Philip Whiteley's Blog

May 16, 2016

Evidence is not enough

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:15 am

It’s taken for granted, in our scientific democratic age, that public policies, and the settled view on potentially controversial matters, must be ‘evidence based’, in pleasingly rational contrast to beliefs based upon superstition or an established religion.

It sounds like progress, but in recent years I’ve come to learn that the phrase ‘evidence-based’ is not a synomym for ‘honest and scientific’. The problem with evidence is that it’s like statistics: you can use factual evidence to prove any case you wish to promote, if you are selective enough. I have come across PR officers, and even eminent scientists in the pay of a vested interest, who treat evidence rather like a toddler treats a fruit cake studded with sweets: picking it over for their favourite bits.

A couple of years ago, investigating the scandal of an unrecognized industrial illness, I learned that a government inquiry had cleared the sector concerned of any wrong-doing. Mmm, I thought, I bet there’s the phrase ‘no evidence’ in the Executive Summary of the report, and I bet the research had been reverse-engineered to produce this phrase. There was, and it had been. The study hadn’t even been completed, so the ‘no evidence’ bit was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It had been carried out by a perfectly respectable scientific institution, but one sponsored by the industry in question.

The phrase ‘There’s no evidence…’ that one hears frequently from corporations, government departments and the like, in practice is sometimes a code for one of the following statements:

  • ‘There’s only no evidence because we’ve blocked funding for the relevant research.’
  • ‘There’s quite a lot of evidence, but it’s failed to convince me.’
  • ‘There’s quite a lot of evidence, but I’ve chosen to ignore it.’
  • ‘There’s a huge amount of damning evidence contrary to our policy, but we still prefer it anyway, because we fear the consequences of a change in stance.’

This calculated, selective approach contrasts unfavourably with, for example, the discipline for encouraging reliability of evidence in a court case. This is based on Judeo-Christian principles: one is invited to hold the Bible and swear to tell ‘The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’ The practice of being ‘evidence-based’ typically means dispensing with the latter two elements of the oath.

Evidence needs supplementing by things like examination of conscience; an understanding of the consequences of one’s actions or inactions; a sense of social responsibility. There is an essential role for concepts that are not testable scientifically: wisdom, judgement, responsibility, care and love.  At a very personal level, this means knowing that presenting available evidence in such a highly selective way that it amounts to a deception of the public is morally wrong. You can’t prove this scientifically; it stems from values. As Moses put it (Exodus 23: 1-2 and 6-8):

“You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. … And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous.”

This advice is as relevant to an eminent scientist in an esteemed university or investment banker or politician today, as it was for a trader in pre-Christian Judea. We wouldn’t have had the banking crisis, or other recent scandals, if as a society we’d been more or less following this timeless guidance.

May 13, 2016

The business is people

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:14 pm

I’m delighted to be featured this week in the Industrial Print blog, run by my former colleagues at Personnel Today, Marcus Timson and Frazer Chesterman. The interview with Marcus covered the perennial issue of why people management is not more highly valued in the dominant business model, and of the promising signs that some entrenched views are shifting. An excerpt reads:

Companies that treat their people best, perform best. The problem is that companies that attempt to implement a people strategy don’t always commit fully and therefore it doesn’t work that well. I really believe that people management isn’t a part of the business, it is the other way around – business is a part of people management. The organisations that understand this best outperform the others.

Marcus praises my 2002 book Unshrink, co-authored with Dr Max Mckeown, which identified many of the flaws of the mechanistic approach to business strategy years before they became evident in the banking crisis. By coincidence, Max and I are in discussions about an updated version. More soon… we hope.

The full blog can be read on this link.

April 5, 2016

OK is never good enough

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:06 am

It’s a year since Close of Play was published, my first novel. The pre-publication nerves didn’t last, as the reception has been overwhelmingly positive; on GoodReads, on Amazon, from book clubs and in several reviews by book bloggers (the easiest way of finding these is simply typing “PJ Whiteley Close of Play” into a Google search. Last month I reached a particularly pleasing landmark as I received the first print review, in the Church Times. It was very positive, referring to the book being ‘… well written but above all well observed’. And it was placed next to Richard Harries reviewing TS Eliot, so I felt extremely bookish.

I’ve known for some time, from non-fiction work, about the extent to which marketing is a large part of the author’s trade. A valuable lesson reinforced by my experience in the past year is that it’s not ‘either/or’ when it comes to deciding between writing quality and self-promotion; it was only when I felt I had completed a story that would genuinely be enjoyed and appreciated that I felt comfortable about promoting it. That’s why it took me years to finish. The next opus, Marching on Together, will not appear until about this time next year. It’s a frustrating wait in some ways, but I’m going to use the time to enhance the story, with the help of a reader panel; identify the strong and the sweet moments in the text; generate ideas to create new ones. There’s always a temptation as an author, with a chapter or a paragraph where the phrasing is only ‘ok’, or the scene is not entirely convincing, to tell yourself ‘Oh, it’ll do.’

