How the mighty can fall

In 1997 Tony Blair was leader of a party which was voted into government with a large majority after years in opposition. In 2001 his party was returned to government and again in 2005.

How did he get from that to being one of the most vilified people in this country, credited by some with the rise of ISIS, the general distrust of politicians, and experts in general, and even the vote for Britain to leave the European Union?

The answer could lie in the type of people who aspire to be leaders and the way others respond to them once they have achieved their ambition. There is research which suggests that people with psychopathic traits, including ‘a ruthless, selfish and conscience-free approach to life’ can join organisations and rise quickly within them to positions of leadership. Once in that position they are likely to be deferred to by those in the organisation with whom they interact; this is partly because of the power they hold over such people’s future. Also, those people may protect the leader from information which runs counter to the view that their leadership is a positive thing and that the organisation they lead has good morale. This further feeds the leaders’ feelings of certainty and so they start, if they didn’t already, to believe that anything they decide is correct. Listen for the tell-tale signs such as the use of terms like ‘it’s a no-brainer’ which translates as ‘this is what I think and I’m not expecting any opposition’. That could explain how a person can decide and then persuade a parliament to agree to invade another country despite the existence of very strong opposition to that action.

The Chilcot report has finally been published and it concludes that the invasion of Iraq was premature, based on false intelligence, showed a staggering ignorance of the politics of the region, did not equip soldiers appropriately and involved poor (any?) planning for what to do once Saddam Hussein had been overthrown.

The self belief of a leader can partly explain why Tony Blair still thinks the region is better off for having the invasion and that given the opportunity he’d make the same decision. Another explanation involves a common dilemma we are all faced with: meeting facts which run counter to our beliefs. We have a choice: revise our belief or re-evaluate the facts and deny their veracity. If the belief is to do with something as fundamental as our image of our self then accepting the facts we are presented with is going to be harder. I can see why he would not want to accept the idea that many have died, that the World is a much less stable place, and that his profession is held in even lower esteem than previously because of a mistake on his part.

How can we prevent this style of leadership and the outcomes it can produce?
Those in a position to appoint leaders need to avoid the attitude that the best person is the one who has the most self –belief and so they need to probe for signs of that.
Secondly, those who surround a leader need to be willing to tell the leader the truth from the beginning so that a culture of avoiding inconvenient facts is not allowed to develop. Temporary lack of friction and advancement may not protect a colleague when the whole organisation starts to crumble due to the decisions of a leader who is never opposed.

Are we nearly there yet? From new research to usable system: the example of electronic aids for blind people

As a researcher, there is often pressure to publicise your research. One way to get publicity is to show the practical application of the research. However, if you succeed in getting wide publicity could you be giving false hope to people if the publicity is at a very early stage of the research?

Having spent approximately 10 years researching how visually impaired people get around, I am always interested to learn about what progress is being made in this area. Therefore, when I heard that a new device was going to be discussed on the Today Programme this morning, I was intrigued to hear about it. It is called The vOICe and is part of collaborative research between a psychologist at the University of Bath, Dr Michael Proulx, and computer scientists at Queen Mary, University of London.

It is described as a camera in a visor, with the idea that images detected by the camera are converted into sounds played to the user. Currently, the person using it has to wear large headphones which, combined with the sounds being received, will mask many existing sounds in the environment.

It is very far from being an aid to blind people in getting about. In fact, the research is focussed mainly on looking at differences in spatial awareness between people who have developed blindness and those who were born blind. As a tool to explore such distinctions it seems useful.

For nearly 50 years, engineers have produced electronic aids for blind people which are designed to convert aspects of the environment into sound or tactile form, such as vibrations, but none have been widely adopted. If the members of the team wish to use this new device to help people navigate then they are going to have to solve at least two major problems. The first is that blind people rely on their hearing to detect aspects of their environment, already. The change in the quality of sounds reaching blind people can tell them a lot about the environment, such as that they are passing a bus shelter which is why the sound of passing traffic has become muffled. Therefore, masking such sounds will interfere with useful information. The second problem is that the usefulness of the device is limited by the restrictions on humans’ ability to process the information in real time while under the stress of navigating. I would argue that this is one of the main reasons why they have rarely been adopted by many blind people.

Therefore, it is good to know that a psychologist is involved in the research as that will mean that humans’ abilities will be taken into consideration. Nonetheless my prediction is that this device is a long way from being generally available as an aid to navigation. In the meantime, my advice would be that if you were contemplating learning to use a long cane or thinking of getting a guide dog then don’t delay in the hope that any electronic device currently being developed will make them unnecessary.

