Ben Goldacre: Battling Bad Science

Speaker

Ben Goldacre is a physician, academic and science writer. As of 2014 he is a Wellcome research fellow in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a founder of the AllTrials campaign to require open science practices in clinical trials.

Summary

As an epidemiologist, Ben’s job is to use evidence and science to decide what is good for the body. An example of bad science is newspaper headlines, which categorise things that increase or decrease cancer risk – and sometimes contradict themselves by declaring coffee in both categories. The thrust of this talk discusses ways evidence can be manipulated through either ignorance or deception.

Bad science uses authorities – people or experts while ignoring their evidence. Good science should be carried by the weight of argument or evidence rather than who says it. Authority status can be easily contrived – TV doctors can create a pHd after their name or sign up online for advanced certificates of something or other.

Evidence can also be confused: a newspaper headline declared red wine reduces breast cancer risk. The study this was sourced from looked at a single chemical extracted from grape skins fighting some cancer cells in a petri dish – it has no relevance outside of this scenario. In truth the alcohol content of wine increases your cancer risk.

Another example was a study showing decreased skin wrinkles in people who eat olive oil and vegetables. The paper was correct that people who ate olive oil and vegetables had fewer wrinkles, but they also tended to be wealthier, better educated, do less manual labour, smoke less, drink less. These other factors had far more to do with fewer wrinkles.

The medical trial is one of the bases of epidemiology, and should be the basis for a doctor’s decisions, but so many people still get it wrong.

  • A trial on fish oil tablets in school children didn’t use a control group – instead comparing their results against a projection of their results taken a year ago.
  • The placebo is a place to abuse trials: the placebo is a powerful effect but new medicines should be testing themselves against the current best medicines rather than just a placebo. It is much more useful to see how a drug compares to the best competitors – since we would never prescribe a placebo.
  • New drugs can compare themselves to a competitor that is not dosed correctly. For example they can prove themselves more effective by taking the alternative in too low a dose. They can also prove they have fewer side effects by taking the competitor’s drug in too high a dose.

For these reasons industry sponsored trials give a flattering result 4 times more often than independent trials. But this is true even when the industry’s trial is done correctly, because negative data can go missing. This can be analysed with statistics, with normal data giving a mix of false positives and false negatives and a few large trials with low error. If data has been hidden, the small false negatives will not be visible – the worst results will be the largest low error trials. Ben discusses one pill he has prescribed to patients, and discovered 75% of all the trials had never been released. Likewise Tamiflu has had billions invested in it because governments want to show it reduces serious complications associated with flu, but none of the evidence for this has been released.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. All results should be published, but they are currently protected by a forcefield of tediousness.

My Thoughts

Interesting to see how pharmaceuticals can abuse evidence by not publishing. I can understand commercial pressures not to publish negative results though, and not sure what the solution is. Should it be compulsory for companies to run trials through a central organisation and under specific rules?

Even more concerning is the ethics of treating people with excessive or insufficient doses of a drug. This is unforgivable – effectively putting someone’s health at risk to prove that an opponent’s drug is dangerous or ineffective. Directly hurting people as a marketing tactic doesn’t sit well with me at all.

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Barbara Oakley: Learning how to learn

Speaker

Barbara Oakley is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University. She is involved in multiple areas of research, ranging from STEM education, to Engineering education, to learning practices.

Summary

Barbara is now a professor of engineering, but at a young age she was terrible at maths: preferring languages. A student asked her how she rewired her brain: after years as a Russian translator how did she learn engineering when she previously struggled. She looked into the issue from a neuroscience perspective.

The brain is in 2 different ‘modes’: a focussed or a diffused mode. In focussed mode you think tightly through familiar problems you have solved before. However, the diffuse thought is needed to search for new ideas – you can’t solve problems, but it is needed to find the answer if you haven’t seen it before. You need to activate this diffuse mode to think through a problem creatively: to do this Salvador Dali and Edison both sat comfortably with keys or a steel ball in their hands and started to drift off to sleep while thinking about it. When they dropped the object it woke them up and they could harvest thoughts from the diffuse thought, and start to focus on them. They found a way to get the benefits of both.

