I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 20.35.28I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit
More Complicated Than That
Ben Goldacre

This is a romp through Dr. Goldacre’s analysis of weak claims and poorly reported science. He argues that journalists should cite, and link to, the sources of the research behind the headlines. He also argues that we, the unsuspecting public should know how to read scientific studies for ourselves, and we should question the reports rather than swallow the conclusions whole.

So if you’ve ever read a science-y headline and thought to yourself “that doesn’t sound right” this book is for you. It takes a look at scientific method and points out some of the pitfalls in constructing a good experiment and in the process gives some pointers about what to look for when evaluating a scientific story;

  • Who funded the study?
  • How well was the experiment designed?
    • sample size
    • scientific method; was there a simple
    • testing a single hypotheses
  • Cherry Picking the data; does the report use a small group of reports to prove a point rather than all research?

In the past three weeks three cases have popped up in social media that prove the need to both hold journalists to a higher standard and to educate us all.

(1) Proving nothing; A Swedish family ate organically for two weeks, and tests showed a drop in the concentration of pesticides in their urine.

So the family had their urine tested for various pesticides on their usual diet, then ate organic food for two weeks, then tested the urine again. Their urine was tested daily over the two weeks and by the end there was almost no pesticide in the urine.

Note that “organic” doesn’t mean pesticide-free, so the family could still have consumed some pesticide with their organic meals. The article doesn’t report on whether that was tested for.

Which the article calls a ” staggering result”. No, not staggering, school level biology. You could do the exact same test with vitamin C. Give people a high vitamin C diet for a month, then remove vitamin C from their diet. Hey presto! No vitamin C in the urine.

This report hits the trifecta; small sample size, poor design, funded by a supermarket with a range of organic foods. Essentially this “experiment” simply proved that the Swedish family have well-functioning kidneys.

(2) Faked Data; There was a really interesting study done on the attitudes to same-sex marriage. It concluded that conversation with a gay surveyor/canvasser could induce long-term attitude change. The study seemed to be well constructed, with a good data set supporting the conclusion. The optimistic news was widely reported late last year when the study was released.

But when scientists started digging into the data, and trying to replicate the results something didn’t stack up. The study has now been retracted by one of the authors, it seems there will be a further investigation.

It’s not always the journalists at fault.

(3) We’re easily fooled; Daily dose of chocolate helps you lose weight.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 14.24.23Before you rush out to buy a week’s supply of your favourite chocolate bars, it’s not true.

But it turns out that it’s rather easy to generate the research and result to prove this, and extremely easy to get mainstream media to report on it. As John Bohannon proved in setting up this experiment and the associated PR.

So there can be flaws or outright fraud in science. Journalists can, on occasion, twist the story to deliver the headline. And we, the public are ready to believe reports that re-inforce our own opinions, and we’re too ready to believe good news about chocolate.

Turns out if it sounds too good to be true we should ask more questions.

Many of the articles in this book are already published in the Guardian, and if you want to read more on bad science Dr. Goldacre has his own site with the helpfully short title; Bad Science. He campaigns for greater journalistic responsibility on reporting science, for using the scientific method to test policy decisions, and for better education on scientific method.

He’s right, on all three.

Chocolate Image; I Need Chocolate |  Kit  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

Trend Watching Seminar

Bright Idea1 hour, 5 big ideas, 10 trends, loads of examples.

The second session of the Trend Watching Day in Amsterdam promised us the “10 Newest and Most Actionable Trends for Right Now”.

I’ve described the ideas and the trends, and tried to capture some of the examples. I’ve included the best of the examples mentioned that I could find described online.

The workbook that came with the seminar encouraged us as participants to think of what we could take away from this and use immediately.

Lens of Human Needs

There is a big temptation when talking about trends to focus on technology, to look at the newest, latest and greatest from the technology sector. There’s so much going on in the world of technology that it’s easy to forget that human needs are constant and it’s only by meeting those needs that technology is useful, interesting and forms part of a trend.

(1) Beneficial Intelligence

We’re used to talking about “artificial intelligence“, the idea that a system can take information from the environment and take action to optimise the result of whatever function it is performing.

Beneficial intelligence takes the same concept but looks at it through a human lens; use data to give context to help decision making and increase positive experience.

For example Prizm analyses the music play lists of whoever is connected to the device and provides an optimised stream of music to meet the group’s music tastes.

(2) Internet of Shared Things

The “Internet of Things” becomes internet of shared things, as technology meets the sharing economy.

For example Bitlock enables the sharing of bikes, although with a staring price close to the price of a second hand bike in Amsterdam I’m not sure it’ll fly here.

