The Walmart of ‘Research’

Thanks to the latest ‘pop’ studies you can now know the relation between the number 23 and the length of a woman’s skirt.

Max Weber might have been prescient about the dangers of pseudo research, and much earlier Kautilya’s Arthashastra had sought to guard the glorious intellectual life of Patliputra (modern Patna) against the perils of “misleading whims and vested interests masquerading as knowledge”. But ironically, with the expansion of information bombing, the dangers have multiplied.

Are you a consumer of the dilettante ‘study’ diets and ‘survey’ desserts served up by the news media these days? If yes, take this snap test: (a) Is there any relation between the number 23 and the length of a woman’s skirt? (b) Do you know the name of the US consultancy firm which has ranked 200 jobs in its annual ‘study’? (c) The happiness industry has found the latest magical age at which you can expect to be the ‘happiest’. What age is that? (d) Which vitamin can help you recall your dreams? (e) Taller girls are more prone to suffer from which lethal disease?

You can self-evaluate to get your score. The answers are: (a) Women aged 23 wear the shortest skirts (b) Career Cast (c) 33 (d) Vitamin B-6 (e) Cancer

If you have scored even 1 out of 5, thank the “pop study” pages of newspapers (the “Times Trend” page of The Times Of India being a regular kunji) and the dilettante ‘research’ peddling shows on your idiot box. By taking a glance at ad hoc and dubious feeds provided by ‘research studies’ (or no study at all) by West-based ‘study syndicates’ (mostly in US and UK), you know phoney research and surveys have become a staple diet for people who are looking for some ‘cerebral’ flavour added to the usual fodder provided by the gossip mills. And you have assortments of market agency-led studies (or rather lack of them) providing some “academic” respectability to the grapevine, and the eyeball-grabbing whims and fancies.

In supplying and consuming the dubious research/survey/study, the academics- phobic information sizzlers miss the vital element – the element of methodological and analytical rigour which underpins academic credibility and respectability. Obviously, the equations of demands for phoney studies for fun and equally frivolous supply chain of commercial research vendors have produced an illegitimate child of the information age – the pop study or pop survey. And of course, they are suffixed with recognised academic disciplines to take weird names such as pop sociology, medical science and even pop psychology. The fundamental problem with this avatar of ‘pop’ is that while its other versions like pop music annoys classical connoisseurs only, in the sphere of profound academic research, it is culpable of something more fundamental – misleading, misinforming, obfuscating and thickening the ‘veil of ignorance’.

Interestingly, if you look for sources in such information transplants from foreign syndicates you will find that most are anonymously or rather mysteriously referred to as ‘research shows’ or ‘latest study done’. Where? By whom? What was the methodology? And yes, sometimes a little more attention is paid. Someone or some research group is credited for the study.  These ‘researchers’ (whatever that means) often belong to some foreign institution or university which are as obscure as the names of the assembly line of foreign universities that are splashed on foreign education pages of newspapers. So, just scan through the trend-spotting pages in your paper, and take a ‘Spot the researcher/institution test’. If possible, keep a world map on your side. No coffee allowed during the test, because Canadian researchers say it can cause brain tumours, even if Florida researchers have found that caffeine can be the antidote to tumours?

One of the sideshows of these exercises in infotainment is to cater to the mad rush for statistical hierarchies, the ranking of everything under the sun. There are consumers for it worldwide and pecking order fetishes feed on top/best/ worst lists. A case in point is, as if waiting for some survey to legitimise it as a ‘study’ (howsoever shoddy), how tongues went wagging once an US consultancy firm published its ranking of the worst jobs (reporting was listed as one of them). What drives the mass consumption of such lists? I have tried to explore some aspects of this phenomenon in my other piece, which can be accessed through the link

Clichéd as it may be, is there any getting away from the stark fact that the diversification of sources of information has witnessed an insidious upsurge in the trivialisation of information? The pseudo research industry has identified its potential consumers, and the news media are playing the lucrative role of stage managers. So no need to be shocked by the finding that brushing your teeth three times a day can cause oral cancer (according to Alaskan researchers), because Texas researchers have a remedy too – brushing your teeth three times a day protects you against oral cancer. Planet Paradox.


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