Of some statistical words and their misuse in modern society

We live in a world of post-truth, meaning that it becomes more and more clear that there is less and less truth, and much of the previously available truth is increasingly questioned. Personally, I think that from a long term perspective this is a good thing. I am a radical optimist, and I think if such a thing as truth and facts is individually questioned, it may lead to a society where more people know more. In the short term, however, we recognize many examples where the increasing questioning of such things as truth and facts creates problems. Take people that do not believe that human-made climate change is a fact, or people who (still or again) believe that the earth is flat. Interestingly, I often recognize that the people that question the traditional knowledge producing institutions are the ones who still use and misuse the tools of these institutions. Here, I present three examples of words from science-or more specifically statistics- that I hear being used very often, and mostly wrong.

The first example is the word „significant“. This word indicates an agreed upon measure that indicates a probability of whatever it is you test or model in statistics. In other words, „significant“ means that there is a 95 % chance that something is not happening by chance if it is significant. Scientists use this approach all the time. For instance, if Ibuprofen has worked in hundreds of patients against headaches, and this result was obtained in a clinical trial, there is a significant chance that it will also help against your headache. See what I did here! I used the word „significant“ correctly, at least under the assumption that the clinical trial followed the standards of medical studies, and had a large enough sample number and this data was analysed using statistics. Today, many people use the word „significant“ wrong. „The US economy grew significantly since I took office“ the Donald would say. Did he make a statistical test? And did he account for other effects, such as previous efforts to trigger growth, global dynamics and the weather, which explains an increase in construction jobs in an early spring? I assume the Donald made no such rigorous analysis. Still, many people seem to like the use of the word „significant“. It gives a certain air of confidence, which strangely enough is exactly what statistics would yield.

The second word is „correlated“. A correlation is the statistical test on whether two continuous variables are related. In my perception, about 99 % of all non-scientists who use the word do not talk about the relation of two continuous variables. Instead they may say that groups are correlated. Or that just two things are correlated. These people may want to look for an Anova or a chi-square test, but I assume these people are not really interested in statistics. They are interested in making their speech sound confident. Again. To me they discredit themselves. But when it comes to statistics, I am probably a minority.

Word number three: “Clustered”. This word indicates a statistical analysis of multivariate data into groups, or in other words, clusters. The way many people use it is not as if the „clustering“ is made by an algorithm, but as if it is some sort of a Bazinga. Clustering is a quantitative methods. Dividing somethings into groups by qualitative criteria is not clustering in a statistical sense. But it sure makes people sound cool to most people. But not to me. I am an outlier. By the way, this is also a word from statistics, meaning a data point that deviated from the representative group. Oh, deviate and representative are also from statistics. But you probably know that, if you are reading this. Probably is another one. The list goes on. You decide what to do with it. Make it count.

My digital applications

Living in the age of the great acceleration, I consider it to be vital to reflect on the digital world in our everyday life. I am surrounded by a diverse set of people that make different use of the possibilities of the digital age. Originally, the digital age promised to bring us closer together, connecting every human with every other human. It starts to dawn on people that this promise of a digital globalisation was widely false, as for instance facebook is not the same as a face to face conversation. Some of my colleagues were critical from the very beginning, and do not even own a mobile phone to this day. Others -like me- were early adopters, and have the latest apps readily installed on their top of the line smartphone. I do not know who is right, in fact I do not even believe that there is a right or wrong. Instead some tools are good for some people, but not good for others.
Here, I provide an overview of the apps that I use, showing you my preference of digital working horses. I spread my apps in a coordinate system across two axes. The first axis ranges from apps that are mainly helping me (right) to apps that allow me to connect and collaborate with others (left). The second axis ranges from apps that I use several times a day (top) to apps that I use maybe every other week (bottom). Hence you may find that there are some apps that are fast paced and interactive to me, while I see other apps more as a safe haven of tranquility and peace.

