|Figure 1. It got your attention, didn't it?|
Why? Why does this stupid piece of clickbait provocation keep popping up every few months? I didn't link to it because you don't need to read the article; Google tells me that there are 13 million+ hits on the same exact subject.
Although I'm calling out this one because it's the most recent, it's a whole genre, and you could take your pick of reasons why they're written and published:
- It requires absolutely no thought at all to write, since the conclusion is always the same: "Well, the main reason is job security." No kidding! Do tell me more, Captain Obvious.
- It's quick to do, because you can always pick up some random figures from a recent study to "prove" your points.
- Snark is the currency of the internet, and everyone wants to raise their social profile by getting a lot of hits. It's easier to hurt something than to build it up.
- It's basically an aggregator paragraph or two that popularizes someone else's research with a few sensational provocations--calling what professors write "crap," for example.
But there's an insidious side to all these calls to stop publishing for a scholarly audience and judge an essay's worth based primarily on its popularity. Here are the five weird tricks promised in every clickbait headline to tell you why, although I'll spare you the usual pointless slideshow festooned with ads to show you the list:
1. You can't judge the impact of an article by its immediate popularity. Did Vannevar Bush's classic "As We May Think" make as much of an impact in 1945 as it has since the development of the computer? Some pieces take a while to come into their own. How many ideas popular in their own time (cough*eugenics*cough) were popular and entirely destructive?
2. All research, and certainly humanities research, builds on previous work--standing on the shoulders of giants, I think they call it. The general public may think that an article mapping where speakers in England used "icicle" and where they used "isacle" is pointless, but maybe it tells later researchers where the Vikings landed, or something. I don't know, because I'm not a specialist in Old English, but that's exactly the point: I don't know, and neither do you, dismissive writers and casual readers on the web.
3. It plays into our current national value of being ignorant and proud of it. There are a lot of things I don't understand because I'm not trained in the field, but that doesn't mean that they are not worth attention. A civil society has to trust its members, and it ought to trust that people with expertise know something.
4. The people who read these essays are in a real position to harm funding for research--not just voters, but legislators, who like to wave things from the internet around during their speeches to prove that they're current with what the public is saying. Every time a state legislature moves to cut funding for higher ed, saying "why can't they teach 7 classes a day, 5 days a week?" this is the kind of article they cite.
5. People are hungry for real information, which is why we should share it, but not everything is going to make enough news to gain the kind of currency that these articles demand. What's going to make a bigger splash on Google News--identifying the multiple authors of a manuscript or a cute walking molecule simulation?
When these articles appear on Facebook, I have held back from saying what I really think, in the name of being noncontentious. I think it's time to start being contentious.