How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Anecdata & Bad Opinion

As the world pushes us more and more into reactivity, more and more opinion content — even by researchers — follows suit, trading in anecdata.

Anecdata: “anecdotal information gathered and then presented as fact,” says the Urban Dictionary.

Anecdata opinion content starts with a click-bait concept, deploys one or two examples of the concept, and spends the rest of its word count on impassioned rhetoric to convince you the concept is a heinous trend that must be stopped.

It’s overblown, red-meat stuff. It’s the opposite of public scholarship and expertise-based thought leadership. It’s your enemy — and a big opportunity.

Example 1: Richard Reeves’ piece in the New York Times this past Sunday, ”Now the Rich Want Your Pity, Too.”

Reeves, a senior fellow at Brookings, declares that the rich and successful in America are declaring themselves victims of the system that made them rich and successful.

His evidence? The book “The Meritocracy Trap,” by Yale law professor Daniel Markovitz (which declares the rich are indeed victims), and one of the parents involved in the Varsity Blues scandal, who lamented, “The way the world works these days is unbelievable.”

That’s it. No survey data. No other evidence. Just a lot of fulminating about how the rich need to get over themselves. If you hate the one-percent, Reeves’ piece is cotton candy: a sugar high followed by a tantrum followed by a fetal-ball nap.

Example 2: Sarah Taber’s recent jeremiad in The Atlantic, “The Problem with Sugar Daddy Science,” against the MIT Media Lab and the kind of donor-driven shaky science it represented.

Taber, an agricultural scientist, was turned down for a job at Media Lab. She rips into a few of its projects, including a hydroponic “food computer” that purported to grow plants four times faster than normal but never worked. It was just staged with plants from Home Depot whenever a donor tour was scheduled.

Media Lab, of course, was a catastrophe. But we finish the piece with zero understanding of how pervasive “sugar daddy science” actually is, where it’s concentrated, and how to uproot it, other than “bring back federal funding” for research, instituting better oversight of the philanthropic process, and giving research “a clear mission.” And this will happen…how?

Again: these pieces are designed to exploit and engage our free-floating disdain of something, not to equip us with the data and thinking we need to better solve the problems to which they gesture. I want to agree with Reeves and Taber…and find myself infuriated by their laziness, and the cynicism of their editors at the Times and The Atlantic.

Takeaway: Evidence and data: that’s the single most important advantage your research-driven organization has over reactive content like this.

When you don’t turn that expertise into compelling content and ideas campaigns for non-specialists, you’re leaving the field to emotion, charlatanism and pseudo-science.

If research-driven orgs have a clear mission, it’s not to let that happen.

If you’re eager to take on that challenge but don’t know where to start, hit reply and let’s chat.