Saturday, June 30, 2007

Darn the Right Wing Pundits

The other night Jon Stewart on the Daily Show skewered the right wing news commentator who had argued against the proposed immigration bill saying that immigrants were bring leprosy and tuberculosis into the United States and that they were criminals, smugglers, homosexuals, and other bad things. I do not listen to these guys, and was shocked. How can we allow such misinformation to circulate. Of course there is freedom of speech, but the media should also drop from their payrolls the false pundits that spread misinformation. Congratulations to the Daily Show for holding the offenders up to ridicule. They deserve it, and the ridicule may help reduce their power to misinform the credulous (of whom we have all to many, if the polls showing continuing pockets of support for the Bush administration are to be believed.)

Just for the record, the United States records about 200 to 300 new cases of leprosy a year, less than one per million inhabitants, and there is no evidence that those new cases are immigrants or caught the disease from immigrants. Moreover, the disease is treatable by modern drugs, and is not that fearsome. Indeed, in the past many skin conditions were mistaken for leprosy, and the disease generated an unwarranted fear in people. It is in fact not highly communicable.

The fear mongers not only showed their disdain for their audience, they probably put their ignorance on display!

TB is a global problem, and one that deserves more support from the United States. Too bad the right wing pundits did not suggest the United States provide more foreign assistance to fight TB where the prevalence is high (and more research on the disease) rather than suggesting we try to protect ourselves by limiting immigration. Indeed, if one were really worried about TB in immigrants, the best solution would be to provide immigrants a legal status that would encourage and allow them to seek public health services. We have 12,000,000 illegal immigrants in the country, and more coming every day. Would it not be better to have legal immigration (heavily oriented towards knowledge workers who would contribute to our society and be unlikely to carry communicable diseases), and to have compulsory health screening for the immigrants? If the only path to the United States is illegal immigration, large numbers of people will immigrate illegally, and some of them will bring with them a burden of communicable disease. This is probably not a big problem, but the way to end it is to reform immigration laws as the Congress just failed to do!

The Arts as Ways of Creating and Conveying Knowledge

Guillermo del Toro, the man behind Pan's Labyrinth, said recently that his pictures were more about theme than about character development or story; that the images on the screen (presumably with the sound track) can convey information about the characters in the film that would have required alternative dramatic techniques on the stage or in a book.

Paul Simon, the song writer and singer, said recently that occasionally, as when he found the key melodic line for Bridge over Troubled Waters, he feels as if he is the agent of something flowing through himself; that the product is so different from his usual that it seems to come from a place he does not know. He described a complex process starting with the rhythm, then to the melody, to the harmonic structure, to the words, to develop a complete piece. He described that creative process to be in some way comparable to the process by which a painter creates his art, or a scientist his products. He supposes that each has a comparable feeling on accomplishing a new creation.

Of course there is craft knowledge -- how to compose a symphony or a song, how to make a painting or sculpture, how to write a novel or perform a play or film. All this knowledge is important, and all of it has been the subject of much study, codified in books and training programs for practioners. But that is not the knowledge about which I wish to write now.

Nor am I talking about the use of arts in the support of science and technology; although I do think sometimes that scientific illustration rises to the level of art as in the case of Audubon's illustrations of birds. Indeed, many scientific illustrators seem to me to draw heavily on the crafts of the visual artists to produce images that are quite beautiful. Is their work less art because it conveys scientific information than was the painting of renaissance artists who conveyed religious information?

While science and technology writing is often so limited by the conventions of professional journals as to be anything but artistic, books by social scientists do seem to be rise to the level of literature in some cases. Think of the work of anthropologists for example, describing traditional cultures. Popular science or popular technology, describing these fields for a general audience, seems also sometimes to rise to the level of genre literature.

This blog has focused on science and technology, and the creation, sharing and dissemination of scientific and technological knowledge. I wish in retrospect that I had focused more on art and literature as vehicles for knowledge creation and sharing.

It seems to me quite obvious that can we learn from literature and drama, and thus that they convey information which we can turn into knowledge. Indeed, I think critical review and audience acceptance, especially over historical time, provide systems to validate the knowledge contained in these arts. Would Shakespeare have remained popular for five centuries had the plays not seemed to convey some deep truths? In some cases, these arts can convey rather descriptive information, as in the cases of historical plays and novels, which we could alternatively find from narrative historical works. In other cases, the arts help us to understand how people are and how they behave, teaching by example; the knowledge orten tacit rather than explicit.

So too, the visual arts have been for centuries a means for informing the viewer. They tell us how people, places and things look that we have never seen. They can also tell stories, as was done by the church muralists in the Middle Ages to instruct and inform the illiterate public of the time. As the expressionists so clearly taught us, paintings can convey information about the emotional import of something as well as about its actual appearance. Photography, in the hands of artists, has taught us about seeing in the instant that to which we in the past failed to attend.

I think too, that the creation of art can be an act of discovery. The novelist can produce a book that will express knowledge that he/she can convey in no other way, discovering things about the world and him/herself in the process. Indeed, there can be a social construction of knowledge in the process, as editor(s) and writer(s) collaborate, critics clarify, and readers discuss a novel. I must suppose that Shakespeare learned about the world in creating the plays, and that hundreds of millions of people have learned from the elaboration of those plays by thousands of directors and actors, not to mention critics and scholars who analyzed the plays, and teachers who taught them in the classroom (and via the media). I suppose that what a modern audience learns from Shakespeare is in many ways different than what an Elizabethan audience would have learned, if only because our culture has been changed by Shakespeare, internalizing knowledge within the culture itself.

Biological Diversity

During Charlie Rose's conversation with Paul Simon on PBS they talked about E. O. Wilson. If anyone does not know, Wilson is a world expert on ants, the controversial author of the theory of sociobiology, and a double Pulitzer Prize winner. He is also perhaps the smartest person I have ever met, and I have met some very smart people, including about a dozen Nobel Prize winning scientists. However, I think of Professor Wilson first as probably the world's most influential advocate for the preservation of biodiversity. It occurred to me that I should write to support him in that effort. Among his other works, Wilson has published these on biodiversity:
We don't really know much about biodiversity. We have a pretty good count on the number of species of animals, but we find new species even of primates from time to time. We can estimate the number of plant species and are moving toward an inventory of those species. Estimates of the numbers of insect species on earth are quite rough, and there is a long way to go to identify and describe all those species. As far as I can see, we can make only the crudest estimates of the number of microbial species, and we can not culture most of them, much less describe them adequately.

New techniques in genetics are improving our understanding of the diversity of life. We are learning, for example, that scientists had in the past misidentified similar appearing species as one because their appearance belied their underlying genetic differences which would prevent interbreeding. The new techniques offer the possibility of understanding within species genetic diversity. Indeed, it is the new techniques which are for the first time allowing us to estimate the diversity of microbial species.

Evolution tells us that species come and go. There are always new species coming into existence and species going extinct. Mankind has, especially in recent history, changed the rate of extinction of species. Once, say before Columbus, of species plants and animals evolved separately on the different continents, and in "island ecosystems" so separated as to prevent migration among enclaves with similar ecological conditions. Mankind changed that situation, moving species from area to area, often inadverantly. More importantly, we have modified ecologies to meet the needs of our own, planting huge areas with monocultures of useful crops. We have allowed huge areas that we could not use or could no longer use to degrade environmentally. Global climate change will exacerbate the situation, and almost certainly the growing human population and the growing footprint of the average human being will lead to further, faster environmental degradation.

As a result, species are going extinct at a very high rate and that rate can be expected to increase during this century. Unless mankind acts force to preserve biodiversity, we can expect to see a considerable reduction in the number of species of animals, plants and insects in the next hundred year.

Why is this important? First the wanton destruction of biodiversity is wildly imprudent. We don't understand ecology well enough to predict the impact of the radical simplification of the biosphere on human wellbeing. We have only this one earth on which to live, and if we screw it up......

