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.