The plural of anecdote is not data

The City, and sections of the media, are getting a touch overexcited by a “research note” written for Morgan Stanley by Matthew Robson, a 15 year old on work experience. The Guardian said:

The US investment bank’s European media analysts asked Matthew Robson, an intern from a London school, to write a report on teenagers’ likes and dislikes, which made the Financial Times’ front page today.

His report, that dismissed Twitter and described online advertising as pointless, proved to be “one of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights we have seen – so we published it”, said Edward Hill-Wood, executive director of Morgan Stanley’s European media team.

“We’ve had dozens and dozens of fund managers, and several CEOs, e-mailing and calling all day.” He said the note had generated five or six times more responses than the team’s usual research.

The research note itself can be read on The Guardian’s site.

I’m going to start by giving Robson the kudos that he deserves. He has written a very well thought out piece which describes the media habits of him and his friends. In no way do I want to criticise a teenager for being thoughtful, engaged and articulate.

But one has to put this research note into context: This is one teen describing his experience. It is not a reliable description of all teens’ attitudes and behaviours, yet both Morgan Stanley and the media seem to be treating it as if Robson has Spoken The One Great Truth. “Twitter is not for teens, Morgan Stanley told by 15-year-old expert” coos The Guardian. “Note by ‘teenage scribbler’ causes sensation” says the FT in astonishment.

Neither Morgan Stanley nor the media seem to be able to tell the difference between anecdote and data. This “research note” is more note than research, and it should not be taken to be representative of all teens. A teenager in a rural setting, or in an inner city estate, or one who feels socially excluded from web culture will have a very different experience than a teen who’s well-connected enough to get himself an internship at Morgan Stanley.

What is worrying about this is not Robson’s note: He’s simply doing what most teens (and most adults) do, which is to extrapolate from his own and his friends’ experience to form generalisations about the world around him. It’s a very human thing to do, but the important thing about businesses like Morgan Stanley, and the journalists who write about them, is that they are supposed to be able to tell the difference between data and generalisations. Yet they don’t seem able to sort the wheat from the chaff. It seems yet another symptom of the group-think in the media and financial sector that led to the Great Recession, rather than an indication that we have learned anything from it.

Sarah Perez on ReadWriteWeb says:

Matthew Robson, a 15-year-old intern at analyst firm Morgan Stanley recently helped compile a report about teenage media habits. Overnight, his findings have become a sensation…which goes to show that people are either obsessed with what “the kids” are into or there’s a distinctive lack of research being done on this demographics’ media use. Robson’s report isn’t even based on any sort of statistical analysis, just good ol’ fashioned teenage honesty. And what was it that he said to cause all this attention? Only that teens aren’t into traditional media (think TV, radio, newspapers) and yet they’re eschewing some new media, too, including sites like Twitter.

Well, research has been done. danah boyd has done some excellent research into the use of the web by teens – it’s her speciality and she’s one of the foremost experts in this area. Her research would help Morgan Stanley understand the teen demographic much more clearly than any single anecdote, however well written, ever can. The fact that they haven’t ever had a clear insight into the teen demographic would seem to imply that their existing researchers and analysts aren’t doing their jobs properly. The information is out there, a lot of it is freely available, and all that remains is for someone to read it and write the report.

This story also feeds into the concept of the ‘digital native’ which, as I’ve blogged before, is a very poor way to talk about a very diverse section of the population. But because this report fits in with widely-held assumptions about teens and technology – not only does it describe ‘digital natives’, it’s written by one too – it’s immediately accepted without query or question. Morgan Stanley and the media both seem to be more interested in having their biases validated than they are in exploring the evidence to see where it leads them. Sadly, it seems that neither have been spending enough time watching CSI and drawing from it key lessons about assumptions, evidence and how to draw conclusions.

If I had been Matthew Robson’s boss at Morgan Stanley, on receiving his report I would have praised him on his good work and then asked him to look for evidence to either support or refute his points. That would have been an interesting exercise for Robson, and would have led to a research note that actually had some research in it. Instead, Morgan Stanley seem to have taken his work as gospel. I wonder why. Perhaps it was because they thought that, as a 15 year old, he’s privy to the inner workings of mysterious teen minds, a High Priest in the Digital Native Mythology?

If I relied on Morgan Stanley for anything, I’d be rather concerned right now regarding their lack of critical thinking.

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