Open (Data) Science – Data Management is Key

Till the end of the day, it is rare for any finding to be considered completely irrefutable or beyond scrutiny.

Psychology degrees do give you superpowers. No, you can’t read minds, but you can shut your eyes and perform t-tests point on SPSS. There is a point in time where I can rely on muscle memory alone to get the p-values popping up my screen. I can see how for simple analysis point and click solutions can be much preferable.

It wasn’t until my final year project that I started to really recognise the importance of transparent and replicable codes and research processes. I had to co-collect data along with my peers, we each collect half of the data. The data collection process is by no means easy: a collage of cognitive tests, long structured interviews etc. keeping the participants (mainly other undergraduate students) engaged and put effort is always a challenge.

All is well until I discovered my data collection partner was popping in random numbers in the dataset. “What is she doing?!” Shocked I was seeing this, but even more shocked when it turned out that she forgot to record age and gender in the interviews. Not having gender is less relevant, but age is a key variable we have to take into account for the distribution for IQ differs by age. I was quite disappointed as this meant that the data was compromised, and I couldn’t bring myself to really trust what the data could tell me – if basic demographics are made up, how credible can other information be?

I was annoyed, just like this cat.
Photo by Anna Shvets on

I think of this experience often as I read research papers that does not describe their data collection and analysis plan very well. In academia, more people are willing to share the codes they used for analysis. I believe the next step is to extend the transparency to data cleaning and management processes. When describing the process of data curation, it is easy to focus on describing the psychometric properties of the questions. However, I believe there are a lot of wisdom research groups can benefit from sharing their responses to more general questions like: How is the database managed? Were there any challenges to data management, how were they resolved? Studies and initaitives like PROSPER (PROfeSsionnal develoPmEnt for Research methodologists), helps consult and formulate future developments plans for research methodologists. I am happy to see how things are developing, and for methodologists to finally gain the limelight a bit more in research!

Till the end of the day, it is rare for any finding to be considered completely irrefutable or beyond scrutiny. The best we can do as researcher, in my opinion, is for future researchers to acknowledge as they read our findings, and say: “They were bound by the knowledge of their time, that was the most rigorous way they could have done it!”.

A key development goal from my PhD is the ability to develop codes and wrangling with data across Stata, R and Python. I am still learning the way to work across platforms that would make the most sense! Do share with me if you have any tips 🙂


Chapter 5 – One (Only) Way forward.

I propose that only via shared understanding, relationship-building, a community that preserves space for authenticity and solidarity can truly achieve meaningful representation – with unity in diversity.

The concept of “Global Village” was born in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan, who illustrated how the technical advancements in communication abolishes geographical and temporal boundaries. There emerged an innocent globalist and cosmopolitanism view that harmony in diversity will be achievable in no time. The Culture War narrative took over, as the after-(ongoing) effect of the economy crisis ripples, as the “compete for survival” instincts kicks back in economic and cultural terms, the harmony in diversity fantasy seems much more far away than it was in the 1960s.

In earlier chapters, I criticised HEI’s approaches in promoting representation. I argued that the current measures of diversity could easily be portraited as performative, quasi-pro-diversity mandates that drains energy from both the dominant and minoritized groups, as the former feels like they’ve been unjustly underserved, and the latter tokenised, seeing little actual improvements.

How then, can we create and preserve a safe and empowering space that community can thrive, with harmony in diversity? In my opinion, there are 2 key attributes to such communities: Authenticity and Solidarity. And both of these attributes can only be demonstrated through patient, non-judgemental listening and communication.

1. Authenticity

I believe that our identity is continually constructed through our interaction with our circumstances, with respect to history, personal struggles, evolves and adapt to our environment. If we truly respect ethnicity as “self-defined and subjectively meaningful to an individual.” (ONS, see discussion on this in Chapter 3), we have to allow individuals, especially young people in HEI, to have the courage to embrace and explore this uncertainty. We have to reject label-driven classifications to pre-determine how we should interact with others. Here’s my story to illustrate this point:

I attended a language class at the university in London, this was not too far from when the 2019 Hong Kong Democratic Movements have made the news in the West. The first few terms we learn after “What’s your name?”, “Where do you live?”, would be – you guessed it – “Where are you from?”. I am in a small class of 10, coming from different countries, ranging from Switzerland, Germany, Poland to Pakistan, Iran, China. We took turns to ask each another the question – where are you from.

There is a stark contrast in the temperature of the room when I said I am from Hong Kong, and my other classmate said that they are from China. I was welcomed with a lot of warmth, and them a much less welcoming acknowledgement. It is no surprise that the China = Bad overly simplified narrative has crept into the classroom, and affected how we treat others. I felt it, and I decided to share with the class the cultural similarities between Hong Konger and Chinese people. The class was less hostile (yes.) as they now can see my Chinese friend more as a person, and not as an extension of the communist suppressor as they may have previously perceived.