No, no, no!! Never settle for that! OK is never good enough! The story has to hold the attention and convince the reader all the way through. Every paragraph, every sentence, has to fit, has to sound right.

March 23, 2016

It’s not just cricket

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 4:11 pm

The theological discussions in Close of Play rarely get picked up on by readers and reviewers, but these were some of the first to be written. I wanted to have characters who reflected on life; who tried to match their beliefs to their actions, and who wrestled with what they believed, admitting to doubts about the church to which they had committed themselves. It’s true that doubt is more dramatically intriguing than certainty, but the deeper point that fascinates me is that you can’t really escape faith; to a very large extent we are what we believe. I’ve often observed secular people devoted to scientific evidence pronounce with absolute certainty on a complex matter on which they cannot possibly have gathered all relevant evidence. As humans we make mental short-cuts, we seek clarity, we have preferred narratives. In short, we are wired to believe.

So I’m delighted to be able to announce that the book has been reviewed in Church Times (print edition, 24th March, p 34); naturally, the Christian theme is central. The reviewer Rachel Harden highlights an observation early in the book, in which Brian “describes the frustrations of fellow parishioners at the indecisive nature of the sermons, but concludes that he finds such cautious phrasing reassuring: ‘Life is complex, and I rather imagine God is, too’.”

There is a certain charm to the Church of England, in my view, so often criticized for fudging controversial issues, and muddling through. Maybe certainty is a sin; perhaps ‘muddling through’ is the noblest path in a world where people’s views and ambitions clash so sharply. Discuss. Anyway, returning to the review, I’m delighted to report that Rachel approves the story-telling as well as the observations on faith:

“Silly mid-offs apart, the strength of the book is in the portrayal of characters and complex relationships at the heart of any community, as well as the goodness that can be witnessed and experienced by living out the Christian faith rather than criticising the new vicar’s sermons. It does not shirk from people’s pasts, either, acknowledging that any relationship later in life brings inevitable baggage, sexual and otherwise. Close of Play is well written, but most of all well observed. There is a clever denouement: the end chapter provides the reader with up-to-date information on the lives of the characters 20 years on.”

March 18, 2016

Genre/non-genre, that’s the decision

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:57 am

Before you choose, decide, sang Peter Gabriel once. At the age of 15 I was not really sure whether this was nonsense, tautology or aphorism, but of course it’s the last of these. He’s a clever chap, that Peter Gabriel. We’re making decisions all the time, big and small; they merit careful reflection and – this is my favourite, favourite theme in fiction – we don’t always realise how big a decision is at the point of making it. A couple of hundred years ago Søren Kierkegaard made similar points to Gabriel but in far more words, most of them Danish.

In my guest blog at the brilliant Lover of Books blog, published as part of the Urbane week, I discuss the big decision every writer has to make as regards obeying the conventions of drama and what has been proven to engage the reader, versus experimentation and trying something new. There’s pressure on authors not to stray too far from an established formula, but, as I write in the blog:

Do we really want every romantic comedy to have a fairly transparent secret that He has concealed from Her (or the other way around), to be revealed 40 pages from the end causing a break-up resolved when He (or She) is urged by the Best Friend to ‘Go Get Her/Him’, as prelude to the Big Kiss at the end in the airport lounge? Is it not more intriguing to have one situation resolved, while another thread comes loose? The reader wants to be taken by surprise sometimes, by plot or by a person; to have a character who is compellingly vivid and also unpredictable, like Boris in The Goldfinch, or Aoife in Instructions for a Heatwave.

I’m sending out the new opus, Marching on Together, to a reader panel this spring, and I’ll be curious to read the reactions. It’s further from the romcom genre than Close of Play. Think maybe Last Orders meets Fever Pitch with a little bit of Atonement. But it will be different from all those books, because I’m not Graham Swift or Nick Hornby or Ian McEwan. I certainly don’t support Arsenal, for starters. I’m different. Not as accomplished, but no one would write anything if they took great effort to convince themselves they couldn’t.

Will it be any good? I think so. Ultimately you, the reader, will choose. But before you choose, decide.

  • Close of Play, was published by Urbane Publications in April 2015. It was shortlisted for the People’s Book Prize in summer 2015. Three free copies are being given away by Sonya Alford at the Lover of Books blog; just click on the link above. Marching on Together, also by Urbane Publications, is due March 2017.