That’s a bit random

Researchers and those unfamiliar with research practice seem to use the term ‘random’ in very different ways. This, not surprisingly, can lead to confusion as happened in a radio interview. A researcher was being grilled about some research; the government of the time was unhappy about the findings and this made it an important topic. In a sneering voice the interviewer said something along the lines of ‘but you used a random sample’. This left the poor researcher with a difficulty as he couldn’t go into the intricacies and merits of random sampling on a general news programme with a busy schedule and so defend himself.


In lay terms random seems to be interchangeable with arbitrary. Used this way, a random sample might be thought to describe including people who happened to be easily available at the time, regardless of their characteristics. To a researcher, that would definitely not be a random sample but is likely to be described as an opportunity sample.

In the formal, research, sense, a random sample is selected very systematically. As an example of a simple random sample, if I want to select a random sample of 50 people who are registered with a general practice (GP), I need first to identify everyone in that practice and give each one a unique form of identification, such as a number. I then need a way to select 50 people that gives every person registered with the practice an equal chance of being selected. A typical method to identify the sample might be a random number generator from a computer*.

Why does this matter? What difference would it make if I used an opportunity sample as opposed to a random sample? One aim of much research is to be able to generalise the findings from the sample which has been studied to wider groupings, in the hope that insights gained in the study are more widely useful. Otherwise we would be forced to conclude something along the following lines: out of 50 people in a particular general practice 30 were classified as obese. If we take an opportunity sample we cannot generalise much from the findings gained. We may have, unwittingly, built all sorts of biases into our sample which make generalisation dangerous. Suppose we stand outside a branch of a supermarket and sample those willing to take part in our study during a particular span of time during the morning of one day of the week. We have excluded those who shop at a different branch of the same supermarket, at different supermarkets, at a different time of day and on a different day, as well as those who only shop on-line. This in turn could mean that one sex, people in a particular age range and those in a particular income range are disproportionately represented in the sample.

Therefore, the next time you hear or read a generalisation being made from a sample, see whether there is any information about who was in the sample and how they were selected. If there isn’t such information or the sampling was opportunistic rather than random then think whether it would be legitimate to draw any wider conclusions from those found in the sample. Being told that 80% of shoppers buy a particular brand of cat food may not be that useful, even to makers of cat food.


*I’m not going to go into the complications of whether particular programs are truly random.

Payments to GPs for diagnosing dementia

According to the Guardian and other newspapers, General Practitioners (GPs) are to be paid £55 by the National Health Service (NHS) for each of their patients they identify as having dementia. I understand that a particular test will be used to make the diagnosis. However, what isn’t clear is whether the payment will be made for identifying someone who according to the test has the condition or for someone who, having been identified by the test, is subsequently identified as definitely having the condition. This might seem a minor point but a look at screening tests might show that it can be a serious issue.

Most screening tests are designed to be quicker, cheaper and less invasive than the fuller test. They will involve compromises which will mean that they are unlikely to be 100% accurate. This lack of accuracy can lead to two types of mistake: a false positive, where someone who doesn’t have a condition is identified as having it, and a false negative, where someone who has got the condition is shown as not having it.

If I am administering such a test and the classification I give to a response from someone I’m testing is open to interpretation, then my judgement is likely to be affected by other factors, however objective I think I am being. Thus, if I think it is more important to avoid false negatives then I may be in danger of increasing false positives. Add a monetary incentive and I may err on the side which means that I or my team will get paid. However, if the payment isn’t made unless the person being diagnosed is given further tests and is then shown to have the condition, my judgements may be affected accordingly. Whichever the payment is for it could increase false positives and thus lead to unnecessary distress for the person who doesn’t have the condition being diagnosed as having it.

Therefore, I think the incentive should be for doing the screening not for a specific diagnosis.

Why would a blind person not use a white stick?

A discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday 18th October reminded me that a number of issues to do with visual impairment may not be widely understood. These partly lead from how blindness is defined.

blind violinist

When a person is described as being blind many people assume that means the person has no vision at all, when in fact most people who are defined as blind have some vision. The route by which light falls on the eye to our perceiving something is complex and there can be problems at just about any point from the eye to the brain; where the damage lies will affect the nature of the visual problems the sufferer experiences. This means that problems with vision can be very varied from one person to another. Two important aspects which contribute to a person being defined as blind are how good central vision is and how good more peripheral vision is. We use the central field of vision to read and recognise things and people in our environment, while we use more peripheral vision to navigate and detect movement in our environment.