The more socially acceptable, easy thing for me to do in that situation would be simply add salt to injury, to explain how Hong Kong is different from China. I chose not to do that as that would further undermine the class as a safe space for my friend to explore his identity. But this is not just for him. I can easily imagine that this act of differentiation would drive me further away from my dual Hong Konger-Chinese identity. I admire a lot of the elements in Chinese traditional culture, the food, the language, the art… Yet there is strong social pressure for me to denounce part of my identity, and only by doing that my social standing in the environment can be affirmed. Knowingly or unknowingly, my self-identity would change, not as a result of authentic, soul-searching, but under the influence of social correctness or social desirability.

An environment that truly enables authentic identity building need not to be value-free, but it requires individuals to be treated with no presumptions that is based on group identity one may be prescribed as having. It means that individuals have to choose the hard way, to not rely on mnemonic devices of ‘labelling’ too much when we meet and interact with others. This leads on to the second attribute – solidarity.

2. Solidarity

A community that endorses solidarity within itself share a key assumption: that every individual in the group is valued as much as the other. There are a lot of discussion on the importance of solidarity so I won’t drill into this too much here.

To highlight how HEI values diversity, a common approach was to collate a long list of cultural or religious events or dates that is happening each month. This was intended to create opportunity for staff and students to demonstrate solidarity with others. I strongly doubt many people read them, or “celebrate with” others. My observation is that, apart from being startled by the sheer amount of “festivals” and “celebrations” that are on the list, the biggest barrier that stops people from “celebrating with”, is the lack of relevance behind those jubilant pictures and exotic foods. I think it is not meaningful to include every festival you can think of purely on the notion of inclusivity. It has to come from the population you intend to share this list with, and it has to be an invitation to “celebrate with” the relevant groups. How do we stand in solidarity if we don’t even know they exist? Representation of non-existing people does not make sense. HEI as a porous community, be it at department, institute, or the University level, must allow individuals to willingly share, and take initiative, and have their skin in the game to allow the above to happen.

Ultimately, the narrative that work and life should be separated, that one’s goal for life is retirement, and that the individuals as just a cog in the system strips people self-worth and sense of community. Under this narrative, your coworkers not worth your time, but another replaceable, disposable piece of work to listen to, understand or build relationship with. But there is no short-cut to diversity and proper representation. There is no laws, rules, or recommended practices that can foster relationship. Authenticity and solidarity needs to be centred at the heart of any diverse community to develop shared understanding. With no understanding, there is no true diversity; with no true diversity, there is no true representation; with no true representation, there is no equity.

An authentic community with individualised understanding and solidarity is key to proper representation, and equity (in the long run).

There is one, only way forward:

“…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”

Mark 12:31

“There is no panacea, or utopia, there is just love and kindness and trying, amid the chaos, to make things better where we can. And to keep our minds wide, wide open in a world that often wants to close them.”

Matt Haig, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”


Chapter 4: Superficial Representation and True Beaconing

Chapter 4 aims to suggest that HEI’s must challenge the wider underlying philosophy that has shaped the current approach.

Chapter 3 has identified 2 flaws of the current paradigm of promoting representation. Chapter 4 aims to suggest that HEI’s must challenge the wider underlying philosophy that has shaped the current approach and their flaws.

The UK is said to have engaged in the Culture War. It is “us” against “them”, us as the rightful descendants of Anglos and Saxons against the illegal migrants who are diluting the glory of Britannia. Differences are seen as invasive, as threats that needs to be actively suppressed and neutralised. The British identity is to be like us. If you cannot act, speak, think, see like us, you need to be managed. This mentality puts minoritized groups into a mindset of competition, it’s all for ourselves now. Black history month is for black people, Lunar New Year is for East Asians, it is not uncommon that HEI is becoming more eager to recognise differences, but it is unfortunately uncommon that these differences are not really celebrated. There is no platform to display horizontal cultural appreciation and solidarity when every group tries to keep themselves relevant, we are made to compete for higher cultural relevance in HEI, in politics, in society.

This meant that people from minoritized communities are then expected to take up even more responsibilities – you need to fight for diversity, representation, but also fight for the sustenance of your own culture. It is no wonder we feel exhausted and tokenised, as our efforts rarely translate into true cultural changes, as we failed to see enough improvements in our daily lives. We feel tokenised because our existence merely acts as virtue signalling, because we are used to fulfil tick-box exercises. Tokenised because it is always just us speak for ourselves. This divides the minority groups, instigating a “all for themselves” mentality, as difference is framed as threatening, cultural survival is perceived as something to compete for, that only the fittest will survive.

