On Bullshit and Research

Researchers who write articles or give interviews must be given approval rights over how their material is presented.

Photo: Harshil Shah / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

My year as an academic has been bookended by a couple of awkward encounters between my own research and a new media reality. The year has also provided a rich crop of angry messages from strangers in my inbox, but I will not discuss those here. Is there something dysfunctional in the relationship between research, the media and the general public?

For my part, the problem started when the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) opened in April. I have a part-time position at C-REX equivalent to one day a week. The daily newspaper Vårt Land published an article about C-REX (in Norwegian) with the lurid headline “Will probe extremist right-wing Christians”. According to Vårt Land, I believed the Christians Party (Norwegian: Partiet De Kristne, PDK) to be a right-wing extremist organization. The problem was that the newspaper had never spoken to me.

Of course the PDK is not a right-wing extremist organization. It is a Christian party that combines conservative social values with economic liberalism. The newspaper was correct that I had initiated a small research project with the aim of understanding the PDK’s political ideology and activity. Once that kind of headline has been snapped up by social media, however, the damage is done. Understandably, the leaders of the PDK went into lockdown, and it took weeks to rebuild the trust necessary to obtain further information.

An error spreads rapidly in social media

The Bullshit Asymmetry Principle (also known as Brandolini’s law) states that it takes 10 times more energy to refute bullshit than to produce it. This is a problem. An erroneous, but juicy, headline will be snapped up and spread on social media in a matter of minutes. Few people are interested in checking facts – or reading an article properly – if a headline or an introductory paragraph confirms their prejudices or view of the world.

The media carousel spins like a propeller, and anyone who wants to jump on risks having the whole thing land on their head before they manage to find their footing. My gut feeling is that these kinds of dynamics are making it an ever more daunting task to contribute to the public debate. This is especially true if one is researching an inflammatory topic, such as migration, Islam or right-wing extremism.

Researchers are stepping back

In order to find out whether my gut feeling was correct, I recently conducted a small and highly unscientific survey. I exchanged emails with around 20 colleagues, all of whom are working on the inflammatory research topics listed above. Their responses were almost unanimous. They and their colleagues are stepping back because of the ever greater burden of communicating with the media.

A Danish colleague – a professor – explained how she, and several people she knows, can no longer deal with the stress. If one speaks out about these topics in Denmark, she said, one risks abuse from many different quarters. She summarized the situation by writing, “All in all, the debate has resulted in ‘Islam researchers’ having really low esteem among the general public”. Similar feedback came from a Finnish professor in a key position who works with migration.

A Swedish colleague, also a professor, said that he had spoken both with many colleagues and the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention about the problem. In his opinion, we are seeing ever-increasing pressure on researchers’ freedom of expression. Consequently, in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and certainly in many other places, there appears to be a tendency for researchers to avoid making public statements because the price is too high. This does not necessarily mean that researchers will disappear completely from public debate. But it could mean that only a particular type of researcher will remain: the thick-skinned pundit.

We must share a framework of knowledge

But if many researchers with sound knowledge about controversial topics of political significance refrain from participating in public debate, that is a problem. A functioning liberal democracy requires knowledge. We cannot accept a situation governed by ‘post-truth’ – recently chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016. In his much-quoted article ‘Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship‘, published in 2000 in The Journal of Politics, James H. Kuklinski, together with a group of researchers, showed how the people with the most erroneous assumptions about situations are also the people who are most confident that their views are correct.

Subsequently much research has been conducted on the same problem and has shown, among other things, the existence of what is often described as ‘the backfire effect‘, i.e., that erroneous assumptions are reinforced when they are corrected.

But the more arrogant and polarized the world becomes, the more important it is that errors are corrected. As citizens of a country, we need to share a common framework of knowledge in order to avoid talking at cross-purposes when political solutions are being developed. In the past, public information channels and national newspapers have guaranteed a shared platform of knowledge, but even though parts of the traditional news media are still strong in Norway, there are major changes on the way.

The media want conflict

Researchers enjoy the trust of the rest of society to the extent that we are allowed to work reasonably freely on research topics that we believe to be important, and use methods that we believe are appropriate. It is rare for someone to interfere with what we are doing and how we are doing it. Obviously freedom comes with a responsibility to contribute necessary knowledge to society. Stepping back is quite simply not an alternative.

So how should researchers survive in a world where the media is becoming ever faster and more ruthless?

We can start by shedding some illusions and by becoming fonder of power – or at least more aware of it. If we start by acknowledging that the relationship between research, the media and the general public is about power, we can begin to think specifically about how researchers should exercise more control over how knowledge is used.

The frequently used Triangle Hypothesis developed by academic and politician Gudmund Hernes states that the media want to have two parties that are in conflict. The media will place these parties in adversarial positions with the media channel itself as the assumed neutral party in the middle. Researchers, however, often want to avoid this type of adversarial role, because they know better than most that there is always some degree of uncertainty in their own research. If one is to perform as an entertainer in a media-created battleground, it doesn’t work so well if one insists on uncertainty.

