Inoculating Against the Anti-Vaccine Meme

The debate over vaccination is raging (c.f. Wired article) and it smacks of one of those conundrums that is unlikely to get resolved by scientific inquiry.  I offer the following hypothesis and a way out of the dilemma.

Hypothesis: Vaccination is something that is good at the societal level but bad at the individual level.  That is, it is a tragedy of the commons.  You want all your neighbors to get vaccinated so they don’t pass on the germs to you, but there is enough risk from the vaccination process (at least for certain ones) that you’d rather not do it yourself.

The mathematics of the commons tragedies suggests that there are two ways out.   One is to change the payout/incentive structure, in other words, make the vaccine’s less risky to the individual, or at least change the perception of the individual risk (as the Wired article suggests).  The problem with manipulating perception is, what if you’re wrong?  The marketplace of ideas …

The Link Between Food & Healthcare Reform

Also must-read this Sunday is Michael Pollan’s NY Times Op-Ed piece from Wednesday.  Nice cap to my week of ranting on the dismantling of rationality when it comes to lifestyle choices that directly impact one’s health, here and here.…

“Bad people do bad things”

In listening to this account of Hemant Lakhani, convicted in 2005 of illegal arms dealing, I was reminded of another This American Life episode about Brandon Darby.  Underlying both stories are accounts of seemingly incompetent, misguided, would-be bad guys who were actualized on a path of evildoing by law-enforcement agents during sting operations.

What I found most interesting was the quote in the title of this post, said by the prosecutor in the Lakhani case.  This was his justification for why it was okay to have the U.S. military supply Lakhani the weapon that he was convicted of illegally dealing.  (If you listen to the story you will learn that Lakhani had been making promises to the informant of being able to procure weapons for a long time and he’d been unsuccessful on his own).

While it seems on the surface that “bad people do bad things” — i.e. that’s how bad things get done, they require a bad person to do them — …

Rafe Issues Challenge to Statin Industry

I have been trying to get the straight scoop on whether statins actually decrease mortality and morbidity in a significant way and I haven’t been able to find any real evidence that they do.

If you ask a cardiologist it’s clear that they believe unequivocally that statins work, mostly because they see what statins to do blood cholesterol levels.  But remember, cholesterol numbers in and of themselves do not matter.  They are a proxy variable for cardiovascular health.  Plaque buildup matters.  At one time blood cholesterol numbers were the only non-invasive indicator we had of plaque buildup, but that’s not true anymore.  However, drug companies are highly incentivized to prove that statins improve health.  So they fund lots of studies.

Notwithstanding the systemic bias when there are profit motives and publication motives, we can turn to these studies and see if statins actually work.  The best way to remove bias is to look at large-scale meta-analyses, like this one.  If you simply read the …

Should You Use Sunscreen?

This is a very complex topic, as the following talk suggests:

The main takeaways from this that I got are:

  1. Cancers for which sunlight deficit is a risk factor are orders of magnitude more prevalent than the few for which overexposure is a risk factor.
  2. People who are using sunscreen regularly are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be.
  3. We should be very careful and sparing about recommending sunscreen usage or sun avoidance, and always temper such advice with the tradeoffs of not getting enough sunlight.

As someone who wonders on a regular basis whether the public has the right information to make informed decisions about health-related tradeoffs, I am curious… does the above strike you as surprising?  What do you currently do regarding sun exposure, and are you likely to change anything based on the above?  What do you think the overall message that reaches the masses is regarding sun exposure?…

Celiac Disease on the Rise

According to a new report in Gastroenterology (July 09), Celiac Disease is now 4 times more common in the US than it was during the 1950’s. The disease results from an intolerance to the protein gluten, found in wheat, barley, and rye.  When celiac patients consume gluten, they suffer an inflammatory reaction within the small intestine that can lead to a host of manifestations, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, infertility, malnutrition, and premature osteoporosis.  It can develop at any age and is frequently misdiagnosed or undiagnosed because of its non-specific symptoms.  Based on this new evaluation, about 1 in 100 people have it and many are not aware.  Anyone with chronic gastrointestinal complaints or any of the features listed above, should be screened for this disease.  A simple blood test can determine the diagnosis in most cases.  Treatment entails lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet.  The “silver lining” for folks diagnosed with Celiac disease is that it largely and forever commits them to

Something Fishy About Mercury

Here is a fascinating discussion on NPR’s Forum from earlier this year on the subject of mercury and fish:

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If you’ve listened to this the whole way through (which you should), I’m curious as to how it will affect your habits, if at all.  And why?…

Cancer as a Complex Adaptive System

Heng, et al recently published a review paper that brings together and touches on many different aspects of cancer complexity.  I thought this an opportunity to selectively quote the paper and organize the quotes loosely around various complex systems concepts they relate to.  I’m curious whether this makes sense to readers of this blog, or whether there’s too much unexplained jargon and too many large conceptual leaps.  Please ask questions or make comments freely below.