This cultural assimilation narrative does not only affect the minoritized groups, but it also breeds the resentment in dominant groups that were expressed too often in academia towards the minoritized groups. “You must be a diversity hire.” This resentment and grief do not (always) stem from race-based discrimination, although it is often framed this way, this could be instead an expression of anger or discontent towards the seemingly unfair system where the minoritized are rewarded with more merit than they perceived to possess. This perception of unjust is brewed from the current non-transparent and ineffective way of promoting “socially valued” practices, where genuine communications and respect of differences is left out unmeasured, hence of the scene. People expressing this resentment may not disagree with the principles of equality, they might even be strong supporters of the notion, but they were misconstrued with top-down promotion of visible representation.

To enforce these top-down, superficial representation, EDI groups quickly resorted to law and social contracts (that people might not agree). We are told that diversity and representation is valued in HEI, and that discriminatory behaviour will be punished. I argue below that neither of the 2 approaches – legal deterrent or social pressure – address the crux of the problem.

The legal system exists to refrain people from hating each another when they are violated, knowing that any mishaps (defined by law) will be justly punished or reattributed. Social contracts exists to refrain people from loving or caring for each another, when they only need to satisfy the need to demonstrate performative, socially acceptable behaviours to be seen as prosocial. This means that under the social contract of “no discrimination”, people learned that their lack of/unwillingness to love and understand differences will be hidden covertly behind a certain pattern of behaviours. Treating means as goals in promoting EDI becomes a retractive, ahistorical approach that avoids reconciliation and sustains colonial social hierarchy – to continue to see the culturally dominant group as the giver, and the rest of the minority flourishing conditioned on the dominant groups’ approval, that we are never seen as equals.

To demonstrate progress in “Beaconing and Sharing” activities is a key to be awarded the Athena Swan award. If HEI is an epitome of society, (that is, if we can separate HEI from society), beaconing activity must include the active reflection on the philosophy and ideology as we strive to push for a safe and diverse environment for everyone to reach their potentials to the fullest.

My final chapter will hope to suggest what a safe and empowering space for diversity and representation should look like.

Chapter 3: The Flaws of Representation

In chapter 3, I describe 2 flaws of representation:
1) Arbitrary Groupings, Arbitrary Goals
2) Choice of Representation

In this chapter, I will describe 2 main flaws in how ethnicity and ethnic representation is discussed. By the end of the chapter, I hope you can start to see why progress in promoting ethnic equality is slow, and may be illusive.

Flaw 1) Arbitrary Groupings, Arbitrary Goals

Let’s say we take upon the “measurement is gold” mantra, we still have to face the problem that we are constantly moving the goal post of equity, as number of “groups” are ever increased (& prescribed), such that progress is hard to track or make sense of. In the UK, the terms we used to describe minoritised ethnic groups have been changing – people of colour, BME, BAME… And now “It is time we drop BAME” in the Sewell Report. The widening trend and the abandonment of an over-arching term to describe all non-White British people reflects a changing demographic in the UK, and a changing public discourse to use better terms to describe people’s identity. The question lies: Who decides how other’s describe their identity? For what purpose are we classifying these categorically different identities?

The terms we use to describe race and ethnicity is unique to where we are. It is often defined by the dominant groups (e.g., White British). More inclusive terms emerge when minorities were given a larger voice. But these emerging terms do not change the fact that these terms are created by and for the dominant group, and that their group membership do not solely depend on their identity, but depend on the dominant group’s perception. A quick example, people of middle eastern heritage, who speaks perfect English and has pale skin colour is treated vastly different before and after 911. In the UK, from the last 30 years of census, some people groups reported changing ethnic identity, but the ever-stable ethnic identification is White British. Terminology cares less to differentiate Black Caribbean from Black African, but really cares about differentiate “them” from “us”. It is foreseeable that a similar story will unfold, creating more terms and groups to capture “other” groups and “mixed” groups in the UK.

The pattern is clear, ideology is always chasing after the reality: we only care enough to change when there are visibly large enough groups in society that we need to “update our terms”, but not our mentality. In this way, top-down representation or classification into existing categories will forever lag behind, as the UK continues to diversify, as new categories are being created and the goal post of representation will never be attained.

ONS (2003) describes ethnicity as “self-defined and subjectively meaningful to an individual.” Flaw 1 shows the problem of the operationalisation of such measure, that choosing an identity from a limited number of choices that closest resembles our identity, is not truly self-defined, subjective, nor meaningful.

