Guided by Science

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Deaths from Covid-19 in the UK are (or are about to be) more numerous than anywhere else in Europe. They’re exceeded only in the USA.

We must be wary of international comparisons. It’s far from certain that we’re comparing like with like. Every country records deaths diferently, but, even so, this is an appalling eventuality given that the UK had time to witness the overwhelming of Italy’s and Spain’s health systems, and to understand that deaths in Italy and Spain were far in excess of seasonal averages. Covid-19 was no mere ‘sniffle’ by March. There was time, too, to observe other countries imposing rigorous lockdowns, such as here in the Czech Republic, where I live.

‘We have been guided by the science throughout,’ government ministers mumble defensively, as if a mere mantra can excuse their own culpability.

Science doesn’t guide.

Word usage may be debated, but, to my mind, science ‘informs’. It is politically neutral. After all, if science (or, rather, scientists) were ‘guiding’ our response to global warming we might have done more by now to avert catastrophe. Decisions on carbon emissions and other mitigations are political ones, as is the question of how many deaths and how much suffering can be tolerated for the sake of freedom and prosperity during a pandemic.

Governments choose how to be ‘guided by science’. Consider Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq, another reprehensible decision IMHO. He chose to ignore the ‘science’ (the findings of weapons inspectors that Iraq probably had no useful weapons of mass destruction), choosing instead to be ‘guided’ by evangelism and a taste for the top table.

It’s strenuously denied, though crystal clear to most of us, that the UK government changed tack on ‘lockdown’ when it was informed that several hundred thousand might otherwise die, and that the NHS would be overwhelmed. But it was already clear, based on Italy’s and Spain’s examples, what would happen if no restrictions were placed on our liberties. Lockdown was already the prudent course, the obvious political decision, whatever the science. And whether the science changed or not, science doesn’t absolve government of its responsibility to act rapidly and prudently. It, alone, is responsible for a delay that has caused thousands to lose their lives (around ten years lost, on average). It has blood on its hands.

Here in the Czech Republic daily new case numbers are now fewer than 70. Lockdown is being relaxed in stages, very carefully. The whole country is an epidemiological experiment. Life won’t return to normal for many months, but economic activity of many kinds can resume.

That will eventually be the case in the UK, but, guided by science, the government will have allowed thousands to die unnecessarily in the process.

Can Science Help You to Find Good Sales Staff?

Ever since I studied Psychology (and Philosophy) at university I have loathed and distrusted the scientific study of human behaviour. My course stretched all the way from animal behaviour to social psychology.

The behaviour of animals (at least some basic antics of rats and pigeons) can be fairly accurately observed and described, sometimes even usefully predicted, but it wasn’t remotely interesting. Social psychology, on the other hand, amounted, in my opinion, to nothing more than common sense written down. Human behaviour, to my mind, is more expertly and interestingly covered in literature (which someone once described as simply ‘gossip written down’).

My favourite philosophers, of the Wittgenstein school, taught that ordinary linguistic descriptions of human behaviour and the scientific approach are mutually incompatible, and I still believe that.


So I have an immediate distrust of ‘objective’ ways of arriving at judgements about people. And for that reason, for many years, I resisted ‘objective’ ways of discovering if someone is, say, a good salesman, or a good administrator, or a good consultant. In other words, I hated aptitude tests. True, I have sometimes relied on ‘lQ’ tests to determine if someone might make a good programmer. These are narrow logical tests and I would hesitate to say they measure ‘intelligence’. They measure IQ, and IQ, a narrow but important skill, is useful for a programmer.

In the early days of the company, I often had to find programmers and consultants, and, relying on personal judgement and IQ tests, I wasn’t so bad at it. I was a programmer myself, after all. But finding a good salesman was hard. And it’s hard anywhere and everywhere. Sales skills are broad and complex. You interview, you take up references, you choose and then very often they fail. You feel a fool, especially when everyone else tells you their failure was obvious from the start.

Frustrated by failure, I was finally persuaded, in South Africa, by someone who runs a company very much like LLP, to use aptitude tests to find good sales staff. And so I tried. In fact I tried the tests produced by the very same company they recommended. They are global and charge surprisingly high rates for their methods and services, so lots of people must believe in them.

Their tests, as far as I can see, come at the issue from all sorts of angles. No ‘logical’ questions such as in the IQ tests, but rather, questions about personal preferences and attitudes. Fifty questions and you’ve pinned your man or woman down – salesperson or not.

So I tried the method on the next set of candidates who presented themselves as ‘sales people’. And, surprisingly, I found the results encouraging. Those who were obviously unsuited did poorly, and of those who looked promising, some did well and some did not. The tests seemed to find out which of these apparently promising candidates was really suitable.

So, I nearly signed up for the service, accepting that it would be expensive (but less expensive than failing salespeople).

And then I thought, hang on a moment, why don’t I try the test on the salespeople and general managers we already have? I know which of these is exceptional and which are merely good, or not good at all, at sales. So I did. Our best salesman scored poorly, our mediocre salespeople scored well.

Aptitude tests are hopeless when it comes to something important. There is no ‘science’ you can substitute for good judgement. Employing a salesperson is almost as difficult as choosing a spouse, but you get a little better at it as you gain in experience. Don’t be fooled by scientific nonsense.