It has been said that world history is written in shifting sands. Civilization after civilization has fallen when its environment could no longer sustain its population with the technology it had in hand. The tipping point may be a climatological anomaly -- e.g. persistent drought or a little ice age -- but the problem comes from over use of the environment. The ruins of the civilization found in the desert which it helped to create. Now that we are developing a global civilization, we will have nowhere to move if we destroy the environment on which it depends.

I think we are about to see a biological revolution. Evolution has stocked the world with an enormous wealth of genetic diversity. Mankind is just beginning to unlock the keys to understanding that diversity, and will surely make enormous strides in learning how to utilize genes to benefit humans. Each species is like an encyclopedia of genetic information, created through eons of time. Each species lost is lost forever, and all that information is never to be regained. The rapid extinction of species will limit the scientific knowledge we can produce, and it will limit the ways in which we can exploit genes for man's benefit. The ramifications will be felt in medicine, agriculture (including forestry and aquaculture), and industrial processing.

There is also what might be termed an aesthetic reason to maintain biodiversity. People like having the ecosystems that we are losing. We find them beautiful. We enjoy the diversity of life. We mourn not only the loss of "charismatic mega-species" when they are reduced in numbers or go extinct, but also individuals of those species. Think of the efforts to save whales that find themselves in dangerous human dominated waters, or the sadness when a favored zoo animal passes away. We enjoy seeing a beautiful specimen tree, a flock of birds, or a butterfly.

Ultimately, it seems morally wrong to wantonly destroy the diversity of life on earth. By what right does man do so? How we will be judged by future generations if we leave them a denuded world bereft of biodiversity?

What are we to do to protect biodiversity. Certainly science is a priority. We have to devote the resources to understand biodiversity and how it can be managed and protected. Certainly too, we have to develop public policies at national and international levels to stop environmental degradation and protect biodiversity. We must protect immediately those biodiversity hot spots that are endangered. (Tropical areas have more diversity than areas further from the equator, and some areas for geographical and ecological regions have very high numbers of species found no where else in the world. Unfortunately, some of these areas are gravely threatened by encroaching human use or environmental destruction. This combination of threat and diversity calls out for an emergency response.) More fundamentally, we must move towards policies that provide long-term protection for the environment and biodiversity.

The failures of the United States government to do so are especially sad, given that as the world's most wasteful nation we cause a disproportionate part of the problem, and as the world's greatest economic and military power, this nation could -- were it to choose to -- provide global leadership in this good cause.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Climate Change versus Global Warming

The western states of the United States are suffering a drought of historical proportions, as are parts of Australia and Greece. England is suffering torrential rains as are parts of Australia. Huge areas of Africa are undergoing desertification, only partially as a result of mismanagement of the land. I suspect that we are seeing changes in the climate in these regions -- changes which are occurring much faster than those of prehistory because they are induced by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because of human activity (and perhaps other human induced changes in the environment).

The point I am making is that climate is a local condition, not a global one. England and Greece both have climates and they are quite different one from the other. It is possible for one part of Europe to become dryer and one to become wetter as a result of the same global changes.

Climate change need not be radical to cause major problems. A Mediterranean climate such as that in southern California does not need to change to a Saharan climate for the natural vegitation to wither and die, and for forest fires to become a major threat. Nor does it have to change to a wet climate like that in the south of Chile for farmers to have to abandon the practices that they have been using successfully and change to new varieties or even new crops.

Global warming will not progress by making everywhere a little bit warmer. All the models seem to indicate that instead there will be some areas that will become drier and some wetter, some warmer and some cooler. Lots of countries will probably experience fairly large climate changes, which will average out globally into a smaller average change. Unfortunately, the larger local changes will be what people actually feel, and what will affect the farmers and disease vectors.

Of course there will be changes that are global. As sea level rises, low coastal areas will be inundated everywhere that people are not able to afford expensive barriers to the sea.

Indeed, even if some unexpected factors reduce the rise in global average temperature, such as an increase in cloud cover reflecting more sunlight, there would be large areas of climate change, such as areas having more cloud cover.

Perhaps "global warming" is not as good a term as "climate change" to describe what we are worrying about.Perhaps we are not so much worried about "global climate change" as a global pattern of local climate changes.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Assessing the risk of a criminal reoffending gives poor results"

Read "Crime Prediction: The Jailers Dilemma" in The Economist, June 23-29, 2007.

The article states:
Risk assessments are routinely used to help decide who should be locked up, who should undergo therapy and who should go free. In America such tests are used when sentencing sex offenders and killers who may receive a death sentence. In Britain the tests help psychiatrists and psychologists determine whether someone should be held under the new laws that allow someone suspected of being dangerous to be detained indefinitely. Risk prediction is also set to be used to assess the threat posed by people ranging from terrorist suspects to potential delinquents.

Stephen Hart, of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues decided to determine how accurate these tests are when applied to individuals rather than groups. Typically the tests work by assigning a score to people depending on factors such as their age, the history of their relationships, their criminal past and the type of victims they have chosen. If someone's score places him in a group in which a known proportion has gone on to commit a crime on release from detention, then the risk that person will prove a recidivist is thought to be similar to the risk for the group as a whole.
Dr Hart and his colleagues focused on two popular tests that follow this logic.
They found that variations between members of the groups were very large. In one of the tests, for example, the standard estimate of the chances of members of the group sexually reoffending was put at 36% within 15 years. They calculated that the actual range was between 30% and 43% of the group, with a 95% confidence level. But calculating the average probability for a group is much easier than calculating the same probability for any individual. Thus, using standard methods to move from group inferences to individual ones, they calculated that the chance of any one person reoffending was in the range of 3% to 91%, similarly with a 95% confidence level. Clearly, the seemingly precise initial figure is misleading.
Comment: A great caution to use care in the interpretation of statistics. A study that may show a correlation between social and economic conditions and the propensity to commit crimes may be useful as a rationale for eliminating the unfortunate social and economic conditions, or even for mitigating the blame attached to people from those conditions who commit crimes, but it does not mean that all people from unfortunate social and economic backgrounds are criminals. JAD

It is time to bring the power of computers to drug safety

Read the Editorial titled "Fixing the Drug Laws" by Donald Kennedy in Science magazine, 22 June 2007.

Donald Kennedy, who really ought to know says we need to increase funding for the U.S. Federal Drug Administration, change "user fees", improve the situation with antibiotics which are too often becoming ineffective ("deaths from the 1918 influenza epidemic were largely from untreated infections--a chilling prospect as we await possible repetition of such an epidemic"). He also focuses on monitoring adverse drug reactions, calling for publication on the Internet of data provided to FDA in the approval process, and stating
that the United States lacks a system that is adequately tuned to detect adverse reactions. That measure requires a numerator and a denominator: the number of reported adverse events divided by the number of prescriptions issued. The FDA knows neither. Event reporting is voluntary, yielding a record of dubious reliability, and there's no national prescription record. That's why the FDA had to use Kaiser, a large health maintenance organization, to find an adequate database for evaluating the safety of Vioxx.
Comment: It is now time to have a national registry of what drugs are being prescribed and what people are having reactions that might be adverse reactions to prescribed drugs. Computers are up to the job, and statisticians soon will be up to the job of analyzing such data. JAD

Senator Luger's Speech -- A Change of Course in Iraq

Read the press release from the Senator's office with his speech.

I just wanted to add my voice to what I hope is a massive outpouring of support for Senator Luger's approach. This nation needs a bipartisan approach to foreign policy, and leaders from both parties should work together at this junction to do what is best for the nation, not necessarily what is best for their individual parties.

The speech seems very well reasoned from a clear perception of the facts. Of the many people more expert than I on foreign policy who have written on U.S. policy in Iraq, Senator Luger in this speech seems among the most worthy of our attention.

