BOFH: The Hypochondriac Boss and the non-random sample

Cherry-pickin'? You darn tootin!


Episode 14 "It's called Selection Bias," I say to the Boss.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean they're cherry-picking research that supports their opinion."

"How?"

"Okay, so say I think that playing first person shooter games gives you migraines."

"It does," the Boss says.

"No it doesn't," the PFY says.

"It does - I get them every time I try to play," the Boss counters.

"Perfect!" I say. "And say I start a business that... I dunno... makes a special chair that prevents migraines when playing arcade games." "You can get a chair that stops migraines!?" the Boss gasps.

"Migraines caused by first-person-shooters," I say. "Yes?"

"How does it work?" he asks.

"It uses piezoelectric cells to generate small currents based on the movement of your backside on the chair to drive the self balancing circuits in the seat base whilst also adjusting the frame rate and sync on the monitor via Bluetooth."

"And that really works?"

"Yeah - the feeling of sea sickness is caused by the disparity between what your eyes see and what the ears report in terms of motion. We correct that and then by adjusting the frame rate of the picture to your circadian rhythm your eyes are more attuned and less likely to notice the vestiges of flickering which cause the migraines."

"Really? Can I get one of these chairs to test?"

"Of course not, they don't exist."

"I..."

"But if I WERE going to market them I'd use someone like you as a starting point."

"Really?"

"Absolutely. You've had these migraines often?"

"Oh yes."

"So you have experience. And you get paid by our company to perform a role in the IT department?"

"Uh, yes."

"So you're an experienced IT Professional with a history of migraine research."

"Research?"

"You've used a computer and not had a headache, used a computer and got a headache and determined that it was caused by games. Research."

"I... I supposed you're right." the Boss admits.

"And it doesn't matter to me that you have the IT skill level of the monkey they fired at the moon - we're using the term liberally."

"Like when they use the word 'nutritionist' in a diet advert," the PFY says. "No real certification."

"Unless we printed you a certificate - and then it would be a "Certified Nutritionist'," I add.

"And say they advocate Lard sandwiches as a cure for heart disease," the PFY says "They'd be an INDEPENDENT Certified Nutritionist who has shaken off the mistakes of the past."

"An Independent NATURAL Certified Nutritionist," I add.

"What's this got to do with network security? Or that chair?" the Boss asks.

"Okay, so I want to sell my chair. First thing I do is put the message out there that I'm looking for people who have experienced migraines and headaches from playing first-person-shooters. I'll be flooded with calls from idiotic hypochondriacs like you who think that there's someone out there who will finally listen.

"I'll get some survey company to ask you questions like 'Do you think this has affected your overall sense of wellbeing?', 'Do you think that this loss of wellbeing has affected your marriage?' and if you're over 40 'Do you think your health has deteriorated in the 20 years since you played your first person shooter?' Hell, I'd probably check to see if you've had a cancer scare."

"Why?"

"Because then we can claim that FPS can ruin your sense of wellbeing, end your marriage and - most importantly - claim that first-person-shooters MAY cause cancer."

"Why?"

"Because then I'll wheel out a chair, shove a couple of magnets in the base of it and - because you're so suggestible - tell you that it should help with your migraines. You - being suggestible - will answer the follow-up question of 'Do you think this chair reduced the symptoms' with a Yes - even if you did get a headache, and suddenly I'm selling a chair endorsed by a certified IT professional with a background in health and usability research."

"And not a suggestible hypochondriac with the IT skillset of a potato," the PFY says.

"I still don't see what this has to do with network security?"

"Okay, so this network security company goes out on the web looking for companies who've had idiots open an attachment that encrypts their filesystem. They sift through these companies to find those who don't take backups and/or virtual machine snapshots. They then sift through those companies for the ones with extremely poor financial performance and ask them how much money they were making in their heyday and how much money they are making now. They subtract B from A, multiply (B-A) by the number of companies that responded and then publish a document that claims that poor network security costs the country 47 billion pounds a year."

"They find the person who clicked on the attachment in the first place - who is now cleaning toilets in hell - suggest that we should also consider the social cost," the PFY adds.

"We imply that a patriot would want to take all steps necessary to reduce the risk of this kind of financial loss on the country, we'd pick stacks of examples of companies who have gone to the wall (regardless of whether it was because of IT issues or not), state that the cost is too high and then show you some pictures of children in the third world and ask you if that's what you want for your kids."

"And then we'd offer you 500 quid antivirus package," I say. "Which you would buy."

"By clicking on the link in your email," The PFY says.

"You now owe us 47 billion pounds," I say.

True Story: The antivirus coordinator at a place I once worked sent out an IT security CD to all staff - with a virus on it.

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