“There aren’t any stupid people out there”

26 01 2010

Thus spake Ben Goldacre, at his lecture on Risk and the Media at Darwin College, Cambridge last Friday. Check out the talk when it becomes available on iTunes shortly – it’s provocative, informative, and hilarious.

As a practicing NHS doctor, Ben’s argument was that he has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people confronted with weighing complex evidence and making decisions with enormous consequences, and they do, with admirable comprehension, because they are extremely motivated to do so.

Psychology, for the record, backs him up. Motivated adults (and children) do better in IQ tests, in interviews, in jobs, in college.  Sometimes they do better than people who are, objectively speaking, smarter. You’ve probably heard the stories of people, in moments of great stress, displaying superhuman strength, because they’re highly motivated to save themselves or the ones they love.

All this, I can’t help thinking, gives the lie to the idea that we, as practitioners of best practice (which, as I like to say, isn’t always obvious) should simplify things, should dumb down, because we don’t think the people we need to convince can understand it. All that shows is a failing in us – we haven’t sufficiently convinced them that it’s worth understanding.

When people need to chew through complex medical studies which sometimes indicate differing things, potentially-conflicting medical advice, all while dealing with the stresses and strains of a health crisis, they manage it. They’re not stupid. Perhaps our job is less to manage the information flow for the people we secretly think are not-so-bright, and more to convince them it’s worth their while to show how bright they are.


Gender bias is dead. Long live gender bias.

21 12 2009

Women’s lib is dead. Positive discrimination is right out. We’ve won all of our battles for equality. Right? If women aren’t in the boardroom, it’s because they’re choosing not to be – not to work the hours, not to take the stress. Or it’s something inherent to women’s work behaviour. They don’t push. They say “I’m grateful to have a job”, when they should be saying, “I am the linchpin of this organization. Up the offer or I walk”.

No, the one thing I think it’s not OK to say is that women might not get to the top of organizations because we are still subconsciously far harder on them than we are on men. All of us. I’ve often wondered if a man who walked and talked and acted the exact same way as I did would ever get told he was “abrupt”, or “not a team player”. I’ve often wondered if the same assumptions would be made about this hypothetical him. I have, needless to say, suspected that they would not.

In the spirit of my scientific credentials, obviously, I can’t make a statement like that without testing it. And the only way to test something like this is in a controlled trial. And there is a way to do a controlled trial – remotely, like, say online. What would happen if two people supposedly presented themselves, and produced work, and all-in-all were judged over a period of time, exactly the same, except that one was a man and one was a woman?

James Chartrand knows. The story of how a female writer came to work primarily under a male pseudonym, because the same work got more bids, better pay, and more respect, is fascinating and depressing. I wish I could believe that this was unusual. I really do. The people who paid more for “James’s” work than that of a female writer, and praised it more highly, almost certainly had no idea that gender was a factor in how they responded. How can there be equality in the workplace when we still understand our own brains, the filters through which we see and judge people, so poorly?

Yes, your team really do need to concentrate

8 12 2009

A personal vindication for me, this one: Pop-ups and email alerts significantly slow down work by breaking our concentration.

(Source: Wales Online. Original study Cardiff University.)

I’ve often wondered why it isn’t more acceptable to simply turn off email and the Blackberry when you need to concentrate on something. You’ll get it done faster, and your ideas will probably better. You’ll certainly enjoy it more.  Yet, every time I’ve done this, I’ve felt the need to hide it (and usually to work somewhere away from my normal desk so people don’t come to find me to ask me why I’m not answering emails). In fact, can’t we turn the alert all the way off? Why not batch-process all emails every couple of hours, maximum?

Every study of cognitive psychology (i.e. of the ways we perceive and process the world) has to deal with the fact that we only have a limited amount of attention, and it is quite literally not possible for us to focus it on two things at once. Multitasking, as Henry Ford might have said had he lived this long, is bunk.

I’m going to keep on trying to change attitudes slowly with this one by taking time to concentrate when I need it, and telling people that’s what I’m doing. It’s part of a broader issue, though, I think – the fact that the work environment is often pretty much unconducive to the kinds of work that need to be done. What are the barriers to us all stopping pretending that we can do everything at once? Is it just attitude?

Should the media educate?

1 12 2009

On Thursday I attended a talk run by BlueSci magazine and featuring Michael Claessens, of the European Commission’s Research Directorate, to discuss why it’s continuing to be so hard to communicate science (including psychology) effectively through the media. It has to be said that, in my view, Claessens was pretty pessimistic about the results of thirty years (!) of active engagement with the popular media by science, even though regular checks of the baseline scientific literacy of the population has shown some improvements.

Claessens did point out that the media have no duty to educate anyone – they’re a business and they exist to sell themselves. The BBC are really the only notable exception to this fact, and it should be pointed out that the BBC produces some fantastic science and psychology programming. (Download some of All in the Mind if you have some spare time on your way to work.) They also have to deal with editorial policy, space constraints, sub-editors, the need for eye-grabbing and usually misleading headlines, and, often, a lack of time to find out what the facts actually are before going to press.

That’s why I love blogs. Claessens wasn’t quite so keen, but blogs don’t suffer from space constraints, or publishing deadlines, or subeditors. Blogs are free (normally). Blogs can build a community in and around their readers. Blogs can specialise in any area they choose, and have proved that they can build up huge readerships. Blogs don’t have a responsibility to educate either, but many of them do, or try to, and in most cases they do it for love. They also have the chance to build something over time, which is how you do education. Slowly, in pieces, over time.