I would only suggest that the U.S. responsibility to the Iraqi people needs to be recognized in our foreign policy. If one can believe Lancet, one of the world's foremost medical journals, some 675,000 people have died in Iraq unnecessarily after our invasion (more now, since the article was published some time ago.) It was earlier estimated that some 300,000 children had died in the 1990s as a result of the first Iraq war and the sanctions. Millions have had to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in Iraq or abroad. The vast majority of those people constituted no threat to the people of the United States. I think that we owe the survivors something since their suffering was due to our (probably injudicious and disproportional) actions to protect ourselves.

The Klamath River Salmon Kill

Read "Leaving No Tracks" by Jo Becker and Barton Gellman, The Washington Post, June 27, 2007.

In April 2001, with the agricultural region drawing water from the Klamath River was gripped by a serious drought, studies by federal government scientists concluded unequivocally that drawing water from the river for irrigation would harm federally protected species of fish, violating the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Bureau of Reclamation stopped irrigation to protect the fish. "Bush and Cheney couldn't afford to anger thousands of solidly Republican farmers and ranchers during the midterm elections and beyond." Vice President Cheney personally contacted the Department of the Interior, expressing concern for the matter. Rather than go against the Fish and Wildlife Service recommendations, he help arrange for the National Academy of Sciences to set a panel to scrutinize the work of the FWS biologists who wanted to protect the fish.

"Cheney got what he wanted when the science academy delivered a preliminary report finding "no substantial scientific foundation" to justify withholding water from the farmers......seizing on the report's draft findings, the Bureau of Reclamation immediately submitted a new decade-long plan to give the farmers their full share of water."
When the lead biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service team critiqued the science academy's report in a draft opinion objecting to the plan, the critique was edited out by superiors and his objections were overruled, he said. The biologist, Michael Kelly, who has since quit the federal agency, said in a whistle-blower claim that it was clear to him that "someone at a higher level" had ordered his agency to endorse the proposal regardless of the consequences to the fish.

Months later, the first of an estimated 77,000 dead salmon began washing up on the banks of the warm, slow-moving river. Not only were threatened coho dying -- so were chinook salmon, the staple of commercial fishing in Oregon and Northern California. State and federal biologists soon concluded that the diversion of water to farms was at least partly responsible.

Fishermen filed lawsuits and courts ruled that the new irrigation plan violated the Endangered Species Act. Echoing Kelly's objections, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit observed that the 10-year plan wouldn't provide enough water for the fish until year nine. By then, the 2005 opinion said, "all the water in the world" could not save the fish, "for there will be none to protect." In March 2006, a federal judge prohibited the government from diverting water for agricultural use whenever water levels dropped beneath a certain point.

Last summer, the federal government declared a "commercial fishery failure" on the West Coast after several years of poor chinook returns virtually shut down the industry, opening the way for Congress to approve more than $60 million in disaster aid to help fishermen recover their losses. That came on top of the $15 million that the government has paid Klamath farmers since 2002 not to farm, in order to reduce demand.

The science academy panel, in its final report, acknowledged that its draft report was "controversial," but it stood by its conclusions. Instead of focusing on the irrigation spigot, it recommended broad and expensive changes to improve fish habitat.
Comment: What bothers me most about this story is the National Academy of Sciences report. Certainly the National Academy of Science panels can not always be right, but this story suggests that the NAS did not exercise proper diligence in selecting a balanced, expert panel and subjecting its reports to proper review to assure accuracy. I hope that inference is wrong!

I remember salmon fishing at the mouth of the Klamath river as a boy. It was the experience to remember for a lifetime! It makes me recognize how much people who may never enjoy a natural environment can value the simple knowledge that it remains there to be enjoyed, if only by others. JAD

The Interim Report of the National Academy

The Final Report of the National Academy

Monday, June 25, 2007

High-Tech Titans Strike Out on Immigration Bill - New York Times

High-Tech Titans Strike Out on Immigration Bill - New York Times:

"Bill Gates and Steven A. Ballmer of Microsoft have led a parade of high-tech executives to Capitol Hill, urging lawmakers to provide more visas for temporary foreign workers and permanent immigrants who can fill critical jobs.

"Google has reminded senators that one of its founders, Sergey Brin, came from the Soviet Union as a young boy. To stay competitive in a “knowledge-based economy,” company officials have said, Google needs to hire many more immigrants as software engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists."

Comment: I would rather have the next Sergey Brin and similarly qualified software experts working in my country than in another. They will seed prosperity with their work. If they don't come to the United States, the Internet will bring the work to them wherever they are. And indeed, there will be a virtual brain drain, as they will work on the problems of the companies and counties that pay them, wherever they are. But in the long run, they will build the ICT capacity most of the countries where they locate geographically. JAD

Book Review: Better Medical Practice is Not Rocket Science

I have posted a review of Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande on the Development Gateway.

The brief, easy-to-read book provides the Gawande's observations on how to improve public health and medical practice, with examples from developing countries as well as the United States. Gawande says improving medical practice “does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try”

The book emphasizes the importance of developing appropriate indicators of patient outcomes, of monitoring those outcomes, and of managing service delivery actively to improve performance. I take from his book the lesson that improving the management of the health care delivery system may be even more important in terms of technological improvements than replication or scale-up of pilot projects or explicit efforts to diffuse successful innovations. This lesson should generalize to other sectors beside health!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The National Academies | News | EPA Models Should Undergo 'Life-Cycle' Evaluation

The National Academies | News | EPA Models Should Undergo 'Life-Cycle' Evaluation:

"Although the computer-model results behind many U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations will always be constrained by computational limitations, assumptions, and data gaps, models can be improved through continuous evaluation, says a new National Research Council report. Peer review should be considered at each stage of a model's life, uncertainties should be communicated clearly, and all stakeholders should be ensured access to information about the models, the report adds."

Comment: On the one hand, computer models can be the best available tool to make predictions about environmental problems and to evaluate alternative courses of action. On the other hand, they are too often opaque and give inaccurate predictions.

The modelers have to get the theory right and get adequate data, and then get the model right. Validation is important, but so too is expert judgment. Indeed, the discipline imposed on modelers who know that they must subject their work to peer review is itself important.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Search Engine Indicators

Wikipedia: Information retrieval
This is the Wikipedia entry for information retrieval. Note that it includes definitions for key indicators used for evaluating information retrieval systems: precision, recall, fallout, F-measure, and average precision.
It seems that most of the published work done on indicators dealing with search engines is directed to companies interested in finding how highly their webpages show up in the list of responses when a search engine in queried. Since most product queries are generic, the company is interested in how well it shows up relevant to other companies for generic queries for products that the company could supply.

There is also a set of indicators for data and information bases, designed to indicate how well the software will answer questions put to the information base. Thus "precision" is the portion of retrieved documents that are relevant, and "recall" is the portion of the relevant documents that are identified in response to a request.

The Internet differs from a data or information base in obvious ways. One is that queries are not intended usually to return specific individual websites, but rather to search cyberspace and return the most relevant website, preferably in order of relevance. It is important that the list of returns not contain large numbers of irrelevant webpages. Since cyberspace is so large and people seldom go far down in the list of responses to a question, there is little value in measures comparable to "recall"; who cares whether 100,000 or 1,000,000 responses are returned to a general query. I would also suggest that relevance might better be considered a continuous variable rather than an either or variable. So one might consider an indicator of the total relevance values for the first five or ten returns from a search.

Google News is an example of a search engine that clusters responses. Since many news service stories are picked up by many organizations for posting on the web, either the same or slightly different stories may show up many times. Google News would gather all such stories in one group and go on to another response or group. Thus one would perhaps want a number that represents the overall information on the topic of interest provided by the first five or ten responses. (E.g. what percentage of the information being sought was included in those responses taken as a group.)

It is clear that not all information on the Internet is equally valid. It would be nice to have search engines that could return estimates of the quality of the data provided on the returned URLs. Thus I am interested not only in how complete the answer is to my query, but also how much confidence I should have in that answer.