March 8, 2016

Call for readers of draft opus

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:40 am

ANNOUNCEMENT: the next novel, working title Marching on Together, is now due for launch in early 2017. Originally it had been scheduled for autumn this year, but the publisher and I agree that the deadline is just too tight. Given that a first draft is nearly complete, this gives me the wonderful opportunity to spend the summer working on it. I’m very pleased with the writing, especially the dialogue, but does the story as a whole captivate? I think so, but at times the phrase buzzing in my head is a paraphrase of Eric Morecambe: Do I have all the right scenes, but not necessarily in the right order? I have a couple of volunteer readers for the draft. If anyone wishes to join my focus group, please get in touch. You will have a mention in Acknowledgements and a free ticket to the launch event, for which I’ve reached agreement-in-principle with a sporting legend.

February 17, 2016

Evidence, spin and the slow death of investigative journalism

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:26 am

I begin this blog with a current affairs quiz. Just three questions:

  1. What do you think has caused the serious defects of new-born babies in Brazil?
  2. What about that car company Volkswagen, do you think it has deliberately cheated customers and the regulators with its clever software to pass emissions tests with cars that are dirtier than they seem?
  3. And what about Boeing, Airbus and most of the airlines of the world, repeatedly breaking health and safety law, and covering up serious toxic injury of crew and many passengers?

If you live in the west and read western mainstream media, your answers to the above are likely to be variants of:

  1. Well, that Zika virus, obviously.
  2. Yes, VW has! What absolute rogues, and
  3. What? Don’t be ridiculous. Sounds like a conspiracy theory.

Yet the airline case is the odd one out for quite the opposite reason to that assumed in the popular narrative – it’s the only case of the three where a causal link has been proven.

In my three decades’ work as a journalist I have never ceased to be amazed by the ability of regulators and other powerful figures to embed a narrative that has only a tenuous or circumstantial evidence base, and to suppress more important, solidly based intelligence on a matter of public concern. It’s called spin, and we all know it goes on. But what is more surprising, and really rather depressing, is the willingness of a supposedly sophisticated, educated population, priding itself on being sceptical, rational and evidence based, to go along. The profession of investigative journalism has more or less died.

The link with the Zika virus and severe abnormalities in newly born babies in Brazil caught my attention for a couple of reasons: firstly, a causal link was assumed based only on correlative evidence. In my journalistic work trying to expose wrongdoing by corporate vested interests I am always told that ‘correlation does not equal cause and effect’ – which of course is true. So what is the reason for ignoring this important scientific principle in the case of the Zika virus? Secondly, such severe abnormalities more typically have a synthetic cause, the obvious example being the Thalidomide scandal of the 1960s.

Instead of investigating the matter, mainstream media lazily repeat the Zika link and issue paeans of praise for Big Pharma in the hope that they will mount their silver charger and come to the rescue with a vaccine, as in this shoddy ‘news’ article that appeared on Reuters. Now, of course I don’t know whether those horribly injured babies have been harmed by some chemical or other, in a scandal that is being hushed up, but I do know that my profession ought to be looking in to the matter, like an earlier generation did with Thalidomide.

In the case against Volkswagen, the evidence appears far more damning, but it is easy to overlook the fact that no public inquiry nor court case has proven the case of deliberately cheating emissions tests. US regulators are convinced and, protected by the Constitutional right to free speech, say so with confidence in public statements. But the case hasn’t been heard yet.

In the example of airlines negligently poisoning their staff, the case has been heard over and over again. It has been proven over and over again: in independent academic studies, in individual diagnoses by expert toxicologists, and in several court cases that have ruled in favour of the claimant against his or her employer (read my dossier on the scandal, summarized in this blog, with a link to the full report). The Mail this week reported a German study confirming the link. Credit to this much-maligned paper for doing so, but it gave the impression that this report was the first of its kind. In fact, there have been several in the past decade (the supposedly ‘progressive’ anti-corporate Guardian has been fully briefed on this scandal, by the way, and refuses to cover it).

Despite all the evidence, few western regulators or news editors stand up to the airline industry and say, as some have with Volkswagen, that this is wrong and that the aviation industry ought to begin complying with health and safety law. One coroner did so last year, and got slapped down by the vested interests. His final report, however, is still to be published.

This blog is not just about three controversies, but about wider questions of truth, honesty, evidence and how popular narratives become established. The modern clamour for being ‘evidence-based’ is hopelessly inadequate. There is a need not just for evidence, but for honesty and integrity. Evidence has limitations. It can be spun, partially hidden or exaggerated; indeed, it is almost always subject to these strong human biases. There are wildly varying thresholds of the strength of evidence required depending on whether a powerful vested interest is being attacked or defended (guess which is the higher). Our supine news editors and corrupted scientific professions meekly comply with these distorted terms of reference.

We live in an age that is rejecting formal religion, and the more obvious superstitions. It calls itself secular and scientific age. It is an ‘evidence-based’ age, but one in which evidence often plays just a fleeting role in establishing the dominant narratives.



