Although I don’t work in business research at the moment, subjectivity/objectivity is one of my pet topics, so I enjoyed hearing about how “truthiness” is being affected by online publishing and social media.

[“Truthiness” is a term invented by US comedian Stephen Colbert and used in his political satire to refer to politiciins who seek to persuade us that something must be true because it “feels right” rather than because of the weight of evidence or rational argument to support it. ]

Beware the echo chamber

Cynthia Lesky of Threshold Information talked about the seductiveness of the “echo chamber” effect in persuading people to think that a report must be true because it is being circulated widely and cited repeatedly. The Internet has exacerbated this effect because automated online content aggregators will regurgitate content without any editorial control, so there is no differentiation between accurate and inaccurate reports. It is also very easy for PR “spin” and propaganda to be replicated via aggregators and social media sites very quickly and with little fact checking and scant opportunity for counter-arguments to be put forward.

She offered some very useful tips to avoid being duped. Firstly, the researcher should work out not what is important to them or what is the most significant point being made in an article, but what is most important to the client who has commissioned the research. This enables the researcher to target fact-checking efforts most effectively. So, for example, in a piece about the opening of a factory to sell a new product, depending on the nature of the clients’ business, some will care about the effects on the market for that product, some will care about the effect on property prices in the area near the factory, and others will care most about employment opportunities.

Understanding the ways statistics can be presented is also useful. Cynthia offered an example of a survey in which 20% of people felt that their age had been a problem for them in gaining promotion. The survey was reported in one publication as evidence of a terrible blight of ageism in the workplace, and by another publication as evidence that only a minority of older people felt that they had been affected by age discrimination while 15% of respondents saw their age as a positive advantage. Publications will do this to exploit “confirmation bias” amongst their readers. People enjoy reading something that confirms views that they already hold, so reflecting back to readers what they already believe is an easy way of pleasing an audience.

Informed intuition

The researcher should use their “informed intuition” as a “defence against spin and error”. Researchers should also not shy away from telling their clients about problems with the research, gaps, and areas where further work ought to be undertaken. By showing to the client the difficulties inherent in the work, researchers do not make themselves look unprofessional, they demonstrate to the client the value of their skills and why it is worth paying for trained and experienced researchers.

In other words, if you use your own sense of “truthiness” wisely and treat it carefully, it can work to your advantage rather than leading you up the garden path.