Where does research fit in a post-truth world?

TDR news item
3 November 2017

You might think that research evidence is less valued today if you pay attention to the global political discussions going on. It is certainly being questioned, and dismissed by some as being out of touch or biased. However, these questions, I believe, offer us new opportunities to look more carefully at what we do, and to learn from these challenges.

Jamie Guth
Jamie Guth
WHO/TDR/Iza Suder-Dayao

I have been at TDR for 12 years as the communications manager, and over that time I have seen growing interest in ensuring that research evidence is actually used, not just conducted and published.

So how do we do that? This is a question that goes back a long way in history. Aristotle talked about evidence (what he called logos) as being just one component of the art of persuasion. He said we also need to pay attention to the credibility of the speaker (ethos) and the appeal to the emotions (pathos).

At the first Global Evidence Summit held in Cape Town in September, Trish Greenhalgh gave a keynote talk exploring these different ways of seeing and understanding, and argued for the need for scientists to pay close attention to these last 2 areas. She pointed out that while data are important and provide a foundation, they are not always sufficient to make the full case for change, and in fact, many people reject evidence when they question the credibility of the source or feel that the context in which they live has been ignored.

I could not agree more, and research I conducted this year reinforces the value of storytelling as part of an overall package of evidence. I have found that this provides that credibility and appeal to the emotions that is a driver of change.

TDR was part of a large study in 3 west African countries examining how to increase the numbers of pregnant women receiving malaria preventive treatment, and getting diagnosed and treated. There were many health systems issues that were identified that created barriers, such as lack of transportation or well-trained healthcare providers at the regional health facilities.

While the research was being conducted, I spent several days at each research site with the local research team video interviewing and following the pregnant women, their husbands, midwives, community leaders, regional and local healthcare providers – anyone involved in the study or affected by it. These interviews and scenes were then edited into a 7-minute production and shown to a panel of policy-makers, healthcare providers and community members at the end of a day of PowerPoint presentations on the research data and findings.

In detailed interviews with these panel members after the event, I found out that the video provided key information they wanted but did not get from the PowerPoints.

Below is a list of the key supports the video provided, with quotes from interviews conducted after the policy panel (kept anonymous to follow ethical research standards):

  • Provided local context – the setting and the people

Healthcare provider: The policy-makers would not have gone to the field to see a case of a mother being taken to the hospital or the case of something happening. So that is really good to have those.

Policy-maker: You feel it. I mean, it kind of motivates you in fact to say, I have to go into the field and see what's happening there.

  • Strengthened the panel members’ understanding and credibility of the research results

Policy-maker: The video is there to show you the reality of what is on the ground, because it won’t hide anything. It's all there for you to see.

Policy-maker: The researcher will talk about his perspective or her perspective about the lives of the people. But what the people are feeling and telling you represent their life more than what the researcher is telling you.

  • Showed strong collaboration between the research team and community, a proven facilitator in research uptake.

Policy-maker: You show me a video of a participant participating in a study, I'll be more convinced than just telling me the numbers.

  • Led to strong statements of commitments to make changes based on this study.

Regional healthcare provider: Those personal testimonies that came out very clearly in the video have convinced me that there is a need for us to scale up the project because it's coming from them.

Physician: When it (the video) ended I walked up to one of the directors … and I told him, you know, what you need to do while you’re addressing roads is build more health centres. Like, live to your word. If you say you need a health centre every 500 people, do it … Bring the services closer to the people. Yes.

Imagine this – someone in a policy setting feeling the power of your research so strongly that they jump up and demand change!

Policy-makers have limited time, and they want to make sure that any investments they make are going to positively affect the communities they serve. They appreciate the evidence, but are hungry for the context and relevance that they can get from a video.

What if every research project had to be documented and shared like this? Would it change the type of research being considered? Would you be more careful to think about who you are serving and how the community could be involved?

It’s easy for researchers to be discouraged in this post-truth world. But rather than give up, this is the time, more than ever before, that we use every tool possible to show the utility of science and how it improves people’s lives in ways that they can see and feel. Data is a critical foundation, but we need to incorporate the ethos and pathos as part of a total package of evidence.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.

Please post your thoughts on our LinkedIn page here.

Contact me:
Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289
E-mail: guthj@who.int.

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