Growing Beyond “True But Useless”

Kid eating

by Ian Tingen

It’s no secret that one of my pet causes is science advocacy, especially social science advocacy. Recently, I said that we social scientists do a pretty poor job of speaking up, and that it might eventually cost us. Today, I’d like to talk a bit less about speaking up, and a bit more about the content of our speech.

I have a habit of reading pop social science books. While no tome (as no person) is perfect, many do great work at communicating important ideas. Chip and Dan Heath have written three books; their second, Switch, had a term that I fell in love with as soon as I read it:

“True but useless.”

The book describes a situation where an aid worker in Vietnam was looking to combat malnutrition. The problem was complicated: sanitation was shoddy, clean water was non-existent, poverty was rampant. Even though all these facts were (at least relatively) objectively verifiable, their complex and almost abstract nature meant that they were of little help addressing the immediate problem. The facts were ‘true but useless’.

Many academics pride themselves on being able to comprehend the interconnected threads of social problems. While I don’t think this pride is misplaced, I do think that it should be understood in context. Just because one has the theoretical chops to thoughtfully discuss a line of inquiry does not necessarily mean that they have the presence of mind needed to condense findings into usable practices, interventions, or recommendations. I don’t know of many programs, academic or otherwise, that address this sad vacuum (if you do, please let me know!). I do know of at least one luminary in social psychology who indirectly addressed the issue in his farewell to the field.

So, absent formal training to address the issue, how do we become more useful? I have two suggestions:

The first step to is to step outside your comfort zone – find out what people outside the bubble are saying about your field. You need to understand your work in the broader context of humanity, beyond the academy. Talk to the staff science writers at your local newspapers, set up Google news alerts for your topics of study, find the public relations people at your institution and talk to them about how they market science. You will likely be surprised by what you uncover, but knowing these angles help us address the world in meaningful ways.

Second, after you have become somewhat familiar with the lay of the land, start finding ways to be useful! Perhaps start a blog, or contact organizations that might benefit from your work, maybe ask to do an op-ed in your local paper. With exposure comes feedback, and hopefully refinement. These challenges might sound scary, but they are absolutely necessary. Some of you might be thinking about the risks: ostracism from closed-minded academics,  fear of rejection, and so on – but we can’t be afraid of these bogeymen. When good work is done, it deserves to be shared in accessible and impactful ways.

In short: be useful. Not only in the work that you produce, but in advocating for it.

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