YouTube's 'It's Okay To Be Smart' Serves Up Stimulating Science

Joe Hanson, host and creator of "It's OK to be Smart." (Image credit: Joe Hanson)

In this series of articles, Live Science turns the spotlight onto some of YouTube's most popular science channels. While their creators employ a range of techniques and styles — weaving together graphics, footage, animation and sound design in videos that can be as whimsical as they are informative — they all share a general curiosity and enthusiasm for the unexpected and fascinating science stories that exist in the world around us.

YouTube's 'It's Okay To Be Smart': Science and so much more

Science is all around us — and inside us, too. You need look no further than your own body and how it operates from moment to moment to get a daily dose of science.

But science also governs the forces that propel you through the world, dictating where you can go and how far and how fast you can travel. It shapes the rules for the evolution, growth and interactions of all life on Earth, and explains the processes that keep Earth's engine chugging along, in the company of an untold number of planets in a universe holding an estimated 1 billion, trillion stars.

That's a lot to take in. But asking questions about all of it is a good thing, as YouTube host Joe Hanson will tell you on his channel "It's Okay To Be Smart," presented by PBS Digital Studios.

The channel addresses questions about physics, biology, Earth science and space — and even popular culture, such as the science of "Game of Thrones." Wonder no more about how many trees there are on Earth, what would happen if you fell victim to a shrink ray, or why ants don't experience traffic jams.

Hanson has been interested in science for a long time — "as long as I can remember," he told Live Science. As a doctoral student and later as a biologist, he frequently found himself having to explain his research and why it was important, which sparked an interest in science communication and in telling stories about science.

After staking out an online space for himself as a science blogger, Hanson was approached by PBS Digital Studios in 2012 with an offer to translate his voice into a show, to reach viewers who had largely abandoned television but were still hungry for entertaining science programming.

"I was falling in love with science writing and having success in outreach," Hanson explained. "Video seemed like the natural next step." 

Good storytelling, Hanson said, is the key to getting people to recognize that science connects to many parts of their lives and many of their interests. And video allowed him to add visuals to his narratives, when "It's Okay To Be Smart" debuted in 2013.

"Video is a very rich medium for storytelling," he said. "I can deliver ideas in two different ways: with the words I'm saying and with the images I'm showing."

Keeping things light is part of the formula. Hanson described himself as "a pretty goofy guy" who wants to produce videos that are as much fun to watch as they are for him to make. In one video, in particular, Hanson took a nostalgically humorous approach to explaining the enormous amount of data generated by scientific research.

The episode was shot in the style of a 1980s low-budget television show, which provided Hanson with a much-appreciated opportunity to play "my inner 80's cable access dork," he said. But it also turned a potentially intimidating subject — big data — into something more approachable and entertaining.

"It totally pulled people out of what might have been a dry science tech message into a really fun, goofy adventure — and it still got the information across," Hanson said.

Connecting with viewers and building a community is an important part of creating a successful YouTube channel, and Hanson told Live Science that he balances "vigorous discussion" in his videos' comments — particularly around scientific topics that can inspire heated debate — while maintaining a welcoming environment where anyone can contribute and not feel threatened.

And with a new series of videos shot in the Peruvian Amazon, Hanson intends to provoke conversations about conservation, by shining a light on the incredible biodiversity in the region, emphasizing the delicate balance that preserves rainforest ecosystems.

In the first episode, Hanson explains why more species live near the equator than other parts of the globe; Hanson mentions that he saw more insects during a single hour in the rainforest than he had in his entire life beforehand.

These "Rainforest Edition" videos also contain an important message about the impacts that our actions can have on ecosystems halfway across the planet. Hopefully, this will encourage viewers to recognize that lifestyle choices can have far-reaching ecological consequences, inspiring them to take action to preserve threatened habitats, Hanson said.

"We were really trying to tighten that connection and get people to look at it and say, 'I want to do something about that,'" he told Live Science.

"We've already seen that response from the first video — that was our goal going down there, and it's really cool seeing that come to life."

Got a favorite science channel on YouTube that you think we should feature? Tell us about it in the comments or on Twitter and Facebook!

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.