Category Archives: Science/Medicine

Just Uploaded–Big Data: Destroyer of Informed Consent (Final Text)

I’ve just uploaded the final text of Big Data: Destroyer of Informed Consent which is due to appear Real Soon Now in a special joint issue of the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics and the Yale Journal of Law and Technology. This pre-publication version has everything the final version will have except the correct page numbers. Here’s the abstract:

The ‘Revised Common Rule’ took effect on January 21, 2019, marking the first change since 2005 to the federal regulation that governs human subjects research conducted with federal support or in federally supported institutions. The Common Rule had required informed consent before researchers could collect and use identifiable personal health information. While informed consent is far from perfect, it is and was the gold standard for data collection and use policies; the standard in the old Common Rule served an important function as the exemplar for data collection in other contexts.

Unfortunately, true informed consent seems incompatible with modern analytics and ‘Big Data’. Modern analytics hold out the promise of finding unexpected correlations in data; it follows that neither the researcher nor the subject may know what the data collected will be used to discover. In such cases, traditional informed consent in which the researcher fully and carefully explains study goals to subjects is inherently impossible. In response, the Revised Common Rule introduces a new, and less onerous, form of “broad consent” in which human subjects agree to as varied forms of data use and re-use as researchers’ lawyers can squeeze into a consent form. Broad consent paves the way for using identifiable personal health information in modern analytics. But these gains for users of modern analytics come with side-effects, not least a substantial lowering of the aspirational ceiling for other types of information collection, such as in commercial genomic testing.

Continuing improvements in data science also cause a related problem, in that data thought by experimenters to have been de-identified (and thus subject to more relaxed rules about use and re-use) sometimes proves to be re-identifiable after all. The Revised Common Rule fails to take due account of real re-identification risks, especially when DNA is collected. In particular, the Revised Common Rule contemplates storage and re-use of so-called de-identified biospecimens even though these contain DNA that might be re-identifiable with current or foreseeable technology.

Defenders of these aspects of the Revised Common Rule argue that ‘data saves lives.’ But even if that claim is as applicable as its proponents assert, the effects of the Revised Common Rule will not be limited to publicly funded health sciences, and its effects will be harmful elsewhere.

An earlier version, presented at the Yale symposium which the conference volume memorializes, engendered significant controversy — the polite form of howls of rage in a few cases — from medical professionals looking forward to working with Big Data. Since even the longer final version is shorter, and if only for that reason clearer, than much of what I write I wouldn’t be surprised if the final version causes some fuss too.

Posted in Administrative Law, AI, Science/Medicine, Writings | Leave a comment

Why Atmospheric CO2 Should Be Part of the Weather Report

I don’t necessarily want to associate myself with every word in John’s Buell’s post at Informed Comment, The Politics of the Local Weather Broadcast: Call your Station and Demand News of Climate Crisis, but it inspired me to wonder why it is that the local and national weather news doesn’t include the latest figure on atmospheric carbon dioxide. I’m not a climate scientist, but the overwhelming scientific consensus seems to be that the more CO2 in the air, the more the earth traps heat. That should be of concern to everyone. And the data are not hard to find–such as at CO2.Earth, which reports a current number of 409.95 ppm, which is certainly the highest number in the past 1,000 years.

Mentioning the weekly CO2 number as a routine part of the weather report would not only make the point that weather forecaster think carbon matters, it would sensitize the public to the so-far inexorable rise in a key heat-trapping gas.

This is a international issue, but it’s one of particular salience to South Florida: There’s a pretty simple thermodynamic correlation between atmospheric heat and water temperature. And we know that hurricanes get stronger when they go over warmer water. Higher temperatures also contribute to ice-cap melt, raising sea level. Want to avoid more of this? Time to call or email your local weatherperson?

Posted in Science/Medicine | 4 Comments

Fusion Allegedly Just Five Years Away — BBC

I’ve written before on how fusion power is always coming, never here. About a year and a half ago I posted this:

Fusion Power is Only 15 Years Away, we’re told. I guess that’s progress since in just the last few years people have said its Always 50 Years Away, or maybe Always 30 Years Away, or maybe formely 30 years away, now its more like 50 years away, or maybe just forever 20 years away, or 13 Years Away.

So ten years away is progress, right? Then again three years ago it ten years away so maybe we’re going backwards?

Or maybe we’re looking at the wrong scientific advance here: what we really have is an odd form of time travel?

But comes now the BBC to tell us that according to some startups, maybe fusion power is just five years away, which certainly seems like the frontier is getting closer…or some startups have at least got fusion going on their hype…

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New Math

This octonion math looks very cool. I wish I understood it. Anything that explains quantization in nature has something going for it.

Obligatory Tom Lehrer video:

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The Jerky (Not the Onion)

Study: Eating Beef Jerky Might Be Linked to Manic Episodes in Some People.

Not from the Onion, but I had to check.

a strange pattern began popping up among people diagnosed with mania, a state of hyper excitement, arousal, and delusion frequently followed by periods of severe depression in people who have bipolar disorder. Compared to the control group, people with a manic episode reported eating more cured meats such as beef jerky. Overall, they found that people with a recent history of eating cured meat were three times more likely to be hospitalized for mania, even after adjusting for factors like age or socioeconomic status. The same pattern couldn’t be seen with any other type of food eaten.

As for how jerky could be triggering mania, Yolken suspects it involves the microbial environment, or microbiome, of the gut. In a healthy person, the gut and brain regularly “talk” to one another through hormonal and nerve signals to keep the body regulated, the so-called gut-brain axis. In recent years, researchers have started to find that our gut microbiota is integral to keeping those airwaves clear. But if the gut microbiome is imbalanced (through changes in diet or antibiotics, for instance), that might set off a chain of events that wreaks havoc on both the brain and gut, often through chronic inflammation. This inflammation then might make people more susceptible to developing mental illness, or worsening its symptoms.

And indeed, when Yolken’s team looked at the guts of nitrate-fed rats, they found clear changes in the gut microbiome, in the form of an increase of certain kinds of bacteria, compared to normal rats. Those particular bacteria have previously been associated with behavior and cognition changes in animals. There was also evidence of minute molecular changes in the brain associated with mania in these rats, though Yolken cautioned that the results can’t prove that the gut changes led to the brain changes. They also can’t prove that nitrates are responsible for any similar changes in people.

Jerky is not my thing, but I wonder if the effect extends to cured meats like salami?

And of course the obvious question: Does Trump eat jerky?

Posted in Onion/Not-Onion, Science/Medicine | Leave a comment

Parody Project

Parody Project’s “Confounds the Sciednce”, says David Brin, is “One of the best pieces of musical political satire I’ve seen in years!“:

Parody Project are prolific. Leaving the science tag, I like What Does the Gun Say?, Where Have all the Statesmen Gone?, The Age that Will Bury Us, and Battle Hymn of the Republic – Modified for Relevance:

There’s lots more where that came from.

Posted in Kultcha, Science/Medicine, Trump | Leave a comment