It is clear that different people have different levels of skill in searching the Internet using Google or other search engines. Thus an indicator of search quality might be as well used to measure search capabilities of users as of the quality of response from search engines.

I note that as a user of search engines, I am not only interested in whether or not I get a useful response in the first search, but whether I can find what I want through a sequence of searches.

Is it then possible to construct some indicators that would be useful? Perhaps one could have panels of people use a search engine periodically and report on their experience. They might estimate the degree of completeness of the response to a set of queries and their estimate of the confidence in the information provided. Trends in the average over time might well serve as a means of monitoring the improvement of quality of the search engine.

A Series of Essays by Michael Gorman

Capricho nº 43, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

Go to the website for the series on the Britanica Blog.

This series is to include three two-part essays, as part of Britannica’s “Web 2.0″ forum. The essays deal with the quality of information that can be obtained from the World Wide Web with emphasis on the performance of search engines. They appear to be controversial, and I would say thought provoking.

Here are some excerpts:
Cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s Dr. Nathan Null, “a White House Situational Science Adviser,” tells us that: “Situational science is about respecting both sides of a scientific argument, not just the one supported by facts.”.....

The Spanish artist Goya (1746-1828) experienced the turmoil of the Napoleonic years and the war that ravaged Europe, including Spain. His vision included a private world of nightmares. One of the most famous products of this vision was the etching Number 43 of the series Los caprichos (The Caprices, 1799); the etching is called El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstruos (”The sleep of reason brings forth monsters”). Goya is widely credited with having the clairvoyance of genius, and this image of the sleeping artist surrounded by the winged ghoulies and beasties unleashed by unreason has been seen as a prediction of, and warning about, the state of civilization in the two hundred years since.....

Information retrieval systems have been studied for many decades. In the course of that study two important criteria have been developed to evaluate such systems—those criteria are recall and relevance. The first measures the percentage of pertinent documents retrieved from a database (for example, if there are 100 documents on Zambian agriculture in a database and a search on that topic retrieves 76 of them, the recall is 76%). The second measures the supposed appropriateness of the documents that have been retrieved (for example, if you retrieve 100 documents when searching for Zambian agriculture and 76 of them are actually about Zambian agriculture, the relevance is 76%).

Information retrieval systems achieve high recall and relevance rates by the use of controlled vocabularies (indexing terms, etc.) and present the results of complex searches in a meaningful and usable order. By any of these criteria, Google and its like are miserable failures. A search on those engines on anything but the most minutely detailed topic will yield many thousands of “results” in no useful order and with wretched recall and relevance ratios. However, even when the documents retrieved by a search engine are on the subject sought, the quality of the material - often community-generated material that pops up high on a hit list because the material is free and easily accessible — is shoddy or irresponsible.....

There are three levels of research using texts. The first and most rigorous is enquiry using primary sources (documents and texts created during the time being studied or after that time by persons who were observers of the events in question) that seeks to establish new knowledge, change previously accepted knowledge, or synthesize existing knowledge to shed new light on a topic. The second is consulting authoritative secondary sources (scholarly books and articles, entries in reliable, expert-based encyclopedias, and others that describe or analyze a topic but are at least one step away from the actual event, written by authors with credentials, and published by reputable publishers) in order to acquire knowledge and understanding. The third, which scarcely deserves the title of research, consists of unorganized and serendipitous consultation of unauthoritative or uncertain sources (reading popular nonfiction, mass-market magazines, or “googling” a topic).
Comment: I have considerable sympathy for Gorman's concern for quality of information, and indeed for the need for high levels of information literacy required to sort good from bad information in the information rich cyberspace.

I would suggest that it is important to consider the costs and benefits of alternative means of finding information. As I was thinking about this, I wanted to find a quotation. I searched the Internet, and quickly got all that I needed. I did not need accuracy on the author of the quote, but only to know that it was out there and to refresh my mind on its specific wording. It would be silly to go to the library and do a detailed search to satisfy such a trivial urge. On the other hand, I think it quite appropriate for the president of the United States to order thousands of people in the government to do in depth studies, including the collection of original information, to decide whether or not to go to war; an Internet search does not suffice.

Quotation: Price and Value

CECIL GRAHAM. What is a cynic? [Sitting on the back of the sofa.]
LORD DARLINGTON. A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
CECIL GRAHAM. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing.

Oscar Wilde [Lady Windermere's Fan, Act 3]

Read this nice essay from the Language Log.

Friday, June 22, 2007

More on Abu Ghraib

Read "The General’s Report: How Antonio Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, became one of its casualties" by Seymore Hersh in The New Yorker, June 21, 2007.

The article paints the government as a murky place in which
  • people give deliberately unclear statements and orders in order to maintain the ability to deny involvement in doggy decisions,
  • people obfuscate and lie to cover up what they have done, and
  • those few who seek out and tell the truth are punished for doing so.
That is not a good environment for decision making in my book!

With regard to what the Secretary Rumsfeld knew about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and when he new it, Hersh says:
Taguba also knew that senior officials in Rumsfeld’s office and elsewhere in the Pentagon had been given a graphic account of the pictures from Abu Ghraib, and told of their potential strategic significance, within days of the first complaint. On January 13, 2004, a military policeman named Joseph Darby gave the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (C.I.D.) a CD full of images of abuse. Two days later, General Craddock and Vice-Admiral Timothy Keating, the director of the Joint Staff of the J.C.S., were e-mailed a summary of the abuses depicted on the CD. It said that approximately ten soldiers were shown, involved in acts that included:
Having male detainees pose nude while female guards pointed at their genitals; having female detainees exposing themselves to the guards; having detainees perform indecent acts with each other; and guards physically assaulting detainees by beating and dragging them with choker chains.
I note specifically about the President:
Whether the President was told about Abu Ghraib in January (when e-mails informed the Pentagon of the seriousness of the abuses and of the existence of photographs) or in March (when Taguba filed his report), Bush made no known effort to forcefully address the treatment of prisoners before the scandal became public, or to reëvaluate the training of military police and interrogators, or the practices of the task forces that he had authorized. Instead, Bush acquiesced in the prosecution of a few lower-level soldiers. The President’s failure to act decisively resonated through the military chain of command: aggressive prosecution of crimes against detainees was not conducive to a successful career.
But this quote from the book by L. Paul Bremer III where he is talking about January 16, 2004:
I made my way across the alley from the West Wing to the third floor of the Executive Office Building, where Vice President Cheney provided me an office. Dan Senor greeted me with the news that he'd just learned that a "terrible story" was about to break in Baghdad......

That afternoon in an Oval Office meeting on Iraq, the issue of the MP's alleged mistreatment of detainees came up.

The president leaned forward in his chair, his face solemn.

General Pete Pace gave a brief description of the story, stating that we did not have all the details.

Bush shook his head in anger. "I hope they find every last guilty person," he said, looking at the group. "We've got to punish them as soon as possible. I want them out of Iraq and in jail, ASAP." Again, he shook his head. "I want everybody to take a very hard press line on this."
Does anyone believe that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed Abu Ghraib with the President in the White House at a time that Secretary Rumsfeld did not know about the problem or did not know that it was serious?

Better: Executions

Atul Gawande's book, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance contains a chapter on doctors and executions. The chapter explains graphically why firing squads, electrocution, hanging and the gas chamber have all been declared unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment; it also explains why the courts are concerned with the process of lethal injection, which may also be excessively cruel. (I think execution is by definition cruel, and with just over 1,000 executions performed in the United States in the last three decades, executions are surely unusual.)

In the context of this blog, however, I want to mention Gawande's interviews with health professionals who take part in executions. Medical and nursing ethical guidelines both state that it is unethical to do so, except in the very limited role of prescribing tranquilizers before an execution and signing a death certificate after and execution. Yet Gawande found doctors and a nurse who did participate more fully in executions.

