How researchers get heard
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Avoid Research Snapocalypse

The economist and journalist Tim Harford writes for the FT that Avengers’ archenemy Thanos is really “an economist on steroids.” That’s because Thanos sees a problem (a universe with finite resources and ever-expanding population) and he uses a rational, hyper-utilitarian approach to reach a solution — “specifically, to eliminate half of all life in the universe, chosen at random.”

(Thanos doesn’t seem to understand that a rapidly growing population would soon replace everyone he eliminates. Sustainability would seem a more durable solution — but, of course, it’s a far less dramatic one. Which might be a big part of sustainability’s failure to catch on, come to think of it.)

Thanos, unlike other economists, has what Harford calls the “snapocalyptic power” to instantly carry out his vision. But Thanos and economists share something else, Harford adds: a lack of humility:

“Thanos has convinced himself that he’s seen something nobody else can quite understand. The truth is that he sorely needs peer review…Not every social scientist has such ruthless confidence in their models. At best, we’ve learned that the economy is a complicated system and unintended consequences abound. But once the data are gathered and the graphs plotted, it can be all too easy to convince ourselves that we understand the system well enough to improve it with drastic changes. We don’t.”

We’ve all encountered researchers like this.

But if you’re afraid that your big idea is just hubris, I can’t think of a better antidote than publishing it in a variety of channels, for specialists and non-specialists — courting the equivalent of continual peer review. (An ethos that, ironically, economists embrace more than any other discipline.)

The techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci just wrote a great email to her Tiny Letter list that illustrates the bounty of working in public. (It’s not archived on her TinyLetter site; if you want me to forward it to you, just hit reply and ask.)

The email — “What Game of Thrones can teach us about technology: It’s changing the game that matters, not picking the winner” — picks up on a Scientific American column she wrote earlier this month on the same topic.

Even I find her argument fascinating — I, who watched exactly one episode of GoT and declared: Not for me.

Tufekci’s argument: Early GoT was great because it was about characters, institutions and culture together — what Tufekci calls “sociological stories.”

In these stories, beloved characters were often killed off abruptly, mercilessly — because the narrative isn’t solely about character. It’s about character interacting with power and the structure of society, and often losing those battles. As in, being killed off.

That’s unusual for Hollywood. But it also resonates in today’s world, where we feel a decreasing lack of agency and dread about the growing pervasiveness of power through predictive algorithms and surveillance.

But this season, GoT was a mess because its showrunners wrote it, and they radically shifted the narrative style to a more standard Hollywood kind of storytelling focused exclusively on psychology. In the Hollywood game, character is all there is.

That’s entertainment.

Tufekci says: We keep making this mistake as a society, as we try to grasp what’s happening to us “in the current historic transition with digital technology and artificial intelligence.” We keep focusing on characters — Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Assange, Bezos, Musk — or what we can do to protect our own privacy, for instance. But the game is much bigger than that; much more structural.

The email talks about the reaction she got to the Scientific American column:

I had a lot of feedback from people who quickly understood the difference between stories that highlight institutions and structures versus that are focused on individuals whose motivations actions seem isolated from the environment and the structures within that environment. This difference happens in fiction and nonfiction, and, unfortunately, more and more of our stories in both fiction and nonfiction are of the latter kind. I feel encouraged that the reaction wasn’t “what are you talking about”—rather, it was a rich discussion of people’s favorite examples of sociological fiction and nonfiction. (As the kids these days might say, I feel seen!)

Tufecki — who’s a columnist for WIRED and The New York Times as well as Scientific American — writes in her Tiny Letter that she’s been struggling to explain what to write her next book about…or, rather, what kind of book she didn’t want to write:

Not a book about mostly Silicon Valley personalities; not a book about the technology alone; not a book that’s nostalgic for the past as if things were much better before (rather than the reality as I see it: a slow and steady erosion in the social contract accompanied by elite greed, failure and incompetence).

She says still doesn’t know if she can write the book in the way it needs to be written — sociological storytelling, rather than personality driven.

But the feedback for her Scientific American GoT piece told her she was on the right track.

In turn, the Tiny Letter email gave her a chance to consolidate that thinking.

Takeaway: If you publish frequently in a variety of channels for both specialists and non-specialists, you’ll get feedback.

You could see this as an annoyance and distraction from your brilliance, as Thanos no doubt would. (Thanos with an email list: now there’s a movie…not.)

Or you could see it as a unique opportunity to test and push forward your new thinking.