Saturday, 31 December 2011

Bad Science - and Learning

One of the best books I read in 2011 was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which should be read by everyone interested in evaluating learning and development (there’s also a useful website at I especially recommend the chapters on ‘Bad Stats’ - among other things, learn the differences between relative risk increase, absolute risk increase and natural frequency - and the hilariously-titled ‘Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things’.

The latter chapter spells out five reasons why we are poor at measuring findings:

1. We see patterns where there is only random noise.
2. We see causal relationships where there are none (just correlations).
3. We overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs (and the beliefs of others).

There’s more too: some of the things that make human beings good thinkers are the same reasons why we don’t naturally measure evidence well, and conversely, why computers are good at dealing with quantitative evidence but rubbish at intuitive thinking. A crucial lesson we need to learn is when to use our judgement and intuition, when instead to obtain and analyse detailed information, and how to distinguish these situations.

Another book I read in 2011 was Paul Kearns’ Evaluating the ROI From Learning, in which I was dismayed to discover the author completely dismissing management competences, corporate universities and e-learning – well, not quite “completely”, but that’s how he leads, and how he designs his three box model; (slight) qualifications come later. My dismay was because these have been three of my main interests, and career preoccupations, of the last two decades. But it wasn’t just self interest – I was also dismayed because I fundamentally believe learning is A Good Thing, and worthwhile for its own sake. We should all do more of it. By all means, we should evaluate it, and learn to focus more on the more valuable stuff – to my mind, at least, leadership and management development, e-learning and blended learning, corporate universities and academies, are some of the best vehicles to accomplish that.

I’d like to wish all my followers and readers a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

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