December 3, 2015

Michael Reddy

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 1:35 pm

I have known Michael Reddy, entrepreneur in employee and management services, for around five-six years. I can’t recall exactly how we came to be in contact with one another, but his house was nearby, so we were often able to meet up for a coffee and a chat. On Monday his daughter emailed me to say that he passed away last week on holiday. He was older than he seemed – as he was still working and innovating – but it comes as a great shock and I am very saddened.

His formal achievements don’t tell half the story. He will be known principally as the founder of the globally successful ICAS service that provides employee assistance programmes – helping staff with issues that may be to do with health or stress, or personal well-being. He sold the business to Axa-PPP in 2007.

What made Michael remarkable is that he could have had a comfortable retirement, or a well-rewarded career by continuing with such services, but he wanted to make a broader contribution. In conversations with him, I learned that he had become increasingly concerned that employee assistance programmes helped people at an individual level, only to be returning them to a toxic environment. So at an age where most English chaps would be donning the slippers and watching the cricket, he set about launching initiatives to improve the workplace, and the calibre of management. His motivation was humanitarian.

Michael was a leader but also a facilitator; always keen to encourage new voices to take to the stage or have the byline. I am proud to have been invited to take part in some of the publications and events that he coordinated in recent years. I think his influence will be felt long after his lifetime. I certainly hope so, and will do my best to make that happen.

November 19, 2015

Critiquing the fatal precision

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:58 pm

With great pride, I can announce that I’ve been shortlisted along with co-author Dr Jules Goddard (London Business School, INSEAD) for a feature that has been named as one of the five Management Articles of the Year by the Chartered Management Institute. It will be published alongside the four other entries in a publication to be launched at the CMI annual awards in February, an event that will also feature the Management Book of the Year.

There were two articles we submitted; on one of which I took the lead, and I must acknowledge that it was the other that’s the shortlisted one! But the two are close cousins. They are both informed by the philosophy that our understanding of the management task, and analysis of how a business is performing, have to be far more multi-dimensional and comprehensive than bottom-line reporting.

The shortlisted article is called ‘Accounting that Counts’ and we discuss the bias towards data that’s easily measurable over a more rounded analysis. In extreme cases this results in important business considerations (talent, potential, external risks) to be downplayed or even overlooked; and a tendency to forget that financial data is historic. The financial results are only ever a by-product of human decisions, shedding little light on causes of business performance.

Another feature of the bias towards data and precision is the tendency to manage to a budget, or compare with historic performance; rather than being ambitious and managing for potential.

‘The firm may well be improving on its past performance, but not at the pace of its competitors; it may be delivering on its plans, but only because they lack ambition.’

In many cases the data, far from replacing narrative, creates a very misleading one. Hence, the article continues:

‘Years of bottom line “growth” at Lehman Brothers masked colossal risk-taking that could only be understood by analyzing behavioural patterns, and recognizing the Illusion of Control and Over-Confidence Bias of key players.’

With The Management Shift by Professor Vlatka Hlupic shortlisted for the book of the year award, the bigger picture is that there is now welcome recognition for a more humane and rounded approach to business management. I’m planning to meet with Vlatka and Jules soon to plan future initiatives.


November 3, 2015

Close of Play Christmas offer

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:33 pm

The feedback I’ve had on my first novel Close of Play has been tremendously encouraging, and the reviews on GoodReads, Amazon, on blogs such as this one by Linda Hobden, and elsewhere have convinced me that the tale of Brian (Colin) and Elizabeth struck a heartfelt chord with most readers. It’s been adopted for several Book Clubs, where the reaction has also been enthusiastic. I’m addressing one of them tomorrow in Surrey.

As a special Christmas offer, readers of this blog are entitled to a discount on copies of Close of Play. Just £5 per paperback copy, including postage and packing if you are in the UK, if you go to this link: and if you purchase between now and 31st December.

As you go to purchase, you will be prompted to enter a discount code. Just enter the following word as the code (all lower case):


to secure your £5 copy.

The discount applies even if you are only buying one copy. Please note, owing to the cost of postage, a £5.99 charge applies outside the UK. You may therefore find that your local Amazon or an e-book is more cost-effective.

My publisher Matthew Smith and I feel that a paperback copy of Close of Play would make an excellent gift, perhaps for the ‘difficult-to-buy-for’ relative, as the book appeals to men and women, includes some funny moments, and has been described as the perfect read for a holiday. While most of the action takes place in summer, the dramatic final scene is at a Christmas Party – so there’s even a seasonal touch.

STOP PRESS: Thanks to the positive reaction to Close of Play, I am delighted to announce that I have signed a contract for the next novel, Marching On Together, due for publication in August 2016. It’s also a sports-themed comedy, billed as ‘The most Yorkshire book ever to be set in Belgium’ as we follow six Leeds United fans to the pubs of Bruges and Kortrijk in the summer of 2014. The concept is ‘Last Orders, as done by Nick Hornby’ …

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