Photo by cottonbro studio on

Flaw 2) Choice of representation

We do not choose which country we are born, we do not choose our skin colour. As a migrant minority in the UK, similarly, you have no choice but to represent your visibly perceived ethnicity. Representation starts not when you pronounced membership of the ethnic group, it begins “whenever you step into that space” (Quote from Chineke! Ep4. The Anxiety of Representation). During the pandemic, whenever I step on the tube, I can just hide my Asian-looking masked face to get a free 1-metre quarantine zone, no matter how crowded it is. Every Asian looking person became Wuhan, Chinese. Chineseness is dumb down to a simple dimension of fear.

Perceived membership is not always a good indication of subjective identity. Let’s look at another example. Some migrants from Hong Kong (Hong Kongers) yearned to differentiate themselves from being called “Chinese”. There is an ongoing, traceable, consensual process within the Hong Konger community to build and define Hong Kongness, but this difference is often not respected by Chinese and the wider popuation. This highlights the dynamic nature of ethnic identities, and that visible representation is not sufficient a marker to denote group membership. This varying nature of ethnic identities is not unique in migrant populations. To oppose same-sex marriage in Hong Kong, a lot of conservative politicians claim that it is in Chinese culture and tradition to uphold a heterosexual, monogamy marriage. However, as Marco Wan illustrated in his paper, the traditional Chinese marriage was never monogamous. Chineseness was influenced by (western) modernity in their own invention of their marriage “tradition”. Within people groups of the same ethnic origin, with shared language and nationality, their notion of ethnic identity and what it entails can differ. The attempt of using top-down categories and language to restrict how ethnic identity can vary limits our ability to truly allow people to choose how to express their own.

Non-dominant groups do not have the choice to be un-represented, the “Single Outlier” explanation is never accepted for non-dominant groups. The “Bad Apple” excuse is too often used, and accepted, when say e.g., a White man has breached the law. This is another way of explaining why the “unconscious biases” remains pertinent in the UK, the dominant group rejects any potentially negative connotation linked with their White British ethnicity, but are too quick to label and stick with stereotypes they assign on minoritized groups. The dominant group has to power to choose to be un-represented. “I’m not like those White men.” Can non-dominant groups do the same? Look at the disproportionate rates of stop and search in young black men, the colonial spirit lives on, the same spirit that separated families, enslaved cultures, and maintained the hierarchical caste of social class within the UK. Minoritised groups can’t help but feel like their every step is watched, and that they will forever be the other. The reliance on appearance representation amplifies the power imbalances between groups.

The direct implication of the reliance of appearance representation is the risk of under-representing the rights of the less populated/less vocal “sub-groups” within the same ethnic category umbrella term. The indirect consequence is that it creates an illusion of progress (which can be infinitely perpetuated by keep on moving the goal posts), when the underlying resource allocation system does not change, that people from non-dominant groups are still viewed as lesser.

Chapter 2: Current approach to ethnic representation

Construing means as outcome may overestimate true progression to a more equitable HEI.

21st century is an era of metrics. Measuring and demonstrating impact becomes essential to research publications. This realist “only measurable changes are true changes” perspective dominates how “evidence” is conceived. The same line of logic was applied to promoting EDI initiatives.

We often treat EDI representation as visible representation, as they are more measurable. The aim is to get people of certain membership of a group (e.g., Asian) to attain an ideal proportion in a certain measurement of equity (e.g., promotion). For example, proportion of non-white people on interview panels, international student percentages etc. However, in pushing for a wider visible representation (definition 1) to be achieved, we assumed people who share those characteristics (1) are necessary to represent the groups’ rights (definition 2).

Assumption that AR leads to RR, which in turn leads to Equity
AR is not necessary nor sufficient to attain Equity

For example, in the Sewell report, the ethnic diversity of the police force becomes a target of intervention, with the underlying theory of change that once the (appearance) representation problem is solved, minoritized communities would regain equitable rights compared to their white counterparts. Another example, EDI groups in HEI often require a certain demographic make-up, inadvertently putting pressure on minorities to contribute. This follows the same line of logic that once the EDI group is diverse, the diverse needs will be addressed. There are numerous counterexamples that visible representation do not automatically achieve rights representation, black on black violence, the countless stories about those who made it became the gate-keeper to enter “high society”, hey ho, look at the faces behind UK Illegal Migration Bill 2023.

No doubt, having representation from minoritized groups can be a reflection of underlying change in power structure, equality and resource allocation. But that cannot be the only means of measuring change in our society. As Universities are incentivised to push for different awards recognising their efforts on EDI, when the only outcome measure focuses on superficial appearance representation, we might overestimate our progress to equity.