A problem in learning is procrastination: it is a natural response in the brain which feels pain at the idea of doing something you don’t want to do. One reaction is to delay – or do other more pleasant things. However if you force yourself to do it, the ‘pain’ feeling fades quickly. The ‘Pomodoro method’ is to set a timer (traditionally 25minutes on an old fashioned timer) and really focus on your task, then to take a 5minute reward break. Don’t expect to finish the task, just work on it. You are training your brain to focus on a task, and to reward yourself frequently.

People can also trick themselves into thinking they understand with poor study habits – they are just ‘spinning their wheels’ for a long time. For example simply reading or highlighting texts doesn’t make you understand, better to read a section then look away and recall the key messages. People who learn slower can gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Also, it is important to do a few problems before you can claim mastery – reading alone will not help you learn.

Learning is an amazing skill, and Barbara implores us all not to just follow our passions, but to broaden them.

My Thoughts

Barbara is an amazing presenter, and I really wish I had seen her presentations while I was at uni. I am currently doing her MOOC (starting yesterday), and the first module is relatively similar to this talk (strongly recommended here https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/). While doing this I am questioning how much I have really ‘thought’ about something – I tend to be so task focussed that I don’t take a step back and activate diffuse thinking.

The pomodoro method is a new name to me, but is similar to other time management strategies: to break your time into modules with rests. I’ve heard 45 mins then 15mins break, as opposed to 25mins work, 5mins break. Personally I’m not sure the length of time matters (though I wouldn’t go longer than 45mins), so much as breaking your day into work and rest sessions.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this talk and the MOOC enough. I challenge everyone to think about how often they really think or learn something, as opposed to just ‘completing’ it.

Tom Wujec: Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast

Speaker

Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He’s an innovative practitioner of business visualization — using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas.

Summary

Asking people to draw how to make toast can reveal a lot.

  • Most people draw a flow chart: images (nodes) connected with arrows (links). We intuitively know how to break a drawing down in this way.
  • The details people go to can reveal more about them: whether the supply chain of bread, or engineers drawing the inner workings of a toaster
  • people from different countries see toasters differently (Americans draw an electric toaster, Europeans a fry pan, or some draw fire).
  • Number of nodes is usually around 5, and 5-13 is the best to describe the process. Fewer nodes are too simple, but more than 13 difficult to understand

The second step is to draw the nodes on sticky notes or cards. This lets you rapidly rearrange or change the nodes, to make it better faster. These diagrams tend to have more nodes than one drawn on a sheet of paper – making them richer.

The third step is for a group to draw on sticky notes and rearrange them together. This results in more nodes again, but map shock isn’t an issue because they all saw the process come together. They group automatically organises the nodes to group similar nodes or deal with contradictions.

Managers can use this simple process to map out their organisation or strategy – to break a very complicated entity into the working parts. They simply draw the nodes, then organise or refine them until the patterns emerge. These models can extend to hundreds or thousands of nodes. An executive team for a publishing company spent 3 days organising post-its, and their newfound understanding let them reclaim $50million of revenue and customers now rank them as an “A” – from a “D”.

Next time you are confronted with a complicated problem, try breaking it down in terms of visibly nodes – it is fun, simple and powerful.

My Thoughts

A simple exercise, and definitely worth trying to understand a problem. However, having seen the exercises in business a few times, I’m not sure they always yield results. Ones I have been a part of tend to be too structured and quick (~1/2hr) – rather than the random self-organisation and iteration Tom suggests. These exercises tend not to result in an answer or clarity at all.

Having had the logic explained through this talk, I will try it alone though. Take an idea or problem and break it down, then see if it can be re-organised in a useful way.

Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree

Speaker

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur, CEO, writer and keynote speaker.

Summary

In the 1950s, Alice Stewart was studying childhood cancer on a shoestring budget. Since she’d only be able to run a single study with minimal analysis, she surveyed people, asking them everything possible and seeing if anything gave a correlation. The overwhelming answer was that X-rays on pregnant women were increasing cancer risk in children. Her findings flew in the face of doctor’s roles (that their tests were harming patients) and common medical wisdom of the time. The controversial findings took 25 years of fighting before they were adopted by the medical boards of UK and USA. To give Alice confidence in her findings she used a statistician George Neil – whose job was to dig into the numbers and DISprove Alice’s findings (rather than mindlessly support them). His job was to create conflict around her findings, and in failing to do so he gave her confidence. Alice and George saw conflict as a form of thinking, and were very good at it.

We need to work with people who are different from ourselves- different backgrounds, thought processes, personalities. This can be hard – it goes against our instincts and uses much more time and energy.

