How researchers get heard
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Blood Bags, Parking Tickets, WEIRDos & Big New Stories

I’m fascinated by the recent study in Science that argues the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s prohibitions against incest were crucial in laying the foundation for “individualism, nonconformity, and the inclination to trust and help strangers,” traits the authors associate with the evolution of “WEIRD” societies — western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

I’m fascinated not by the findings themselves (I guess it makes sense, but am wondering how you could control for all the variables in historical development) — but by the coverage of it, which seems tremendously out of proportion to the findings.

I tried and discarded a few explanations before settling on one.

Explanation #1: the power of anecdote.

Research-driven organizations and those who love them rightly hate anecdata. But we should love and cherish the well-calibrated, research anecdote just as much as we hate anecdata.

Great anecdote is a raygun. The great research anecdote (like any great anecdote) comes in a unit perfect for remembering and repeating.

This paper has two fantastic research anecdotes:

  1. The researchers collected data on blood-donation rates across Italy and found “a correlation between high donation rates and low cousin-marriage rates.”
  2. The researchers also used a kinship intensity index (which includes data on such things as rates of marriage between cousins and polygyny) to predict which country’s diplomats to the UN would or would not a) get parking tickets, and b) pay them.

But only five of the 10 articles covering the study mentioned these great examples, and only a handful mentioned them prominently.

Huh. So there’s another gravity at work.

Explanation #2: a great acronym.

“WEIRD” is dealer-grade acronym-ing. And, indeed, all of the coverage I surveyed used WEIRD to describe the societies the Church’s actions had influenced, and referenced it high up in their stories.

But can even the stickiest of acronyms drive coverage? I’ve never seen it. Next!

Explanation #3: the study provides us with a novel cause-and-effect explanation.

Cause-and-effect explanations hook us. Cause-and-effect explanations continue to hook us even when we have evidence to the contrary because of a dynamic psychologists call the continued influence effect As reported by the BPS Research Digest, a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology argues that we would rather believe a narrative that gives us a complete explanation of why something happened rather than a more accurate narrative of events that lacks that comprehensive explanation.

This study’s conclusions are textbook cause-and-effect. Even researchers not associated with the study who are quoted in the coverage are, almost without exception, blown away by the church-incest-WEIRD linkage. As Thomas Talhelm of the University of Chicago told Scientific American:

If we were to survey researchers in anthropology, cultural psychology, and evolution and ask them what explains Western WEIRD-ness, we would get all sorts of answers. And few would focus specifically on the church or the nuclear family….Any time a theory of human culture scales up so big, there will be local exceptions and unique cases. Some researchers are deeply wary of generalizations, of large theories. Yet that wariness will overlook the usefulness of the theory and the consistency of the findings.

Explanation #4: it’s anecdote, acronym and novel cause-and-effect explanation combined.

Is the study the last word on whether the Roman Catholic Church begat Goldman Sachs? Obviously not. There should be no last words in science.

Will people be referencing this study for years to come? Bet on it, because of the heroin-like combination of blood bags, parking tickets, WEIRD and novel cause-and-effect story.

Research-driven organizations that seek competitive advantage look for appropriate research and expertise around which to create such packages of anecdote, acronym and novel cause-and-effect explanation.

Those that don’t seek competitive advantage…don’t.