Boil the Frog

boil the frog

“Poor frog” is what I always think when I hear this expression.

The theory behind it is that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out immediately, reacting to the heat. But if you put a frog into tepid water and then heat the water very gradually the frog won’t react to the increased temperature.

I don’t know who is boiling all all these frogs but the metaphor works; people will stay in unpleasant or unhealthy situations despite warning signs because they rationalise the warning signs or convince themselves that things will get better -somehow. It’s often used to remind you to take action when you sense things are not going well; as Henna Inam wrote in a Forbes article “Do something about it when something smells funny.  Even if it’s not on your job description, it’s your job.”

But scientists who study frogs (without boiling them I trust) say that it’s a myth.

So the science is off, but the metaphor works.

Image: Frog  | Nèg Foto  |   CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

I 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.

Before 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.

Lessons from Science – Rate Limiting Step

I think most of us can grasp the idea of a bottle neck pretty easily. It’s the narrowest part of a bottle, and will limit how quickly you can pour your wine.

The term also gets used in business, where the step in a process or project that has a rate slow enough to be determining the completion time of the entire process or project.

A similar concept exists in chemistry, where one reaction in a series of reactions occurs at a slow enough pace that it determines the overall speed of the chain of reaction, it is called the rate-limiting step. I learnt about it in biochemistry 101, where metabolic pathways such as the break down of ethanol have an intermediate rate limiting step, the formation of Acetaldehyde which occurs quickly, followed by a slower breakdown of Acetaldehyde to acetate. It’s the build-up of Acetaldehyde that causes the physiological effects we associate with alcohol. Which also explains why if you drink slowly enough you won’t ever get drunk, whereas if you drink quickly the effects are soon felt. It was worth going to university just to learn that.

In a chemical process you get a buildup of whatever precedes the rate-limiting step, and you can occasionally increase the reaction speed by increasing temperature or adding a catalyst.

Similarly in a business process the slowest step determines the overall speed of the process, and if there’s a change in one step of the process the overall speed of delivery can be affected. And if a bottleneck is not analysed in a business process there will be consequences; much like the person who drinks too much too quickly. Usually the service or product to be delivered will be delayed or the quality reduced.

If you want to speed up a  business process analyse each step and look for the rate limiting step, assess the real cause of the slowness. In one office I worked we had a 7 day turn around time for one process. When a colleague and I looked into it there was no real reason for this delay, it was probably a legacy from a very old backlog. So the process looked like this;

Looking at it we realised that the actual process time was one day. All we had to do was clear the backlog and we could be turning around applications on the same day. Since the backlog is six days of work we asked our manager if we could both be put on working on the backlog full time for three days. It worked. We cleared the backlog, kept up with incoming applications and could move to same day service for all applications lodged before 3pm, and next morning collection for those lodged after 3pm.

This is a very simple example, but the steps are the same.

  1. Analyse the process, looking for the rate limiting step, this will usually be the step right after a build-up of product.
  2. look for the cause of the rate limiting step, this might require a deeper analysis in depending on the situation, the “five why’s” is one tool to help you get to the real right answer.
  3. Address that step, either by adding resources/equipment or by removing impediments or reducing the input.
  4. Check that the new process still runs smoothly, in the case above we had to get our manager and colleagues involved to make sure everyone stuck with the same day processing – bizarrely for some people it was difficult to understand that it was not more work.
  5. Go back to step 1 and look for the next rate-limiting step.

For more about how to think about rate-limiting steps I recommend the book “The Goal” by Dr Eliyahu M. Goldratt, it’s written in novel form and takes the reader through an analysis of a troubled manufacturing plant. Although it was first published in 1984 the principles still apply to any process.

And next time you’re out having a few drinks – pace yourself.

image; bottle via pixabay