He does not explain how the professional associations decided that it was unethical for doctors or nurses to help the state conduct executions in as humane a way as possible, given that the laws of the country and of 38 states still permit them, and indeed in some cases specifically call for medical professionals to participate.

He does however describe how individual practitioners came to participate in contravention of their professional ethical guidelines, against family advice, and usually overcoming personal ethical conflicts. The participation seemed to come as a result of a gradual process -- first agreeing to "be there", and then stepping in to help in a process for which others present were less well prepared, until the doctor was a full participant.

The chapter reminded me of Stanley Milgram's experiments in the 1960's in which most subjects appeared to exhibit a willingness to participate in torturing others with only the excuse that the responsibility for ordering the torture was in the hands of another. The Stanford Prison Experiment is another example. It had to be shut down because students playing the role of guards quickly became so brutal towards students playing the role of prisoners in the experiment conducted in the 1970s.

I think in all three cases people came to act unethically in a process in which they came to participate more fully in the behavior step by step. Rather than an initial informed decision to participate in an execution, torture or brutality, there were piecemeal decisions to do a little more and a little more until full participating fully.

The papers have told the story of a man beaten to death the other day after the car he had been riding in struck and injured a toddler. Apparently after dropping the man off, the car had hit and injured a two year old; when the man went to help the driver, three of four men beat him while 20 or more others watched. The man died as a result of the beatings before he reached the hospital.

Again, I wonder about the decision process that took place in the minds of those administering a fatal beating to someone who appears to have been an innocent bystander to the triggering accident, or in the minds of the people who stood by and watched. There is something in all these examples relating to the willingness of people to act unethically rather than to challenge social pressure.

Think about the public policy aspect of this situation. If we make laws requiring physicians to administer lethal injections, those laws require physicians to act unethically. Abu Ghraib's abuses were predictable when the policy was created of imprisoning large numbers of detainees collected during sweep operations under the control of guards without specialized training for prison work. Indeed, as long as neo-Nazi's gain power, regular people will be recruited to commit atrocities under their orders.

We have to educate people to decide to say "no" to unethical behavior; we have to organize public policy to avoid situations in which people are encouraged or enabled to act unethically.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bush Vetoes Measure on Stem Cell Research - New York Times

Bush Vetoes Measure on Stem Cell Research - New York Times

"President Bush on Wednesday issued his second veto of a measure lifting his restrictions on human embryonic stem cell experiments. The move effectively pushed the contentious scientific and ethical debate surrounding the research into the 2008 presidential campaign.

"'Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” Mr. Bush said in a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House. He called the United States “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.'"

Comment: Unfortunately, President Bush's decision will surely lead to loss of human lives in the future -- the lives of those who would have been saved had he allowed stem cell research to continue with full federal government support. He is surely sacrificing those lives in a hope that some of the embryos that would be used to produce stem cells are indeed human life, and the forlorn hope that his foolish action will keep them from being destroyed but will lead someone to implant them in a woman who will successful bring the child to term and deliver a baby. Of course those embryos will be destroyed along with thousand of others every year.

But I suspect this is not the President's true purpose, and that he is not ignoring all scientific advice and that of all the activists outraged by his decision on moral grounds. Rather, I suspect this is a political ploy to keep some of his decreasing number of supporters on his side a little longer.

More Better

I wanted to share more thought occasioned by reading Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande.

Eradication of Smallpox and Polio

Gawande argues in the first part of the book about the importance of diligence in medicine. It would seem hard to argue against diligence, but he points out that people go well beyond what most people would consider "due diligence" in medicine. He made me think about WHO's success in the eradication of smallpox and the campaign to eradicate polio. Think about an effort in which you start out with an endemic (and sometimes epidemic) disease affecting tens of millions of people a year and deciding that no one will ever get the disease again after your campaign. Think about the diligence involved in immunizing 90 percent of all the people in the world, and maintaining that herd immunity for an extended period. Moreover, there can not be allowed to remain any pocket of the world's population in which herd immunity decreases to the point that endemicity will occur until there is no longer any source of infection anywhere. He describes an outbreak in India in which public health officials mobilized to immunize five million people -- doing the mobilization in a month and the campaign in three days. Were we equally diligent in other development programs, great things would be accomplished/

Gawanda notes that people in the local communities he visited thought the money spent on polio could be more effectively used to combat other diseases that were more prevalent in their communities and caused them greater morbidity, disability and/or death. Makes you think! I suggest that these campaigns are fully justified on a global scale -- the benefit to the world of eradication of smallpox or polio is more than enough to justify the cost of the campaign. It is just hard for people at the local level to appreciate the external benefits realized on a global scale by mopping up the last vestiges of such a disease. The better question is why the world does not mobilize the resources needed to deal more adequately with the remaining health problems in every community.

Battlefield Medicine

In a recent posting I mentioned Gawand's account of the great effectiveness achieved in battlefield medicine in Iraq. Gawanda attributes this feat also to diligence, and surely the medical professionals providing field and backup medical attention in difficult circumstances deserve credit for exceptional diligence. I was impressed however that cutting battlefield mortality in half was also due to prevention -- flak jackets and other protective gear -- as well as getting the wounded attended to in the "golden five minutes" after being wounded. These in turn are the result of good operations research studies of the medical system and good implementation of their results.

Insurance Versus Litigation of Malpractice

In another chapter of the book, Gawand makes the point that doctors are human, and make mistakes in spite of their training and professional dedication. Indeed, they have momentary lapses of attention and make errors that they should not have made. Indeed, sometimes they follow what seems to be the right course, and would be seen as such by their peers, and things work out badly. Mass immunization is the right course for public health, but some immunized people have reactions.

In the United States, in our litigious society, we sue for malpractice a lot. Doing so probably helps make doctors even more diligent in their practice, but it does not and can not eliminate all error and bad consequences of medical practice. Unfortunately, relying so heavily on malpractice litigation costs a lot in process expenses, does not get much to most people who have suffered from the negative outcomes of treatment, and hits too many physicians for merely making human errors.

In some cases, countries have simply created a pool of funding to be distributed to those people who suffered adverse affects of medical interventions, avoiding the blame game entirely.

Peer review and better education are perhaps a better mechanisms for minimizing human error in medical practice than is malpractice litigation.

Of course, there are forms of malpractice that require legal intervention, and even criminal penalties to control. But major reforms of our medical culture might be a very good approach.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

e-Sri Lanka -- a pair of important books!

I attended a meeting to discuss the forthcoming companion volume to Nagy Hanna's From Envisioning to Designing e-Development: The Experience of Sri Lanka. The first book described the planning for the e-Sri Lanka project, which was the first World Bank project to take a holistic approach to support of information and communications technology in a developing nation. The project looks at support for policy, cyberlaw, building a leadership cadre and human resources for ICT innovation, building software and Internet enabled export industries, e-government, and promoting dissemination and utilization of ICT in local communities and NGOs. The comprehensive approach was intended simultaneously to build a policy coalition in support of more rapid ICT innovation, to create a critical mass of innovators and supporters to speed the move of Sri Lanka towards becoming an information society, to enhance the synergies among investments in ICT, and to improve allocation of resources among ICT innovations.

The new book will provide more detail on the e-government and community action programs, and provides information on the evolution of the e-Sri Lanka project. Nagy Hanna was an advocate for information and communications technology in the world Bank for decades and it was his leadership that resulted in the Bank's e-Development program. The e-Sri Lanka project was the pilot effort of the Bank implementing this comprehensive approach. The e-development approach is now being taken to other nations. As Hanna retired from the World Bank he devoted himself to writing these two book which together convey the conceptual approach he has developed, implemented and modified over the years.

