In praise of awkward questions

I went to a conference last week, more of a meet up really, and they presented the results of the work that we’ve all been doing, indicating that there were several statistically significant improvements in the expected direction.

I’m sure the analysis is well intentioned and basically correct, so I didn’t really have any problem with it, but my arm shot up anyway, because I wanted to see more details of the analysis. The results were so good, I was just curious to see how they were so good really- what were the 95% confidence intervals, the sample sizes, alpha levels, just the nitty gritty of the analysis so I could really get all the detail of it.

But they didn’t have it. They didn’t have much on the slides, and they hadn’t brought any supplementary materials.

I don’t have a problem with that either. I think probably the reason why they didn’t is they don’t usually have stats wonks sitting at the back asking awkward questions. So they didn’t feel the need to be prepared.

I cut my teeth (whille doing my PhD) at academic conferences. Asking awkward questions about statistical analyses is a spectator sport there. And I love it. Everyone’s a black hat, just waiting to crawl inside your work and blow it apart. It’s like a duel, like a competition. And of course that’s how science works. Everyone’s desperate to prove you wrong, and if you can stay at the top, then fair play to you. Probably something in it.

There isn’t enough of that where I work, in the NHS. It really reinforced to me the need to keep going with what I’m doing. I want to train, face to face, everyone in my whole organisation who works with data. Two hours or fifteen, I want to equip them to ask awkward questions.

And one day, I want to sit at the back of the room with my arms folded and watch a whole roomful of arms shoot up.

THEN I can relax.

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