Monday, 13 July 2015

'Are you listening?': Why communicating research is a nightmare

I was testing the water on a great new writing platform (which might or might not rise to prominence in the long-term) and put together a case for why being an expert is at times a bit of a nightmare. You can find it here.

Specifically, I was considering the way in which people are perfectly capable of flat-out rejecting what you have to say, even though it is correct. It happens all of the time.

For me, what it does is slow things down. I try hard to communicate science, sometimes on this blog and more often than not in public speaking events which allow for genuine discourse. It's evident that some people have made their minds up and simply don't want to hear what I have to say. It's deflating to say the least.

Much of it all stems from the fact that people have particular beliefs about music piracy. It's not like I am talking about something new, it's something you already know about, and something you already have beliefs about.

Shermer (2011) puts it well, when he explains that:

"We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow" (p. 5)

In other words, it's hard to convince someone of something they don't want to hear.

Consider also how, as Levitin explains, the internet has led to a vast sea of opinions to be neatly hosted on the internet, and that none of the correct ones are more likely to be encountered than the incorrect ones.

In fact, it is routinely said that with the best will, the efforts of well-wishing public intellectuals, there are so many people out there who are perfectly capable of wiping the slate clean on the likes of Wikipedia that communicating science on the leading mediums of the day is virtually impossible. 

Most of these apparent villains I do not believe are acting out of malice of any sort, but rather just plain old misunderstood.

Pinker (who features prominently in the article this blog entry refers to), explains:

"Just because something happened to you, or you read about it in the paper or on the Internet this morning, it doesn't mean it is a trend. In a world of seven billion people, just about anything will happen to someone somewhere, and it's the highly unusual events that will be selected for the news or passed along to friends. An event is a significant phenomenon only if it happens some appreciable number of times relative to the opportunities for it to occur" (2014, p. 303)

No-one ever makes the concession that I have never been paid a penny to put a single word on paper in any format whatsoever; I do it because I feel like it's an obligation to communicate the research that I have conducted. Often, when people rudely dismiss what I have to say (and by that I mean facts), I question whether or not is worth the hassle.

All of this is made all the more surprising given I am absolutely committed to being impartial in my research and critiques of others' work, dedicating an entire article on the fact that we don't really know all that much. I rarely have anything controversial to say at all. I routinely cover all aspects. If you are shortsighted enough to think digital piracy can be neatly described as 'good' or 'bad', you will remember all the entries which oppose your point of view, forgetting the ones which support it.

And here is a funny one: people often think I don't know what I am talking about because I do not engage in music piracy myself. Now this doesn't make sense, not least of all as being an outsider is of course advantageous for a whole host of reasons. But my suspicion is that it's a bit like eating a McDonalds in a hospital: I draw attention to 'bad behaviours'.

What it all adds up to, for me, is I am finding myself having to play a game with unclear rules. I am now longer merely communicating science, but actively having to work on my techniques of persuasion. This something I am slowly adjusting to, with varying levels of success. It's an exciting challenge, and one I am more enthusiastic about when I take the time to reflect on the stimulating, long-term elements, not the annoying short-term ones.

For the time being, I find myself having to challenge the words of the late (and great) Terry Pratchett to stay enthused. He writes:

"Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things... In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds... Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true" (2000).

Twats @musicpiracyblog


Levitin, D.J. (2014). The Organized Mind. New York City, NY: Dutton.

Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. London, England: Allen Lane.

Pratchett, T. (2000). The Truth. New York City, NY: Doubleday.


  1. Sometimes, you just need to use simple words when communicating. It goes a long way.

  2. Hi there,

    I think being as clear as possible is absolutely necessary, but it doesn't address the underlying problem of people not wanting to hear what you have to say.

    We all do it, every day. And it works both ways.

    I guess this blog entry came from an encounter recently where someone (in person) was unwilling to believe that music piracy doesn't lead to job losses. I had not actually argued against this at all, and agreed that there is sound logic there - but there's no evidence from the research. All I ever discuss.

    He had decided that was the case, because it was intuitive. I explained that you might very well be correct, but without evidence, you can't walk around saying it as if it were fact. Not good enough.

    Beliefs are tricky.

    I think this is all part of a bigger, ongoing problem which is the access to information on the internet. This is very new.

    Thanks for stopping by.