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.”
The sighting came from a small telescope on the roof of a laboratory sat on the ice sheet three quarters of a mile from the geographic South Pole. First came the rumours. But then researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics went public. Their telescope had spotted indirect evidence of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time, from the earliest moments of the universe.
The scientists have not yet published their work, and no other team has confirmed the finding. Yet even without these mainstays of scientific rigour, excitement has swept through the community and into the world beyond. If confirmed, the observation will rank among the greatest scientific discoveries of the past 20 years. A Nobel prize is all but guaranteed.
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 thought this was a brilliant question for Edge.org: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
From Jonathan Gottschall’s answer to this question, published with other responses, in the Guardian:
Fifteen thousand years ago in France, a sculptor swam and slithered almost a kilometre down into a mountain cave. Using clay, the artist shaped a big bull rearing up to mount a cow, and then left his creation in the bowels of the earth. The two bison of the Tuc D’Audoubert caves sat undisturbed for many thousands of years until they were rediscovered by spelunking boys [cavers] in 1912. The discovery of the clay bison was one of many shocking 20th-century discoveries of sophisticated cave art stretching back tens of thousands of years. The discoveries overturned our sense of what our caveman ancestors were like. They were not furry, grunting troglodytes. They had artistic souls. They showed us that humans are – by nature, not just by culture – art-making, art-consuming, art-addicted apes.
But why? Why did the sculptor burrow into the earth, make art, and leave it there in the dark? And why does art exist in the first place? Scholars have spun a lot of stories in answer to such questions, but the truth is that we really don’t know. And here’s one reason why: science is lying down on the job.
You might want to sit down before you bend your mind with this article about nine competing theories of the multiverse (but do read it!). Here’s an extract:
The idea that what we perceive as reality is no more than a construct is quite old, of course. The Simulation Argument, as it is called, has features in common with the many layers of reality posited by some traditional Buddhist thinking. The notion of a ‘pretend’ universe, on the other hand, crops up in fiction and film — examples include the Matrix franchise and The Truman Show (1998). The thing that makes Bostrom’s idea unique is the basis on which he argues for it: a series of plausible assumptions, plus a statistical calculation.
In essence, the case goes like this. If it turns out to be possible to use computers to simulate a ‘universe’ — even just part of one — with self-aware sentient entities in it, the chances are that someone, somewhere, will do this. Furthermore, as Bostrom explained it to me, ‘Look at the way our computer simulations work. When we run a simulation of, say, the weather or of a nuclear explosion [the most complex computer simulations to date performed], we do not run them once, but many thousands, millions — even billions — of times. If it turns out that it is possible to simulate — or, more correctly, generate — conscious awareness in a machine, it would be surprising if this were done only once. More likely it would be done countless billions of times over the lifetime of the advanced civilisation that is interested in such a project.’
“I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”
– School report for John Gurdon, aged 15, who this week won the Nobel prize for medicine or physiology
See also How Colours Got Their Names.