maketheworldworkbetter

Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

Month: June, 2013

Idea: Limit government surveillance by granting warrants for algorithms, not people

NSA

All the controversy surrounding the surveillance of phone logs and internet use by the US National Security Agency (NSA) shows that it is very difficult to simultaneously make full use of technology to catch potential terrorist threats and to protect the civil liberties of individual citizens. Most of the debate has been polarized: The US government is or is not justified in doing what it’s done. But there is an innovative compromise position no one is discussing, one that (mostly) gives the best of both worlds.

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The costs of too much choice: How the science of evolutionary development justifies Obamacare

One of the more difficult and technical fields one could choose to study is Evo-Devo, or the evolution of development. Briefly, it is the field that studies how genetic programs determine the developmental process, how these programs evolve, and how the types of programs available constrain the directions evolution can take. For example, if humans were to evolve wings (an essential impossibility for many reasons), Evo-Devo lets us make the clear inference that we would not evolve them as sprouting from our shoulders like angels, but rather as modifications of our arms. Why? Because in all tetrapods (i.e., eptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals) there is a developmental program to produce four limbs. Limbs can be lost (snakes, whales) and modified for flight (bats, birds), but they cannot be added.

One of the key insights to emerge from Evo-Devo is that developmental programs are highly organized. They have evolved ways to facilitate future evolution, called evolvability. They achieve this using mechanisms known as gene regulatory networks, compartmentalization, and canalization. While the details of these mechanisms are beyond the scope of this post, they have in common that they are ways to facilitate long-term evolution at the cost of flexibility. That is, they standardize the developmental process to give consistent results, but limit the forms that can be arrived at. Again, tetrapod limbs are a good example: if tetrapod limbs were not the result of a fairly standardized genetic module, we would be able to evolve them anywhere any time – the nose could become a hand, we could evolve rows of wings up and down our backs, etc. However, the  result would be chaos. It would be too easy for a minor mutation to mess up development, too easy for the final form to depend too heavily on what gene combinations one has (image if parents regularly “accidentally” gave birth to children with 6 or 10 limbs, just because of  how their genes got combined…), and too hard to control the evolution of limbs as the environment changed and a specific sort of form became necessary. In other words, we gave up flexibility for stability and predictability.

How does all this relate to Obamacare?  Read the rest of this entry »

Phil Garrity on the human costs of perfect analysis

Partners-In-Health logo

The Partners-In-Health logo

I often write here about some of the hard-nosed reasons to be wary of trying to measure things that are not easily measurable – risks of bias, misaligned incentives, and missing important information that is harder to quantify. But, as a follow-up to my last piece, I came across an excellent essay by Phil Garrity, who works as a Monitoring-Evaluation-Quality (MEQ) program assistant at Partners in Health. His job is to try to measure hard-to-measure things, and he makes an excellent case for a soft-nosed risk of trying to measure everything: that we lose a bit of our humanity. This is particularly poignant if you know that he’s a young guy who’s just returning to work after a fight with bone cancer. He has given me permission to post the essay, which is below:

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Optimized charitable giving, evidence-based medicine, and the risk of thinking we can measure everything

GiveWell logo, taken from there website.

The GiveWell logo, taken from their website.

I read an interesting blog post this morning on Wonkblog about how some people are getting jobs on Wall Street in order to save the world: the idea is to make as much money as quickly as possible, live on next to nothing, and then use the saved money to save the world more efficiently than one could by joining the Peace Corps or becoming a doctor.

The post discussed a website/organization called GiveWell that takes a very hard-nosed, analytical approach to how we should most efficiently use our charitable dollars to do good in the world. The ballet or the symphony is nice, but by buying bed nets to prevent malaria you could be saving children’s lives for very little money, so guess which GiveWell recommends you to donate to? They choose a small number of top charities among a large number they review, and they are very careful not to make claims that the non-top charities are not useful, only that there is very good evidence that the top charities are useful. I am truly impressed with the thoughtfulness of the approach and the quality of the research they seem to have done.

But – and there’s always a but – it struck me that there is a limit to this approach to charitable giving, and it is strikingly similar to a limitation of evidence-based medicine that I’ve been bumping into recently. Read the rest of this entry »