ICT and Development

Information and communication technology is (unfortunately) not a magic carpet to social and economic development. ICT innovation can increase productivity in the private and public sectors. It can improve the dissemination of information nationwide, and can help to make public life more open. But capital formation and investment are needed to build the ICT plant and human and social capital for rapid ICT innovation; a stagnant economy can not expect rapid ICT innovation. A closed society ruled by a coercive government is perhaps more likely to utilize ICT for more control over the population rather than greater economic and social freedom; it is likely to censor content and restrict access to assure continuing control.

Sri Lanka is not rich, and in general it takes money to quickly build a national information infrastructure, to quickly re-engineer organizations and institutions to take advantage of the technology, and to quickly restructure society based on a modernized information infrastructure. Sri Lanka's Tamil north and Sinhalese south are deeply divided culturally, and the country has suffered under an insurgency for many years. It is burdened by a bloated government bureaucracy, relatively high levels of military expenditures required by the insurgency. It has a long established democracy and a plethora of political parties who don't get along, and every time the government changes there are deep changes in government leadership. And in December 2005 Sri Lanka was hit by the massive tsunami, illustrating the natural problems that constitute threats to national economic growth as well as to human life.

I note that bloated bureaucracies tend not to be good at innovation. Their bureaucrats are not thrilled by introduction of labor saving technologies, and may not be terribly motivated by objectives of better serving the public. Where there is corruption, there is more likely to be an interest in exploiting ICT for further corruption than to promote transparency and greater citizen control. Rapid bureaucratic change often results in rapid depreciation of human capital investments in government workers.

One would love to see the e-Sri Lanka project prove a major stimulus to social and economic development. It should be realized however, that the World Bank investment represents a very small fraction of the nearly $100 billion GDP, and indeed the whole ICT effort of Sri Lanka is small compared to the overall GDP. Not only must the impact of the e-Sri Lanka project be understood in terms of that larger context, but the impact is likely to be realized over a period measured in decades rather than months.

Morover, any general political, economic or environmental problems occurring in Sri Lanka are likely to be reflected in the implementation of the e- Sri Lanka project, causing it problems and reducing or delaying its positive impacts on soci0-economic development.

Development of ICT

I am not an expert on Sri Lanka, but I helped organize and attended an important international meeting on the use of microcomputers in international development held there by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Sri Lankan Commission on ICT in 1984. Since that time I have watched from a distance, with a couple of visits to the country. I helped fund the successful Y2K effort done in Sri Lanka, served as a peer reviewer for the World Bank on the e-Sri Lanka project, and had other contacts.

The history of ICT innovation in Sri Lanka appears different to different observers. Those in the trenches, fighting day to day battles to enhance the rate of innovation, diffusion and utilization of the technology can be quite negative. On the other hand, as an outsider, I am impressed by how very far the country has come. The current ICT infrastructure and utilization could not have been imagined by more than a handful of people in Sri Lanka 25 years ago. Cell phones had not been invented then.

Indeed, I recall that the meeting in November 1984 not only produced two books, but was the venue for the announcement by IBM that it would sell PCs in Sri Lanka. Prior to that time IBM had felt that the national market was not large enough to justify its staffing locally to maintain the product. That meeting also was the site of a demonstration of satellite networking, with a computer in the meeting room hooked up to another in northern Virgina; the demonstration was met with amazement.

There are two information society paradoxes that intrigue me:
  • Most ICT projects fail, but the information economy has an unparalleled rate of growth.
  • The Solow paradox: "You can see the computer age everywhere these days, except in the productivity statistics"
I think there are a couple of explanations of the first. One is that ICT innovation projects contributes to social capital in ways that are not measured well. Of course, some projects succeed, but even the projects that are judged to fail often leave an somewhat more developed ICT infrastructure, a somewhat reengineered organization to better take advantage of the technology, and a workforce better prepared for future innovation and future utilization of the innovations. A second explanation is that the viral processes of ICT innovation are very important; millions of people buying and using cell phones, buying PCs, linking to the Internet, learning how to use word processors and spreadsheets are all critical to the development of the information society, but are not "projectized" and are not measured in project statistics.

There is general agreement that the investments in ICT do not show up in improved productivity until a critical mass has been achieved. Like the delay in the productivity improvement from electrification a century ago, there was a delay in productivity improvement from computerization, but the United States and other rich countries now clearly show that improvement.

The Computer and Information Technology Council (CINTEC), that was being formed in 1984 is judged to have been influential and successful for some years, but then to have lost momentum. It was replaced at the beginning of the e-Sri Lanka effort by the ICT Agency (ICTA). On the one hand, that history suggests that the process of ICT innovation in Sri Lanka is not without setbacks. However, government bureaucracies rise and fall everywhere, and there seems to be a fairly limited life expectancy for a government bureau.

The team that designed e-Sri Lanka was working in the real world. It sought to find pragmatic solutions to political and bureaucratic problems in creating a project and an institutional mechanism that would work. Not surprisingly, not all of the approaches worked; sometimes there were setbacks. Indeed, members of the team who did a good job in describing the checkered history of prior ICT efforts in Sri Lanka which informed the project design effort were themselves understandably cynical about the growth of the information society in Sri Lanka.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to work with a man who had been a vice president of Xerox during the glory years of the growth of that company. It is hard for people who grew up in a world with ubiquitous copy machines to realize the changes that the xerox machine induced. The company's growth was phenomenal. Yet my friend told me that the hallway and drinking fountain talk in the executive suites was always about how badly managed and ineffective the company was; it was only years later and in retrospect that he recognized that he had been privileged to be part of a truly revolutionary organization that triggered a larger technological revolution.

It is therefore not surprising that from my outsider vantage point, looking at Sri Lankan ICT accomplishments over the decades, I am most impressed by the overall success of the enterprise.

It is hard for the explorers sweating and suffering as they cut their way through the underbrush to fully appreciate the beauty of the jungle forest canopy! Those flying over have a better view.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

There has been a great deal of press attention to the problems at Walter Reed and the failure to deal with the mental health problems in U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but little of success of the military health system in keeping the wounded alive. Atul Gawanda, in his book Better, notes that ten percent of wounded soldiers in Iraq are dying of their wounds, compared with 24 percent in the Vietnam war. The improvement is due to extensive operations research that has better protection for the soldier in combat, and getting the wounded to a front line facility very, very fast. It also depends, obviously, on cadres of health professionals who are very competent, working very hard, and themselves in harms way. Those people have my admiration and my thanks. While it is not acceptable than any soldier who has been wounded doing his/her duty receives less than first class care and attention to any war related wound, injury or disability -- mental or physical -- we should not forget to honor the military medical teams for the outstanding work that the are doing under difficult circumstances.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

BBC NEWS | UK | Education | Brown 'planning science shake-up'

BBC NEWS | UK | Education | Brown 'planning science shake-up':

"There will be a (UK) governmental shake-up by Gordon Brown as part of his drive to enhance the profile of science, says Education Secretary Alan Johnson.

The Office of Science and Innovation could be moved from the trade department to education in a tie-up with universities, he said."

HACB Modeling

From a letter to the editor in Science by Mark D. Drapeau:
A new DOD initiative, called Human Social Culture Behavior (HSCB) Modeling, designed to begin and encourage advanced anthropological analyses of cultures that the U.S. military might encounter during overseas operations. This relatively inexpensive defense transformation--largely a shift in thinking--could have benefits beyond active counterinsurgency warfare and counterterrorism. This is increasingly important, given the recent DOD emphasis on stability operations throughout the world--proactively preventing failed states and discouraging formation of terrorist havens.

