How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Tuesday TL Teardown: Anti-Vaxxers & You

What separates researcher thought leadership from the kind of thought leadership everybody hates is…research, and the uniquely deep expertise that flows from being a researcher.

Saturating your thought leadership with supporting research doesn’t work. But not having any research doesn’t work, either.

Which brings us to the Thought Leadership Teardown for this week, and the question:

Are anti-vaxxer parents just like the rest of us?

Jennifer Reich, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver, says yes in a piece in The Conversation.

Her reasoning, based on her research with these parents:

  • Parents who reject vaccines “work hard to make what they see as an informed decision to do what they think is best for their children” and “also want to make a decision that best aligns with their belief system.”
  • These parents also “see themselves as experts on their own children…better qualified than health experts or public health agencies to decide what is best for their family” — even though those decisions increase risks for their children and many others in their communities.
  • But “making choices that align with our own goals, but risk the health, and lives, of those in our communities” is something we all do, Reich argues.
  • For instance, many people who believe in vaccines don’t get flu shots, believing (as anti-vaxxers do about their children) that they’re healthy and won’t need them — despite the medical community’s recommendation that everyone get one and statistics that show more than 500,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related illnesses every year.
  • People also often take a do-it-yourself approach to antibiotics, contributing to antibiotic resistance.
  • And parents routinely idle their cars while waiting to pick their children up from school, staying comfortable in heated or air conditioned cars, but contributing to elevated levels of toxic air pollutants outside schools.

Reich’s argument — the anti-vaxxer movement is just one example of the ongoing death of expertise that the rest of us all have a hand in — is potentially powerful.

Problem: Reich doesn’t back it up with research about the rest of us.

She doesn’t cite any studies about the attitudes of those who don’t get flu shots, misuse antibiotics or idle their cars next to schools.

Instead, she outright speculates that self-prescribing antibiotics “is not dissimilar to the efforts parents with whom I spoke describe going through to manage risk without vaccines” — but presents no evidence for that claim.

This is empty expertise. “Believe me,” it says.

At the end of the piece, her argument has devolved into something like: We’re all hypocrites, so who are we to judge? In fact, it might be our fault:

Before embracing calls to publicly sanction or socially shun those who reject vaccines, we could all work to create a stronger culture of public health in which we strive to do better for the most vulnerable among us, even at personal inconvenience.

Here’s another provocative statement, potentially powerful but unsupported in the piece by evidence.

Individual behaviors might be able to shift the collective paradigm of respect toward public health norms. But Reich gives us no examples where that phenomenon has happened before.

Ultimately, it just feels like a scolding. And clickbait.

Takeaway: If your content has a sexy premise, a strong voice and the evidence to back it up, it can be very effective thought leadership — and help build your authority as a researcher expert.

If your content has a sexy premise, but you’re struggling to marshal evidence for it, it’s just clickbait. Stay away from it and any editor who’s pushing it on you.