Notably, there are hardly any apps that enable a slow interaction, as beside some writing and e-mailing there is to me no way to interact digitally and slow in a meaningful way. Of course I check my mail repeatedly every day, but I do not always reply on the same day. There are just too much e-mails. Another important finding for some people might be the lack of social media in my figure. As a dean, I have to be careful regarding my systematic focus. Especially continuous tasks such as Facebook and Twitter were -despite their use for some- ultimately not for me. Personally, I think these social networks take meaningful time away from me. Today, I prefer to spent time with others directly-face to face. Likewise is Instagram not for me. I never understood how pictures can be good for deep information.
I spent short burst of productivity in some communication apps, and focus on deep work in apps that predominantly focus on myself, notably for meditation, relaxation, or writing. I found out for myself that I can get the fastest first draft on my phone. It is not necessarily the best first draft, but for me starting to write is for instances harder as anything else. It took me a while to figure that out, and I actually learned this from observing somebody else.
This is the main point from this text. Exchange with others, as I would say this can bring meaning to your life as well as the life of others. But make sure to exchange especially to reflect which apps to use, and which ones to uninstall. I think it matters greatly to exchange, and we need to find out as individuals which technology brings us closer, and which one creates a disconnect. I think connecting to each other matters the most.

Being the dean #10

Oh, how glad I am to be the dean. Being the dean is the greatest honour of my work life. To me, the position is not about power, but about trust. The Faculty trusts me to do my work best. I am so happy for this trust, as is brings me in the current setting closest to my main goal in life, that is helping others. Being responsible for a 1000 students, some 150 Faculty, some 140 PhDs and our about 28 professors is fantastic.
Being the dean to me basically means to open a box of duct tape every morning and start wrapping duct tape around problems. In the evening the box is empty, and there is a box for the next day already waiting. Duct tape is very versatile, you see. The first Moon lander was mainly build out of duct tape. Duct tape holds things together, blocks leaks, seals surfaces, it can soundproof, it is fantastic stuff. Every day the office holds something new, this is what I learned early on. Indeed, this office is the best learning opportunity ever. This is also due and to the splendid team in the deans office, who catch problems to solve them really swiftly. These people are a constant influx of the most versatile solutions and approaches, that they never seize to amaze me, what a great team! Hence the core of the office for me is not about giving, it is instead a non-stopping flow of learning opportunities. In private life the greatest honour to me was becoming and being the father of my children, as I also learn so much from them. But as a dean the learning is -almost- equally amazing.
However, with the office as a dean there are many constructed roles and traditional expectations. It is so great to learn these, and at times to change these. The role of the dean in general needs to shift from a role of power to a role of trust, I think. I saw many deans -also at Leuphana- being on this very same track. As a dean you are the head of a completely constructed institution, an institution that is made by people. Hence I see the position as an opportunity to change the institution of the dean, and also to change the institution per se through this. This is the most wonderful thing about this office – it is all about driving change. I am so glad to be the dean. I thank you so much for this opportunity!

Being the dean #8 – representing the Faculty

#Representing the Faculty

It is a large honour to represent the Faculty as a dean. While honour is hard to quantify, I am constantly aware that currently I am there for the Faculty, whenever a face, a speech or a welcoming is needed. Knowing as much as possible about the Faculty facts, all the while having these lined up in a nice canvas of stories and anecdotes is essential to connect to others and explain the Faculty to them. In my case, I am very glad that this honour is shared among other people, hence I am currently focussing on representing the Faculty within Leuphana. Representing the Faculty has to be balanced, for at least two reasons. First, there is a high number of requests, asking for you – or better the Faculty- to be represented somewhere. Here one needs to focus, and only attend the ones which are most necessary and helpful to a high number of people. While the dean can welcome or integrate people or give a larger perspective, the dean certainly has also time constraints and cannot participate in time-intense activities that are relevant to a smaller circle of people. Where to draw this line, you ask? I do not know. This is the time where you can give the position your very own tone and style. I try to walk the fine line between diversity and utility. The second reason why representing the Faculty can get out of hand is the ego. It is not about you, it is about the office and the Faculty. When representing one should as much as possible step out of your own ego, since power enables, but also corrupts. This is again the point to realise how much power people associate with the office. However I think this has next to nothing to do with me as a person. Another thing that is worth noticing is that some occasions are closer to my interest than other. Here, one should remember the bigger picture in balancing the Faculty. I sometimes wonder whether all time representing is well spent, even when I know I have to be there. At some occasions the dean is a bit like a Jack-in-the box, being put somewhere to represent. Still, I think that this is not only a necessity in constructed institutions, but an honour. By now I enjoy these occasions, as there is always something to be learnt. When being a dean, you have to be the Jack-in-the-box you want to see in the world, and make this role come to live. Evolve you style, and try to become good at it. The constructed function of the dean demands you to serve in this role.

