Wishy-Washy Science

Part of the appeal of science is that it’s rigorous and methodical. We can assume that studies are generally right about what they claim. But, most studies focus on a narrow scope in order to control all input variables, and therefore the details matter a huge deal.

News, on the other hand, has to report an exaggerated version of reality because of its business model. Journalists are literally paid for capturing people’s attention, which is always easier with a bold claim. The bolder the claim, the more eyeballs the article will attract.

The problem with science is that it sounds wishy-washy. If you need to convince someone, “That thing MAY kill you” will beat “There’s evidence to support the opposite, but it can’t be ruled out that that thing kills you,” every time.

And then we have real life, which is complicated. It has variables that can never be controlled, and the topics that the public is interested in are way too broad for a single study. What’s left out from a study will be just as interesting as what it states.

Media actively exploits this phenomenon: advertisements and news outlets routinely cite scientists, studies and experiments to sound more credible. But if the decision-making part of our brain is switched off, who will fact check whether “4 out of 5 dentists” do in fact recommend a product?

To be a better reader of science journals, the solution is simple. Just keep your decision-making brain switched on.

Next time you read a study, keep asking questions such as:

  1. Does it apply? Cars get their safety ratings through crash tests — a relatively small set of controlled “accidents” that manufacturers can design cars around. How much does a crash test score tell us about a real-life crash? As you might have guessed, most models don’t do well in accidents they weren’t optimized for.
  2. How does it fit the bigger picture? We might be interested in the spread of a pandemic. This will encompass findings from all sorts of fields, from virology to network analysis to social sciences. A perfectly credible expert might tell us about whether a single virus can escape a face mask’s thin fabric without an issue — but we’d still need to know how many virus molecules are needed for an infection, or the size of the saliva droplets that virus molecules travel on.
  3. A mathematical model is just an opinion with a spreadsheet. Whenever life gets too complicated, we use models to estimate different outcomes. A city’s mayor might ask, “If we improve our roads and lower bus prices, how many people move into the suburbs?” — and the computer will give its best answer.

    Prediction models are an amazing tool to discuss different options, but they’re more a visualization tool than a proven fact: they leave a lot to human judgment. Only believe the model as much as you believe the human presenting it.

Remember that experts can be wrong, science often changes its mind, and rational thinking is still the best we can all do. Being more critical about what you read will eventually help science journalism improve too.

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Things I’ve learned under quarantine

  1. A “model” is just an opinion with a spreadsheet
  2. Freedom isn’t free
  3. Learned to spell the word “quarantine” correctly
  4. Discovered the website layoffs.fyi
  5. Other people call my regular life “The Quarantine”
  6. Drinks with friends through FaceTime is awesome, because it takes zero seconds to get home afterwards
  7. There’s no need to “pop down to the shop” every day
  8. Eating potatoes works five days in a row, but not a day longer
  9. It’s worth paying extra for better location
  10. I need to move somewhere with a garden

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Kung fu

What sports do you guys do at home? I was looking for something that provides a good workout, and can be done in a flat without annoying the neighbors.

So jumprope is a big no-no, but yoga works.

It’s really hard to get your heart rate over 180 with yoga though. And I’d want to do something I’ve never done before.

I wanted to learn kung fu ever since I’ve seen my first Bruce Lee movie, and kung fu indeed seems to check all boxes.

Starting with a new sport without a class or a coach is hard of course, but there’s nothing that Mamazon or the Internet couldn’t give you. There’s a Youtube video for everything, and here’s a beginner’s kung fu video series:

So I started to copy the kung fu stances and I was like hell yeah, this is awesome, I’m gonna learn kung fu by the time the virus scare is over.

…and then video number two gets wild. It still looks kind of alright, but there’s literally nothing I can do from the exercises. Feels like they’ve skipped a hundred lessons in between, and a decade worth of practice.

Which kind of fits everything I know about kung fu.

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Employers gonna employ

One reason why it’s such a difficult undertaking to run a company is the large number of entirely different tasks you need to do.