The concept has become interesting to some larger companies; Audi has launched “Audi Unite” in Sweden where groups of up to five people can jointly own a car. This extends the concept adopted car sharing networks such as Car2Go.

 Compelling Brand is About Emotion

Even in a world where a drone will take your photo a compelling brand is still about feelings.

(3) Two-way Transparency

Rating our experiences with companies has been around a while, some companies are are also rating their customers. AirBNB might have been in the lead here, letting both hosts and guests rate each other.

But other companies are getting in on the act and rewarding their customers, The Art Series Hotels in Australia now use “reverse reviews” to give feedback on their guests with the tagline “it pays to behave”.

Prêt à Manger, a chain selling gourmet, ready-to-eat food based in the UK, apparently gives staff a “freebie allowance” to use on customers who stand out as friendly. I must smile more next time I visit one.

(4) Insider Trading, Companies Appeal to the Personal

H&M vacationMake your internal policies a point of difference, make it public and use it in PR for your company.

H&M included their 5 week vacation policy on billboards – presumably in the US, since this is a standard vacation allowance in many parts of Europe.

Intel pledged 300M USD to build a more diverse workforce and announced it at a major electronics show.

Earlier this year Vodafone announced a global maternity leave policy, backing it up with a business case that highlights the importance of good maternity policies in keeping talented women at the company.

Peer Economy

Peer-to-peer transactions, collectively known as the sharing economy build value.

(5) Very Important Peers

Working on the old principle of ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ companies are figuring out how to get individual consumers in touch with the right person – either because of what they know or what they’re doing.

Lopeca connects you to local people who can act as a virtual tour guide showing you their city via their phone.

(6) Peer Armies

Companies are finding ways to mobilise “peer armies” to answer questions, and help others. (I think Army is a poor analogy here, but I’m sticking with the Trend Watching nomenclature).

AUDI in Sweden launched “snow rescuers” app to connect you to another AUDI driver, one with a 4WD, if you’re stuck in the snow.

The Lazy Consumer

We’ve all become lazy, we want everything now, and we don’t want to work for it. We want expertise instantly and, as consumers, we want to do the right thing as long we don’t have to expend a lot of effort.

(7) Instant skills

We’d like to be able to do all the cool things, with as little effort as possible.

Instagram is probably the best example of this, turning us all into arty-hipster-photographer types by providing simple filters and tools to edit photos on the go. Obviously we’re not all expert Art photographers because of this, but Instagram photos have been hung in galleries and sold for artistic prices.

New options for the lazy gardener; Seed Sheet, which will help you design a garden online, and then grow it.

(8) Lazy Virtue

Rag Bag recyclingMany consumers have concerns about the healthiness of what they consume, and the sustainability of its production. Our ethical interests can challenge us – I appreciate American Apparel for their “no sweatshop” manufacuturing, but I hate their sexist ads. We’d like to feel virtuous as we shop, and some brands are connecting to this.

The Rag Bag encourages recycling and that minimalist ideal of non-accumulation; simply turn the bag inside out put your unwanted clothes in and send it off.

Warby Parker operates a “buy a pair, give a pair” programme, donating glasses to the third world where they’re sorely needed.

Just make it fun

(9) Small World

As smart phones and internet connectivity become ubiquitous we have tools to connect humans in extraordinary ways.

Tworlds is a photosharing app that connects people across the world who are posting on the same subject based on hashtag eg; two cups of coffee.

Lifetramp aims to connect people with inspiring mentors in a new field. You could spend a day with a cobbler, an artist, or a furniture maker.

(10) Brand fanatics

Sometimes people love a brand way beyond the pleasure gained from the product they own.

Reebok brand fanatics have been getting the logo tattoed as part of the “Reebok Forever” brand campaign.


At the end of the session we were asked to spend some time thinking about the trends we’d heard about and how we could change or business to adopt them. For me it’s more about looking at what is happening in the company and surfacing it to tell the company story in a compelling way. The stories are there already.

Image: Bright Ideas  |  The Pink Lemon  |  CC BY-NC 2.0




Just Stop It #5

Stop SignsToday’s complaint is about newsletter management, specifically the sign-up and unsubscribe processes.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been signed up for newsletters on the basis of a single contact with the company, perhaps a service enquiry, or a downloading a white paper. I’ve also seen email suppliers making it hard to unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters. These two annoyances combine into one big annoyance with a company that really should know better.

Automatically Signing Me Up

Please stop signing me up for newsletters without a specific opt in. Just because I visited your site, or emailed you once does not mean I want to hear from you again. Let me opt-in. Do not make it a condition of using your services (looking at you, Microsoft).

