Communicating Science-Based Perspectives with the Op-Ed

By Joe Traglia

It can seem sometimes that our Information Age is morphing into a misinformation age. Many so-called “experts” fill the airwaves each day with thoughts and theories on the important issues of our day. But what is often missing from their commentaries is the data and science to support the “facts” in their arguments.

“The world is awash in opinions, but too few of them are rooted in evidence,” says SPSP Member-at-Large for outreach and advocacy Eli Finkel.

Because of this, SPSP believes that its members are often the best people to address the statements and beliefs that challenge science and society. One way we can accomplish this is through the op-ed, or opinion article. Whether it be in a national newspaper or a niche blog, an op-ed can help shape the conversation. By tapping into our unique expertise and knowledge of social and personality psychology, the science can become the star of the show, rather than the “expert.”

A well-received and timely opinion piece can also be a game changer for one’s career. The exposure can increase your visibility and reach through social media. This stronger influence can lead to interview requests or speaking engagements, perhaps even a book deal. As a recognized thought leader in your area of expertise, new collaborations and sources of funding can materialize. New doors can open.

In the end, everyone benefits when we get better at revealing the science behind the issue. “As more of us—and, ideally, a more diverse array of us—gain expertise on communicating rigorous, science-based perspectives to the public, the broader discussion will become more sophisticated and more accurate,” says Eli. “One goal I have as Member-At-Large is to increase the role that personality and social psychologists play in contributing to the broader marketplace of ideas.”

To support this goal of promoting diverse ideas, and to support another core SPSP goal—the fostering of our members’ professional development—a new grant program was offered last fall that tapped into the mission of The OpEd Project, a national program that seeks to increase both the quality of ideas that we hear in the world as well as the range of voices. Traditionally, this range of voices heard in the commentary forums has been incredibly narrow— i.e., mostly western, white, privileged and male.

The idea to send a group of SPSP members to the OpEd Project’s core seminar "Write to Change the World" came in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville last summer. SPSP leadership wanted to do something that could utilize the collective expertise of our membership.

“Especially in light of the social importance of many topics we study—violence, prejudice, love, personality development, and so forth—we owe it to our funders and to the general public to push the conversation in that direction,” says Eli.

When the SPSP Op-ed Program was announced last October, the response received was overwhelmingly positive. Open to all members, more than 100 applications were received, and in the end, the twelve that were selected represented a diverse section of the membership.

In addition to the seminar registration, each member received up to $200 for travel reimbursement. Each attendee was also asked to work with the SPSP press office on pitching their op-ed proposals, with the goal of having at least one piece published within six months of completing the course.

Early Career Member Alex Maki was one of the first to complete the training, and has since had two of his opinion pieces published. For the uninitiated, he recommends setting aside time to educate yourself about the process and familiarize yourself with the tone and structure of the op-eds published in your favorite outlets. Then draft a paragraph that conveys the heart of your potential piece.

He also recommends reaching out to a colleague who has been through the process for support and guidance. “The most intimidating part was pitching my idea to potential outlets,” he says, “but getting help from Dave Nussbaum and Annie Drinkard at SPSP made me comfortable enough to pitch my ideas. They were able to recommend outlets, and either got in touch with the editors themselves or put me in touch with them.”

A postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Energy and Environment, Alex was able to connect his background and interest in behavior change and the environment to one of the hot topics of our current political landscape—climate change.

“I wrote this because we need to help people effectively discuss climate change with one another,” says Alex, “and we can't afford to have non-experts who may not understand the empirical literature to drive these conversations. As social and personality psychologists, we know how complex our areas of research can be, and we have an ethical obligation to build bridges with communities that stand to benefit from our research. The public deserves to know what we do, why we do it, and how it can help them.”

Another member, Duke assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience Sarah Gaither, used the recent royal wedding as an opportunity to spotlight multiracial experiences, something that is not often discussed or acknowledged in the mainstream media.

“This op-ed was a unique opportunity to write about Meghan Markle—someone who positively claims her biracial identity by connecting her ability to be a role model with my own research,” says Sarah. “I realized through this process and the incredible feedback I received after it was published, that my own experiences and social psychology research in general is so applicable for op-eds.”

Sarah recommends looking ahead and tailoring your pitch to timely or predictable events in the news cycle. It can pay off in the form of added exposure for both you and your research.

“This piece led to interviews with People magazine, BBC, CBC—all about the royal wedding. I received more followers on Twitter, as well as incredible emails and outreach from multiracial people and parents of multiracial kids. Some sent photos, and even expressed an interest in being future research participants.”

Of course, not everyone will respond positively to your piece - negative comments from strangers on social media and via email can be difficult to deal with and feel like personal attacks.

Overall, the feedback from members who completed the seminar has been positive. Eli and the other board members hope to build on the success of this program and offer new opportunities in the future for SPSP members to hone their op-ed skills.