What would you do?

 Another practical way to explain the value of impact science that I have used on my workshops and courses is to explore pragmatism and impact via hypothetical scenarios. Some situations have a clear answer, some not, but in either case, it helps exemplify the rounding up of skills highlighted on the previous section.

The celebrity boost

In the summer of 2018, I had the chance to visit a very important international research institution on climate change and the environment. The group I was with included some other fellow scientists but interestingly it also included “media celebrities” and award-winning journalists from major international newspapers. People with truly tens of millions of followers who trust them in social media. People whose every online update is instantly read, shared, and commented on. If we want impact with science, it is an interesting and relevant question how scientist could or should relate with that kind of power. For example, should some scientists become media celebrities? How do we partner with them to help drive this impact?.

The director of the research institution we were visiting gave a not-so-short speech about the kind of research that was done there: Many nations present, many open questions to research, many important papers, doctorates, and research ongoing around us. Very interesting indeed, but probably with a bit too much detail for some of the audience. A journalist from a major international newspaper, jumped with the golden question of this hypothetical scenario: “If you could share a simple message with the world to help improve the situation, what would it be?” Indeed. This is a question many researchers get when they are interviewed in the context of an important discovery, or around a public outreach talk. Having also media celebrities on the room, made me think even deeper about this scenario. Between journalists and researchers there tends to be a natural tension between the scientist wanting factual reporting with all nuisances and caveats, and the journalist wanting a succinct clear headline that will be read, and cared, by everyone.

With celebrities and the so-called influencers, there might even be a bigger tension with scientists. In the traditional image of research and academia, facts are the light of progress. Hard learned tools of research leading to hard earned facts. The more facts one can uncover, the better we are. Facts carry their own weight, and fact are enough. If only more people knew them, the world would be better. Therefore, either you should discover the facts for yourself thereby becoming an expert, or otherwise non-experts should just listen to experts so that we all knew better and can be better. This paternalistic approach is the “information deficit” hypothesis most scientists assume to be true. For celebrities the model is radically different: paying attention has a high cost, especially around topics one doesn’t care at first. We seek to associate with others we can trust, we identify with, or would like to. In essence, we seek to belong to groups of common identity, real or desired. Moreover, given the cost of attention and thinking, we are naturally good at choosing to make decisions with as little information as possible. For that we use assumptions, heuristics, stereotyping, or we follow what the leader says. This is sometimes called the “low-information rationality” hypothesis, and while extremely common and effective, it is dangerous since it disfavors fact-based reasoning. Yet, we all have a set of famous people we follow, care, and listen to. The somewhat uncomfortable reality is that an influencer or celebrity post reaches, and indeed influences, within seconds an audience that the most important Nature article will never reach. One might argue that it is as important to generate knowledge as it is to have it known and acted upon by as many people as possible. This is partly why organizations like the UN or the EU have “Goodwill ambassadors” to promote children’s rights and use the notability of these celebrities to drive media and political attention. These include Antonio Banderas for UNDP, Shakira for the UN, Messi for UNICEF or Angelina Jolie for UNHCR[i].

Here is another case to validate this hypothesis. On one side, running with the “information deficit hypothesis” a group of researchers tried different methods to explain why vaccines are important. In experiment, published in 2014 in the journal Pediatrics[ii], they tried explaining vaccine facts, debunking the hoax relationship between vaccines and autism, explaining the disease or the details of a particular unvaccinated kids who almost died. None of these approaches increased the perception of value for vaccines. On the other hand, while describing this paper[iii], the science journalist Pere Estupinyá confronts it with the experience of a famous doctor that in her family office is able to change the perception and behavior of their patients. It is again trust in the doctor more than trust in the science what drives people  to change, or not, their opinion of a scientific issue.

Back to our case, the director of this research institution we were visiting, when asked about what he would say on climate change to millions of people, his answer was:

“Don´t trust what anyone says, including me. Make your own conclusions.”

Squarely hitting the target on the “information deficit” hypothesis scientists tend to follow, and oblivious to the “low-information rationality” hypothesis celebrities tend to follow. I truly don’t know what I would say, and I believe it is a good exercise to think about this case, or more in general how we can leverage the power of facts and fame, how they interact or can they work together. May be the answer is closer to a succinct phrase that hits both targets of low-information rational and hints towards learning more. I don’t know the answer for climate change, but in nutrition, I believe Michael Pollan hits the right spot with his book In Defense of Food[iv]. The whole book tries to drive this narrow space between pragmatic advice and critical thinking, and he explicitly addressed the point of this section on his first phrase, with an advice that summarized the book: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The rest of the book is dedicated to unfolding this phrase into logic, research, facts, history, and recommendations. He, too, could have said about food, “Don´t trust what anyone says, including me. Make your own conclusions,” but that phrase gives both concrete direction easy to follow and nudges the reader to want to know more.