  1. There are two things I do to avoid adding to the unwanted email;
    I have an email account that I use only for sites I think might spam me.
  2. I use a junk filter est to “exclusive” in Hotmail so I never see them.

Making “Unsubscribe” Impossible

At some point Microsoft started sending me  emails relating to their products and services to my Hotmail account. Pretty sure I didn’t sign up for it, but Hotmail belongs to Microsoft so I get it.

I clicked on the handy “unsubscribe” button at the bottom of one of these emails, and got this.

Unsubscribing from Microsoft
Outlook has not given Outlook any info to help me unsubscribe from them.

Translation; Microsoft does not let you unsubscribe from their emails in their own email service. That’s a design choice, they make it difficult for you to unsubscribe so that won’t do it.

The result is that they are now blocked.

I’ve used Microsoft as the example here, but they’re not the only ones guilty of random spamming. In the last month I have been signed up for newsletters from conference organisers, potential suppliers, and random companies who guessed my work email.

I’ve unsubscribed from them all. Where that hasn’t been possible I’ve flagged them as “junk”. If that happens often enough at work their email domain could be blocked.

Please, just stop it.

 Image; Stop | Brainware3000 | CC BY-2.0




Boil the Ocean

boiling lake“We just need to get this done; let’s not boil the ocean”.

The mental image this phrase generates makes its meaning pretty clear. Forbes defines it “This means to waste time”. That’s not quite the sense I’ve heard it used as in the past.

Investopedia‘s definition comes closer “To undertake an impossible task or project or to make a task or project unnecessarily difficult”, but goes on to give an example I found unhelpful.

The definition that best matches the sense in which I hear “boil the ocean” comes from the Urban Dictionary;

To waste one’s time attempting to do the impossible.

Scope is too big to do in one project. Break it up into more than one. Don’t try to solve every problem at once. Identify a couple, address them, and move on.

Nailed it.

I hear the “boil an ocean” statement most often when a project hasn’t had the scope of the project defined well or has suffered from “scope creep“, where more and more has been thrown into the project bucket.

I’ve run a number of global roll-outs of tools/platforms/branding. Every time there were a raft of decisions and objections to get through. You can’t be daunted by that. You must manage stakeholders (often changing) expectations and still deliver.

Have the big vision, but define the project scope at a deliverable scale – and stick to it.

That way you won’t need to boil any oceans.

Image; The Famous Boiling Lake | Antoine Hubert | CC BY-ND 2.0

What does Leadership Look Like?

I was looking for an image to illustrate my version of leadership, for once Google was not helpful. Here are some of the images Google provided and my first , somewhat snarky, reaction to them.

Apart from an apparent gender bias (none of the stick figure appear to be female), the images all show leaders in a sort of exalted status that I’m not comfortable with.

I’m drawn more to a version of leadership that relies on inspiring people, of helping them to be the best they can be.  As John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”. Academics describe leadership as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (Chemers M. (1997) via wikipedia). I’ve always liked that wise quote from the Tao te Ching  “When a good leader is finished, the people think they did it themselves.”

None of the images I found in common search seemed anything like my version of leadership, although I did recognise the truth of  Gaping Void‘s brilliant cartoon.

Leadership_gapingvoidSo I decided to make my own image on leadership.

I wanted to convey that for me leadership includes the idea of “we do this together”, that there’s a team of individuals who bring their differences to the table, that we’re equal and the contributions of all in a strong team are valued.

It’s hard to get all of that into a single image, here’s what I’ve come up with (which you’ve already seen if you came here via twitter – sorry for the recursion).


How would you visualise leadership?

(And for those of you worrying about the gender depiction in my image, you needn’t).

Repeated Social Media Fails

fail whaleIn a month where a “beach body ready” campaign hit the news in the UK with people taking to twitter to protest,  an ANZAC campaign went wrong in Australia and Baltimore erupted over every media outlet, not just the social ones, I spotted two social media fails that were not just stupid, they were repeats of earlier fails.

People make mistakes, I get it, I have a long list of my own mistakes that I’m not publishing. This is a reminder to pay attention to your social media posts, and to think before you post.

1 Bad Reaction

A burger bar owner lost his cool with a customer on Facebook. His rant is laden with insults, bizarre comparisons and swear words.

What did the customer do to deserve this?

She sent a private message saying that her son had had an upset stomach with vomiting following a meal at the burger bar. She finished her message with “Just wanted you to be aware. We thought the burgers were fantastic and know it’s probably a one-off”.

The reaction is about 20:1 in favour of the customer, with many commenters declaring they’ll never eat there.

