During grad school, I was lucky enough at one point to find work in a professionally relevant position doing qualitative research. It was a three-year project exploring factors involved in shaping US federal alcohol policy development. The research team consisted of about a half dozen people from a variety of backgrounds. Because I was into postmodernism and the sociology of knowledge, I took on the “role of research in federal policy making” paper.
I have a vivid memory of presenting the results at one of the institute’s brown-bag talks. Our team had focused on a handful of major policy efforts (for example, establishing a .08 blood alcohol level as the drunk driving threshold) and conducted dozens of interviews with stakeholders both inside and outside Washington. The brown-bag room was lit dimly enough that I could click through my PowerPoint slides while people sitting along the table stretching between me and the screen could still see to eat their lunches.
I explained that it was clear that getting any policy initiative enacted can take decades, even under the best conditions – for example, even when the proposed policy had strong scientific support. Then I got to my most significant finding, that most of the people we talked to said research was not very important to getting a policy passed. In contrast, an evocative image, or the right “optics”, was crucial.
I remember holding the clicker in my hand and looking down the table in the dim light as I talked about my finding. I saw the woman who was the head of the institute and host of the brown-bag program drop her head into her hands at that point. Thinking she was bored, I tried to put a little more drama and animation into my voice as I finished up the talk.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized that my most significant finding was also one that seemed to undermine the very reason for doing social science, let alone holding brown bags, writing grants or heading up a research institute – as well as any hope for rational policy-making in this American life. At the time, I was just excited at having a clear finding. It took me awhile to understand how more experienced social scientists might view my finding.
About a year ago, I started to look into some of the more unusual candidates and activities of my local city council in Richmond, California. A North Korea supporter who had also written a 9/11 Truther web article was being advanced as the candidate favored by the ruling progressive majority. I was interested in conspiracy theory believers and wanted to follow her career if she won the seat (she didn't). Chasing that white rabbit, I ran into the infamous incident of the Richmond City Space Weapons Ban of 2015 and ended up diving into the one place I always promised myself I would never go.
I feel bad that my research findings back then made the institute director drop her head into her hands in despair. But I’m here today to tell her, and you, it gets worse. Much worse.