HSCB models may have further applications to one of the most pressing environmental problems of our time--global climate change. Reputable and reasonable projections suggest that future changes in climate will increase the frequency and severity of food and water shortages, heat-related illnesses, and infectious disease epidemics (2). These outcomes may exacerbate local tensions, act as a "threat multiplier" in some unstable regions, and significantly increase the risk of state failure in regions of strategic importance (3). If HSCB models can be expanded to incorporate environmental knowledge, they might be used effectively to prevent or mitigate environmentally induced conflict. Conversely, climate change will also have local positive effects, and knowledge of the environmental terrain will have benefits in those situations as well. Ultimately, in a climate of change, cultural and environmental knowledge could be integrated into a global early warning system, detecting the sorts of changes that might signal instability and a need for intervention. Earlier this year, the House accepted provisions, inserted into the FY08 intelligence authorization bill, that explicitly direct the U.S. intelligence community to consider climate impacts when preparing future National Intelligence Estimates. At the time of writing, similar provisions are being considered by the Senate.
Comment: I would love to see the power of this approach put to better uses, but DoD has more money than anyone. Would it not be wonderful not only to see HSCB modeling applied to the environment, but also to the reduction of poverty! JAD

Another letter in the same issue by Christopher Batich titled" Better Use of Existing Knowledge" states:
It is encouraging to see the focus on cross-cultural research by the U.S. Department of Defense ("Pentagon asks academics for help in understanding its enemies," Y. Bhattacharjee, News Focus, 27 Apr., p. 534). However, the same information is effectively gathered by interviewing local experts and having representatives of the United States "on the ground" to sort through the data. Our State Department does a good job with this and understood the problems with invading Iraq quite well. However, this advice was ignored. Perhaps it would be more productive to study our institutions and see how we can better make use of the good knowledge that we have, rather than generating redundant data, which have a high probability of also being ignored. It has been said that the most effective way to deflect accountability in government is to study the problem for long enough for the next election to take place (and memories to fade).

A related concern is how to address solutions once the problem is obvious. This "riding the tiger" problem ("if you get off, it will eat you") needs a focus on amnesty for error, but not for intransigence. During delays in correction, much damage is done that could and should be avoided.
Comment: Right on!

I wonder, however, whether the Bush administration really understands what would happen in Iraq if the U.S. military were to withdraw quickly or if it were to wait for years before withdrawing. Do the decision makers really understand the implications in the various countries of the region of our various policies with respect to Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc? Riding the tiger is much more dangerous I suspect with your eyes closed!

No Level Forecasting Progress in two Decades

"HYDROLOGY: River-Level Forecasting Shows No Detectable Progress in 2 Decades" by Richard A. Kerr, Science 15 June 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5831, p. 1555.

Lead: "And you thought weather forecasters had it tough. Hydrologists looking to forecast the next flood or dangerously low river flow must start with what weather forecasters give them--predictions of rain and snow, heat and cold--and fold that into myriad predictive models. Then those models must in turn forecast how rain and any melted snow will flow from rivulet to river while liable to loss to evaporation, groundwater, reservoirs, and farmers' fields. During their century in the forecasting business, hydrologists have developed a modicum of skill, but a newly published study fails to find any improvement during the past 20 years in forecasting river levels out to 3 days."

Comment: The graph certainly indicates that little progress has been made in this forecasting over the last decade. I think the problem may be found in other types of forecasting. Some years ago I looked at the forecasts of economic growth made by economists and found that they were on the average less accurate than simply assuming that historical rates of growth would continue.

The Science article further states:
Troubleshooting hydrologic forecasting to understand why it's been resisting improvement will take "objective study and well-structured verification," says Welles, "not expert opinion or ad hoc experience." BAMS Editor-in-Chief Jeff Rosenfeld agrees. Writing in an accompanying editorial, he finds that the Welles paper makes the point that "forecasting must include verification if it is to be scientific. Every forecast is like a hypothesis, and in science every hypothesis must ultimately be tested."
There is a need to validate forecasting models. Where the model depends upon estimates from experts or expert interpretation of its forecasts, there is also a need to validate the work of those experts. That is, if you want the forecasts to be accurate. JAD


This website uses the Internet not only to educate on HIV/AIDS, but to directly confront the claims of a small but vocal group of AIDS "dissenters" who attracted international attention by questioning whether HIV causes the disease.

Science magazine reports:
"Launched by AIDS researchers, clinicians, and activists from several countries, offers more than 100 links to scientific reports to 'debunk denialist myths' and 'expose the denialist propaganda campaign for what it is … to prevent further harm being done to individual and public health.' The site also has a section that names denialists and unsparingly critiques their writings, variously accusing them of homophobia, 'scientific ignorance of truly staggering proportions,' conspiracy theories, 'the dogmatic repetition of the misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or mischaracterization of certain scientific studies,' and flat-out lies. 'There was a perceived need to take these people on in cyberspace, because that's where they operate mostly, and that's where the most vulnerable people go for their information,' says immunologist John Moore, an AIDS researcher at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City."
Others may well emulate this use of the World Wide Web not only to disseminate information, but also to combat the dissemination of misinformation!

"Peer Review Peered at, Reviewed"

According to Science magazine:
NIH has created two working groups--one external, one internal--to examine the "content, criteria, and culture of peer review" in light of flat budgets, a rising number of grant applications, shrinking success rates, and a dearth of experienced reviewers.

I spent more than a decade managing research programs that involved peer review, and have consulted in other countries about peer review processes.

I once represented USAID in a joint research project with the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. It was fun watching the experts from NIH and NSF go at each other on how the peer review was to be done.

Peer review is the worst possible way to judge the merit of scientific work, except for all the other ways that I know of (to paraphrase Churchill).

Basically, only peer scientists have enough explicit and tacit knowledge to adequately judge scientific proposals and results. One difficulty of course is identifying peers. On the one hand, you don't want to limit the selection to only people working in a narrow byway of research for fear that they are in a dead end and don't realize it. On the other hand, going too widely will result in lack of really relevant expertise.

However, working scientists who are asked to do peer review probably still don't understand the specific research that they are reviewing as well as the implementing scientists. Moreover, they are busy people, doing the review more out of a sense of scientific responsibility than for pay (and often they are not payed at all), so that they do not attend to the effort as much as one might wish.

The in-person or telephone panel process tends to reach consensus and bring out many aspects of the work, but is expensive in time of the scientists, complicated to arrange, and the consensus may not be accurate.

It is hard to balance the needs of privacy to encourage frank expression of evaluation of the proposed or reported work, the need for transparency in decision making, and the needs for communication among the reviewing and implementing scientists to improve the quality of the work.

When one comes to applied research, the problems are exacerbated. Not only is it important to have expertise in the review from the scientific community, but also from the application community. Sometimes a multi-phased screening process is needed to figure out if something is not only scientifically feasible but practical in application.

I was always surprised as a working research program manager at how little research there was on the review process, and how little of the results of that research was known to my peer managers of peer review. There is in fact a whole body of research on how people make decisions and how the panel process can be improved. More such research needs to be done, and greater efforts need to be made to disseminate the knowledge gained from such research and apply it to science and technology review processes.

"Nuclear Weapons Nonproliferation"

Read this editorial by Raymond Jeanloz in Science magazine, 15 June 2007. (Subscription required.)

He concludes:
It is therefore urgent that we collectively focus on the most effective means to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including fully using the United States' relevant technical capabilities. Doing so will call more for intelligence and law enforcement--that is, for cooperative measures--than for traditional deterrence or military coercion. Partnering with nations around the world currently offers the most promising approach to the growing threat of nuclear arms.

Jeanloz chairs the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Committee on International Security and Arms Control which recently published The United States Nuclear Weapons Program: The Role of the Reliable Replacement Warhead

Comment: It is hard to listen to a fat man tell starving people to go on a diet! So too, President Bush, it is hard for other countries to listen to the world's greatest military superpower, which is continuing to increase military spending and is considering the development and deployment of new nuclear weapon designs, tell them to contain their nuclear ambitions. Of course our first priority should be to keep rogue states and terrorists from getting access to nuclear (and other mass destruction) weapons. But we must not also attend to secondary priorities, high among which is to prevent general proliferation among the world's 268 nations. Limiting U.S. nuclear weaponry may be a major step in protecting our own safety as well as that of the rest of the world. JAD

Paul Potts is worth your attention

If you have the bandwidth, I strongly recommend that you watch these YouTube videos of Paul Potts' performances on Britain's got Talent

Comment: I never do this kind of a post on this blog, but Paul Potts first performance is really special! I hope you too will enjoy it. JAD

Monday, June 18, 2007

"Human-animal embryo tests 'vital'"

Read the full article on BBC News, June 17, 2007.

