Lies, damn lies and statistics

The world seems to be full of daft theories based on poor statistical analysis at the moment. In a chaotic world, humans have evolved to see and recognise patterns where they exist. Patterns and order rarely appear by chance and as we have evolved we’ve become really good at recognising order amongst disorder and deducing correlations that help us to make sense of the world around us.


Most of the world is “confined to home” due to COVID-19 at the moment and regular news sources are proving to be unreliable. News sources are increasingly driven by their own agendas and clickbait and sensationalist headlines are competing for the attention of an increasingly sceptical audience and as a result people are looking further afield for information. People are spending more time than normal browsing FaceBook and other social media and in this environment, disinformation spreads.

Add into this the fact that different groups of people are playing the blame game and as a result, those involved are keen to shift the blame elsewhere. The WHO hasn’t come out of this well and they face allegations that they may have colluded with China to downplay the severity of COVID-19 in January. Brexiteers are keen to highlight the EU’s inability to force nation states to work together in a crisis. Remainers are keen to highlight any failing of the government and use it to delay Brexit. The US is blaming China and in the meantime China is trying to draw the world’s attention away from their wet markets, biowarfare research and death figures.

Every faction is using every statistic that they can to “prove” that they are correct. In doing so, they are demonstrating confirmation bias by latching onto every theory or piece of information that appears to support their theory and discounting contradictory information.

Venn diagram showing confirmation bias
We undervalue what the facts say and overvalue anything that confirms our beliefs

All of the above is causing ridiculous theories to to circulate unchecked online. All that is needed is an audience that “wants/needs” to believe, a medium to spread information and that pre-disposition that we all have to seek patterns.

The other day I was perusing Twitter (no doubt seeking to confirm my own confirmation biases) when I came across this interesting Thread :

The UK population is about 66.5 million
The number of people who work in the NHS is about 1.5 million Therefore the number of people who don’t is about 65 million
The number of people who have died with COVID-19 is currently 10,612. 37 of those people worked in the NHS.

Therefore 10,575 people who do not work in the NHS have died. 10,575 of the 65 million who do not work for the NHS = 0.02%
37 of the 1.5 million who do work in the NHS = 0.002%
So what’s the bogus conclusion we can draw here?


That’s right. If you fail to consider any variables or wider context, it looks to be that not working for the NHS is 10x more dangerous than working for the NHS. Of course, this is complete nonsense. Fact is the demographics most likely to die are unlikely to work for the NHS.

RockboltG (via Twitter)

It’s a humorous look at how statistics can be warped to suit whichever position you want to adopt in an argument. Similar claims are made when comparing morbidity rates in dissimilar countries. Variations in demographics, urban vs rural population, relative age of population and population density all have an effect.

For those of you who are desperate to leap to some “interesting” conclusions drawn from statistics, I’d like to recommend Tyler Vigen’s “spurious correlations” website.

For example, who’d have guessed that per capita cheese consumption in America appears to correlate with the number of people who die annually through “bed sheet entanglement”?

In the meantime, enjoy your spurious correlations and conspiracy theories and remember, keep fact checking.

Tips for video conferencing newbies

Some years ago I worked for a company demonstrating video conferencing software. This was at a time when video conferencing was in it’s infancy and long before video could reliably be compressed to be delivered via an internet connection to a mobile device (or even reliably to a laptop). As part of a team effectively “selling” video conferencing equipment when each terminal cost £5,000 or more it was important to make the experience of the customer (at the remote end) as realistic as possible.

Here are a few tips to improve your video conferencing experience which may be useful now that thousands of us are working from home due to the Covid-19 virus. :

  • Make the best use of your Internet bandwidth. Use a wired connection if possible, if this isn’t practical and your home router supports 5GHz as well as 2.4GHz, try to connect to the 5GHz network which tends to be faster to try to reduce jitter, blockiness and video stalls.

  • To improve sound quality, use a headset rather than the laptop microphone and speakers and position the microphone approximately 10cm from your mouth.Try to avoid breathing directly into the microphone to reduce those loud “breathing noises” at the far end.

  • Avoid wearing clothes with a complex pattern (especially check and striped patterns). This helps you to avoid the moiré effect.

  • Make sure that you are well lit and avoid sitting in front of a window (backlighting is usually bad). Be aware of the time of day and try to avoid sitting in direct sunlight. Indirect lighting tends to be more flattering 🙂

  • Ideally use a “proper webcam” rather than a laptop webcam. Especially if you’re using multiple screens. Put the camera at eye level on top of the screen where you will view the remote person. This means that when you look at their image, you create the illusion that you are looking at them. This makes the remote person feel more connected to you and has the benefit of ensuring that the remote person isn’t looking directly up your nose (like in my picture below).

  • To improve the illusion of eye contact with the person that you are meeting, resize the remote video so that it is as small as possible and put the remote image directly underneath the webcam.

  • Try to de-clutter so that the background is as plain as possible. Alternatively use the “screen blur” options in videoconferencing software like MS Teams so that people pay attention to you and not the background.

  • Join calls on “mute” and “unmute” just before you want to speak. This avoids the people at the remote end listening to you cursing and swearing because you can’t get the microphone to work. It also prevents interruptions such as a a ringing phone or doorbell from switching the focus to you when you don’t want to be the centre of attention.

Tips for working from home

Like most people who are able to, I’m working from home for the foreseeable future. I’ve been working from home for 2 or 3 days per week for ten years or so so I have a nice setup (multiple screens, proper office chair, decent headset and webcam). Here are a few tips that I have for working from home.

Try to work “normal hours” and have a routine
It’s very easy (especially if you have a job that you enjoy) to spend too long “at work”. The daily commute is an opportunity to get ready for work and then wind down at the end of the day by listening to podcasts, the radio or reading if you’re using public transport. You don’t have this commute time and it is common for work to expand to fill the hours that you spend at your desk. Make sure that you take breaks and make time for ad-hoc chats with colleagues via VOIP calls, IM chats or phone.

Create ground rules for family and friends
It is common for family and friends to ring you if they know that you’re at home or if you have children for them to interrupt you when you’re working. Establish some ground rules to avoid interruptions if you can.
BBC correspondent interrupted by child

Have breaks
You’re going to be sitting down for most of the day, the walk to the kettle or fridge is likely to be less than the walk to the canteen or sandwich shop in the office. You won’t be walking to meeting rooms so make sure that you take breaks from time to time. Maybe aim for 5 minutes per hour away from your desk (or more if that suits you.)

Go out at least once per day
In the office, nobody thinks twice if you aren’t at your desk for 10 minutes or so and it’s easy to feel that you have to stay at your home desk all the time. Go out and get some fresh air even if you just go for a 5-minute walk.

Don’t mix work and pleasure
Make a separate space for working. If you’re fortunate to have a spare room that you can turn over to “office” use I’d recommend that you do it. This helps you to separate your work and home life. Keep distractions away from your working area and learn to separate work and home tasks. Home Working

Keep a separate phone number
If you have a work phone, keep it for work calls only and try not to use your personal phone for work calls. This helps you to switch between roles.
Consider using VOIP or Skype for work to keep your personal phone “personal”.

Make sure you are visible
It is easy for people in the office to forget that you’re around (although when everybody is working from home this is less of an issue). Stay busy and avoid distractions. When you’re working remotely it is important to make sure that people can see that you’re productive. Respond promptly to emails and especially instant messenger chats, even if it is just to say that you’re busy and that you’ll respond later.

You aren’t a hermit. Make time for calls (or better still video chats) with colleagues. Remind them that you’re there and available for work. This also helps to keep you informed about other goings-on at work and maintains team spirit.