Three Italians…

I have had a superb three days. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Actually I had a great week but the last three days have just been better. The highlight has been my evening meals…a different Italian restaurant each day. Thursday in Alnwick (England with a Friend). Friday and Saturday in Edinburgh (Scotland with my three favourite people in the world). There is something about Italian food in authentic restaurants with family or friends that is hard to beat.

We are in Edinburgh for the long weekend – Easter is a UK public holiday. Edinburgh is an amazing city. The sights, the history, the people. We did a guided bus tour today – great fun and very informative. I learned for example that local statutes prevent any construction that negatively impacts the Edinburgh skyline view… there are no skyscrapers in Edinburgh!

Our effervescent tour guide further caught our attention with his assertion that Edinburgh castle is UK’s second most popular paid tourist attraction…behind only Tower of London. This sounded like fact. It sounded like fact beyond reproach. After all there has to be readily available supporting data…doesn’t there?

In the world of tourist attractions, the motivation is clear…‘if more people would go, then more people would go’. There will always be a desire for locations to outdo each other in terms of number of visitors.

So what’s the problem? Well a quick Google search reveals all…or rather revealed nothing. There is no official list of most popular UK tourist attractions. But there are numerous lists. Lists for 2010 and 2011 and none for 2012 (yet). And there is no consistency. No consistency in data – tickets sold vs. revenue collected vs. tourists visiting. Indeed the only consistency is bold, but very different, statements of conclusion.

Our tour guide’s statement was ‘mythinformation’ – information based on incorrect or incomplete data. The scary thing about mythinformation is that, once reported, it readily gains a degree of validation…and no-one ever questions its origin.

The classical wisdom hierarchy moves Data to Information to Knowledge. Data: symbols, signs or numbers. Information: data that have been processed to be given meaning. And knowledge: application of information to provide understanding. Back to our tourist guide. Undoubtedly there are numbers – data, but these data are incomplete (at best); reported venue attendance is mythinformation ; and knowledge based on this mythinformation – such most popular tourists site – is flawed.

All of which made me think about us? Ours is an industry replete with data – true and accurate data on the whole…but a lot of data…a very large amount of data. Our challenge is how we best handle so much data.

And sure enough we process and we interpret our data. And then we present. Or – more accurately – we share our interpretation of data. And we recount our information, and any conclusions, as facts. But are they really facts? More often than not there will be numerous possible interpretations of our data.

There will always be some facts – information that has been verified. But on many occasions we make assumptions. An assumption being something we believe has good chance of being correct, but for which we are not certain. By definition, being ‘certain’ converts assumption into fact. And problems will arise when we mix assumptions with facts. Or when we focus on facts without making our assumptions apparent.

Facts and assumptions are both important. Active review of facts along with debate of assumptions – especially testable assumptions – is a great way to improve performance. After all, one of the unique beauties of science (unlike tourist guides) is that we can propose and run experiments…we can convert assumptions into facts.

Cheers

Steve

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About Steve Street

I have worked in R&D within the Pharmaceutical industry for over 32 years. Up until April 2012 all of my career had been with one company, but that has now changed. I left that company and took up a new role on May 1, 2012 - still very much within the Pharmaceutical industry and again based in the UK. I have been blogging every week now for over 9 years but only on an external site since January 2012. Email updates of the blogs can be requested using the ‘follow’ option within Wordpress. The blogs are only ever my personal view of what I see, think and feel. I am delighted if you agree and find value; happy if you disagree with my views and overjoyed if you feel motivated to comment. Most of all I am simply grateful that you read. Cheers Steve
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2 Responses to Three Italians…

  1. Briggs says:

    Great post, Steve.

    Although many of our scientists seemed bothered by it, there is no replacement for seeing the data. Too often we let people present — as you correctly note — their interpretation of the data. Its not the same thing — and once the assumptions underlying the interpretation are revealed we can all have an open discussion about what the next experiment should be.

    Cheers!

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