In corporations, 85% of executives acknowledge that they have refrained from raising issues or concerns at work because they didn’t want to cause conflict. This says that they can’t think together – they can’t raise the conflicts George and Alice did to challenge themselves. It is a skill to use conflict to fix an issue, and it is the job of a leader to raise issues they see – since everyone else may see the same issues but be too afraid to talk about them.

Margaret says that pHd students at some universities are forced to submit 5 statements that they are willing to defend – they must do this to show they can deal with being challenged. She suggests it needs to be extended to school kids – to get them ready for conflict at a younger age. Most major catastrophes aren’t caused by secret information – the signs are in open information that people are unwilling to discuss. When we dare to break that silence, we allow everyone to do their best thinking.

My Thoughts

Wonderful talk and strongly recommended. She cuts to the heart of the issue with wonderful clarity, and convinces all viewers to raise their concerns when they see them. I can see a lot of potential in getting people to make statements at a young age and making them defend them.

Seth Godin: How to get your ideas to spread

Speaker

Seth Godin is an entrepreneur and blogger who thinks about the marketing of ideas in the digital age

Summary

For the first few years, the idea of sliced bread was a complete flop – noone wanted it, and noone knew it was available. The original focus was on patents and factories – the technical side of the idea, rather than the commercial. Nowadays it doesn’t matter how good your idea (or product) is, it is only the most widely spread that “win”.

In recent history, the TV-Industrial complex was how companies spread their products. Advertising on TV would give you sales which you could reinvest in TV. Nowadays it just doesn’t work – people have too many choices and too little time to care about advertising – they ignore most of it. The best way to be noticed is to be remarkable, or different. The largest and smallest cars are the best sellers now – because they are different. A chair can sell better as a status symbol, rather than a utilitarian chair.

The TV-industrial complex sold to the masses – these are the people who stopped caring and just ignore it now. Nowadays a better strategy is to appeal to the niche – early adopters or ‘geeks’. These people like listening, and are keen to try something new and to tell their friends about it. They have “Otaku” – an obsession to try something, because that is what they do. It is hard now to market a variety of products that don’t have an Otaku group – that’s why you’ll see much more variety in hot sauces than mustards. Sell to people who are listening and they might tell their friends.

Apple will stream their key note and 50,000 people will watch a 2hr commercial for their products, because these people care desperately enough to listen. They will tell their friends, and this keynote is what keeps Apple so successful. Pearl Jam now sells only on its website (to their biggest fans) and makes a profit every time. Dutch Boy Paint is 35% more expensive but desired for its innovative paint can design, Hard Candy Nail Polish doesn’t appeal to everyone but those who love it talk about it all the time. People want different products, and they want them targetted at them.

Some closing points

  • Design is free when you get to scale, and people who are coming up with something remarkable can make the design work for them
  • The riskiest thing is to safely market at the mainstream. Being Safe now is about marketing at niches. Simply being very good is unremarkable and rarely noticed – you have to also be different.
  • The best way to market a new product is work out who cares and target them directly.

My Thoughts

Seth is fascinating. His talk comes down to really simple points – come up with something remarkable and market it at a group who care. Mass media doesn’t work any more. Reading in other places (though he discusses it briefly in the talk), he has made the distinction between types of marketing:

  • unsolicited ‘Interruption marketing’- TV ads, spam emails. These interrupt what you are doing and demand your attention
  • Permission Marketing – this is opt in – people have agreed to receive more information. They are more receptive, it is more personal, and the advertising is cheaper.

All this makes me wonder how I can become a purple cow 🙂

 

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius

Speaker

Elizabeth Gilbert is an American author, essayist, short story writer, biographer, novelist and memoirist. She is best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.

Summary

People associate creative works with mental health issues and a fear that their work won’t be good enough, or not as good as their past work. Indeed a lot of writers in the 20th century have committed suicide or suffered depression. After the massive success of her book “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth believes that her greatest work is now behind her, which is a scary thought. She looked at how to construct barriers between her work and this anxiety about how it will be received.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that an artist had a spirit that helped their work – called a daemon or a ‘genius’. This idea insulated the artist from criticism and narcissism – the work was not theirs and they could not take all the credit or blame. In the Renaissance the language shifted slightly so that instead of possessing a genius the artist was a genius – this makes the artist responsible to their critics. It distorts egos, creates unmanageable expectations, and has been killing artists for 500 years.

