Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why I hate pedestrians

You know what I hate? Pedestrians. That self-satisfied, striding, boot-bedecked bunch of scum. Is it just me, or does the country suddenly seem to be full of them? I've never tried walking anywhere myself -- why would I? I'm a successful adult -- but it seems I can hardly travel down the street these days without one of them stepping off the pavement in front of me without looking, their face set in a holier-than-thou expression as they jump out of the way of my car in a burst of expletives. Something clearly needs to be done, and it's good that the government are starting to realise this.

The thing is, it's not just that pedestrians are all smug and annoying when they bang on about "health" and "pollution". That's sickening enough, but if their smugness was the only problem I could just ignore them - after all, they and their silly 'shoes' flash past quick enough when I get going, and their smugness can't penetrate my car's tinted windows. But the thing is there's more to it than that, because have you noticed that even though pedestrians walk millions of miles on our road system every single day, they contribute nothing at all to the cost of that road system? They have thousands and thousands of miles of dedicated pedestrian-only travel routes -- pavements, they're called, or sidewalks if you're that way inclined -- which they don't pay a penny for! Whilst honest motorists are taxed left, right and centre, they don't pay anything at all for all these facilities they enjoy. It beggars belief.

And recently, of course, it's got worse. As I'm driving up the street I constantly come across pedestrians walking across my part of the road to get from one of these pavements to another. I mean, what the hell...? Do they want the shirt off my back as well? They've been given vast tracts of pedestrian-only routes, where I'm certainly not allowed to drive, but apparently this isn't enough for them. Oh no, they want to keep encroaching into my space as well. Sure, we've all heard these walking zealots who say that it's because the 'pavements' don't form a joined-up network, meaning they can't walk to where they want to go without having to step onto the road from time to time. Aw, bless their little hearts. To pedestrians I say this: get off my part of the road. If you walk there when I'm coming along then I'll happily run you down, that's all.

In the long term there's clearly only one solution to all this. If pedestrians want to walk on our streets, which we pay for with all our driving taxes, then they need to pay their share and take their part of the responsibility. Anybody who walks anywhere should undergo training, should have to pay an annual tax towards the facilities they enjoy, should display a license plate so they can be identified, and should each be made to carry insurance in case they are ever involved in any accidents. Until then, they can sod off back to Shoeville or wherever it is they go when they aren't freeloading off the rest of us.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Open source, open razors and how I learnt to love Microsoft (sort of)

Photograph by Andrew Dyer.

I've made two little lifestyle changes in the past few months. The first was that I started using Linux as my main operating system. I've long been a Mac user, and used Windows at work, but decided out of pure curiosity to see how Linux had advanced since I last used it, during my first job, about 10 years ago. Well, all I could say was 'wow'. I tried a few different Linux flavours - Ubuntu, Linux Mint (best choice for newcomers, I'd say), Crunchbang (not for newbies!), and, above all, Kubuntu, where I have found a happy home. When I saw there was so much excellent software out there - for free! - I saw that I couldn't really justify continuing to pay for software as I had been doing, and practically overnight made the switch to running Kubuntu as my main operating system.

The second big change was that I started shaving with an open razor. A friend had made this switch some time ago and pointed out all the advantages: it gives you a better shave than even the most expensive Gillette-type blades and is a one-off purchase, with no ongoing costs. The two of us were at a meeting in Hanover and spotted a shop which specialized in razors. I snapped one up and spent many happy hours chopping my face to ribbons, whilst basking in the warm glow that comes from knowing I'll never again spend money on razor blades.

Whilst mopping up the blood one day, I realized there was actually quite an interesting parallel between open source software and open razors. Now that might sound a bit weird, but bear with me. Both these changes - the new razor and the new OS - involved a lifelong shift to no longer paying for products, and no longer supporting large and cynical corporations (look up the origins of Gillette if you want to know why I use the word 'cynical'). Moreover, both these changes involved learning new skills, and both were initially a little bit difficult. But most interestingly - and this is the point I'm working towards - both gave me a new respect for the mass-producers of razors and software. It was only when I started using the open razor that I saw just how amazing my previous razor was: I could carelessly flick it around my face in moments, without worrying about cuts, in a way I never could with the open razor. Yes, it didn't shave quite so close, but it did a really quite impressive job, all things considered. It works just fine for a lot of people. There are better things out there, but why would most people need to look for them when they're pretty well served with the standard fare?

