Invisible Etiology

Violence on the Decline

From Monday’s Washington Post:

The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

Full article is here, in which more sensible police approaches are given credit for the decline.…

Shadows and Strings

Shadows live in a simple world. They glide effortlessly across any sort of surface, oblivious to the higher dimension of space in which 3-D bodies move, collide and sometimes block the paths of rays of light.

Shadows have no idea how important that third dimension is, and how objects in it endow those very shadows with their quasi-physical existence. Indeed, the laws of shadow physics all depend on the third dimension’s presence. And just as the clueless inhabitants of the shadow world require an extra dimension to explain how they exist and interact, reality for humans may also depend on an invisible dimension or dimensions unknown.

A Meditation on Biological Modeling

This is not my meditation, it was created by Cellucidate:…

The Diamond Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  TED Prize Wish winner, Karen Armstrong, even laudably proposed that a Charter for Compassion based on the observation that all three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have the Golden Rule at their core.

I do believe that if we all followed the Golden Rule as the basis for how we treat one another the world would be a better place.  But I also think there is a a more fundamental rule, call it the Diamond Rule, which is even better:

Treat others as you believe they would want you to treat them, if they knew everything that you did.

The difference is subtle, and may not practically speaking yield different action that often.  But when it does, the difference can be significant.…


Yesterday, from the Director of the National Cancer Institute, addressing one of the two largest cancer research conferences of the year:

NCI commenced a series of workshops that began to bring aspects of the physical sciences to the problem of cancer. We discussed how physical laws governing short-range and other forces, energy flows, gradients, mechanics, and thermodynamics affect cancer, and how the theories of Darwinian and somatic evolution can better help us understand and control cancer.

Read more on my Cancer Complexity Forum post.…

Cold Fusion

I remember reading this Wired article in 1998 suggesting that the “debunking” of cold fusion may have been way premature.  Last night, 60 Minutes did a pretty convincing piece claiming that more than 20 labs around the world have reported “excess heat” from cold fusion experiments:

Click here for the full story. Watch here.

It’s interesting to me that the best skeptic they could find on the subject (Richard Garwin) was thoroughly unconvincing, simply asserting that there must be a measurement problem, without he himself daring to go measure.  You’d think it would be worth a looksy.  More interesting still was the independent expert in measuring energy (Rob Duncan) who came in as a total skeptic and came out as a believer.

But my favorite part of the story is near the end when Fleischmann (co-discoverer of cold fusion) appears to be having both a literal and figurative last laugh.  Man, what a bad beat he and Pons got.

Besides Garwin, who are the …

The Vanguard of Science: Bonnie Bassler

The import of this talk goes way beyond the specific and stunning work that Bassler and her team have done on quorum sensing.  In my mind, this is the prototype for good biological science:…

Victory Over "War on Terror"

For those of who understand the power of self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s some good news on the foreign policy front.  The Obama administration (thanks to Hillary Clinton) will not be using the phrase “war on terror” anymore, as it is widely deemed to be “overly militaristic and perhaps counterproductive.”  Amen!

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz


Tribes are hot.

Kevin has referred more than once to the famous Dunbar number for limits on optimal human tribe size.

One of my favorite books recently is Seth Godin’s book on leadership, called — you guessed it — Tribes.

Yesterday I heard a great talk by David Logan, co-author of Tribal Leadership.…

Crohn's Disease

Debbie Maier asks us on the Upcoming Topics page to address Crohn’s Disease.

I don’t know too much about it except that it’s an autoimmune disease and has a complex, multi-causal etiology and pathology.  In my reading on autoimmune diseases in general there seems to be a direct link between latitude an incidence.   Specifically, the farther from the equator you live the more likely you are to get Crohn’s, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and so on.…

Cancer as Evolution — 2008 Summary

Click here to read part 4 in this series.