We need people who can fight for the rights of the underprivileged, and empower the minoritized, such that appearance representation would be the natural outcome of a changed landscape. This is a strong argument for people in power, often White and British, to take initiative. The misplaced emphasis on “measurable” outcomes became a hinderance to progress, as we phantasies for an easily measurable solution. Our current approach to ethnic representation does not promote this vision.

This conflict in apparent progress and on-the-ground experience among ethnic minoritized members of HEI is a source of frustration. I shall touch on this in more detail in Chapter 4.

In the next chapter, I will describe 2 flaws in how ethnicity and ethnic representation is discussed, and hoping to elucidate the power constructs that were so deeply embedded in our social interactions that may slow, or mimic progress in promoting ethnic equality.

* Appearance Representation: A depiction or portrayal of a person or thing, typically one produced in an artistic medium – definition 1.

Rights Representation: The action of standing for, or in the place of, a person, group, or thing, and related senses – definition 2.

Blog Series: Chapter 1: Define Representation and Why It Matters

This is the first part of my reflection serving as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team at the University. The series is titled: On Ethnic Representation and Equity: The Costs of Conflating Means as Goals.

This is the first part of my reflection serving as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team at the University. The series is titled: On Ethnic Representation and Equity: The Costs of Conflating Means as Goals.


The UUK & NUS report in 2019 reported that less than 2% of 19,000 professors in the UK higher education institutes (HEI) are non-white women. Improving the representativeness of UK HEI staff and students became a priority for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives. Proposed solutions included racial equity hiring practices, such as having a more diverse interview board, and purposeful advertisement within the targeted populations. Whilst I appreciate the equity-based approach to improve ethnic representation, I worry that the current framing of “representation” would divert attention away from cultivating a culture that embraces unity in diversity. Despite continual effort, mainly by people from racialised communities, ethnic minorities continue to feel tokenised and marginalised in academia. In this article, I would re-assess the logic behind the current EDI approaches to define and improve representation, point out the intrinsic flaws of the current definition of representation, and propose potential barriers for UK HEI to re-calibrate the direction for improving representation. I argue that the philosophical positioning behind current approaches to promoting EDI conflates means as goals, and might limit our ability to evaluate whether we have truly promoted equity within HEI.

Chapter 1: Define Representation and Why It Matters

“Representation” is typically defined in the following 2 ways (Oxford English Dictionary):

  1. A depiction or portrayal of a person or thing, typically one produced in an artistic medium.
  2. The action of standing for, or in the place of, a person, group, or thing, and related senses.

I will refer to definition (1) as “Appearance Representation” (or Visible Representation), and definition (2) as “Rights Representation”. In my opinion, the need to represent arise as a product of “differences”. For example, “appearance representation” showcases something spectacular, it captures something that is different from the norm; “rights representation” serves the purpose of settling different opinions within or between individuals and communities e.g., legal representatives, political party representation.

Who is HEI trying to represent? What does a well-represented HEI look like? I believe this is determined by 2 main factors: the size of targeted community and school philosophy.

Depending on the size of the institute, the targeted community to be represented should be reflective of the local community (regional, e.g., Lambeth, London), the city the institute is based at (e.g., London), nation or country (e.g., England), or even the world. There is little point for a local primary school of 100 pupils in Kent to be representative of world population, which would mean >90% of White British pupils in Kent would have to compete for <10% of the places, essentially excluding most from education. Similarly, the proclaimed world-class international universities should recruit staff and students that is reflective of their targeted community, or at least their renowned global reputation. This view mirrors that of the suggestion made in the Sewell Report (aka the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities), e.g., “to make police forces more representative of local communities”.

School philosophy refers to the beliefs the HEI have regarding the (distribution of) characteristics in an ideal world. School philosophy may take precedent of the size of target population. Take women in academia as an example, it is not as simple as wanting an overall proportion of men and women in HEI that is reflective of the community. It is believed that women are disproportionately lost from academia, and that this has stifled academia from reaching its full potential (premise of Athena Swan). Acknowledging the hegemonic masculinity that persists in society (and academia), extra effort is required to promote and protect the rights and platform for women to develop their academic career. This approach to think about representation considers the social structures of the present and help us avoid reconstructing the inequalities that is presently observed in the community.

In essence, in a well-represented HEI, all groups should be represented, in terms of “Appearance” (in terms of number/proportion) and “Rights” (in terms of platforms/priorities), that is in-line with the institute’s philosophy, and proportionate to the size of the targeted community they are serving.

To be continued…

Hong Kong and the Remnants of Colonialism

Does colonialism still exist in Hong Kong? My 2 recent stories/encounters in Hong Kong.