We’ve seen this before, back in 2013 Amy’s Baking Company was visited by Gordon Ramsay in his show Kitchen Nightmares. The restaurant in question responded in flurry of furious facebook posts and it all went downhill from there. As Forbes later pointed out in their lessons on social media; Don’t Insult People. I’d go further; don’t tweet when you’re mad.

2 Fired Before you Start

A single mum landed a job at a daycare centre but before she could start the centre changed their decision and she’s out of a job. Why?

She complained online about hating working at daycare centres and she doesn’t like being around kids all the time. It didn’t take long for those comments to reach the day care centre, and they rescinded their offer.

This has happened before, famously a young woman tweeted;

ciscotweetShe learnt the hard way that companies monitor social media, that what you say on a social media channel is public – and permanent, and what you say could be damaging.

These incidents were all avoidable if the posters had thought through the impact of their words. A former colleague who was expert in digital security used to say that everything you put online is “public and permanent”. That means that the list of people who can see your post isn’t just the friends you tag; it’s your boss, future boss, future girl/boyfriend, brother, colleague, journalist, neighbour and your mum.

Think before you post.

Image: LEGO Twitter Fail Whale | Tveskov | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Day The Earth Shook

2015_Nepal_earthquake_ShakeMap_version_6I am writing this in Lisbon, a city whose history includes an earthquake as a defining moment. In 1755 the city was devastated by an earthquake estimated at 8.5 – 9. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami and widespread fires across the city. Thousands of people died and more lost their homes. Even the city’s geography was changed as foreshore was pushed up out of the sea. Economists estimate that the immediate impact cost the country between 32 to 48 % of GDP (source; The Economic Impact of the Lisbon 1755 Earthquake (pdf) )

Contemporaries described the city following the triple disaster as an apocalypse and it took years to recover and rebuild. In the rebuilding and recovery phase there was significant innovation; new buildings had to include techniques to withstand future earthquakes. And the seeds of scientific thinking around earthquakes is in evidence in a parish survey following the earthquake.

I grew up in New Zealand, a country with a history of earthquakes, I have an enduring mental image of railway tracks flicked into two steel ribbons through the force of the 1987 Edgecombe earthquake. So this is a subject of long-term interest to me.

We know from history that it takes years after a big earthquake to recover and rebuild. So I’m watching the news from Nepal, looking at the devastation and thinking how challenging it will be for this relatively poor country to recover. It is frightening. On social media I’ve seen all sorts of coverage; drone footage of the damage, statistics in updates, and endless photos of rescues, devastation and tent cities.

Someone has collated a twitter list of those reporting on the Nepal Earthquake, and there’s also a Facebook page offering help, and advice.

It’s easy to get the news, it’s harder to know what to do. In this early, emergency, phase the best thing to do is to donate whatever amount you can. The Rubin gallery which focuses on arts from the Himalayan region has put together a list of charities working in the region. Donate if you can. Donate now for emergency relief, and/or in the months to come for the incredible rebuilding work that will be needed across a wide part of the country.

It took Portugal years to recover, and it was at the head of an incredibly wealthy empire back in 1755. For a country as poor as Nepal this disaster could wipe out an entire year’s GDP.

Gaming NPS

recommendI was asked in a survey recently “How likely would you be to recommend this tool to your colleagues?”

At first glance it seems like a fair enough question, and one we’re all used to seeing since NPS (Net Promoter Score) became ubiquitous. But here’s the problem; the tool in question was an internal HR tool. I have no choice but to use it. Whether I would recommend it or not is therefore irrelevant.

It’s not the first time I’ve questioned the use or implementation of NPS. And I’m not alone.

What is NPS?

NPS or Net Promoter Score is a single number that represents how likely a customer is to recommend your product/service/company to their friends, family or colleagues.

People are divided into detractors, passives and promoters based on their score. The number of promoters (those who gave a score of 9 or 10) minus the number of detractors (those who scored between 0 – 6) gives you your net promoter score. So the score can be negative.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 22.49.59It seems that the distribution of responses falls on a bimodal distribution with people scoring either strongly supporting or strongly detracting, with 65% of all scores being either 0, 9, or 10.

What’s Wrong with NPS?

It’s culturally insensitive; I used to see survey data from training courses, we used a 10 point scale and noticed that Dutch people tend to score any survey question on quality 1-2 points lower than their US colleagues. Once famously taking points of because the food was too good! It was incredibly unlikely to ever get a 10 from a Dutch participant. I’m sure this has implications on NPS scores.

Limited use in B2B; because the decision cycle is more complex, with multiple stakeholders and influencers an NPS based on the scores of just the person known to the survey sender is not a useful measure.

