NEWS17 March 2021

Camilla Pang: ‘Don’t be afraid of messy data’

Impact 2021 News Trends UK

UK – Researchers should get to grips with more “messy” data to get a better view of how people think and feel about a particular subject, according to author Dr Camilla Pang.

Pang (pictured), who wrote the book Explaining Humans about her analysis of human behaviour from the perspective of someone diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, said that she felt that debates around how to carry out quality research was one of good versus bad data, rather than between quantitative and qualitative research.

“It’s trusting that the people you are surveying, provided the questions you are asking are as good as possible, will give you the answers they should do,” Pang said.

“It is not about people lying, but about people projecting answers that they think they know but changing their mind later. It is a snapshot. I feel like it is good to have this snapshot in time, but ultimately we are dynamic as people.

“Modelling this variance and not calling it an error is the best way to go. Don’t be afraid of messy data – ask at different time points, even though that is more work, or ask a wider range of people. Get the messy data if possible, because then you can see the patterns.”

A wider understanding of different branches of science, such as biology, chemistry and physics, would also help researchers rather than a focus on a single specialism.

“The more you dig deep into one part of science, you realise you need to know all of them to get a full picture of what you are studying,” she said.

“I think specialising is good as long as you have an appreciation of how all science, as an ecosystem, is bound together.”

Science cannot answer everything and has limitations, Pang said. “Science has limitations much like algorithms do. Even if you make the best algorithm for doing X, Y and Z, it hardly amounts to a burpee, writing a book or doing an art. It is very specialised.”

Pang, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder aged eight and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder aged 26, also called for businesses to have a greater awareness of neurodiversity.

“What is neurodiversity bringing to the workplace? Not as much as it could be, because the workplace needs to adapt to the sensory or social needs of people who are autistic,” she said.

“It is being objective and, for example, allowing me to have the chair in the corner of the room. It is small, sensory things that people are increasingly aware of. Neurodiversity brings so much to the workplace. More of the same won’t cut it.”

She added that she hoped her writing would encourage more people to “ask the question ‘how I can make people who are neurodiverse more comfortable at work?'”.

Her writing, she said, was born out of an attempt to better understand the world around her.

“There’s different parts of being human that everyone can identify with. But you don’t even identify with that kind of association – for example, you can’t find your personality in characters on television, as to make that kind of association is quite nuanced,” Pang explained.

“To find my place when I could not identify with people around me was quite alienating. I felt that I was missing something, a link other people have which glued them together, and they have an ecosystem where if someone understands something, everyone else would get it. For me, it didn’t seem the case.”

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