Good bye ivory tower, hello social media: academics struggle to make ideas accessible


    Thanks to the powerful lure of social media, academia is making a big shift right now.

    Traditionally, academics speak their own language. In their world, a riveting, “must-read” page-turner sounds something like this:

    “Applications of latent-variable models in educational psychology: The need for methodological-substantive synergies” or “Developing A Fair Process Through Which Physicians Participating in Performance Measurement Programs Can Request a Reconsideration of Their Ratings.”

    But increasingly, academics are speaking to us, saying things we can understand, for example at wildly popular TED talks.

    “I think there’s a notion in some sort of ivory tower, that we are locked far away from the rest of the population,” said Jonah Berger, a professor of business at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies what makes ideas go viral and teaches his students how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on.  He wants to practice what he preaches when it comes to his own ideas, but says it’s a tough line to navigate for academics.

    “I think it’s hard to do both work that is rigorous and also accessible to the population at large.” Berger said that when academics popularize work, they need to make sure that everyone can understand it, and sometimes miss some of the details.

    Berger has a new book coming out – it’s called “Contagious.”  He has been quoted on NPR, in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. he recently signed up for Twitter, and is thinking about other ways to get his ideas out there. Maiken Scott interviewed Berger for “The Pulse”.

    Maiken Scott: Have you seen any one of your studies quoted, and thought “oh no, that’s not it”?

    Jonah Berger: That is the danger. And there are definitely quotes where you talk to someone for a half-hour, and they pick out the one thing that you said that you wish you didn’t say. And then you have a choice though. Do you not want to speak at all about your work or do you want to do your best to get it out there in a rigorous way. And if it takes a life of its own, try to correct that. And I think, personally at least, I am interested in making sure that my work is useful to people, and so that’s a risk you have to take.

    Maiken Scott: So when you watch TED Talks, now speaking to you also as a researcher, what is it about those things or these talks sometimes where you think “ahh,”  this is going to run. This is the “it,” this is a moment.?

    Jonah Berger: I think the currency of popularized science writing is stories. If you look at the best writers out there, Gladwell and others, they run with stories. They start with a specific individual, they tell you about that person’s life story. And they use that example to make a broader point. And so, you know Gladwell will give a talk about spaghetti sauce. Or someone will give you know some talk about one online video as an example of the way social influence works. That’s both correct and incorrect. I think you need to be careful about those examples. But I think the TED Talks are great. I mean a couple years ago, ten, fifteen years ago, economics was the only thing that policy makers thought about. Now they are talking to psychologists, and thinking about how behavioral perspectives work and incorporating those ideas. Obviously, extremely important, I don’t think that would have happened without the popularization of science.

    So – should academics put their ideas out there, or talk amongst themselves?

    Researchers Stephen Danley and Lia Howard like to debate the issue of popularization – and came to our WHYY studios to discuss this issue.

    Danley: I was recently at a seminar at Oxford, and they complained, the weekly seminar, that no one was coming. And I said: “if you want people to come, then you have to make it interesting for them.” And I think that we don’t pay enough attention in the academic world to the outside demand for our ideas and the types of things people are demanding. And I think, we’re facing some really interesting tests, where there are some people doing some very innovative things about that.

    Howard: I think we are at a tricky time, right? Because we can spread things like never before; information sharing, it’s really exciting. At the same time, there is a fear I think that when you make things just in the market, when you make things just commodities, there is going to be a diluting of the process and the really exciting ways of getting at truth.

    Danley: I’m going to strongly disagree here. I think that behind every fad is latent demand. If the public is saying that we want TED Talks, we want something more accessible, it means that they want to partake in knowledge that they may not think is being communicated very well to them. And I think that our society has developed very well to deal with that. I think we have a watchdog class, the people who are editing Wikipedia, the people who are holding people accountable on blogs, that do a great job of sifting through knowledge for us now. So, I don’t think it is true at all, that we just have a public out there who want sort of fluff all the time

    Howard: But at the same time, if its so decentralized, if there is no central force, I think we are in a culture of performance, where people like blogs, and people like to talk on a TED Lecture, but there is no real dialogue necessarily happening. No one’s raising their hand like they would in a lecture hall, if a professor said something absolutely crazy, there would be a dialogue and a check.

    Danley: I think the more people we can bring into the discussion the better. And then once your idea goes out, let’s hold it to the same rigor we’d hold an academic. And I’d argue that not all academic work holds up quite as well as some of the academic institutions would like to think.

    Howard: I would definitely agree with that. I think it’s just the tool of the Internet that’s what I am trying to argue with, because it is performance-oriented as opposed to a debate oriented. And so I think the danger, if it is when its just performance. And I feel like we have people yelling all over the place.

    Danley: Well there’s no doubt that fads happen in sort of the quasi-academic world, right? And you see this all the time things go viral, ideas go viral. I think what’s less appreciated is fads also happen in the academic world. There are topics that are going to get you into a conference, there are topics that are going to get you published in a paper right. And I would rather have my fad be judged on how many people want to click and watch the video, then my fad be judged on a citation cartel that’s a group of 12 people deciding whether or not their going to publish my work.

    Howard: I think the best is when you can marry both.

    Danley: One of the things that I think is most dynamic, is you have to get out. And in New Orleans, there is a saying: “Everybody has a hustle.” Right, and you have to go out, and showing your work is your hustle, after you’ve written it. And I think that’s the next step.

    Howard: And, it’s a little bit intimidating to be honest because I feel like if you want to be critical you also need to have one foot out of the hustle.

    And here is some advice for young academics from the master popularizer Art Caplan who now heads the Center for Bioethics at NYU. Caplan weighs in on medical ethics issues on many news stations and is also respected by his peers in academia.

    Here are a few of Art Caplan’s tips:

    – First, establish your bona fides in academia. Write academic papers, and only “popularize” topics that you can back up with peer-reviewed academic research papers.

    – Don’t weigh in publicly on topics that go beyond the scope of your research and expertise

    – Don’t get sucked too much into social media – you can spend entire days commenting and going back and forth.

    – To be effective as a popularizer, you have to repeat your ideas. Just putting something on Twitter won’t make a difference. Repeat your ideas, and back them up with ideas on how to change a situation, or to improve an issue.

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