A story of puppy dogs and flowers, with a little bit of WH Auden to finish

Published 23 October 2020

Don’t tell me what I don’t want to hear - a story of puppy dogs and flowers, with a little bit of WH Auden to finish.

I will come to the business context shortly, but firstly I had better explain my opening paragraph.

Earlier this month, The Times ran two articles, both of which were based on bad research. The first article “Puppy dog eyes look straight through you”, reports that “research has shown that while a large part of the human brain lights up in recognition when a person sees another’s facial features, scientists have found that a dog’s remains largely inert. The results add to research suggesting that dogs struggle to recognise their owners from their faces alone.”

Politicians are currently being ‘guided by the science’ with Covid measures.

With that in mind I looked at the research, which was apparently based on just 20 dogs! Hardly a statistically valid sample.

Quietly tutting, I moved on the next article “Just a handful of plants sow seed for a less stressful life”. This fascinating bit of ‘research’, you probably won’t be surprised to know, has amongst its conclusions that people like flowers and flowers make people less stressed. 

Here we learn that “scientists gave a tree, a shrub, a climbing plant and some bulbs and bedding plants to 38 households that had bare gardens in economically deprived streets in Salford.” “Residents suffering from loneliness and other mental health issues found it especially uplifting and motivational.”

We hear from “a woman aged 42 with paranoid schizophrenia” who told the researchers: “It’s the one part of the house that’s nice at the moment, so it makes a difference. It definitely makes you think about the rest of the house and getting on top of things, so I’m having the back garden done next week.”

Lovely, but back-to-back articles based on bad science, prompted me (which I rarely do) to place a comment against each article.

Really, I hardly ever comment.  We have to go back to Wayne Rooney citing a poor “youngster having to get by on just £1,400 a week”, was the last time, I think. I suggested that lockdown and people losing their jobs was somewhat crass timing to make such a comment.

So, against the flower article I mentioned bias: The Royal Horticultural Society had led the research.  Who would have thought they liked flowers? I commented on the sample only being in a deprived part of Salford, with only 38 households, and during Covid lockdown which would have affected mood, all being aspects of bad research.

Flicking back to the puppy article, I noted that 20 dogs didn’t constitute a big enough research sample, and then made myself a coffee before clearing my emails.

What surprised me when I looked at my emails was that people were liking and disliking my comments, and whilst in both cases my comment was on bad research, the feedback on each were polar opposites.

When I challenged the research on whether dogs can recognise their owners, the (presumably dog owner) commentators, liked what I was saying. People seemed happy that I criticised the research, presumably feeling pleased that I was challenging the owner recognition by dogs, since they wanted to believe their dogs recognised them. 

However, regarding my views on the flower ‘research’ I was badged a curmudgeon!

“Got out of bed the wrong way this morning?”

“Boo, hiss” (sad face added for emphasis)

“Gosh what a grump you are. Maybe invest in a window box” (this time happy face added… Hmmm, to express the joy of window boxes?)

My point is, yes there is a point, that we read and act upon what we like to hear, not what we don’t like.

We see and hear this in extremis at the moment. Epidemiologists and scientists call for lockdowns. Economists call for less haste in lockdown and economic stimulus. Expressing a personal view Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modelling and himself a member of the Sage committee, argued last week that scientists “should have no greater say than economists, ehicists, historians and the wider public.

In all things, “balance” is what is needed, as well as a proper understanding of the facts. If we have taken the time to understand the facts, the science, the research then regardless of how unpalatable they may be, we need to act on them rather than pre-conceived opinions.

This is particularly the case for those of us running a business in the current Covid pandemic.

I have oft heard the phrase, “if we aren’t careful we could talk ourselves into a recession”. The problem is, we are in one, and there are no signs that it will end soon, or even get better.

Those that quote the former, will also not like me saying more businesses fail on the way out of a recession than during it.

Unpalatable views they are, but the data supports what I am saying. What matters now is how you choose to act: chastise the commentator as it isn’t what you want to hear if you will or revisit what you are doing, and in doing so carefully manage profit and cash flow.

  1. Most business owners have management accounts, hopefully monthly rather than quarterly. If you don’t understand them, ask your accountant to call in for a coffee and listen to what they say;
  2. I know it sounds obvious, but keep an eye on your aged debtors. Collect what you can, respecting that some clients and customers might be struggling, and you would like them to stay as customers in the good times too;
  3. Think carefully about the unwinding of furlough. There is the promise of a £1,000 bonus for each member of staff that you keep but does the lure of that really make sense in all cases;
  4. If you do need to lose staff, remember the maxim, that it is better to cut once, and hard, than have a death by a thousand cuts;
  5. Don’t forget to market your business. It is very easy to cut your marketing spend, but you may live to regret it next year;
  6. And finally, don’t lose sight of your vision, where you want it to be in three, four or five years’ time.

In summary, I am not calling for a WH Auden moment. No need to pack up the moon and dismantle the sun. The clocks will keep ticking and providing you have been paying your bills the phone does not need to be cut off.

But perhaps do prevent the dog barking with a juicy bone.  According to ‘researchers’, they are finding it hard enough to recognise us already!