And it was just the same with the operating system. It was only after switching to Linux, and seeing just how difficult it is for the people who write an operating system to make it work with the thousands of different computers that exist, that I realized just what a clever job the folks at Apple and - particularly - Microsoft have done. Windows isn't perfect. It doesn't shave as close as Linux, to push the metaphor too far, but it does a really quite impressive job, considering. It works just fine for a lot of people. There are better things out there, but why would most people need to look for them?

So in summary: learning to shave with an open razor stopped me being a Microsoft basher. I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Public advice: we need more information

I keep finding myself pondering government advice, and how we really need more information if the genuine aim of this advice is to change people's behaviour for the better. Take the UK government's advice on drinking alcohol safely, where men are advised to drink no more than 4 units of alcohol a day (so 28 per week, 21 for women). Now, I don't believe for a second that this particular figure is based on anything more than guesswork and the perceived need to provide some (any) figure, but it is useful for illustrating my wider point, which is that with any advice like this, how exactly are the public supposed to translate the number into action? You see, I can think of at least 4 completely plausible interpretations of this 28-units-per-week advice:

  • If I drink 28 units per week then I will definitely come to no harm
  • If I drink 28 units per week then there is a 95% chance I will come to no harm
  • If I drink 28 units per week then there is a 50% chance I will come to no harm
  • If I drink any more than 28 units per week I will definitely come to harm

So which is it? This really matters, because each interpretation would lead me to respond in a totally different way. This is something I keep finding myself thinking about with any sort of official advice on behaviour: we need more facts about how the advice is arrived at if we are to make sensible decisions about whether and how to change our behaviour. Or at least I do: others might be happy to follow dogma ;o)

Finally, big cheers to Google. When I searched for "five a day" its top result was "five a day = 5.78703704 × 10-5 hertz". Superb!

Friday, 29 May 2009

Hello, Orange!

I just sent this message to the Orange mobile phone company through their website

Hello! As you'll notice I've chosen the 'I'm not an Orange customer' option at the top of this form. In fact, I haven't been an Orange customer for over a year. However, I'm really pleased to see that my not being an Orange customer hasn't deterred you from sending me regular quarterly statements saying I owe you £0.00. Thanks for keeping me informed! It's nice to know that, as a non-user of your services, I don't owe you any money. I was already pretty certain that I don't owe you any money - what with not being an Orange customer and all - but it's nice to be reassured. Presumably you send similar letters to the 5.95 billion other people around the world who aren't your customers, to reassure them too?

On the off-chance you would like to stop sending me these statements - saving yourself some money, my postman some effort and our planet some trees - the statements come with the account number xxxxxxxx written on them. I have telephoned you about these statements at least three times before now and have, on each occasion, been assured that my account is definitely definitely definitely closed - definitely! - and I would not get another statement, so I don't know if this number will be of any use to you. I offer it for what it's worth, with the knowledge it might be as random and meaningless as your telephone operators' assurances.

Best wishes, and have a good weekend,

Ian Walker

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Research with People published

It's a red-letter day in the Walker household. My textbook, Research with People: Theory, Plans and Practicals has been published. This is a practically based introduction to the issues involved in human testing. It is written to work for anyone who needs to collect information from people - medics, psychologists, sociologists, management types, etc. - and also works for readers who don't carry out research but who want to understand the research process so they can better make sense of what they read. Enjoy!

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Science stories: the devil IS in the detail but you've got to look for it

One of my colleagues, Chris Ashwin, made a bit of splash in the news this last week from being involved in a study on the genetics of optimism and pessimism. Looking at the Guardian article, which the link takes you to, I saw something in the readers' comments which was painfully familiar:

100 people from God knows where isn`t really representative of humanity. Was is a nice day? How healthy were the volunteers? How old? What were they being paid? Its all in the detail folks, or is that my cynicism gene kicking in?

Oh goodness me, but aren't you clever? I saw an awful lot of this sort of thing when my bicycle overtaking work was being reported a couple of years ago: again and again people would write comments which essentially said "This three-paragraph newspaper report I've just read doesn't mention X. I can't believe this researcher didn't consider X! The whole thing is clearly bollocks!" An entire study is dismissed because some detail isn't immediately in front of the reader's nose. You can see this behaviour whenever science is reported in the media.

Of course these details matter in scientific research, which is why researchers write up their procedures with painstaking care in journal articles so the details are there for everyone to see, examine and judge. Typically, this sort of information runs to several closely-typed pages for any given study (I've looked at Chris's paper and the procedure and results run to over 1200 words). So why on earth do people expect to find the same level of reporting in a newspaper story or blog post? Do people think scientists spend years doing research and then, faced with the challenge of reporting their findings, dash off a quick press release in five minutes before moving on to the the next project? Or is it that they believe the details don't exist, and that teams of professional researchers manage routinely to overlook undergraduate-level design issues when doing their jobs?

