How researchers get heard
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What Research Thought Leadership Doesn’t Look Like

Great content starts by asking the right question first.

That didn’t happen for this wannabe thought leadership feature by Vox two weeks ago, to mark Facebook’s 15th birthday.

Vox asked 15 people they called influencers to respond to the question: Has Facebook been good for the world?

There’s one failure here, with two sides:

  1. The question is impossible to answer authoritatively without data.
  2. There isn’t enough data in the world to answer the question authoritatively.

It got worse. The responses were — even by today’s limbo-low standards of hot takery — stupendously unenlightening.

“Influencers” such as Malcolm Gladwell, Congressman Ro Khanna, MIT’s Sherry Turkle, NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Brookings’ Peter W. Singer, Dana Perino and David Axelrod offered up what amounted to a yard sale of tenuous historical analogies, speculative cause-effect correlations, dime-store rhetorical questions, and tired talking points from their personal branding.

Nobody mentioned research except for Pinker (in that Pinker-trust-me-it-always-turns-out-well-in-the-end way) and Haidt, who spoke with weird confidence about future research findings:

There are empirical studies pointing to a causal connection to heavy social media use, and there are studies indicating no connection. I predict that a consensus will emerge by the end of 2019, and that it will be that heavy use of social media damages many young teenage girls, reducing their odds of success in life.

It’s unclear how Haidt reached that preemptive conclusion. Has he seen forthcoming research findings? Was he moved after watching ”Eighth Grade”?

The Vox piece spurs me to sketch a continuum of opinion content generators — from most to least authoritative; least to most reactive; most to least informed by expertise, data and research. Maybe something like:

  1. Researcher Thought Leader
  2. Expert Thought Leader
  3. Pundit
  4. Influencer

Whatever the order, researcher thought leadership must be at the top. Insights steeped in research, evidence and expertise are really hard to achieve consistently — and the most valuable for everyone. Including researchers and their organizations.

But first: Give us a decent question to answer.