It has been (at least!) 3 years since I stayed in Hong Kong for more than a month. “What’s changed?” I’m often astounded to realise people are now seeking an outsider’s perspective of home from me… But hay ho I’ve been away for long, long enough to allow me to look at Hong Kong a bit different from how I used to. Today I picked up the post-colonial lens, with my 2 recent encounters/observations in Hong Kong, to make the case of how the western colonial spirit in Hong Kong is far from being a thing of the past.

A view from the Peak in Hong Kong.

Story 1: Short Hike to the Peak

You might have been amazed by unrivalled view from the Peak (a.k.a the Victoria Peak), overlooking the metropolis, all kingdoms of the world under your feet. This is often the first image that pops to my mind when I think about home – I blame the tourism adverts and souvenirs! The hike to the peak is a common route enjoyed by all. European invaders of Hong Kong in the 19th century would concur.

During the long colonial period, the Peak was designated to be an exclusively non-Chinese residential area. However, you could almost convince an unaware tourist that the mandate is still in place in Hong Kong in 2023. There is a very high proportion of non-Chinese people in the Peak area compared with any other areas in Hong Kong (perhaps other than Lan Kwai Fong, where the drinking and clubbing happens). Legal restrictions have transfigured as economical barriers: the most affordable accommodation at the Peak costs in the billions. Apart from luxury flats and houses, you could also find a list of international schools that mostly admit non-Chinese expats kids only. It is like living on stratosphere, no need to learn to read, write or speak Chinese; your social circles never crosses path with the “ordinary” Hong Kong people; you belong to a different class.

I realised this is a source of my unease when someone (in Britain) told me that they have visited Hong Kong. Which side of Hong Kong did they see? Was it the city with the highest number of millionaires by proportion; or the city with the highest level economic inequality in the world? As they enjoyed the horse races at the jockey club, would they recognise gambling was the social device the colonial government introduced to maintain their grips on the people? Were they merely walking in the boots of their fathers, savouring the fruits of their colony; or have they stepped out of the White-only zone, and truly explore this beautiful land? I resort to praise the food every time.

Mark Six, a popular lottery in HK
Accessed from Ken Cheung’s blog on Steemit

Story 2: Short Encounter on the Cable Car

It was a clear and a bright December day. No better day for a cable-car-ride at Ocean Park (a theme park in Hong Kong, watch video below for a virtual cable car ride!). As the cable car climbed the hill, we were greeted by a fellow cable-car rider from another cart down the hill. Most of the time, these are handwaves and hellos that adds a pinch of friendliness and sense of community to the fun-packed trip. Coming towards us that day was a family of 3 – a white, 5-year-old-ish boy standing on his seat shouting, and his seemingly oblivious parents. As the 2 cable cars crossed paths, we recognised what the boy was shouting – a bunch of racial slur directed at Chinese/Asian people. My jaws dropped on the spot, for someone to have the audacity to speak ill of Hong Kong people, in Hong Kong! The young boy likely mean no harm, and it is certainly that he was not targeting us. Heck I would even have to applaud his choice of time and place to do this – such that he would hardly be held accountable. At his young age, he had already learned/or have been taught that he is different – different from the “ordinary” Hong Kong people, that he is no member of Hong Kong people, but a successor of the whip, a higher, better class. The boy is not to be blamed, look around: whiteness remains to be the standard for beauty, a synonym for good reputation, the definition for class. Who should be hold accountable for keeping Hong Kong people the remnants of colonialism?

I love to say to people in the UK that Hong Kong is an ethnically homogenous place – the notion of ethnicity and race is just not in people’s minds. But lest we ignore ethnicity as a building block for meaningful conversations across members of the community, and lest we rule out race as a perpetuating cause for social inequality, and racism as a vehicle for colonialism.

See you soon, Hong Kong, with my very best wishes.

Are theories over-rated?

A short reflection based on my observations on trends in mental health research. With audio narration.

Listen to the blog here.

Research methodology 101 in psychology typically starts by explaining statistical hypothesis testing, how data can be understood in a certain way (model) to draw inference. A theory-based statistical model is the approach in which researchers make meaning out of the constellation of data-points – in a systemic and falsifiable way that differentiates inferences from astrology.

Research is not easy. There are many decisions and assumptions researchers make in the process, e.g., how are concepts defined, how are these concepts measured, what are the relationship between these variables, do they overlap? Researchers design, clean, collect and frame data in a way such that they can tell a story – Data may speak for itself, but the theatre is built by the researchers. It is more than choosing which variables to put into the model, or discover which variables are statistically associated with the predictors. It is about how the confirmation or rejection of the statistical model should be interpreted, in what context, for which populations – and more.

