This article is the product of profound irritation. The kind that nags at the periphery on most days, but transforms into full-blown rage each time another email titled “New research has found…” arrives. If you want to know what I mean, take a look at some of the “research” headlines gracing my inbox.
A clothes manufacturer conducts a survey of UK university students. It finds that, in 2016, some of these students worried about money. Some 40.5 per cent of them, in fact. Which is more than the 39.7 per cent in 2015.
So much did the students worry about money that 52 per cent regretted overspending on fun and drink. Young people with no work and student loans to repay, wishing they’d saved up more? A groundbreaking discovery, I know.
A recruitment firm does research into office workers’ habits. Apparently, 51 per cent of them feel stressed. No kidding. Also, 33 per cent think that work interferes in their relationships and leaves less time for social life. Well, that’s why it’s work.
Imagine that someone were spinning these facts to you at the bar. Would you feel compelled to engage? Or would you cringe at the sheer banality of the conversation? Probably the latter. But companies – a worrying multitude of them – regularly pay PR firms to strain their feeble collective imagination and churn out this slight and predictable stuff.
If only it were just the PR firms, though. Do you care to know what some of the world’s most revered universities come up with?
One article tells me that, after much deliberation, the distinguished professor concluded that psychiatrists won’t fix the world’s problems – but social and organisational change will.
This is radical, so take some time to digest. Another school surveyed a sample of American lawyers and found that those who spent more time networking were more effective in their day-to-day work. The third did six months of research into the family-career dynamic, and concluded that people with supportive partners were more successful.
Remember, this research was carried out by world-class academics, all in possession of superior analytical capacity. So why take six months to produce a conclusion that a teenager would arrive at by reading Cosmopolitan? And why insult my intelligence by sending me this platitudinous drivel?
One may argue that the point of research is not to say something new, but to introduce additional evidence, and support established knowledge. To that, I would reply that such research is worth neither its grant money, nor my time.
So when I occasionally come across the kind of research that is original and instructive, I devour it with delight. A Brookings survey recently found that 40 per cent of US students did not understand the First Amendment and the fact that it protected “hate speech”. This survey produced stronger evidence of disturbing left-wing intolerance on US campuses than most other sources – and made me feel relieved that I had completed my US studies 20 years ago.
Research by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic found that most news on Twitter didn’t really go “viral” – but came directly from source, or from a “second degree of separation”. A great tip for bloggers. A group of academics discovered that people who used the internet to follow the UK General Election were more likely to vote Labour. The Tory communications team should took note.
This is what real research should be like: fresh, revealing, urgent. So next time you send me a survey, please remember that I am not a disciple of Theresa May’s school of tedium.
Enlighten me, surprise me, tell me something that I don’t already know and that I will be compelled to think about – rather than delete in fury.