5 Step Guide to Making a Scientific Youtube Hoax

Posted on 2011/09/06


Feature Image - 5 Step Guide to Making a Scientific Youtube Hoax

While teaching secondary school physics courses, I sometimes found occasion to show a class a Youtube video.  Each time, I would first pose the suggestion, then set my watch and wait.  And this aforementioned watch would need several significant figures in the seconds department to accurately measure the time it would take for this to occur:

XKCD - Youtube Parties

I wouldn’t have to wait much longer for these thought bubbles to develop into speech bubbles, written (as students are accustomed) in full capital letters.

This occurred, every time and became a quick addition to my list of uncongenial student expectations.  Not only did students want me to teach them things they already knew, they also wanted to watch videos they had already seen.

While it quickly became rather boring, this type of heckling would sometimes provide a unique type of amusement.  (And opportunity for teaching, or something.)  And, for a teacher, there is nothing more appealing that the happy accident of a low-preparation amusing activity, coinciding with sound a pedagogical motive.

Among the more frequent viewing suggestions (cat-on-tortoise, obese-Jedi, dramatic-chipmunk, and the nearly relevant double-rainbow), there were occasional attempts at a curiosity for physics.

It was surprising how many of these were hoaxes.  Not by the student (they were quite in ernest about it), but the creator of the video.

Now, any good teacher would instantly recognize the worth of such an opportunity, if it were presented to them.  The day’s class could be postponed and the student’s interest mobilized.   Perhaps a falsification of the hoax with a careful experiment. Or, draw up a list of the physical laws that the video contradicts, such as the conservation of energy.  If the class is lacking some knowledge of physics, preventing them from grasping why the video is a hoax, the moment could be seized to teach some theory.  All with the aim elicit some deeper understanding of the universe.

However, what is obviously more interesting, yet not immediate to the good teacher, is advice on how to make one of these hoaxes yourself.  Incidentally, I have been informed that blog posts get significantly more readers if written in the list form.  And so, here is my 5-step program to creating an effective scientific Youtube hoax.

Step 1 – The Goal

You might assume that the primary goal of a Youtube hoax is to fool as many people as possible.  However, you should not forget the second, more subtle, option.  You may trade fooling a large number of people for fooling fewer, yet in a more elaborate manner.  Wasting a large amount of the time, effort and resources of a small community can be just as satisfying as raw view counts.  Prioritize your goals.

Step 2 – Choosing The Subject Material

Choose a subject that the most people know nothing about.  With science as your purview, this rules out very little.

Step 3 – Elaborate Recipe

Combine well known household objects in an unusual way and make an erroneous claim about the situation.  You could create an effect, but achieve it with additional, or separate means.  Or, you could simply fake the effect with optical deception and SFX.

In doing so, you are appealing to the same naive hope that kept the alchemists of antiquity busy for centuries.  Namely, that despite all observations to the contrary, the universe is in fact very accommodating to our whims and wishes.  Prey on your victim’s suspicion that it is only the lack of an elusive ingenious recipe that stops them from mixing all their useless possessions into a enormous diamond.  Then convince them you have that recipe.

Step 4 – Low Fidelity Camera Work and Editing.

Shaky camera work must balance the desire to appear to be excitably amateur with the need to be clearly understood.  Delivering the recipe as one continuous shot, where possible, will make the whole idea significantly more believable.  If slight of hand is required, the recipe can include a time lapse sequence where the switch can be made.  An additional consequence of this is to increase the time wasted per viewer.

Don’t use Final Cut Pro; use Windows Movie Maker.  Or, use Final Cut Pro, but make it look like you used Windows Movie Maker.  Think of Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Praise You’.  In video equivalent, it should sound like it’s playing through an 80s ghetto blaster in a shopping mall.  You may need an expensive recording studio to achieve this.

Step 5 – Journey Towards Discovery.

Shows the viewer that you are mortal, just like them.  And in such a condition, you too arrived at your amazing discovery with guesswork.  A few failed attempts will endear you to the hesitant hopefuls.

Additional theatrics can add to the plausibility.  Have a dispute with an interlocutor about the outcome.  Make false predictions.  Be Surprised.

Show a failed attempt and you will convince your viewers not to give up on the first try.  Show 3 failed attempts, and you have chosen the later of the two goals as mentioned in Step 1.  However, this is a high risk strategy.  Someone who has covered themselves in strawberry milkshake, engine oil and egg shells five times are far more likely to provide negative feedback in the comments section.


Finally, here are some specimens where inspiration can be derived.  Good luck!

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