As 2008 closes, it appears that momentum is picking up for the somatic evolution view of cancer.  Here are three recently published papers of note:

  • The Evolution of Cancer (Goymer, et al, Aug 2008, Nature)
  • Cancer Research Meets Evolutionary Biology (Pepper, et al, in press, 2008 Evolutionary Applications; Santa Fe Institute working paper)
  • Genome Based Cell Population Heterogeneity Promotes Tumorigenicity: The Evolutionary Mechanism of Cancer (Ye, et al, Dec 2008, Journal of Cellular Physiology)

Best Talk of Pop!Tech '08

The reason I like this talk so much (besides that it’s well-presented) is that it introduces us to the idea of invisible etiology.  Such a powerful concept, one that I feel has the power to help us solve so many mysteries, once we take it seriously.

Something that I’ve been thinking about lately: does homelessness have an invisible etiology (or etiologies), and if so, what is it?…

Cancer as Evolution, part 4

For those who missed the first three parts:

Any underlying theme of this thread is how reliance on reductionism causes us to miss the key invisible etiologies that are necessary to make progress on understanding, treating, detecting and preventing cancer.

In the first three parts of this series, I pointed out how the invisible etiology of somatic evolution has great explanatory and predictive power for oncology.  A new paper by some researchers on the vanguard of complex systems thinking shows how adding a complementary ecological model leads us to the promising approach of ecological therapy.

A Nature Review article published a couple of years ago summarizes the case for cancer as an evolutionary and ecological process

hat tip: David Basanta

Behavior and Emotions as Virus

We’ve talked about obesity as a virus and violence as a virus, both well-supported by the research.  Now there’s happiness as a virus.  Hardly a surprise, but I guess for new paradigms to become the accepted basis for organizing scientific thinking, they first have to become banal.  So let’s bring it on, what’s the next human behavior or emotion that will be featured in a “surprising”study showing a viral etiology?

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

The Emergent Universe

In a previous post I asked what you thought this was:


Here is the same system at different resolutions (lowest to highest):…

What Stops Terrorism

40% percent of terrorist groups are defeated by police and intelligence operations.  43% percent end because they give up violence and join the political process.  Only 7% end as a result of military force.

This according to the research of Seth Jones, as reported in the 2008 Genius edition of Esquire Magazine.…


An incidentaloma according to wikipedia is “a tumor (-oma) found by coincidence (incidental) without clinical symptoms or suspicion.”  The provocative NY Times article below suggests that indolent tumors (i.e. ones that do not need treatment) may come and go as a normal part of life.  With better detection tools, we are finding more and more of these.  However our protocol for dealing with tumors is based on a time when tumors found were almost always non-incidental, non-indolent and requiring of positive action (like surgery).  According to Dr. Donald A. Berry, chairman of the department of biostatistics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center:

It’s possible that we all have cells that are cancerous and that grow a bit before being dumped by the body. ‘Hell bent for leather’ early detection research will lead to finding some of them. What will be the consequence? Prophylactic removal of organs in the masses? It’s really scary.

The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism

The following is a recent paper by Henry Heng published in JAMA.  I’ve linked concepts mentioned in the paper to corresponding explications from this blog.

JAMA. 2008;300(13):1580-1581.
The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism
Henry H. Q. Heng, PhD
Author Affiliations: Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Descartes’ reductionist principle has had a profound influence on medicine. Similar to repairing a clock in which each broken part is fixed in order, investigators have attempted to discover causal relationships among key components of an individual and to treat those components accordingly. …

What is Cancer?

[ I’m asking for your help in answering this question, read past the fold to see how ]

In my post on invisible etiology, I challenged us all to be as open-minded as possible when dealing with our most complex problems, for this is the only way to make the invisible become visible.  Here’s where I attempt to practice what I preach.…

Invisible Etiology

One of the most poignant moments of this year’s Pop!Tech for me — which, BTW had many — was Gary Slutkin’s talk on the idea of violence being a virus.  You may have heard about his work in stopping violence in Chicago in a NY Times Magazine cover article earlier this year.  The premise is simple: if you throw out what you think you know about violence and just look at the etiology of how it manifests in the world, you find incredible similarities to the etiology of microbial viruses.  This includes not only how it spreads from person to person, but also the larger epidemiological patterns, and importantly, how it can be stopped via interventions which logically follow from the hypothesis that violence is a virus.  Not that violence is caused by those invisible critters we call viruses, but rather that violence itself is a virus.…