Swept uncertainty under the carpet

Uncertainty was swept under the carpet towards the end of the year when I published a memorandum – funded by the Finance Market Fund and published by the think tank Civita – on Norwegian Muslims’ views about interest and bank loans. A range of media channels took up the story. For example, the daily tabloid newspaper Dagbladet wrote, ‘Religions researcher wants Islamic mortgages in Norway‘. I had not proposed this, and Dagbladet changed its headline after a few hours, but once again the damage was done. The story was no longer about uncertain knowledge with implications that pointed in different directions, but about what I wanted. Soon the story had a life of its own on social media, and extremist websites such as Pegida and Document.no were of course writing about Islamization and dangerous researchers.

The national television channels TV2 and NRK were soon on the telephone wanting to organize TV debates. Both had got hold of the right-wing Progress Party’s spokesman on immigration policy, who, unsurprisingly, was strongly opposed to Islamic mortgages. ‘Well yes,’ I said, ‘I can certainly participate in a debate, but there’s no guarantee that the debate will be particularly heated.’ ‘What do you mean?’ asked the fellow from TV2, ‘isn’t it the case that you want these types of loans and the Progress Party is against them?’ The Triangle Hypothesis was flashing in the background. ‘No, that is not the case,’ I said. ‘But what about the headlines?’ said TV2.  ‘Aren’t they correct?’

More control over headlines and introductions

Exactly, the headlines. This is perhaps where we should start if we want to gain greater control over our own message. Journalists are generally reasonable when it comes to checking a quote, but traditionally this only affects the text in the main body of an article. What really matters is the headline, the introduction and the images. When a journalist delivers a story to the news desk, a new logic takes over. From here on, what matters is extracting as much interest as possible from a story.

The Norwegian Ethical Code of Practice for the Press clause 4.4 provides that the press should ‘Make sure that headlines, introductions and leads do not go beyond what is being related in the text.’ Of course journalists do an important job in sharpening a message. They are experts in getting things read, and the battle for attention is getting ever fiercer. It does seem, however, that the media are pushing the envelope ever further. They know that it is easy to amend a headline or introduction online if it attracts criticism. That makes it tempting to begin by taking a chance in the hope of generating rapid sharing and a lot of traffic.

There is a bizarre silent acceptance of the notion that a researcher who writes an article or gives an interview will have no control over the type of headlines, introductions or images that will be used to package the text. This is problematic, because it is this packaging that determines the political life of the story from the second that it is published online. The first small step for researchers to develop a more aware attitude to the media – and more control over how their own knowledge can be used – should therefore focus on these packaging elements of a news item.

Must become more professional

Nonetheless, a broad awareness of the relationship of research to new and old media must of course also take into account far larger matters than headlines and introductions.

Trouble in the [ivory] tower‘ was the title of an article by Ståle Wig and Henrik H. Svensen in the Norwegian multidisciplinary research periodical Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift earlier this year, which generated a certain amount of debate among researchers. The authors claimed that the task of disseminating research at universities was being delegated to professional communications consultants, with unfortunate consequences, and that researchers must take back the task of dissemination. I think that Wig and Svensen were wrong.

Most researchers do not use communications consultants, and the dissemination of research-based knowledge is under-, rather than over-, professionalized. It is undoubtedly true that many researchers think that there is something grubby about thinking strategically about the use of their own knowledge. Doing so requires a dose of cynicism to navigate the new media reality.

It is professionalization that we need. Researchers become researchers by completing a PhD. This kind of degree takes three years and consists primarily of independent research, resulting in a thesis. But in addition most PhD programmes in Norway require 30 credits – i.e. half a year of academic work – comprising various courses. Compulsory courses include the philosophy of science and research methods.

A compulsory course in publication

In order to raise awareness about relations with the media among new generations of Norwegian researchers, universities and university colleges (i.e., institutions that can confer PhD degrees) should offer PhD students courses on publishing and the role of research in society. Such courses could form a compulsory component of the PhD, and should include the strategic and political aspects of all forms of publication. Publication ranges from the purely academic (where e.g. questions about open access and open science are key) to precisely this contact with traditional and social media.

Knowledge is power, but power is always about relationships between people. Knowledge becomes power when people, groups or organizations fight about what will be disseminated and how. Research plays a crucial role in society, but many researchers could be more aware of the power relationships they find themselves in when knowledge is to be disseminated.

Countering bullshit seems to be becoming an everyday aspect of a researcher’s working life, as the leading British climate researcher Phil Williamson said in his article ‘Take the time and effort to correct misinformation‘ in Nature recently. Doing so doesn’t need to be that difficult.

We can start by demanding the right to approve headlines and introductions before our message is sent out into the world.


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