When a person has his or her eyes checked at the opticians there will be a number of tests, among which will be those which test the central field of vision and at least one to test the more peripheral field. A typical test of the central field will be designed to evaluate whether the person can see what the majority of people can see at a given distance. You are likely to have come across the terms 6/6 vision or 20/20 vision. These mean that a person can read letters at 6 metres which most people can read at 6 metres (or read at 20 feet what most people can read at 20 feet). A person can be defined as blind in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland if they fulfil one of the following criteria (wearing glasses that might have been prescribed for them, where appropriate):
Poorer central vision at 3 metres than would be expected at 60 metres, or
Poorer central vision at 6 metres than would be expect at 60 metres but with poor peripheral vision as well, for example what is sometimes described as tunnel vision or
Very reduced peripheral vision, particularly if the loss is in the lower part of the field

This range of definitions means that one person could be described as blind who cannot read but can navigate by use of vision, while another person can read but cannot navigate by vision alone.

The debate on the Today programme was over whether it is a good idea to use what is often called a white stick*. There were a number of issues raised. The first was over what it symbolised and signalled to other people, such as ‘I have an impairment’, and therefore what behaviour it might elicit from others, such as sympathy and offers of help.

There is a particular dilemma for those who, despite being defined as blind, have some useful sight. How do others perceive you if you carry a white stick and appear to have difficulty navigating but can read normal sized print? Will you be perceived as shamming? Will you be challenged, in such circumstances, if you sit in a seat on the bus or underground which is reserved for people with a disability?
This is another example of how other people’s behaviour or anticipation of what their behaviour might be can turn a person with an impairment into a person with a handicap. Fear of how others might react may stop a person using a tool which signals an impairment even though it is useful for getting around.

Therefore, how should you react when you see someone carrying a white stick? Risk embarrassment or rejection by offering to help rather than try to sneak past hoping not to be detected. Don’t take over but ask what would be useful and don’t be offended if they say they don’t need help. If you are guiding them then allow them to take your arm, usually just above the elbow, and let them set the pace. You can give a brief commentary to explain why you are having to stop, say at a kerb.
Please don’t say that you think they are so brave and don’t ask personal questions that you wouldn’t dream of asking someone who doesn’t have an impairment. The following is said to be a true story but even if it isn’t it illustrates misunderstandings about how to give assistance to someone with an impairment: a blind person who has a guide dog asks a passer-by for directions. The blind person becomes aware that the person has bent down and is whispering the directions to the guide dog.

*There are a number of sticks which are used by visually impaired people which are white or are mainly white:
The symbol cane. These are designed, as their name suggests, just to symbolise that the person carrying them has a visual impairment. They fold and can extend to be as long as 70 to 100 cm. They are too flimsy to be used to navigate well.
The guide cane. These are sturdier and generally longer than symbol canes. They are a compromise between the symbol can and the next cane as they fold but could be used to navigate.
The long cane. These are designed for navigation. The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) states that they should only be used by someone who has been trained to use them. One issue is that they can be much longer than the other two canes; for example, the RNIB sell one which is 135 cm long. Therefore they could trip another pedestrian up if not used carefully. They can be rigid, folding or even telescopic.
If the cane has red stripes on this usually signifies that the carrier also has a hearing impairment.

I asked Graham Kiff to look at this post and send me any comments he had.  His response was:

I would just like to say before i start, what an excellent blog i am posting this reply to. It explains visual impairment far better than any EYE doctor explained it to me. 

I was diagnosed with Retinitus Pigmentosa (tunnel vision) back in 2001 at the age of 33. I was registered blind at that same time, although it wasn’t until 5 years later that i realized that. The doctor who initially told me about my eye condition, hadn’t taken any time to explain to me the meaning of being registered blind. I just presumed that because i had a bit of sight left, the box they had ticked on my BD8 form was the wrong box, i thought that they should have just ticked the visually impaired box. 

It was quite a long time before i would use a white stick, for me it was mainly about accepting that i needed to use one. For a long time in was in denial and just thought that the doctors had it wrong. 

I would receive letters from the Oxford Association for the Blind and i would put them straight in the bin, in my mind why should a Blind Association send me letters and information and offer me help, when as far as i was concerned i wasn’t Blind.

Also i suppose i felt embarrassed about people seeing me use a white stick, and they might feel sorry for me. I think people’s attitudes to people using a white stick, can stop them from leaving the safety of their own homes, i think this is especially the case in elderly people with a visual impairment. 

I have had many an occasion when i have had trouble with a bus driver , or things shouted at me in the street because i have a white stick. 

