Several years ago I released an infographic about reading stats. It’s had a viral quality since going public. I’ve seen it on Facebook and Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram. Many have squawked and complained that the infographic even exists. Others have touted it like it’s their Superbowl champion. Clearly the graphic has garnered a lot of interest.
The number of complaints I received caused me to conduct a bit of review (which I should have done first). I discovered that the data on which I had based the infographic was untrustworthy. I was immediately flustered and produced a new graphic trying to correct the record. But in the internet age, this common scenario is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. The bad graphic was out there and I had no way to get it back.
Every person with something to say has a heritage of data informing their thinking. Some of that thinking is taken directly from the data; other times people make inferences from the data and produce new thoughts. In most cases, the result is to get their thinking into the public sphere. In my case, I used bad resources to make a statement.
My first inclination after the “Infographic Debacle” was to simply be silent. Though I’m a life-long learner (and have continued to learn), I’ve mostly kept that learning and those processes to myself. A certain hesitation rises when one makes a mistake, and I was keen to make it an isolated instance. I’m coming to think, however, that silence and absence do not correct and cure mistakes. Fear of failure is never a door to truth.
The experience of this effort has taught me a number of lessons. I think every life-long learner can overcome their fear of making mistakes by hearing my ten lessons learned from bad research.
1. Bad Research is Lazy
Unreliable information is easy to come by. Not checking resources is even easier. Presenting unverified information as though it were real is super-simple. Anyone can be a bad researcher. Good research is hard. That’s why there’s not more good researchers. My lesson: research proactively.
2. Bad Research Doesn’t a Bad Researcher Make
Good researchers sometimes make poor decisions in their research. Poor decisions produce bad research, but doesn’t necessarily create a bad researcher. Good researchers are eager to uncover, discover, and–if they make a mistake–recover. The way to tell a good researcher from a bad researcher is not in the mistakes–both have them–but only the good researcher will admit so afterwards. My lesson: correct my mistakes and never assume I’m a bad researcher.
3. Bad Research can Manipulate
Purposefully bad research is rarely created to inform. It always has an agenda. Bad research ignores truth, obfuscates reality, and masks opposing views to convince readers of the author’s predetermined viewpoint. To that end, bad research is manipulative. My lesson: always check my heart–why am I looking at this research? And do I want to help people or advance my agenda?
4. Bad Research is Unsatisfying
For the good researcher, examinations done well produce satisfaction. The researcher is satisfied knowing they discovered new knowledge and confident it will help others. They hope people will find and consume it, but the satisfaction of a job well done is enough gratification. My lesson: I’ll never be satisfied with research when I cut corners.
5. Bad Research Draws Interest
Unfortunately, bad research draws a crowd. It’s sexy. Bad research is intellectual eye-candy. It looks pretty, but its Photoshopped. Bad research presents an illusion and pretends its reality. My lesson: avoid the temptation for notoriety.
6. Bad Research is Embarrassing
I remain embarrassed by some aspects of the Reading Facts Infographic. I should have looked more in-depth at content that came from questionable sources. I should have paused before hitting the submit button on the blog. Certainly viral-like posts couldn’t happen to me. No one will notice. Good researchers are embarrassed by bad research. My lesson: own the mistake and correct it.
7. Bad Research is a Good Teacher
Every good researcher has conducted bad research. One of the primary catalysts for good researchers is learning from poorly conducted investigations. I believe any researcher who admits to never having produced bad research is not well prepared. The lessons learned by producing weak research may be embarrassing to the good researcher, but the result is a better researcher. My lesson: listen carefully to critics without accepting every harsh word.
8. Bad Research is Hollow
Through bad research, I may be able to convince a handful of people to swing my direction in their opinions. But all I’ve really done in that moment is to engage in a political conversation. I haven’t really done anything of substance. The next person who comes along with a more convincing political argument can undo my work. But good research is not as easily subjected to political winds. Good research may bend in the criticism, but its reality is connected to the roots of truth. Good research is substantive. My lesson: pursue substance over sexy.
9. Bad Research is Unjust
There is already much injustice in the earth. Humans are known for selfishly choosing themselves over others. Bad research only sustains injustice. The aim of bad research is an agenda rather than truth. The only salve for inequity is truth. Therefore, bad research at its core is, itself, unjust. My lesson: do no harm.
10. Bad Research Distorts
Since I’m a pastor, I’m always trying to connect my “non-God” thoughts to God. I think bad research warps our perspective of God’s creation. In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul lays out the argument that God has used creation to reveal certain aspects of His character. When I generate bad research, I distort that revelation. I make God out to be something he is not. On the other hand, good research reveals a good God. My lesson: listen carefully to my creator.
What lessons have you learned in making bad information public?