Psychology research methods 101 – Hypothesis
Photo by Tara Winstead on

The industrial revolution automated jobs and led to an expansion of productivity; the “artificial intelligence (AI) revolution” appears to share similar aims. The first questions that pop to people’s minds are – “Can we automate this process? If so, how?” The same ideology has been applied to understanding data – there are AI models spring up like mushrooms after rain, with approaches like “covariate auto-selection” that promises to perform as good as (or outperforms) “traditional analysis” – whatever that means.

I am no fan of such practices. This is because I think data analysis is only a small part of the whole scientific process, there are limited ways you can “let the data speak” if the paradigm of data collection, conceptualisation etc. is never challenged. This AI-do-all approach, if deemed to be the best, or even worse, the default practice, will leave little room for users to challenge the premises and assumptions in which the inference are drawn, hence no true empirical theoretical advancements, but post-hoc theory-making. But can you really blame AI data scientist for this?

There is no point in finger-pointing [maybe 1 >:o)]. The problem of weak theory is prevalent in (mental) health research (More discussion here on formal theory: – Eiko’s blogs, with a lot of resource on theory, do check them out!). An example that is highly relevant to my work is the use of ethnicity in health research – is it biology? Is it country of origin? Is it migration status? Is it social support and network? What is it’s relation with the covariates? Papers often describe whether their findings fit with previous research, but most of the time stopped at that level, “More research is needed”, and less discussion on theory. It is this tendency of focusing just on inference and less about theory that precipitates AI-based analytical practice to expand.

AI helps make meaning from a pre-specified framework
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This phenomenon begs the question, why is theory playing less of a role in mental health research? What is the driver behind this change in scientific practice? I believe a particular emotion – frustration – plays a role. I see this frustration arise from the huge implementation gap, and the insurmountable unmet needs, which is made worse by the replication crisis.

We are said to be in a mental health crisis. The healthcare system is more sensitive to detect mental health problems: they are recognised earlier and more broadly at primary care, but our ability to treat our patients did not improve to the same extent. It takes 17 years to translate health research into practice. IAPT, new waves of psychotherapy, medications… These attempts to improve service provision (by quantity/access) and quality did not match the increasing demands. With record level of demand for mental health support (even before Covid19), the whole community is pressured to provide solutions. The frustration stems from the compassion to the plight of patients.

The same frustration is felt by the funders too: decades of funding to find a pill to eradicate dementia, pilling resource to prioritise “what works”, stronger than ever appetite for interventions. The positioning of researchers in the field is no longer “neutral observer of (natural) phenomenon”, but “proactive driver of change”. The increasing need to demonstrate “impact” is evident of this change of positioning. Measure of impact depends on ability to demonstrate progress. Theory development is often a twisted journey, it intrinsically fares worse than randomised control trials in that regard in the current paradigm.

In conjunction with the replication crisis, where small sample size and poor methods (but not weak theory) were deemed to be the culprit, strength in numbers feels like a pre-requisite to publish in high-impact journals. This shapes the ecosystem of academia. Bigger institutes are in better position to run larger studies, hence sustenance of the self-prophesised loop of impact as the top research institute. There are less options for smaller institutes to compete – to rely on impact-driven evidence making, rather than theory testing or development. Research became more focused on interventions and local adaptations, rather than trying to come up with a grand theory for a disorder.

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Researchers do not have to choose binarily between “theory” and “intervention”, there are plenty of middle-ground between the two. In fact, they go hand in hand to the development of any field. An “intervention”-leaning environment amplifies the need for researchers to understand and clarify “context” – how accumulated evidence can be applied to the situation at hand. I don’t think we are very well trained in this regard (yet), it hasn’t been the focus in the past, nor included in the curriculum. Approaches such as realist evaluation, rapid qualitative reviews etc. arise to address this gap. A “theory”-leaning environment, on the other hand, emphasis on understanding the nature of a phenomenon. For example, the biopsychosocial framework encourages multidisciplinary treatment, which hopefully the restructured integrated care systems are in better position to provide. Another example, where digital based mental health intervention apps taking many different approaches failed to live up to their expectations, perhaps rekindling the positioning and theory of such interventions is the bridge to success. Theory serve as a foundation for knowledge to be generated, decisions justified, and help the field explore alternative explanation of “reality”.

What’s next? It is for us, members of the scientific community to live out the direction of our field. We need to be pragmatic to come up with solutions to address the huge mental health needs, but we need to continue to be observant, patient, and preserve space for new theories and alternative framework of understanding of mental health to be developed and tested.

