How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

The Yoga Class Test

A church in my neighborhood holds a Saturday morning yoga class that I attend off and on. While the class was settling in, I overheard a discussion among some of the participants about kids and their smartphones — they’re on them all the time, they create bad posture, etc. One person said: “You know they’ve shown that too much bending over your phone creates a bone spur in the back of your head — they call it a horn.”

Everyone else in the class had heard about the study’s findings, including me.

But I was the only one who seemed to know that serious questions had been raised about the study’s validity — in part because one of the researchers was a chiropractor with a potential conflict of interest, an online business selling postural remedies in part aimed at “curing” the horn.

So I did what any good research communicator would have done in that situation.

I said nothing.

I didn’t know anyone in the class, so we hadn’t established a dynamic of trust and credibility. Those are decisive dynamics in determining whether someone will be receptive to new scientific information. I could have “corrected” the misimpression, but absent trust and credibility, my “correction” might have been interpreted as an act of hostility against their concern about their children, for instance.

I had read newspaper reports about the study, but hadn’t read it and hadn’t delved deeply into the full range of criticism. So my claim to expertise was limited as well — basically limited to “that study has limitations and one of the authors was trying to sell something.”

The other class members were women; I am a man. I wasn’t confident my intervention saying “no, that’s not true” wouldn’t look like mansplaining.

Now, of course, my silence bothered me. (Not a great mindset for yoga.) Shouldn’t I have defended the evidence? Isn’t this how pseudoscience spreads — when good (read: “informed”) people say nothing?

It was just three years ago that a spate of papers and reports rang alarm bells about “climate silence,” the failure of most Americans to talk about climate change with others even if they are interested in it or think it’s important. AOC, Greta and the Green New Deal have changed that. Even Texas voters support climate action and policies to “shift the state from fossil fuels to renewable energy,” according to a new poll.

Texas.

Of course, climate now seems to many very personal in ways it might not have just three years ago (!), which might give them license to break their climate silence. Cellphone skull horns aren’t terribly personal to me.

So does that mean that, if the discussion in my yoga class would have been about vaccines, I would have joined in? I just barely know how a vaccine works.

But I do believe avoiding them endangers public health, because experts who have authority with me have said so.

One of the greatest values of experts who become public authorities is they give the rest of us evidence-based air cover — not simply to reference their authority, but to speak ourselves.

The IPCC gives AOC and Greta Thunberg air cover. Hans Rosling gives air cover to techno-optimists. Esther Duflo gives air cover to others who believe in and fund science-based efforts to chip away at poverty and related diseases.

Trust levels are melting, at least in the United States. If people aren’t talking and thinking about your issue in the way you think they should, they need air cover from authority. They need you to speak up first, and to cultivate their trust.

Every issue has a cellphone horn, and you don’t want them to find it before they find you.

If you are game to start, but unsure about the first steps to take on that path, hit reply and let’s talk.