One preface I think will help is to understand that genome, karyotype and chromosome refer roughly to the same thing.  Here are several schematics that I will present without explanation that together illustrate how genes relate to genome/karyotype/chromosome structure, and how that in turn relates to the so-called genetic network (loosely equivalent to the “proteome”).  Of course “gene” is an outdated and inaccurate concept, so don’t get too hung up looking for genes here, just understand that they are sub-structural elements of the genome.

From MSU website

Newcomb's Meta-Paradox

Tweeter, Claus Metzner (@cmetzner) alerted me to this cool area of study with this paper.

Suppose you meet a Wise being (W) who tells you it has put $1,000 in box A, and either $1 million or nothing in box B. This being tells you to either take the contents of box B only, or to take the contents of both A and B. Suppose further that the being had put the $1 million in box B only if a prediction algorithm designed by the being had said that you would take only B. If the algorithm had predicted you would take both boxes, then the being put nothing in box B.  Presume that due to determinism, there exists a perfectly accurate prediction algorithm. Assuming W uses that algorithm, what choice should you make?…

Stability Through Instability

A friend pointed me to a doubly prescient talk given by George Soros in 1994 about his theory of reflexivity in the markets.  Essentially Soros notes that there’s feedback in terms of what agents believe about the market and how the market behaves.  Not groundbreaking, but he takes this thinking to some logical conclusions which are in contrast to standard economic theory:…

Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS

With his permission, I am posting an email thread between myself and Alfred Hubler.  I had contacted him on the recommendation of John Miller when Kevin and I were posting on the possibility of dampening boom-bust cycles in the financial markets through policy or other mechanisms.  Here’s what Hubler had to say:…

Placebos Work Even If You Don't Believe in Them

This is one of the most important medical “breakthroughs” in recent memory.  You should read the entire article, because it makes some subtle points, but the upshot is that placebo has (at least) two components, one that is triggered by conscious belief in a putative cure, and another that is triggered by unconscious, Pavlovian association.…

Preventing Cancer Through DNA Replacement?

On the Cancer Complexity forum, I pose a question: if we could somehow replace all the damaged DNA in each of the cells of your body with an undamaged copy on a continuous basis, would that prevent you from getting cancer?

What do you think?…

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.…

Individual vs. Systemic Causation

George Lakoff wrote an interesting piece on yesterday called The Obama Code.  I will focus on one of the sections in particular because it articulates something I’ve suspected for a while, but I’ve never heard anyone else give credence to the notion.  Which is that one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. is that conservatives give more weight to individual, autonomous actors and actions in their view of how the world works, and liberals tend to give more weight to systemic causation and interdependency:…

Micro –> Macro –> Micro, etc.

Kevin has a few threads regarding the effect that micro behaviors have when aggregated to macro behaviors:

It occurred to me as I was reading this Huffington Post article that there is a reverse-emergent dynamic that occurs when countries (often through their leaders) send signals to other countries through word and action.…

Coffee Linked to Lower Dementia Risk

The NY Times reports.

Here’s my theory:  someone who drinks more than three cups of coffee a day can’t possibly sit still and actually gets their ass off the couch and does shit, thereby stimulating the body and brain, a known and powerful way to reduce dementia risk.

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

Third-Hand Smoke

Thanks to Daniel Horowitz for alerting me to third-hand smoke.  I guess then if you pass on epigentic mutations to your children from third-hand smoke exposure it’s called fourth-hand smoke?…

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.…

Encoding Life's Complexity

Will Wright’s demo of Spore illustrates some key concepts of complex systems, including the notion of simple rules generating complex behaviors, and also the power of recursively applied (i.e. fractal) computation at different levels.  Living systems leverage these same principles.…

Complex Systems Concept Summary

I figured it was time for a reset and so the following is a summary of much of the foundational posting that I’ve done on this blog so far.  As always, a work in progress, subject to refinement and learning……