Attention is not Influence

As any parent can tell you, children will do things, including negative things, to attract attention.  Attention is the currency of childhood.  Children tend to do more of whatever attracts attention.  This is why effective parents and teachers devise strategies to attend to desirable behavior and ignore (to the extent possible) undesirable behavior.

Unfortunately, the adult world of policy analysis has become like the playground of children.  There is a competitive race for attention among a growing group of think-tankers, academics, and journalists.  They aren’t competing for attention by doing the most professional work with the most thoughtful analysis and clear-headed conclusions.  They are competing by saying ridiculous things, saying them loudly, and saying them repeatedly

Of course, these attention-starved policy analysts occupy the world of Twitter.  Where else can they satisfy their obsessive need to blurt out an endless string of superficial claims?  Unfortunately, they are not confined to Twitter.  They increasingly occupy the halls of academia, control the institutions of journalism, and dominate the beltway.

The problem is that like the poor parenting of an ill-behaved toddler, they are receiving a lot of attention for their outbursts.  Diane Ravitch tops Rick Hess’ ranking of “influential” edu-scholars not because of her balanced reasoning and careful consideration of evidence but because of her hyperbolic and outrageous claims.  Vox has 193,000 followers on Twitter despite its error-plagued, shoddy journalism precisely because of its reckless desire to offer “click-bait” instead of responsible analysis and information.

These out-sized toddlers may be attracting a lot of attention, and even a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean they actually have influence.  I highly doubt Diane Ravitch has altered any policy outcome given that she is unlikely to have changed anyone’s mind about anything.  She may occasionally mobilize her army of angry teachers, but those teachers were likely to be mobilized anyway by the more grown-up teachers unions.

And Vox may get clicks and even raise large sums from venture capitalists, but who in the world cares what Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias or the rest of the Vox crew think about anything?  For the most part these people have never done anything, never seriously studied anything, and too rarely offer responsible analysis for anyone in real authority to heed their advice.

Attention, clicks, and money are not the same as influence.  If they were, Kim Kardashian would be the one of the most influential people in the world.

Real policy influence is achieved in two, much less loud and less easily measured ways.  First, people can have policy influence by engaging in serious empirical analysis that shapes elite thinking about policy questions over long periods of time.  Take, for example, how serious intellectual work shaped the policy context regarding crime and law enforcement in the 1980s.  In particular, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling wrote a series of pieces articulating the evidence and reasoning behind their “broken windows” theory of crime-prevention.  Prior to that time, policy elites thought about crime largely as a function of poverty that needed to be addressed through social programs.  But Wilson and Kelling influenced elites into thinking about crime as an issue of public disorder that could be addressed through innovations in policing techniques.  Their influence was gradual and never completely accepted, but it established the context for later policy action.

Second, people can have policy influence by quietly whispering in the ears of decision-makers about how to act within the elite understanding of the policy context.  Behind the scenes George Kelling advised Bill Bratton, who implemented broken windows policing techniques in Boston and New York City.  These approaches proved successful and the idea spread to other police departments around the country as the nation experienced a dramatic decline in violent crime.

These are examples of real policy influence, both through laying the intellectual groundwork for change and by quietly advising policymakers to pursue those changes.  Neither would be captured easily by the silly “metrics” that increasingly drive foundation and venture capitalist funding.  Foundations and VCs are paying for attention and clicks, not actual influence.

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11 Responses to Attention is not Influence

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Alas, while they do not have “influence” in the strict sense with which you are using that term, they certainly have a very large effect. The more extravagant errors of a Ravitch or a Vox will be caught and pointed out. When Vox claims the Israelis are shutting down a bridge that connects the West Bank and Gaza, or that the creator of The Sopranos confirmed Tony died at the end, or that Boulder, Co. has more than 100 residential toilets per person, we all get to point and laugh, and in the end nothing comes of it. But the endless repetition of more ordinary, run-of-the-mill myths and lies is another story. We wouldn’t have had to write a book about Education Myths if the endless repetition of those myths didn’t matter.

    • Neither Vox nor Ravitch nor the rest of the attention-seeking policy crowd cause people to believe wrong things. For the most part they already believed those wrong things and the attention-seekers play upon those already held wrong beliefs to get attention for their repetition of myths. People arrive at factually mistaken beliefs because 1) accurate information is not readily available or 2) they have incentives for holding wrong beliefs in the face of contradicting information. The book Education Myths could address the first but was limited in what it could do about the second.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Come on, Jay. 1) The false beliefs don’t just pop into people’s heads from nowhere. You are describing the conditions that make it possible for propagandists to be successful, but if there were no propagandists there would be no propaganda. 2) Not all human behavior is incentives. Norms and social signals matter.

      • I guess there is truth to what you say. I just don’t want to give them credit for anything… including something bad.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Perhaps this will help. If they really had no effect on the world, you would be a very bad person for being so upset about their activities. If Ravitch were merely a baby banging her sippy cup on the high chair, what kind of person would you be to get so upset about the banging?

      • True. But my main concern here is that Foundations and other folks who should be grown-ups are paying way too much attention to babies banging their sippy cups. The harm is wasting the time, money, and opportunity for meaningful influence to improve education.

  2. George Mitchell says:

    I have had a Twitter account for a few weeks. It is stunning to see the number of education “thought leaders” who tweet many, many times a day, often with the apparent goal of telling each other that their work is really, really important. In self defense I have elected not to “follow” Ravitch. I have encountered a number of links to useful research at such venues as Ed Next.

  3. mike g says:

    Jay, curious:

    What do you mean when you write “Foundations and other folks who should be grown-ups are paying way too much attention…”?

    Do you mean “Seriously engaging with the ideas of the attention-seekers”

    or something more like “wasting time by overly responding to the attention-seekers”

    or something more like “pulling their punches, and making only grants/decisions that seem safe, for fear of being critiqued by attention-seekers”…?

    • Greg Forster says:

      And are you thinking specifically of foundations working for “reform” or more generally of foundations seeking to “support education”? It’s not like the reform-oriented foundations are supporting Ravitch.

    • I mean Foundations are making funding decisions based on silly “metrics” of influence, which are distorting and wasting the activity of the reform community. I use Ravitch as an example not because she’s a reformer but because the reform community might more easily recognize how dumb these metrics are if we are discussing Ravitch than if we are discussing them. It’s my reductio ad Ravitchum.

  4. AMS says:

    In working with state legislative leaders, I have found the following:

    First, it is critical to supply facts and information (data and empirical analysis, if available) to ensure that our elected leaders understand an issue’s impact that results from implementation of certain laws or regulations. Many legislators don’t have the kind of information about what happens when the “rubber hits the road”, as they are subject to lobbyists direct and constant “attention” rather than updates from engaged constituents.

    Second, depending on the issue, some national elites (you know, the wealthy, politically connected ones often in the news) exert extreme political pressure on these elected leaders. Some issues will be DOA because of their powerful influence. But, at least other factors can still be brought forward with the understanding that your facts and information may mean little in comparison.

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