Being the Dean #9 – The dean is a hub of information

The dean is a hub of information.
I think that while knowing builds understanding, ignorance may breed suffering. Therefore, it is the role of the dean to bring information together to understand the Faculty best, and to explain the Faculty and all his decisions to others. Many people now wonder what best can actually mean? I think, we can try to have the best of knowledge at any given point in time, to base our decisions on. Things change, this is trivial. But at some point in time, we should try to get all relevant information together. This is especially important to help others understand. In my experience, this is however not always possible. This wealth of information is needed to take especially controversial decisions. All people are biased by their own view of things. As the dean -hence as a head of a constructed institution- it is important to try to have a view on the diversity of opinions, and then look at all the checks and balances. However if people would know all the diversity of opinions and information about the Faculty, I think most decisions would neither be bold not controversial. I like to think that most are mere path dependencies intermingled with innovations. And this is what I mean by best. All the diversity of information is often leading to several pathways, one of which is best. Many people criticise this best, but I am a true believer in Occam‘s razor (surprise!). However, within a constructed society, some information is also confidential. These secrets are necessary -often for legal reasons- or also since some people trust the dean with information they do bot want to share with everybody. While I think that the smallest part of information I receive is confidential, it is very important to me that this information is a well kept secret that can still be Influential for my decisions. Funnily, many people also share confidential information with me that they also share with many other. While I still guard this information, it is amusing to hear confidential hush hush information from many different sources. Anyway. If you want to understand something about the Faculty that is not confidential, I say ask the dean. He might know, or is glad to hear what he does not know, and will the make efforts to improve his knowledge. Thank you for your contribution!

Being the dean #7 – Being not corrupt

I think that in all forms of constructed governance the danger of corruption is always there, yet no-one should avoid being corrupt. What does it mean to me to be corrupt? I think whenever you misuse your power to gain a benefit for yourself of someone else you are corrupt. Consequently, no one would claim to be corrupt. All people would argue that they only had the best intentions, or were even true altruists. Following this thought, can we truly judge whether we have been corrupt? I think not, at least not if we are personally involved on the matter. Others need to be the judge, and these people need to be independent and as objective as possible. In a world that is interdependent this is hard to achieve. However, I think this is what we have governance systems for, and there need to be institutions within these systems that can judge whether a certain act or decision might be seen as corrupt. But it does not end there. If corruption is the benefit certain people claim, then corruption is also about the negative and biased effects one can have on other people. I think that in any case of doubt a potential bias needs to be checked.
I dare say that I have been observing corruption in the past, and often it is a quite slippery slope. This is why I often insist in checking whether actions are corrupt or not. Still, I also know that some people consider some of my actions to be corrupt, though I dare say these are not many. I am aware that people sometimes perceive reality in this way, also since we all may have different perceptions of reality. Often, this different perception is rooted in a lack of information, which is typical in hierarchical systems, and communication may resolve the issue. Nevertheless, in rare cases opinions can differ. I think under these occasions it can be hard to convince people of my perception of reality. It may not work, and may not be possible. Sometimes, when people think you act wrong, it is very hard to make them understand that you act right. In these cases, I think it is best to try to continue to act right, or at least not corrupted. Long term, the person might reconsider, and only time will tell whether some truths may be reflected in a different light in the future.

Being the dean #6 – taking decisions

It is in the nature of the position of the dean to take an uncountable number of decisions every day. While much is purely day to day business, it is still a challenge how to act in a fair and just way, while also being compassionate. Personally, I think many of these decisions are not literally decisions, but actions that have a path dependency that is rooted in the possibilities and opinions of the faculty. Ideally, everybody with an equal amount of knowledge and experience would come to the same conclusion. Most people are not in the position to combine the diversity of opinions as the dean tries to do. Through partial knowledge and not having relevant information people often come to different conclusion. On the other hand can no one know everything, hence communication is key in order to approximate just and fair decisions.
It is understandable that most people have a rather subjective perspectives, just as I can hardly claim at all to be objective. I cannot be. But I will keep trying. The ethics of my actions are certainly not easy to depict. I think one should act rational, reasonable, and try to maximise the utility for all. Any single of these approaches alone is bound to fail. But by reflecting each decision from all three sides I will try my best. My underlying ethical paradigm is that I try to help everybody, if I can. While most decisions are -I think- path dependencies of the possibilities available, some will be controversial. The ideal future I can imagine for me personally is the one where I can stand by all my decisions.