Back again to our research director, after the rounds of questions about climate change research and impact, and his answers, I approached him, and I told him about the idea of impact science, about the fact that some in the room were celebrities, and a little bit about what I described here on leveraging their reach. His refined answer was, “Diversity, we need diversity in the world, and if we are not careful, we will lose it.” I like this answer more, and so did the celebrity I talked to afterwards. Still, she didn´t post it on her channels. I don´t know what I would say, but it would probably be something like: “There is no away when you throw away, the smoke that goes up, comes down somewhere else. Reduce what you use, avoid plastics, recycle, choose the better option.” I would try to make it concrete, to make it relatable and to hint to the reason so you can learn more. I am sure there are better way to say it. My question is then for you. Think of the most famous person you follow, and think of an issue where science has a lot to offer. Imagine this famous person gives you their platform to say something. What would you say to millions of people?

Mr. President, this is what you will do

Often, when we look for impact we look at our leaders, our presidents, head of state or elected politicians. They are seen as the enabler or blocker to action, especially in issues like climate change. As I explained on previous chapters there is huge, and growing, pile of academic evidence that the global climate system is disrupted by our actions, and we must change course. On my talks I often start with this hypothetical scenario. You are sitting down with your heads of state, or your city major. Think personally of them and of you, not a hypothetical unknown leader. It might a very progressive democratic leader, or the impulsive dictator of your country. You happen to be on the table in the morning and she or him turns to you and says, “What do I do?” and you answer, “This is what I think you should do: …” Depending on where you are from, the baggage that comes with this question is very different. Maybe you live on a very intense car culture, or there are big factories around, or your electricity comes from burning gas or coal, or the opposition leader is a climate change denier, or there is really no budget left for expensive new programs.

You cannot tell them to read the latest papers, or the latest hefty IPCC synthesis report with hundreds of pages or general recommendations. If you are on the table with them, it is probably your job to read it, absorb it and then come up with solutions. Depending on your location, it might be easier or harder to figure out what kind of action they should embark on, but what is very clear is that this advice better considers all those aspects of finance, politics, strategy. You can write them down, think of the possible counter responses for your particular location. This hopefully uncomfortable meeting is exactly the kind of process an impact scientist should face, in this case helping translate the academic findings into policy on the ground. There should be tensions, disagreement, no easy answers, and hard challenges in the process. Furthermore, the most important moment is probably when there are things that are academically needed but the leader chooses not to do. In the end it is their role and responsibility to decide, not yours. Your role then is to accept this and, if possible, understand why, so next time we can present a better solution that can be implemented.

When I was at the World Bank, I had a meeting with its president around our approach for an upcoming key event. I presented my advice, he heard it, and he told me he disagreed for a set of reasons he mentioned. I tried to push back, but he told me not to, the decision was taken. I needed to accept it and reflect on the decision. He was kind to explain the reasons, he doesn’t need to, and may there were others he didn’t mention, but somewhere there was something I was not understanding or not seeing. Either way, my role is then to accept it, incorporate the decision into the general approach and move on. This is what we did and we kept working and agreeing on other aspects. In the private sector, this is sometimes called “disagree and commit.” You should voice your disagreement, but then you should also be able to commit to the executive decision even when it is not the way you would do it. In academia, disagreement is stubborn. We are encouraged to debate so we can find the root of it, and either agree or find ways to solve the disagreement. When leaders make decisions, they can have huge impact, and whether they were right or wrong have many more dimensions than objective data or academic debate. In these cases, it is both important and difficult to offer our most reality grounded advice for that particular scope, more than it is to be academically correct. 

So, in your local context, for the particular issue at hand, complete the phrase: “Dear President, this is what I think you should do: …”

[i] The list of Goodwill ambassadors for e.g. UNICEF:


[ii] “Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial”. Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, Sean Richey and Gary L. Freed. Pediatrics. April 2014, 133 (4) e835-e842; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-2365

[iii] ”A vivir la Ciencia” is a Spanish book written by Pere Estupinyá. He recalls and reflects the experience of being the host of one of science section at the radio sation with the most audience in Spain “A vivir”. The reference I make is on page 113.

[iv] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0143114964/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2

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