Lead: "Medical research using hybrid embryos that are a mixture of human and animal is "vital" in the fight against disease, scientists have said."

The article continues:

The Academy of Medical Sciences said it backed the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill allowing embryos that were 99.9% human and 0.1% animal....

The report says that, in the future, the "true" hybrids - containing more animal DNA - may be vital for research.
Comment: Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems not to care, or not to care for the people that will suffer unnecessarily due to its bans on research involving human embryos. JAD

The Failed States Index 2007

The 10 worst states in terms of 12 political, economic, military, and social indicators of instability are: Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Chad, Ivory Coast, Dem. Rep. of the Congo, Afghanistan, Guinea, and the Central African Republic according to The Fund for Peace and FOREIGN POLICY magazine. This third annual Failed States Index "ranked 177 states in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration. The index scores are based on data from more than 12,000 publicly available sources collected from May to December 2006. The 60 most vulnerable states are listed in the rankings, and full results are available at and" Foreign Policy, July/August

Comment: I think the failed states differ one from another. Some seem to be mending, while others are perhaps getting still worse. Note however, that there is a strong correlation between the level of socio-economic development and the quality of the state. Causality probably involves:
  • Factors which cause both a deterioration in the social and economic conditions and the failure of the state,
  • Socially and economically strong societies being more likely to avoid the failure of their states,
  • Failing and failed states deteriorating socially and economically.
Of course, the ability of a failed state to attract investment or to prevent brain drain is limited. JAD

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Good Sign I Hope!

David Smock, of the U.S. Institute for Peace's Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, briefed President Bush at a White House Oval Office meeting last week. Smock and five other prominent social scientists talked about ethnic/sectarian conflict and how general principles of conflict resolution could apply to the situation in Iraq. Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Hadley also attended the meeting. "The president was very attentive, curious, and responsive," said Smock.

Email versus Phone Interviews

Read "When Bloggers Say No to a Simple Chat," Steven Levy's Technology column in Newsweek, June 11, 2007.

Fred Vogelstein set out to interview blog entrepreneur Jason Calacanis by phone or in person for a story for Wired magazine. "Calacanis told him he would not speak to him, but answer questions only by e-mail, something Vogelstein wouldn't agree to." Then, in response to a similar request, blogging pioneer Dave Winer told Vogelstein he would not be interviewed by phone. Winer suggested that Vogelstein e-mail questions that he would then answer publicly on his blog. Vogelstein would not conduct the interviews via email. "Both Calacanis and Winer trumpeted their turndowns on their well-read blogs. Apparently they hit a nerve, because the issue redounded all over the blogosphere. The main subject of the story, (Silicon Valley blogger, Mike) Arrington, lamented on his blog that the Wired story was blown and would probably be killed."

If verbal interviews are often preferred by print reporters, email interviews are often preferred by the interviewee. Which is better?

I suspect the answer depends on what you aim for in journalism. The face to face interview gives the reporter clues from voice and mannerisms as to the effects of his questions. It also is more likely to result in some statement from the interviewee that the reporter can use to interest the readers. On the other hand, the email interview seems to me more likely to get thoughtful responses, with checked information. Moreover, the emails themselves provide a record of the exact questions and answers.

I suspect, however, that the difference may be in large part due to difference in culture between online and print media. I have been interviewed several times online by Internet media, especially SciDev.Net. I have been interviewed by phone several times by print media. The most challenging experience was answering a phone and discovering I was on the air for a radio interview (without prior warning). I prefer email interviews!

Is the Bush Administration Wiser Five Years Later?

We now know that the Bush administration was wrong on two key issues about the situation on the ground when it started the war in Iraq: there were no weapons of mass destruction as the administration had believed and there was no likelihood that the Saddam Husein government would support Al Qaeda. While the administration was correct in its belief that the forces it deployed could quickly defeat the Iraqi military and overthrow the Iraqi government, it was quite wrong in its belief as to what policies and programs would rebuild Iraq, how long that process would take, the likelihood of an insurgency, and the cost of occupation. Apparently the problem was not that there did not exist in the United States people with the knowledge and experience to make better judgments, but that the Bush administration did not draw upon and utilize the knowledge and understanding of those people adequately.

The situation in the region has apparently evolved in ways that the Bush administration did not foresee or understand. Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Kurdish-Turkish relations all seem to be danger points in ways that had not been properly anticipated by the Bush administration. The evolution of these danger points seems to be very difficult to predict, as is the future of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. Yet U.S. policy in the region should clearly be made based on a realistic understanding of current situations and accurate predictions of the consequences that would result from alternative strategies.

Is there any reason to believe that as it has gotten older, the Bush administration has gotten wiser? Is the administration any better able to identify those with true expertise in the region, to draw upon that expertise, and to make better decisions than it did five and six years ago?

Voter Biases Based on Ignorance

Brian Caplan writes in Cato Unbound:
Economists and the public hold radically different beliefs about the economy.[4] Compared to the experts, laymen are much more skeptical of markets, especially international and labor markets, and much more pessimistic about the past, present, and future of the economy. When laymen see business conspiracies, economists see supply-and-demand. When laymen see ruinous competition from foreigners, economists see the wonder of comparative advantage. When laymen see dangerous downsizing, economists see wealth-enhancing reallocation of labor. When laymen see decline, economists see progress.

While critics of the economics profession like to attribute these patterns to economists' affluence, job security, and/or right-wing ideology, the facts are not with them. Controlling for income, income growth, job security, gender, and race only mildly reduces the size of the lay-expert belief gap. And, since the typical economist is actually a moderate Democrat, controlling for party identification and ideology makes the lay-expert belief gap get a little bigger. Economists think that markets work well not because of their extreme right-wing ideology, but despite their mild left-wing ideology.
Since in a democracy, it is the general public that elects people to office, the fact that the majority of that public have such serious misperceptions is worrying. Of course, the republican form of government puts people into office who should know more than their constituencies about such issues, and the office holders have staffs of experts and access to other experts in academia and think tanks. Thus the representatives of the public should be better informed and able to make better policy than the electorate.

Unfortunately, politicians who get elected to office by pandering to fears based on the misperceptions of the electorate may themselves believe in the myths that they mouth; they may follow through on their promises and enact and implement bad policies based on bad theories and misperceptions.

Caplan states:
So what remedies for voter irrationality would I propose? Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets. By and large, we don't even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this "elitist" practice has saved us a world of trouble. Why not take more issues off the agenda? Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better. The relevant question is whether the kind of regulation that appeals to the majority would be better.
I suggest also a political response to this problem -- not to limit democracy, but to strengthen appreciation of governance by the elected representatives of the people, and the importance of professional staff and legislative and executive branch knowledge systems. We also need to attend more to expert judgment of the quality of governance. Caplan's analysis also strengthens my opinion that we must improve education and we must improve the information systems that allow lifelong learning for the citizenry. So too, I believe, we must find better ways to motivate citizens to devote time and effort to learning about economics and other difficult but important subjects.

Caplan is the author of a new book titled The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. His article in Cato Unbound is closely related to the thesis of that book.

"Vote for me, dimwit", Lexington's column in the current (June 14th) edition of The Economist also is based on Caplan's book. The column
identifies four biases that prompt voters systematically to demand policies that make them worse off.
  • First, people do not understand how the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits: they have an anti-market bias.
  • Second, they underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners: they have an anti-foreign bias.
  • Third, they equate prosperity with employment rather than production: Mr Caplan calls this the “make-work bias”.
  • Finally, they tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are, a bias towards pessimism.