Most founders are drawn into the business by the most creative tasks. Creating the product, the brand identity, or the marketing messaging is great fun, at least for the first time around. Taking care of taxes and paperwork, the terms & conditions — that’s only interesting for a select few.

Having to learn a bunch of things in a short period of time can be addictive. And in other times, you need to be frugal and deal with everything on your own. But sooner or later always comes a time, when the tasks you don’t enjoy doing can be simply outsourced.

Outsourcing can mean many things, but it’s usually one of these:

  1. Procurement. You may be able to find a product or service out there, and just buy what you need. Purchasing something off the shelf is usually the simplest and easiest to do, if you can find a product that fits your needs exactly. Unfortunately it’s often prohibitively expensive to do so, or impossible for time constraints, legal or other reasons.
  2. Agencies and freelancers. For things that need to be more custom made, you’ll need to hire someone. Working with freelancers and agencies is a great option to get started, because it’s easy to scale it up and down. You can buy exactly as much as you need: hire someone only when you have more work to do. Without an employment contract or retainer, you don’t need to pay others when you can handle the work yourself.
  3. Employees. One issue with freelancers and agencies is that the people you’d like to work with might not be available when you need them. Hiring someone full time or part time solves the problem — and it also creates a few more, including legal obligations, management and organization overhead.

Of course there are many other options out there, and hiring help is not as black or white as this list makes it seem. To mention two more common options as an example, contractors are a crossover between freelancers and employees, and interns are junior employees with a huge pay cut. The takeaway here is that everything works, as long as you can align motivations, and keep everyone happy.

The long term dream is to be able to delegate everything other than your best work, but for now, start with a low risk task. Start small, and gradually work your way up. Don’t worry if outsourcing the first few tasks takes more time than it saves you. Consider that an investment. It will open the door to ultimately assign everything else to others, saving you all the time you need for even bigger projects.


Yours truly says this, and a bunch of other super smartypantsy things over at the Startups Magazine. We’re going to return the regular programming in the next post.

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Hopscotch scotch hop

Big changes are underway as we speak, Germany for one had to invent the word Einkaufswagenzwang. They use it to express the following:

“You must use the larger wheeled cart in this shop, in order to make sure you keep enough distance from the next person, that way keeping yourself and your peers safe from passing on the virus.”

In London, they’ve introduced Einkaufswagenzwang in our local Marks & Spencer. They’ve introduced many more forms of entertainment in fact, and it all starts right at the door. First you’ll notice big blue arrows painted on the ground, two meters apart, which looks real inviting to play hopscotch.

It also (1) keeps you at a safe distance from other people in the queue, while (2) providing a topic for chitchat while you’re waiting for your turn to shop. We need to wait for others to leave the shop, before being let in you know.

There’s something very charming about living under quarantine and lockdown. When I was in M&S, I’ve seen these two elderly ladies doing their weekly shopping, catching up on life — at a safe distance, keeping the carts in between. They left about the same time when I finished, so I overheard them say goodbye to each other.

  • ‘See you next week darling’
  • ‘See you next week, I’m really looking forward!’

End scene.

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The C-Word

Nobody needs another article about the virus scare, so this won’t be one.

All I wanted to mention is that, together with most of you, I experience mass hypnosis.

It’s a weird state of mind when all you can focus on is one thing. Wherever you go, people talk about the same thing. All TV channels and websites show programming around the same topic.

They wouldn’t even need to push content down. I myself keep refreshing CNN.com until I see the infected-counter show a number larger than the previous one.

As someone who works with numbers and words, the only way I can work is to enter the zone within minutes. I need to rule out and ignore literally everything else in the world and start being productive. Especially in the mornings, I have a good hour before coffee, when I’m as productive as a person can be.

That doesn’t happen now. I wake up, and look at statistics. My brain knows that most of it isn’t meaningful, and it doesn’t even matter.

Can someone please introduce another topic for (public) discussion?

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Secret Power

“I always started a job with the feeling that I’d soon quit or be fired, and this gave ma a relaxed manner that was mistaken for intelligence or some secret power.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

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