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Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Less precise health

A recent article (1) proposes that precision health should prioritize actionable information and long-term user engagement. That's a lot of words but it seems to make sense. Hardware and software companies have been on the prowl to sell "precision health," even though they may not know what it means. This could be a shocker for the statisticians, but health is not precise, not by any stretch of the imagination. As they roam the hallways with pocket calculators and actuarial tables, seeking higher and higher "precision," it is important to recognize that the human remains to be the most complex and enigmatic to figure out.
Health is a difficult construct to define. The regulators have gotten wind of "risk," recently and they are clamoring for "risk stratification." None of these people have had any formal education in risk or economics, but they feel they are experts on policy involving the same. They don't even seek information from other industries and that has been symptomatic of the entire healthcare value chain that includes manufacturers, providers, and payers, who seem to know pretty much everything there is to know. Not so. They may be brain surgeons but there are plenty of rocket scientists outside their domains. It may be better to talk to them, before plunging head down into the abyss.
A century of "development," appears to have increased lifespan by 2000 days. But from a utilitarian perspective, the incremental 2000 days gained by fantastic pharmaceuticals, crazy yoga and jumping up and down the whole day, do not seem to add much value. More importantly, the time gained generally reduces the quality of life, impacted by pain, hospitalization, and a lack of flexibility to make decisions. The human brain appears to deteriorate past allowed time and the individual behind the smoke screen suffers. The manufacturers who plunk down close to 100 billion every year into R&D do not seem to have any acceptable answers. The providers, left in the lurch to care for their patients who may not even recognize them, suffer equally. Meanwhile, the accountants at the payers are cranking up their calculators so that they can meet the quarterly EPS.
It is a painful movie to watch. As the brilliant folks in Washington figure out how to save themselves and perhaps the country, there is significant suffering across the landscape. Losing a life is unthinkable, losing a mind is equally traumatic.
(1) http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/10/430/eaao3612

Monday, February 26, 2018

Stop hiring "data scientists."

They have been riding high. The abandoned and somewhat less sexy field of Statistics has taken the business world by storm. Bottling old wine in new bottles certainly helped and now both venture capitalists and operating companies may be heading for a hangover. Engineers and statisticians have always wanted to be scientists and now they are crowned as such. There is a .ai company formed every 15 minutes by graduates of prestigious universities and there are capitalists with sacks of money willing to entertain them. As we have seen before, this movie will likely end in tears for many.
Data is certainly a good thing and applying "science," to it could also be good. But those who assert their "scientific credentials," based on regressions and neural nets should be aware that the slide rules they are using have been available for nearly half a century. Mathematics does not fade but asserting old ideas have suddenly sprung to life certainly shows the maturity and age of the emerging "scientists." Consulting firms have always been creative and some of the most famous ones, who could hardly spell "data science," just a few years ago are now pretending to be experts at it. Conferences are plenty where the scientists meet their seekers and the vendors portray their wares almost like the bartering that was routine a few centuries ago. They flow tensors, cognitive networks and even hardware in a Pizza size box, that apparently has solved all the world's problems, already.
Stop hiring "data scientists." They are ordinary human beings with bias and they could do your companies a lot of damage.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Breathe, breathe in the air

As the first biological entities emerged out of the water and into the land, the battle was just beginning. The toxic air was oxygenated over time and as complexity increased, they had to develop sophisticated systems to breathe. The toxin turned into life-giving Oxygen and over a million years, humanoids experimented with systems that could shuttle the magic molecule to power their systems.
Allergies and asthma followed modern humans as they transversed the globe with their badly designed respiratory systems, prone to catastrophic failure and that killed them in large numbers. Later, modern medicine will keep them alive for a few more decades but they often succumb to the inability to oxygenate. Their nemesis, the Virus, attacked their Achilles heel as most died of the common cold and some of the more advanced versions, aptly named Pneumonia. Recent news (1) that claims advances in bronchodilator drugs in asthma is certainly welcome news.
Humans, fragile and badly designed in most systems, do not appear to be robust enough to move to the next stage.
(1) http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/10/427/eaam8604