Proof of Concept

When I ask a nonfiction author to back up what he asserts, the first option that comes to my mind is a quotation from an expert in the field. That’s a good way to confirm that what I’m reading has a basis in fact. If such a statement appears in a clinical case study that provides hard numbers, all the better.

Where can you turn, however, when you are advancing a concept for which little data has been amassed? Let’s say you want to claim that instant gratification is changing the way people think these days, using a wide swath of everyday tech. You seek out clinical research, maybe using Google Scholar, and you don’t come up with much. You can’t very well use a study in Helsinki testing 17 teenagers, and 10 of them salivated upon hearing the word “Nokia”—10 years ago. You’re not going to build a very strong book on such shaky premises.

One good option, if you are an expert in your field, is using cases from your own profession. Let’s say you are a psychologist who has treated numerous juveniles with poor impulse control. Depending on their criminal records and/or their releases for revealing doctor-client information, you could provide in-depth stories of, say, how texting led to bad instantaneous decisions. The same applies to a leader of a 12-step program or the like. These amount to private case studies, and a reader is persuaded because she can put herself in the person’s shoes.

An alternative might be called the volume approach. You don’t have experts to call upon, but you can use newspaper and website articles. You can also conduct a survey of people in the street. Given a standard list of questions, how impatient are they? In this option, you need to select from the widest variety of types possible. If you are only using geeks who live around Silicon Valley, most people reading the book will feel left out. If they are using apps that most people have never heard of, all those people will feel that your book doesn’t apply to them. I should point out, in our star-gazing culture, that including famous people’s opinions will help buttress your points.

Make no mistake, however, about the need to provide proofs. People won’t go along just because “you know.” You have to go out and collect the data, of whatever form you choose. If it is more anecdotal, that then becomes your approach—not number crunching but comfortable with your reader.

Exercise: When you are searching for data, don’t neglect material that doesn’t quite match what you’re looking for. People have exhibited poor impulse control, for example, since the beginning of time. Smoking a joint or joining a gang can also lead to bad decisions, so you may find ways to weave this more extraneous material into your discussions.

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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