Friday, 15 February 2013

Joerg for Prez and the problem with statistics...

Holy Crap! The agony of embarrassment for the CIVL leadership!  For those of you not following the CIVL comp class survey thread on
you’re missing some real soap action.  Shortly after the results were published, the paragliding subcommittee chair declared it unsanctioned and “useless” claiming that CIVL were never consulted.  It turns out the CIVL president was totally involved and in favour which forced a public withdrawal and apology of sorts from the sub comm chair.  Joerg kept his cool suggesting that CIVL suffers from split-brain syndrome.  It is not nice to laugh at sincere people so forgive me.  All these guys have their hearts in the right place, I just wish some would not wear them on their sleeves.  If ever you wanted a first-hand demonstration of the divisions within focus groups and the effect of opinion on opposing fronts coupled to bureaucratic bumbling then this has to be an absolute classic! 

My ‘dude of the month’ award (which I just invented) goes to Joerg Ewald who facilitated the latest paragliding comp class shit storm with all of the maturity and aplomb of a seasoned politician.  You rock dude, and I can’t wait to buy you a beer. Respect!.
So I got my opinion poll as requested and, though I cringe at the dubious accolade of having seeded the idea, I guess I should thank Joerg for the recognition for what it is worth.   
..but now I have to confess that I did not fully express my opinion on opinion polls:
Surveys and Opinion polls are problematic (as are statistics in general).  Sometimes the answers to the questions raise more questions without revealing answers.  A lot of the time the results confirm diametrically opposed positions depending on the viewpoint.   A favourite author of mine, Daniel Kahneman, describes an example of dubious data interpretation citing the $1.7Billion investment made by the Gates foundation in the creation of small schools based on the strength of research to find the secret of successful education.  In short the research showed that small schools are more successful on average than larger schools which led to the billion dollar investment.  It turns out that If the statisticians who reported to the Gates Foundation had asked about the characteristics of the worst schools, they would have found that bad schools also tend to be smaller than average. The truth is that small schools are not better on average; they are simply more variable (Kahneman, Daniel 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow p. 118).
How is this relevant?  If the truth be told paragliding and CIVL will never have the resources available to the Gates Foundation.  Given that Bill and friends can cock it up so completely, what are the chances that CIVL will make sound decisions based on the outcomes of opinion polls? Will we ever know which important questions have not been asked? 
Frankly, I don’t care.  If anything has been achieved by this poll then at the very least it has to be the introduction of the idea of direct engagement with the people at the heart of our sport.  That the group is opinionated and divided is clear; that there will never be consensus on complex issues relating to personal preference is a fact.  Yet even if the impressions that were created by this poll further divides us I am deeply satisfied that the individual pilots have expressed their views and now we must just deal with it. 
My wish for paragliding is that we find a way to flatten the hierarchy inherent in bureaucratic structures like CIVL and our own NACs.  We should cut out the layers of representation and lobby groups and let the pilots participate directly in the decision making process without the interference of bosses, delegates and other middle-men.  Think I’m nuts?  Well, we have the technology to do it.  All we need is to engage professionals about how to formulate information gathering; define the rules of engagement; and agree about the process of decision making.  Then the administrators will simply become facilitators and we would save millions (yeah, I know, I’m na├»ve in a socialist hippy kind of way).  In some (tiny) respects we have this in the world cup association, but even there policy sometimes emanates from lobbying,  howling and mudslinging rather than objectively structured engagement.
Now I can’t help wondering:
  • what would have happened at the worlds in Piedrahitha if the pilots were asked if the competition should continue?
  • would we still have open class if the pilots were asked?
  • would we have put up with the idea of certified helmets if we were asked?
  • should we ask the pilots a yes/no question about bringing back open class, and if the we can’t agree do we introduce open and serial class in the same comp as it was in the world cup ten years ago?
  • should we ask the pilots which of the rules and requirements imposed on Cat 1 comps suck?
  • do we ask the pilots if they think Cat 1 comps need an overhaul?