Why can’t we go back to the classical period? Does their understanding of creativity make any less sense than our own? Elizabeth describes an explanation of a poem coming to a poet like an approaching train, and having to sprint to a pencil to write it down before it passed never to be seen again. This look at creativity (that ideas just come to you) is common, and it does make it sound as if the artist isn’t fully in control of their works.

A musician (Tom Waits) took a different approach when he was driving down the road and a song just came to him. He couldn’t write it down and didn’t have a tape recorder to sing to, so instead of panicking that he would lose it, he started talking to his daemon. “Can you not see I’m driving”… “If you really want to exist come back at a more opportune moment”… “Otherwise go bother someone else today. Go Bother Leonard Cohen”. Elizabeth tried a similar approach while feeling anxious – telling her daemon she’s doing everything she can, and if the daemon wants a better book he should turn up to work to do his bit.

Elizabeth uses this concept of an external daemon to keep working through the anxiety, or the fear that her next book won’t be as successful as her last. She has to keep showing up to work, and if the daemon on loan to her doesn’t, than so be it.

My Thoughts

I like her idea to dissociate an artist from their work – someone frustrated and tormented constantly is unlikely to keep producing creatively. She speaks convincingly on the subject, and her anecdotes are helpful.

Sheena Iyengar: How to make choosing easier

Speaker

Sheena Iyengar is a Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School and the Faculty Director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center. She is known for her research on choice, culture, and innovation

Summary

The average American reports they make 70 decisions per day. A study was done by following CEOs around, and found they completed 139 tasks, and 50% of their decisions were made in 9 minutes or less. Only 9% of decisions took longer than an hour.

The choice overload problem is summarised by a grocery store that can offer hundreds of types of olive oil or jam. Sheena was fond of such a store, and found they had hundreds of tourists but very few people bought anything (including herself). She ran an experiment where she offered jams for tasting – once she offered 6 flavours, another time she offered 24. While people were more likely to stop and taste the 24 flavours, nearly noone bought a jar. She got 6 times more sales from the experiment with only 6 flavours. This can happen even with more significant decisions such as saving for retirement. A study looked at participation in 401k plans, each of which offered a different number of funds within them. Those that offered only 1-2 funds had participation of 75%, and participation decreased until the plans with 59 funds recorded only 63% participation.

There are 3 main consequences of offering people too many choices

  • Engagement – they tend to procrastinate
  • Quality – Make worse choices
  • Satisfaction – they are less happy with their choice, even if their decision is objectively better.

This is because it is difficult to properly compare all choices – it is fun to gaze at a wall of mayonnaise, but how can you really decide which one is best?

Sheena suggests 4 techniques in your businesses to prevent choice overload in customers.

  1. Cut – reduce the redundant options. This will increase sales, and lower costs. When Proctor and Gamble reduced their Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15 their sales increased 10%. Aldi offers only 1400 products (compared to Walmart offering 100,000) and is the 9th largest retailer in the world. If people can’t tell the difference between 2 products, don’t force them to choose.
  2. Concretisation – Relate a decision in terms that mean something. Sheena described a road in terms of it’s surroundings and accident statistics (one of the most dangerous roads in the world) and asked who would want to visit it. She then showed photos of the road, and more people seemed keen. By showing the photo it seemed more real and easier to decide, even though there was less concrete information about the road. Similarly, when saving for retirement, thinking about what how you want your retirement to be can make saving easier.
  3. Categorisation – Reduce the objects into categories that mean something to the chooser. For example – putting 600 magazines in categories makes it easier to pick one. Of course, categorising by industry jargon that can’t be understood by the consumer is useless.
  4. Condition for Complexity – Gradually increase the complexity. When custom making a car, a lot of decisions need to be made eg engine, gear shifter (with only a few choices each) or paint colour (with 56 choices). People stay engaged longer if they are presented with the smaller sets first – they get exhausted making the largest decision first (paint colour), and will tend to pick the default thereafter.

My Thoughts

While Sheena focussed on business owners, the same principles should be applied whenever you are trying to convince someone of something. By presenting the options in a more concrete form – what it means to them, or grouping a few similar options together, you could make it easier to win them over.

I am a big fan of simplifying, and Sheena’s talk did not disappoint. She gave useful advice, and explained it so well that it all made sense. Strongly recommended for business owners focussed on consumers, and great background info for everyone else.