A Cautionary Tale in the Age of Click Bait: An Interview with Dr. Benjamin R. Meagher on Communicating Research to the Public

When I applied for my current role as Coordinator for Graduate Writing Support over 18 months ago, my cover letter mentioned the importance of preparing academics to communicate the value of their research to the public. Such a task seems increasingly urgent as the Trump administration repeatedly ignores sound scientific evidence and threatens agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities with funding cuts. During my tenure at UConn’s Writing Center, I have often worked with graduate students on their publications, and this summer I co-facilitated a Fellowship Writing Institute for students applying for grants from the National Science Foundation and other bodies. In workshops, seminars, and tutorials, I often remind graduate students that, while the credibility of academic writing is closely connected to its nuance and complexity, writers also need to emphasize the contribution made by their scholarship in the clearest terms possible. We discuss the audience of different documents and how to appeal to particular readers, especially beyond our own disciplinary communities. While we may dream of our research being widely disseminated, there are considerable challenges along the way. As part of my efforts to support graduate students in developing the necessary skills for becoming a truly public intellectual, I recently reached out to a friend and former colleague of mine to hear about exactly what happened when his research went viral.

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Dr. Benjamin R. Meagher graduated from the Department of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, where his dissertation research in environmental psychology investigated why residents perform better in their territories than visitors. Ben speaks warmly of the opportunities he enjoyed to collaborate on research with a range of faculty members while at UConn and, indeed, he was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at Baylor University based on his experience with a statistical method that was of interest to a researcher there. The studies Ben worked on at Baylor were designed to compare different methodologies for assessing intellectual humility, specifically through examining consensus among judgments of intellectual humility by others after different periods of working together. When this work was published, Baylor University wrote a press release that eventually made its way to news outlets, including the Huffington Post, in articles that, according to Ben, “went wild” with “egregious interpretations.” So what happened?

 

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The person who wrote this release spoke to me over the phone, and it was clear that she was searching for the “hook” that would get people interested in the study. This write-up went through many different drafts, but the emphasis gradually pulled away from the actual original purpose of the study and instead gravitated toward one small correlation that was included as a part of Study 2. We found a small positive correlation with self-identifying as arrogant and your final class grade. The change in focus was gradual and, in retrospect, something I probably should have prevented. But at the time I wasn’t devoting a ton of energy towards thinking about this. I thought it was kind of neat that the university was paying attention to it at all, and I was not particularly high on the totem pole. Once the outside press got the release and wanted to write about it, they went wild with the implications, saying that arrogance will help you get ahead professionally at the office.

I think clearly, in this case, what drove the writing of these articles was the production of click bait. Saying arrogance is a good thing is a terrible thing to say so people will click on the link to get outraged. Once I read a few of the more egregious interpretations, I was motivated to try to move the focus back to the real goal of the article. I was actually pre-interviewed by NPR’s Morning Edition about the article, but I could tell that the person I spoke with became less and less interested in the topic as I spoke to him about the much less interesting nitty-gritty of methodology. Not surprisingly, they decided not to have me on air. After that, I was honestly a little burnt out from it.

I asked Ben if he had any advice for other researchers facing the problematic ways that science can be communicated beyond the academy.

Well, I suppose I would say that one key thing is to try to nip things in the bud as early as you can. It’s ultimately a game of telephone, with your results getting filtered more and more the further removed you get from it. So while your research consists of multiple analyses and moderating factors, its final state as someone might see it is in .gif form. So the more you can do to drive the narrative at the start, the better. Clearly that may involve resisting the persuasive techniques of someone in media relations telling you how fascinating a piece of your research is, since it is quite likely that what will happen is that it will be taken out of context from all the boundary conditions and caveats you yourself wrote about in your original piece.

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Since leaving Baylor, Ben has taught at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and will be returning to research at Hope College in Michigan this fall, where his wife, Dr. Christiana Salah, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English. Ben’s next project is part of UConn’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life program and will be funded by the Templeton Foundation. Ben describes his professional trajectory as a series of “funny examples” of how his “career ends up getting guided by the side projects [he] more or less stumbled into by working with other people,” perhaps indicating that a breadth of interests and a willingness to work outside one’s comfort zone can be productive for practical as well as intellectual reasons. His experiences with publication have been “a mix of frustrating rejections and satisfying successes” as he reflected that psychology journals can tend to look for “perfectly “clean” results with enormous effects.” Meanwhile, Ben has discovered that what can capture the public’s imagination—or rather what journalists believe might—can be very far from a study’s really meaningful results.

My thanks are due to Ben for allowing me to share his experiences with readers. I am hoping to turn this into a series of interviews with academics who have had interesting experiences with their research in the big wide world so let me know if you have any suggestions!

Finally, please make sure to read the original study from Ben and his colleagues here:

Meagher, B. R., Leman, J. C., Bias, J. P., Latendresse, S. J., & Rowatt, W. C. (2015). Contrasting self-report and consensus ratings of intellectual humility and arrogance. Journal of Research in Personality, 58, 35-45. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2015.07.002

 

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