No Milestones Too Small

celebrating a mini-milestone of my PhD today!

PhD can be a lonely journey – celebration of things big and small can help us recount what we have done so far, and help us put things into perspectives. I am recording this today so that future me will be thankful!

Today I am celebrating that I have finished scrapping/recording number of citation of over 4000 papers!! This serves as part of a bibliographical review that I am doing to understand how ethnicity is described and theorised in literature. I tried to write a small tool in Python ( to automate this process, but later decided it is not worth the risk & time to auto-scrap from Google! This meant I will have to do this the old-fashioned way: Manual Searches!

This meant that for the past 3 months I have spent several hours every weekend doing one simple task – ctrl+c, ctrl+v, type number, repeat. Whilst my pinky is aching a bit (from pressing ctrl too hard, and too frequently), there is a strong sense of accomplishment when all 4000+ rows are filled! I split the 4000+ records into batches of 50rows per file, such that I can easily stop & restart whenever I wish. This also helps distract me from the startling size of the task, and allow me to focus on the 50 in front of me.

I found myself spending way more time than expected to complete this, mainly because I was distracted by – you guessed it – the papers themselves! I have yet to decipher what a “perfect” academic paper title should read like, but I am certainly drawn to read quite a bit of them as I copy-and-pasted them. This is very much a blessing in disguise!

The next task is further screening and data extraction from these papers. I hope these findings can be shared with PPIe groups that I am intending to organise (if I get that mini-grant!). Future me, know that you are contributing to something that is meaningful to you – which is the least ambitious, the minimally sufficient motivation for any work!

Officially Enrolled – New beginning

anti-cv of my PhD application history, and some reflections on failure

First term in my Psychology undergraduate course, we were introduced to BF Skinner’s operant conditioning. It relies on a simple premise that behaviours that are rewarded will be reinforced; vice versa, behaviours that are punished will be diminished. Lab mice shall soon learn to jumping through hoops while reciting pi.

“Every failure is a step to success” William Whewell’s motivational speech did not distinct “failures” from “mistakes”. I do think there is a fine line between those 2 – mistakes doesn’t always lead to failures, failures doesn’t require any mistakes [mistakes are neither necessary nor sufficient for failures]. There is a role for uncertainty, for luck, for other unseen circumstances that have led to the (un)desirable outcome. Whilst this should not be exaggerated to an extent that the individual blindly believes a predeterminism that requires luck and nothing else, reserving ones humility and respect for the uncontrollable helps separate ourselves from the lab mice – to not be taken back (too much) by the all too common “punishments” in life.

No different from any other keen beans in my cohort, I started worrying & applying for jobs and PhD half way through my MSc. July 2019 also marks the beginning of my failures of PhD applications. In the 2.5 year window, I have been invited to 10+ final interviews, written 5 full PhD proposals on different topics:

  • self-harm and apathy
  • cash-transfer and depression in LMIC
  • natural language processing in clinical records
  • Ethnic density and psychiatric illnesses
  • Universal Credit and mental health problems [data linkage]

    I applied to multiple funders such as MRC, ESRC, Wellcome Trust, Alan Turing Institute, NIHR… and many other DTP schemes. Failures after failures. I polished my cv, practiced my interview skills, brush up my twitter profile, present at conferences, write blogs and podcasts… But my “PhD Applications” folder failed to escape their destiny – rename, (rejected). After all the failures, nothing seem to be helping my case. I felt stuck – as my internal locus of control urges me to tackle my “mistakes” to deal with these “failures”. What more can I do? Am I just attending these PhD interviews such that the panel can say the diversity requirements are fulfilled? Perhaps I am just not good enough. The cost of living away from my hometown and family is high, why must I stay in the UK? These are questions I interrogate myself with, as Covid rampages across the world.
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…because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Romans 5:3-4

I learned to be patient, only because I cannot proceed. I am no any more persevering than anyone. I am privileged to be supported by great colleagues and friends, privileged that my family encourages what I do, privileged that I am passionate about the health and suffering of others, that this passion helps me to be curious, and curiosity brings motivation.

I am grateful for my current duo role as a research assistant and a part-time student. This helps immensely on the financial situation. This is better value than any previous studentships that I have applied! On top of that, I can now appreciate how my previous failures have bought me time to understand academia loads more than when I first graduated. It could be that William Whewell is eventually correct. A mistake is not necessary nor sufficient for us to learn from – a failure can serve the same purpose. Fresh into my role, I have welcomed my first rejected mini-grant application. But now I am much more ready to face it, taste it, and learn from it.

“15th October, 2022 – This is to confirm Joseph Lam is currently enrolled as a MPhil student at UCL.”

To happy learning!

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