It can be gamed; on a  holiday last year I was asked to give a company feedback, and advised that only scores of 9 or 10 would count as positive. As it happens I was happy to score a 9 without the guilt trip, but how accurate are surveys when they come with scoring instructions?

It’s not actionable; it can be really hard to understand what to improved when the NPS score is calculated across a team or across an audience as a whole. NPS Monitoring blog gives a nice hypothetical example about how breaking out an audience according to time spent with the product might help understand what approach to take to improve user experience (and therefore NPS).

Some of the issues above are around implementation; if frontline people don’t benefit indvidually from NPS then the risk of gaming NPS drops for example.

Is it Useful?


NPS can be useful either as a single figure that allows a manager to see a changing trend of customer reaction, or compare businesses or markets across a large company – preferably using trend data rather than absolutes to limit any cultural biases.

If set up properly it can also be used to diagnose areas for attention by drilling into the reactions of specific groups or analysing where a respondent is in the product purchase cycle.

But it should never be used to asses a compulsory tool.

Image; Thumbs Up | MyEyeSees | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


hotwashThis came up on a powerpoint slide of the day’s agenda “4 – 5 pm Hotwash”.

Evidently it means immediate review, according to Word Detective it comes from the US Army where it describes the debrief that occurs immediately after a mission or patrol, possibly from the literal talking while showering, more likely from the practice soldiers have of dousing their weapons in hot water after an exercise.

I’d never seen it before, and nor had any other colleagues in the room. So I’ve asked people what it makes them think of, most people said either laundry or hot tubs (which might say more about them than the subject). But the most descriptive was “hotwash sounds like a painful spa treatment involving large muscular women twisting your body in weird ways”.

In this case it was referring to the last hour of an assessment day, when all teams will discuss their assessments and we’ll check any major inconsistencies.

If I’d been writing the agenda I would have put “4 – 5 pm Review Assessments”, but then, I’m not a management consultant.

Image: Weekly Laundry | Stefan | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Internet Access as a Human Right

UNhumanrightsI am constantly connected, both at home and at work, often via multiple devices. And it’s not just my phone and laptop, increasingly service apps are online – I can control my apartment temperature  from the other side of the world via an app. Lots of services are online, I do all my banking online, I’ll do my tax return online soon. I’ll shop online, including for dinner delivered. At work I’m online all the time. My functional life is online – if wifi goes down I’m really stuck. So internet is hugely important. But is it a human right?

The original UN Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention the internet, but then it was written in the 1940s so that’s not surprising. However it does list a number of rights that are increasingly accessed via the internet, including the right to;

  • take part in the government of his country,
  • equal access to public service in his country.
  • work, to free choice of employment
  • education.
  • participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

These are all available online

It’s only a matter of time before these are available only via the internet. It’s such a clear trend that in 2011 the UN declared internet access a human right, noting;

The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.

But what action follows this declaration? How can governments ensure that access is fair? And what happens when fair access does not exist?

There are a lot of government and business initiatives to ensure universal access to the internet, although in many cases the individual would still need to provide the device;

  • Costa Rica, Greece, Spain, France, Finland and Estonia have taken legislative steps to enshrine internet access as a right in law.
  • India plans to roll out wifi to 2500 cities.
  • The UK government aims to turn thousands of public buildings into free wifi zones.
  • In the Netherlands network providers are finding ways to open use of customer hotspots.

But not all governments are doing so well. The Syrian regime seems to shut down the internet for hours or days at various times. China famously has “The Great Firewall“, which uses a range of blocking techniques to filter sites and content. And governments of democratic nations aren’t immune to the temptation to turn off internet access in times of crisis, as UK’s PM David Cameron showed during the London riots in 2011 (in this case it did not happen).

But even outside these extreme examples internet access remains very unequal. Jon Gosier, who has worked on some of the big issues of technology inequality, talks about how our thinking around technology as an improver of lives is flawed and asks the vital question – how do we include everyone?

There are a few organisations around the world working on ensuring full internet access, including A Human Right, which in 2012 campaigned to have a planned undersea cable moved 500km south so that it could serve the isolated island of St Helena. Their site and twitter feed appear somewhat moribund so it’s hard to judge real progress.

Alliance for Affordable Internet is a public-private partnership that works to provide affordable broadband and mobile access to the internet for everyone.

But the most interesting “bet” on securing global, universal access to the internet might come from the private sector. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has a vision of creating a “space internet“. And Google have a mad idea involving balloons, called Project Loon, that might just work.

Image: Human Right | Zack Lee |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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