It's great people are thinking about what they read and showing some critical thought, but can't they take the logical step and actually look for answers to their questions rather than simply assuming the answers don't exist because they're not in a newspaper report? Am I wrong to find this dismissal of people's efforts so irritating?

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Invading Poll-land

Did you see the BBC's report on how, contrary to what we all thought, the UK actually loves religious values and wants more religious influence on our lives? Now I should start out by saying, for the record, I'm not a big fan of religion and don't think people should have a say in law-making, or how I live my life, simply because they feel more comfortable living by the moral standards of, say, an Iron-Age Middle-Eastern society. I fully understand why people would feel more comfortable with the simple black-and-white morals of an ancient and distant society, which save one dealing with the scary complexities of a modern pluralist society, but then I also fully understand why other historical re-enactors like to dress up as Vikings at weekends.

Anyway, as I wasn't sure I believed the BBC's conclusions - which claimed the majority of Britons wanted much more religious influence over their lives - I thought I'd delve into the source of the data a little, to see if they would persuade me. It turns out the survey was conducted by a polling organization called Comres. Comres, on their website, boast all sorts of big-name clients and proudly declare they are a member of the British Polling Council and the Association for Qualitative Research. Sounds like a group of researchers who know what they're doing.

Looking at their portfolio of 'Social polls' is interesting. Most of their recent 'social polls' have been about religion, and all these were conducted at the behest of Christian-interest groups. Hmm. Why might Christian-interest groups give so much business to Comres? I wondered.

I then went back and looked at the results of the Comres/BBC poll [PDF link]. Gosh, what detailed analysis! The data are there, broken down in minute detail by gender, age, social grade and region. Big pages full of scary numbers: this looks like a thoroughly rigourous and scientific study!

But let's look at these numbers in a little more detail. Down on page 3 we can see how the sample of 1045 people breaks down into religious groups. Of the 1045 people surveyed, it turns out 639 were Christians and 279 were of no religion. Now this immediately sent alarm bells ringing. To show you why, let me digress slightly into some introductory sampling theory...

In human research, an early step is to identify the population of interest. This is the group about which you want to reach a conclusion. For example, if you want to learn something about the opinions of all the people in the UK, your population is 'all the people in the UK'. In an ideal world you would then conduct a census, whereby you speak to every member of this population. At the end of such research you know exactly what are its opinions.

Of course, when you're dealing with really large populations - like the population of the UK - conducting a census becomes logistically difficult so you instead use a sample. A sample is a subset of your population which you hope will behave exactly like the population. In other words, it should be the population in miniature, a microcosm of the population. You are hoping it will behave exactly like the population, whilst being of a manageable size. If it does, that's great: you've learnt something about a big population from studying a convenient number of people. But if your sample is in some way biased, or behaves differently to the population as a whole, you will reach false conclusions about the population. The only information you have about the population comes from your sample, so every effort must be taken to ensure that sample isn't biased in some way. Ideally this is done by keeping the sample large, and using methods such as random sampling to choose the people included.

And this is what first worries me with Comres's sample. This survey is being used to represent the views of the UK population (it certainly is in the BBC article). For it to have any validity, then, the sample has to be a smaller version of the UK population - it has to look just like the UK population, in miniature, or else we can't meaningfully generalize from it. But there's the thing: the UK population isn't 64% Christian and 28% non-religious (I'm ignoring Comres's 'weighted' numbers as they haven't bothered to report what they were weighted by). Nor is the population of the UK 0.02% Muslim, and nor does it have exactly 10 times more Muslims than Jews. This sample is clearly biased. With the majority self-identifying as Christians, whatever the sample 'says' is simply going to represent Christian views (at least to the extent Christians all agree with one another on things). Strange - you'd expect a member of the British Polling Council to be a bit more careful than that.

