Something in all of us wants to believe that big tech companies, the ones we provide with reams of personal data everyday, are doing something noble with that information. That’s what made Google’s flu tracker, Flu Trends, so appealing. Here’s Google, taking time out of its busy day of selling our data for profit to apply those millions of Google searches and location trackers to something useful for humanity: Tracking the spread and severity of flu outbreaks across the United States.
There’s only one problem: Flu Trends is wrong.
According to a new Science study, Google overestimated flu outbreaks by 50 percent in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons. As TIME’s Bryan Walsh writes, “If you wanted to project current flu prevalence, you would have done much better basing your models off of 3-week-old data on cases from the CDC than you would have been using GFT’s sophisticated big data methods.”
Interesting stuff from Ben Goldacre in the Guardian:
Can a sugar pill have a side effect? Interestingly, a paper published in the journal Pain next month looks at just this issue. They found every single placebo-controlled trial ever conducted on a migraine drug, and looked at the side effects reported by the people in the control group, who received a dummy “placebo” sugar pill instead of the real drug. Not only were these side effects common, they were also similar to the side effects of whatever drug the patients thought they might be getting: patients getting placebo instead of anticonvulsants, for example, reported memory difficulties, sleepiness, and loss of appetite, while patients getting placebo instead of painkillers got digestive problems, which themselves are commonly caused by painkillers.
This is nothing new. A study in 2006 sat 75 people in front of a rotating drum to make them feel nauseous, and gave them a placebo sugar pill. 25 were told it was a drug that would make the nausea worse: their nausea was worse, and they also exhibited more gastric tachyarrhythmia, the abnormal stomach activity that frequently accompanies nausea.
A paper in 2004 took 600 patients from three different specialist drug allergy clinics and gave them either the drug that was causing their adverse reactions, or a dummy pill with no ingredients: 27% of the patients experienced side effects such as itching, malaise and headache from the placebo dummy pill.
And a classic paper from 1987 looked at the impact of listing side effects on the form which patients sign to give consent to treatment. This was a large placebo-controlled trial comparing aspirin against placebo, conducted in three different centres. In two of them, the consent form contained a statement outlining various gastrointestinal side effects, and in these centres there was a sixfold increase in the number of people reporting such symptoms and dropping out of the trial, compared with the one centre that did not list such side effects in the form.
I remember my brother sent this to me a while back, but I didn’t get round to posting it. Which is weird, as it’s awesome. From Boing Boing:
A great post on Metafilter turned me on to “Twenty Four Standard Causes of Human Misjudgement,” a classic 1995 speech by Charlie Munger (much cited, and transcribed here in PDF), in which Munger (a respected investor and partner to Warren Buffet) lays out, in plain language, the cognitive biases and blind-spots that he views as the root of much human misery.
Munger’s thinking is greatly influenced by Robert Cialdini’s classic popular psychology text Influence, a title that Munger credits with laying out many of the blind spots of both economics and psychology. Munger’s thinking is collected in another book: Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger.
I converted the talk to MP3 and listened to it twice today. I think I’ll return to it again — this feels like one of those mind-dumps that contains so much to pore over that it might be a work of years.
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” That’s the 18th-century philosopher David Hume. I agree. I love my instincts — and, the more I read about decision science, the more sceptical I become about reasoned judgements. In business, I find, there are two kinds of decisions — good decisions and decisions that are easy to explain and defend. They are not the same. The use of reason massively weights people towards the second type. Unfortunately, the need to explain or defend a course of action may lead to a worse decision, because our natural instinct for arse-covering requires that we must then base our decision only on those few factors accessible to measurement or to numerical expression.
In the winter of 1900, six-year-old Nicolas Slonimsky was introduced to the world of popular Russian ditties. “Little bird, what did you do? I drank vodka, so did you,” he would warble to enchanted relatives. Isabelle Vengerova, his aunt, who was a famous teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, discovered earlier that year that he possessed perfect pitch, and began giving him lessons. She believed that he was destined for musical greatness. Although Slonimsky’s career as a musical prodigy never quite materialized, his early singing days made a lasting impression: Slonimsky was one of the first composers to explicitly decipher what made certain tunes irresistible. In the twenties, Oliver Sacks writes in “Musicophilia,” Slonimsky began creating musical patterns designed to “hook the mind and force it to mimicry and repetition.” In 1947, Slonimsky’s insights were released as a book, “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns,” which would go on to become an important musical influence for composers from John Coltrane to Frank Zappa.
What ever your political standpoint, this is really interesting:
George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working on moral frames for 50 years. In Communicating Our American Values and Vision, he gives this precis: “Framing is not primarily about politics or political messaging or communication. It is far more fundamental than that: frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. But frames do have an enormous bearing on politics … they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason … For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic.”
Lakoff is affable and generous. In public meetings he greets every question with: “That is an extremely good question.” But he cannot keep the frustration out of his voice: the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves. The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.
You don’t understand prices. You don’t buy things based on anything resembling “logic.” You buy things based on, well, something else— mental “shortcuts.” And Netflix wants to hack your mental shortcuts.
One way companies use prices to trick us is to offer cheapo, inferior goods to get us hooked on a product that we’ll eventually spend more on. Time Warner Cable, for example, experimented with an “Essentials” package that offered cable without the most popular channels at a discount, expecting (and, as I’ve been told, often discovering) that customers would upgrade to full cable when they realized how much they love TV. In a way, Netflix is already doing this: In December, it introduced a $6.99 plan ($1 discount) that allows streaming to one screen only.
The more sophisticated strategy isn’t to offer two prices, but three. In Hasting’s words: “good,” “better,” and “best” price tiering. Why three? Because of the magic of the Goldilocks effect in pricing.
It reminds me of a great talk I saw some time ago about the way The Economist packages up subscriptions, as explained by Dan Ariely here.