Claessens talked about the need to communicate a simple message; something I struggle with – don’t we all? He concluded that sometimes science just isn’t simple. I don’t agree. To communicate something, anything, takes a story. Sometimes stories aren’t particularly simple, but if we can’t break something down into simpler components in order to tell someone else about it, isn’t that a deficiency in us? If science is “un-simple” and therefore can’t be communicated, how did we enlightened types ever manage to learn it in the first place?

That’s what gets me about this whole discussion, I think. Somewhere buried in it all is the assumption that there are the special clever people who understand science, and the other people, who don’t or can’t. I don’t buy it.

A very human disaster

25 11 2009

Virtually every big disaster comes down to human error – Chernobyl, Bhopal, plane crashes. To be more precise, they come down to  small mechanical failures, compounded and created by human panic, or confusion, or failure to communicate. In an unusual work environment, like a nuclear power station or a plane cockpit, the way people relate to each other can make the difference between life and death. How’s that for psychology at work?

I recently read and enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, which has a significant chapter on the human role in air disasters, and in particular the bad safety problems once suffered by Korean Air. It’s shocking and fascinating to read some of his transcripts of terrible, avoidable disasters that came down to people feeling too inhibited, confused, and distressed to be able to speak up at crucial times. Gladwell reports on two South American pilots who simply felt too inhibited by the assertive and vocal air traffic control crew in New York to be able to communicate that their plane was almost totally out of fuel and due to crash. Both pilots and the passengers lost their lives.

Air Korea’s poor safety record was for some time a source of mystery, as their equipment was as up-to-date and in as good condition as anyone’s. If it weren’t for the “black box” reportings of everything that’s said in the cockpit, it might have remained a mystery. Korean culture is highly deferential to authority, and authority in a Korean plane cockpit was vested and embodied in the captain. Before each flight, the co-pilots and crew would be expected to bring his meals and attend to his every need. The net result of all of this was that in any problem or difficulty, no-one would voice an opinion that ran contrary to that of the captain, despite the desperate need. It’s painful to read the transcripts of the co-pilots trying desperately to communicate that the plane is in trouble to their captain. “Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.”

I always think of those co-pilots when I hear it said that people are the same everywhere, or that culture and environment do not affect how people respond. The pilots were unable to overcome the cultural inhibitions binding them, even though they knew well the outcome could be their deaths. Korean Air, by the way, now has an excellent safety record, but getting it involved intensively training their air crews to put deference aside and communicate honestly and robustly in the air. The patterns of culture and communication we live in affect the results of all our lives profoundly on a daily basis – the question is, is it in the way we’d like?

The Scientist’s Toolkit: Understanding the numbers

21 11 2009

Let’s say you’re reading a newspaper over the weekend. Let’s say you spot a front-page headline in this newspaper, all direly big, that says something along the lines of, “EATING YOGHURT DOUBLES YOUR RISK OF BRAIN CANCER!”

Assuming you pay attention, and go on to read the article, should you immediately stop eating yoghurt? After all, “doubling” is an awful lot. But when you read the small print in this kind of article, you’re likely to find out that 1) the baseline risk (i.e. the number of people, out of 1,000, who will get this illness in their lifetime) is extremely low; and 2) the correlation between eating yoghurt and brain cancer adds up to a slightly higher, but still extremely low risk. Let’s say that the number of people who will typically get brain cancer is something like 0.25 per thousand, or one person per four thousand. In the yoghurt-eating contingent, it is found that 0.5 people per thousand will go on to develop brain cancer, or one in two thousand – basically, one extra person per four thousand yoghurt eaters. The newspapers are perfectly entitled to report this as “RISK DOUBLES!”, and usually do.

Now, chances are that you didn’t make a vow to stay away from yoghurt when you read this article, because you’ve read too many like it, and possibly even muttered something about damned lies and statistics before you turned the page. That’s a shame, because we need statistics. Yes, they can be represented all kinds of ways, and some of those ways are more informative and useful than others, but it is statistics that we turn to when we need to know if a study or a programme worked, or whether crime rates really have changed, or if we should start excluding yoghurt from our diets. You need the toolkit to go up close and understand what the numbers are telling you.

There are some excellent resources online , for starters, try the Open University’s Statistics and the Media. And I recommend it so frequently, I feel like a broken record, but pick up Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science too – hilarious, fun to read, and the best simple primer on how to read, understand and criticise a science study that I’ve ever read.

The workplace or the workers?

18 11 2009

Interesting article in last Wednesday’s Guardian – William Tate considers how the press responds to failures in an organizational system, and whether it makes more sense to criticise the staff or the system.

Sometimes it’s the workplace that’s stupid, not the staff

While cases like Baby P’s are tragic, I’m inclined to agree with Tate and with Eileen Munro, to whom he’s responding; the people involved in a system are, usually, motivated and caring people doing the best they can within a set of constraints.

What interests me is Tate’s division between the “system” and the staff. Where do we draw that distinction, and is it ever really meaningful? We all like to talk about “culture” and the system”, imagining it as something that controls and shapes us, something that washes around us like a fog. But it doesn’t exist outside of our heads. Inasmuch as there is something called a “culture” and something called a “system”, we create it. All of us, everyday, in the way we tilt our heads when that guy we don’t really like says something friendly, in the way we structure our workdays, in the way we respond in a crisis. It’s like money. It exists only because we all agree to pretend it does.

“The system” doesn’t control people. They control it. They created it because, I think, it’s easier to absolve some of the responsibility for your actions to an amorphous and impersonal idea that you never have to face. Ever bewailed your company’s “culture” or processes? What did you do to change it when you did that?

You change it when you refuse to accept it. You change it by the way you think. If you don’t like a culture, change it.