Where did this sample bias come from? Critically, we cannot know. Any sort of proper scientific report would contain full details of how the sample was recruited, so we could read the report fully informed and judge its findings according to the strengths or weaknesses of its methodology. But Comres's report doesn't bother to say how the sample was recruited. Given the massive skew towards representing Christians, I'm tempted to suspect they did a lot of their polling outside churches, at religious group meetings, or something similar. But I don't know, because they don't tell us. Nor do we know how they defined groups like 'Christian', 'non-religious' and so on. This lack of detail really matters: you're going to see very different results if you define 'Christianity' as 'I actively go to church at least once a week, am born-again and believe Jesus Christ is my personal saviour' or if you define it to include all those people who say they're Church of England as a sort of 'default' option because they don't feel very strongly one way or the other (like my mother), or who choose that option because they feel 'spiritual, like there must be something bigger' and so won't choose the non-religious tag. In this case I suspect Christianity was defined somewhat like the first of these options, and the wishy-washy undecided made up the non-religious group. But again, I can't tell because these crucial details aren't reported.

Moving on from the sampling, let's look at the survey itself. It included questions like "The media reports my religion fairly and accurately (agree/disagree/don't know)". From experience of similar surveys I can tell you this is a very strange question to ask someone who is not religious. It simply doesn't make sense - not having a religion is not a religious position, except possibly for some of the more hard-line atheists. Asking someone who isn't religious about their religion is like asking someone who doesn't own a hat about their hat: what are they to answer other than "Huh? I don't have one"?

But it seems Comres have something of a history here. Let's look at their questions in other surveys. How about their "Rescuing Darwin" survey, conducted at the behest (i.e., payment) of Theos, a Christian think-tank? Here we see questions like "Young Earth Creationism is the idea that God* created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years. In your opinion is Young Earth Creationism: definitely true, probably true, probably untrue or definitely untrue". With 11% saying this is definitely true, again alarm bells are ringing about which particular evangelical church they got their sample from (and again, they don't tell us), but let's ignore that for a moment as we're looking at the questions. How about question 3: "Atheistic evolution is the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd. In your opinion is Atheistic evolution: definitely true, probably true, probably untrue or definitely untrue" with 30% saying 'definitely untrue'. I'm sorry, is that question dispassionate and scientific, carefully designed to elicit opinion, as it should be, or is it emotive and written in the language of fundamentalist Christianity? There's plenty more of this sort of thing in Comres's oeuvre.

(* 'God' you notice. Not '...the idea that a powerful entity created the world' but 'God', with a capital letter.)

So what's the conclusion? Basically, it rather looks as though Comres have established themselves as the polling organization of choice for religious groups wanting to find the 'right answers' in national opinion polls. With dubious questions which only make sense to a subset of those questioned (seriously: go and read the rest of the Rescuing Darwin questions), and apparently biased samples (which we can't even properly evaluate, without information on where they came from), they seem always to support exactly what the paying customer wants to find - which is nice, as that's a good way of getting repeat business.

I'm tempted to call for important organizations such as the General Medical Council to stop giving their business to such a polling organization, but I think the bigger question here is why on earth the supposedly dispassionate BBC News commissioned this particular organization - with their track-record of questionable polling in the interests of religious bodies - to conduct their snapshot survey of religious feeling in the UK. And I'm also curious as to why the BBC didn't notice the rather flagrant sample bias in the data they eventually received. I would be very very interested in knowing the religious background of the individual who commissioned this 'research'. Very interested indeed.

And this is where I turn all Ben Goldacre: this doesn't really bother me because of its religious aspects, but rather because it is the sort of thing which gets proper and effective researchers a bad name. Public opinion polls can play an important role in testing the Zeitgeist, and also contribute a great deal to our modern discourse about society. But for them to have any use they have to be done properly, and reported transparently. This sort of thing not only breeds distrust of opinion polls in general, but is also a classic example of how you can't just believe any sort of research reported in the media but rather need to go back to the source of the data and evaluate where they came from. I know this for a fact: I learnt it from a rigourous survey of me.

EDIT: Here's something I just typed in the comments to this post. Oh, and there's another issue I forgot to mention in the post, which is a shame as it was one of the things that really bothered me. One of the questions was "Our laws should respect and be influenced by UK religious values (agree/disagree)". Surely that's two questions rolled into one! That question was rolling people who think the law should respect religion into saying they also think the law should be influenced by religion. Because those are really quite separate ideas: personally I wouldn't be too worried by the first part of the question (as I think the law should respect our right to believe what we want), but I'd vehemently oppose the second part of the question. Tricksy, I'd say. I do wish I'd remembered to put that into the main article!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Population: at last someone's mentioned it

I've been thinking for quite a while now that in environmental debate, the one thing nobody mentions is the impact of having children. Thank goodness someone's mentioned it in public at last. Now I'm no biologist, but I'm fairly sure having children is the only way we can hang around as a species. But that said, we can't really have them without there being an environmental impact. It's something we really need to talk about more.