I know of a Blind ex-Army lady, that used her bus pass to catch a bus, but the bus driver didn’t think she looked blind, so he took her bus pass off her and told her to get off the bus. I have had many a bus driver, start to drive off, and send me flying because they hadn’t waited until i had sat down before pulling away from the bus stop.

I have had time to come to terms with my sight loss, and also to using my white stick. But for many people especially i think the elderly they just stay in the safety of their own homes rather than go out into the scary world with a white stick that tells people that they can do or say what they want to you, because you can’t see them. 

It’s not all bad though, i have also had many occasions when people have helped me. I remember one time at Stoke train station, i was just getting onto a train, the platform was really busy. A friendly had held my right elbow, and another my left elbow, i said thank you , and that made my day, just a small gesture by a couple of people i didn’t know, but those small things can make up for the negative experiences. 

I would say to people that try and help someone, please don’t be offended if they say they don’t need your help, because the next person may appreciate it so much it may make their day.   




Giving a good presentation: should you use notes?

Imagine that you’ve got an important talk to give.  You want it to be as spontaneous as possible but you don’t want to miss any important elements.  In addition, you know that to maintain a rapport with the members of your audience you need to look at them.  What might be the best approach to take to maintain the balance between these demands?  It obviously depends on the person and his or her level of experience.  However, there are certain guidelines which can be given.


If your talk involves you trying to put together a carefully ordered argument then it can be a good idea, initially, to write it out in full.  In this way you can see how well the points you are making follow each other to build the argument you wish to get over.  From that stage there are two ways to produce a really stilted talk and I’ve sat through both.  At one end of the spectrum is reading what you’ve written aloud to the audience.  The effect can be enhanced if you leave what you are reading in normal sized font with single spacing as it will force you to look at the page or screen most of the time as you try not to lose your place.  The other approach is trying to memorise what you’ve written verbatim.  One danger then is that your memory isn’t perfect and you miss things out.  There are strategies you can use to try to improve your memory and I’ll mention one later which may work for you but first I’ll suggest a way that can achieve your aims but avoids relying too heavily on the original text or memory.


Make notes based on your original text.  The idea is that each note should be enough to trigger the fuller memory of the idea that it is standing for but not be so detailed that you have to do more than just glance at it.  With experience you should be able to judge how much to write but I would still recommend that an experienced speaker reads through the notes to make sure that they do trigger the intended memory; if they don’t then augment them a little.


What you keep the notes on depends on your own preference and what technology is available.  Whatever you do, make sure the font is a good size for glancing at rather than peering at.  Space the notes well and even use indentation to help with signifying sub points.  If you wear reading glasses, you also want to avoid having to put them on and remove them as you look from page/screen to audience.  If you are relying on hard copy then what you write/print on can depend on whether you are using a lectern or somewhere else to rest it.  If you are reliant on holding the hard copy then I would recommend using relatively small cards rather than sheets of paper as you can avoid signalling nervousness by the sheets flapping if you shake.


If PowerPoint or equivalent is available then use it sparingly and don’t try to be too clever with fonts, colours and effects as you don’t want to detract/distract from what you are talking about.  Again avoid too much text; I once sat through a talk where the whole content of the talk was presented on the screen and read out at the same time.  It would be better used to present a version of the notes you have made as it can help the listener’s memory for what you have said as you’ve presented the structure in both visual and spoken form.  Alternatively, if you’ve got illustrations then the slides could be limited to those.  However, beware of the desire to illustrate everything.  Years ago this was sent up in a spoof news broadcast in which the Minister without portfolio was shown as a politician followed by a brief case with a cross superimposed over it.  Ideally you would have a screen in front of you with your presentation on so that you don’t have to look behind you and away from the audience.  However, avoid the tendency to point at the screen in front of you with your finger; use the mouse which will show up on the screen the audience can see or, if available, use a separate pointer which you can direct at the audience’s screen.


If you want to ignore the advice to use some written notes because you want to give the presentation from memory, then one strategy could be to use what is sometimes called the method of loci.  This would depend on you making notes as I recommended.  Then imagine yourself walking a route that you know.  As you think of the different points on the route imagine writing each successive note on a prominent place.  When you have written all the notes on the route, rehearse the walk and check that you can remember the correct note in the correct order and what fuller point it denotes.  However, don’t do what a person who was studied by a psychologist did.  He was so good at using this technique that he could recall a list of unrelated words, which he’d been asked to memorise, correctly decades after he had first been given them.  Nonetheless, on one occasion he couldn’t recall a particular word and the reason he gave was that he had imagined himself writing it in the same colour as the background he had written it on and so he couldn’t read it.


Returning to my original question, then, I would answer ‘yes, do use notes but don’t make them too extensive’.