Being the dean #5 – leadership and vision

The dean integrates processes and moves the vision of the faculty forward. This demands leadership and, even more importantly, it demands hierarchical planning. While some tasks are moved forward by the dean, all faculty needs to stand up to the role to move the faculty forward, since we all are the faculty.

Now wait a minute. Just in #4 I talked about how transparency is key, and now I talk about hierarchy? I this not a contradiction? Well, I think not. Lets see.

First of all, the dean reports and collaborates with the president and his team. Hence the system of Universities has a constructed hierarchy that is long standing and well established. A lot of information flows in this system, and not all information can be known by all. Hence does a hierarchical system demand that not all information flows towards the top. Coming to think of it, this gives lower parts of the hierarchy actually more possibility for action, which I think is a good thing. A hierarchy does to me not only focus onto the top, but enables also the broader basis. So far so good.
Why are the higher levels now labelled as leaders by me. This is first and foremost because of the necessity to take responsibility. I consider leaders to be simply people who do not only act, but also provide feedback on whether a certain line of action by people lower in the hierarchy of the system is ok. By doing this, a leader takes responsibility for their actions. These decisions can be often controversial, and sometimes even wrong. Yet inaction is not an option for most challenges. Many people want to be leaders, yet at their heart they would need to ask themselves whether they can take responsibility and live with the consequences. I can for instance say that I was often wrong as a leader, and can only hope that my decisions were more often to the better than to the worse. Personally I stand by my actions.
I believe that a system becomes problematic when people fail to or cannot stand by their decisions, or cannot even take the necessary decisions. While this may seem trivial, it is certainly not rare.
Another thought raised in the beginning is vision. As Helmut Schmidt famously said, whoever has visions should go see a doctor. This reflects his partly admirable stoic logic, yet I think that a certain vision of the bigger picture can be helpful as a goal and motivator. Often this is controversial since some people typically cannot identify with any vision, hence visions are prone to random critic. Still, I believe visions can reflect the focus on the main challenges, which can be helpful in hierarchical systems.
The last point that I raised was about the contribution of all to help the faculty. Most faculties show a Pareto distribution when it comes to contribution to the greater good, where 80% of the work for the faculty are made by 20% of the people. I can understand this. People have different goals, and not all have the same goals as the dean. Some focus on their individual research, which they consider most important. I could now at length discuss the reasons for doing one or the other, thereby pitching self interest vs. altruistic motives. I think this dimension is too complex to be answered here, if at all. However, if we stick to the empirical fact that few people shoulder most work in the Faculty, the core question is if we want to change this. Being the dean, I think our Faculty is much better as most Faculties I know, with the work load resting on more shoulders than average. Yet there is room for improvement. Instead of loosing myself now in arguments on why you should contribute to your institution, I simply reduce my argument to the question: “What would be your gain if you contribute?” If I get you to reflect upon this question, I think we are one step further.

 

 

Being the dean #4 – transparency and communication

 

The dean believes that transparency and communication are key in our daily interaction. Therefore, the dean does not want to tolerate power relations and violent communication. Academia just as any other branch of society is often still hampered by the lack of non-violent communication. Hierarchy should be about taking decisions and responsibility, not about dominating others.

 

One could assume that administration processes would sooner or later reach some sort of equilibrium, where all processes and information flows were optimal to make the system best. Unfortunately, this assumption is in my experience wrong. Instead, it seems we miss most of the important information most of the time. This is what administration should be all about: getting information where it is needed the most. Administration should mostly be about matching supply and demand of information. In my experience, much frustration in larger organizations originates in people not knowing the relevant piece of information, often through some flaws in the system.

