclination. And I find YouTubers in particular to be fascinating and weird because everyone has a totally different story. It’s not like their father was a YouTuber and they went to school to learn the family trade. There’s one guest on the podcast who went to med school and then decided to make memes for a living instead. That’s pretty weird. Or Destin from Smarter Every Day who is literally a rocket scientist in Alabama who one day was curious about something so he made a video about it and people liked it. He essentially decided he can make more of those videos, and now it’s however many years later and he’s still doing it and gets millions and millions of views and is known around the world.

So, that’s what I love to explore with the podcast. Because what you see on YouTube is the most entertaining version of that person. It doesn’t in any way tell you who they are. They’re not necessarily playing a role, but they are playing a role. You know, you develop a persona that you deliver through your YouTube videos, but you don’t talk that way with your mom. Like “MOM! KEVIN HERE, what’s for dinner?” That would be ridiculous.

Q: Just one more question. Are you excited to give your talk today?

A: Yeah, well I’m excited for when the talk is over and hopefully it went well. But yeah, I think that it’s certainly a unique talk. I tried to describe it to people and it was hard to do because I talk about everything from doorknobs to drinking toilet water, to scurvy. So, it’s a little all over the place, but hopefully, people are entertained by it and feel like it was worth their time. That’s all that matters to me I guess.

Thank you, Kevin

TEDxVienna would like to thank Kevin Lieber for his time, his great talk, and his appreciation of Hundertwasser. If you’re curious which works of the Austrian artist were featured on Vsauce2, watch the video below.


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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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