An interesting discussion developed last week in the arts/theatre blogosphere around the issue of data. Do we have enough? Do we use it? Should we spend any time looking for more of it? The last was answered with a resounding “No!” by Scott Walters, who threw down a gauntlet of sorts by challenging us to use existing data to change our behaviors, especially when it comes to social justice issues. Diane Ragsdale made the excellent point that organizations often ignore the implications of data reports that they themselves commissioned. (Be sure to read the comments on both posts from Clayton Lord, an arts data expert.)
Into the middle of this discussion between people who read, use, and respect data, drops Marie Claire. Yes, Marie Claire, the fashion/lifestyle magazine, on whose website was a “report,” supposedly based on a London School of Economics study that concludes that “People in Britain are most happy when having sex, doing exercise and visiting the theatre.” The theatre/audience development sector of my twitterverse exploded with ideas (and lots of jokes) about how the sex-exercise-theatre trifecta could be exploited to boost attendance. London School of Economics? There must be data, right? This would be an extraordinarily good kind of data, one that puts theatre on the same plane as sex — actionable data! I followed the LSE link on the Marie Claire website but could not find the study at all. I used my university links to research databases and couldn’t find anything there either. Even without finding the actual research report (if it exists), the study is statistically suspect: only iPhone users who download the app are counted; only Britons; no indications of controls for age, gender, income, etc.
As access to and authorship of information and data becomes democratized, how will people sort through the good from the bad? The rigorous from the frivolous? I’ve been thinking lately that with so much information available for free, and resources like Ted.com posting meaningful lectures on line, the university professoriate as we know it will cease to exist in 10-20-50 (pick a number) years. Perhaps the faculty, we in the over-educated and often over-worked meritocracy of the higher education system will need to redefine our role as one of differentiation, of helping people understand that the study from Grantmakers in the Arts is more robust than the one published by Marie Claire. Perhaps we will become garbage pickers on the trash-heap of data dumped into cyberspace. Or, perhaps I’m just having a bad day.
As a postscript, I note that there is an analog here to another recent blogosphere/twitterverse conversation about criticism incited by what many, myself included, thought was a rather naïve comment from Michael Kaiser about the “trend” of online popular criticism being “scary.” Interestingly (at least to me) was that the discussion revolved exclusively around criticism by professional arts journalists versus criticism by the general public as written and read by many on blogs and websites. Yet, there is serious, theoretically grounded, criticism produced by scholars all the time, but it’s read by the very few. Perhaps if we could get past the firewall of academic publishing and the tenure and promotion decisions based thereon, more people would read and engage with this work too, and we won’t be relegated to another kind of trash heap.