It could be worse, for instances when information is actively hidden. Some people might think they can manage a system best by not providing the relevant information to the people who might benefit from it. This is often a question of hierarchy and power. I believe that transparency works best in these cases. Hiding information can be seen as a form of violence. Having power over information can make you in fact superior, and consequently makes others inferior. Hierarchies are part of the way that many systems and organizations work. Yet should these entitle us to monopolize information? I think we might conclude that as long as legal issues are not violated, we might opt for transparency. This argument might not convince all powerful people, but e truth will come out eventually, in my experience. Will the truth make us free? Hm. Sometimes. But it can also burden us. Some people are indeed very much burdened by the truth. Should we then decide to hide the truth from these burdened individuals? I think not. We should not make others less free, is what I hypothesize to be true. However I did not start by talking about the truth. I started talking about information. Information could be neutral. Truth is not. Truth may instead be normative, many might argue.

 

Imagine the Case #1: The all-powerful professor.

A professor knows the solution to a problem. The solution is knowledge of a certain information. The professor does not want to reveal this information. Hence the problem cannot be solved. Obviously this act is wrong.

 

Imagine Case #2: The cluttered assistant.

The information to solve a problem exists, but was misplaced. Should we judge the cluttered assistant that misplaced it as less strong compared to the powerful professor. Probably not. The harm was not inflicted intentionally. Yet it represents a problem as we still cannot approximate a solution.

 

Imagine Case 3: The transparent secretary.

A secretary knows all solutions, and can tell you all solutions, even when you only ask for a specific one. This influx of information makes you miss the important solution. The problem remains unsolved. Is this better or worse than case 1 or case 2?

 

After all, no one solved the case.

 

All cases are realistic. However, the person inflicting power over others (=the professor) would be ranked by many as the least moral character. The problem with power relations and communication is that we often confuse these three cases. We think someone has power over us, but the person is simply cluttered. Or we avoid a person that has the solution, because we cannot understand what the person says. In other words, I think that much of these problems are a reflection of us. The way we approach people might directly reflect back on us. Hence if we approach and judge these situations will make a true difference. As long as we are open and positive, and show our respect for a person’s work, and make sure that we highlight that we are willing to jointly approximate a solution, we may solve these challenges better, I think.

Being the dean #3

The dean is action-orientated. Solutions are key to the dean. While exploring solutions may take time, we need to focus on how we reach a goal best. This demands a sensible measure and a transparent procedure, and a clear recognition of futile tasks.

Universities are just as any form of organisations build on the constant exchange between people that are goal orientated, and people that are process orientated. While a certain diligence is key in creating solutions, many processes are endless, depending on the people involved. Therefore, it is key to me to find the right balance between these two extremes, the sheer endless maelstroem of admin trying to eat our time, and the head in the cloud professor who “just wants to work”. I feel for both groups. I think we have to learn where our strength are (mine is not in filing out forms), and have to cope with the weaknesses (again not filling out forms). While this is trivial fortune cookie wisdom, much of the frictions we have in daily academia are still rooted in this simple fact. I think it is very easy to process a problem endlessly, while it is quite hard to make the first step towards a solution.

On the other hand it is clear that creativity needs time, and also needs repeated failure. Well, maybe it does not need failure, but it may certainly build on it. I might now continue telling you how we need speed, or creativity, or creativity, or speed. I have however a different take on this. I think engaging in action-orientation takes experience, yet also depends on your mindset. Lets start with the latter-the mindset. I think while some people seem to be born for reflection, some others are born for reflection. Some people seem to tick more top-down, while others are more bottom-up. Where these two clash, there is often tension, yet also moving forward. Experience is more tricky. I think people tend to become more effective over time, building experience. This is very helpful, yet can also create a disharmony between experienced and in-experienced people.

When people become very experienced, they seem to accumulate knowledge on such an epic scale, that they create action almost by reflex. This is actually the time, when it is most pleasant to be the dean. Working with these fast-thinkers is an extreme privilege, and a great pleasure. I learn a lot, and hope to become more efficient myself. I can highly recommend to lower ranks to observe experienced thinkers and build enough trust in themselves to just observe how these fast tinkers create action. To me this is one of the core levers in how we can move academia forward. Let’s build experience to empower fast thinkers, or at least let’s try to learn how we can create action.