How researchers get heard
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Annoying Questions #2: Nudges, Heterogeneity & Dog Kids

I’m trying out something new for the Friday emails for the rest of the Northern Hemisphere summer. Let me know what you think of it.

Why Might People Act on Research Findings?

I read the fundraising blog The Agitator religiously because there are a ton of lessons fundraising communications has to teach the practice of research marketing and communications. Why is this so? Probably because fundraising communications always has benchmarks and is always under pressure to perform. Research communications rarely has these pressures.

Anyway, here’s one such lesson: Emotion doesn’t just cause behavior — emotion is the goal of our behavior. Anticipated emotion is the motivating force of giving. Getting our audiences to feel an emotion first might not be a necessary step.

Kevin Schulman and Kiki Koutmeridou write in The Agitatorabout a new study in Sweden that tested how well the nudge of social proof worked compared with anticipated emotion in getting people to donate a credit they received for using a grocery-store recycling machine.

The social proof sticker on the machine said: “In this store many people chose to donate their recycling credit.” In addition, a “thumbs up” sticker was placed beside the donate button.

The anticipated emotion sticker said: “It feels good to donate the recycling credit,” with another sticker bearing a smiley face next to the donate button.

The social proof nudge had no impact on donation vs. machines with no stickers or extra messaging.

The anticipated emotion nudge “significantly lifted” donations.

The practice of research communications generally deploys emotions in two ways: 1) making you feel bad, guilty or scared that something bad or scary is coming down the pike; or 2) telling you a story with emotion, so you will empathize with the researcher, seeing them as a real person you can trust instead of a cold, competent scientist you don’t want anything to do with, thus moving you to become more receptive to their findings.

We never talk about how we want someone to feel when they take action on our findings. That would involve talking directly about their emotions, not ours. And that seems far too manipulative — “too marketing” — to most researchers and research communicators.

Except for maybe those really successful at communicating.

The Streetlight Effect, or: Why Aren’t We Talking More about COVID—19 Heterogeneity?

In the US we’re obsessed with policy options for addressing COVID-19 — understandably, since we don’t have a national policy and won’t, at least for the rest of the year. If we had only done it like X, we would have had the results of X. Policy must be what drives the heterogeneity of the virus’s impact — among countries and within countries.

Then you look at Southeast Asia. Well, most experts don’t, but: Laos has declared itself coronavirus-free. Cambodia has zero reported deaths from COVID-19. Vietnam as well, and its 14 new cases are all imported. Thailand is reporting very low to no daily new cases. As Tyler Cowen put it this week:

Those countries also have very different institutions and systems of government and state capacity. Do you really think this is all because they are such policy geniuses?

Those countries have instituted some good policies, to be sure. But so has Australia, where there is a major coronavirus resurgence. … I do not understand why the world is not obsessed with this question.

Then there’s Sweden. A recent New York Times article called Sweden’s no-lockdown response a failure — thousands more deaths than neighboring countries that imposed lockdowns, and not much economic advantage over those countries — in part because people over age 70 in Sweden reduced their spending more than their counterparts in countries such as Denmark.

But Sweden’s new case rate has fallen from 1,800 in June to under 300 this week. Daily deaths there are also down, to just over a dozen per day. Sweden’s testing rate rivals Germany’s. For the moment, it looks as if Sweden is turning out better than Italy.

So, it isn’t always policy. What is it?

A day later, Tyler published an email from what he called “a highly qualified reader” (clearly an epidemiologist) who hypothesized that a) genetic variability is protecting East Asians, much as genetic mutation in many genes can cause disease susceptibility in families; and b) a more infectious and virulent strain of the virus (the “G” strain) hit the rest of the world after East Asia was hit by the initial “D” strain.

In support of the first hypothesis: Genes controlling blood types have been found to predict disease severity in Italy and Spain. These genes are carried by a majority of South Asians but comparatively few East Asians. South Asians have died in disproportionate numbers from COVID-19, compared with other ethnic groups.

Highly Qualified Reader goes on to point out, however, that we don’t have the global dataset to definitively test the first hypothesis, and that it will be “extremely hard to figure out the answer” as to whether the divergent strain hypothesis is accurate as well because of all the variables to account for. They conclude:

Again, the point of this email is not that I (or anyone!) knows the answers at this point, but I do think the above two hypotheses are not being discussed enough, largely because nobody feels qualified to reason about them. So everyone talks about mask-wearing or lockdowns instead. The parable of the streetlight effect comes to mind.

Another reason we’re not talking about heterogeneity, of course, is the state of discourse on racial justice and equity. Heterogeneity feels dangerous.

The bind: If we don’t have the genome-wide association study to answer the question, we don’t have anything to talk about from a scientific standpoint — which is why “nobody feels qualified to reason about” the two hypotheses. But others will talk and flood the zone with racist and nativist explanations and recommendations.

What Does Being a Black Astronomer Feel Like?

Maybe something like what Lauren Chambers describes in her breakup letter to the field.

Why Might You Not Want to Reach for 10K Followers on Twitter?

Read first this T. Greer thread on how 10K exposes you to “more communities of people whose base assumptions about how the world works are 100% different than yours, with inevitably disastrous results. Then this replying thread by Slate’s Lili Loofbourow. I like Loofbourow’s response that, at a certain level of Twitter exposure, “good faith engagement is actually maladaptive” because Twitter and Reddit have created “a kind of argumentative hyperliteracy” where you are never arguing about a specific thing but always “fast-forwarding to the shitty point we ‘know’ is coming even if it isn’t.”

Yeah, so you might not.

Do You Want Your Children to Grow Up Well Adjusted and Prosocial?

Get a dog and have your family play with and walk it.