Unorthodox Thinking & Large Budgets

Unorthodox Thinking & Large Budgets

“Surprising, occasionally game-changing things happen when flights of unorthodox thinking collide with large, abiding research budgets,” writes Mary Roach in her book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Militaries face far more than just opposing combatants in war. Their needs go far beyond bombs, tanks, and fighter planes. Armies need lots of things for basic survival, and sometimes this means that large research budgets are devoted to small topics where institutionalized dogma has not set in. The results can be weird, sometimes less than what the army hoped for, and – as Roach notes in the quote above – sometimes game changing.
In Grunt, Roach highlights some of the examples of incredible, yet unexpected scientific breakthroughs that have come from military research. Medical trauma research, clothing research, and other less thought of research has been crucial for saving lives during war. These are not the first things we usually think about with armed conflict, but without winning in these small areas, armies may not be able to win on larger geopolitical stages.
Entire industries and societies may deal with problems for years without the huge funding and sometimes unorthodox thinking that an army can bring to a problem. Something small, like sweaty and sticky shirts, may plague people for years and be a minor annoyance, but for an army, where keeping moral and camaraderie up is a key for success, a sweaty and sticky shirt could end up being a life or death matter. Bringing in a scientific research team, that doesn’t have the same constraints as public researchers at a university or researchers for a for-profit corporation can open up new avenues of discovery. A researcher at a public university may be shunned away from research on sweaty, sticky shirts because they don’t want their colleagues to think they are working on a goofy topic. Private companies may not see enough of a profit motive in researching sweaty, sticky clothes and may not hire anyone in their R&D section to focus on the issue. But the army can provide some level of intellectual freedom in asking researchers to tackle strange areas and can bring the necessary funding to find a breakthrough. This idea is at the heart of the research that Roach presents in the book.
The sometimes game-changing breakthroughs are not the result purely of lots of money or purely unorthodox thinking. The breakthroughs are the result of a web of factors that include the money, the intellectual space for unorthodox thinking, and the willingness to allow people to focus on sometimes narrow or obscure topics. It also requires obsessives who are not afraid to spend years researching something strange or off-putting. the kinds of breakthroughs people make often don’t get much attention, even if they are very important and make it into daily life beyond the initial military use, but over time they pile up to become part of our way of life. Perhaps we would have gotten there independently of the military, but sometimes that extra funding and unorthodox thinking is needed to help push new innovations and discoveries.
Internal Review Boards & Patient Harm

Internal Review Boards & Patient Harm

During the COVID-19 Pandemic internal review boards (IRB) were scrutinized for delaying potential treatments and vaccines to fight the coronavirus that causes COVID. IRBs exist to ensure that scientific research doesn’t harm patients. Throughout the history of science, many dubious science experiments have been carried out by less than fully considerate scientists. An IRB is a useful tool to ensure that researchers have real reasons to conduct experiments that may cause some type of physical or psychological harm to participants, and to ensure that researchers do as much as possible to mitigate those harms and adequately address the safety and needs of subjects before, during, and after an experiment.
However, in recent years many researchers have argued that IRBs have become too risk averse and too restrictive. Rather than purely focusing on the safety and health of research participants, IRBs have been criticized as protecting the brand of the research institution, meaning that some valuable and worthy science is denied funding or approval because it sounds weird and if it doesn’t go well could reflect poorly on the academic standing of the institution that approved the study. Additionally, well meaning IRBs can cause extensive delays, as each study is reviewed, debated, and approved or denied. Studies that are denied may have to make adjustments to methodology and approaches, and re-deigning studies can add additional time to actually get the study up and running. For many research studies this may be more of an inconvenience for the researcher than anything else, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, these delays have been sharply criticized.
COVID moves fast, and a delay of one month for a study that could prove to be life saving means that more people would die than would have died if the study had not been delayed. This means that in the interest of promoting safety, an IRB can create a delay that harms life. Mary Roach wrote about these concerns years before the pandemic in her book Gulp, “rather than protecting patients, IRBs – with their delays and prodigious paperwork – can put them in harms way.” If checking the right boxes on the right forms and submitting the right paperwork at the right time is more important than the actual research, we could see delays that hold back treatments, preventative vaccinations, and cures for deadly diseases.
The Pandemic has shown us how serious these delays can be. IRBs may have to be rethought and restructured so that in times of emergency we can move quicker while still addressing patient safety. For science where time is important and risk is inherent in the study, we may have to develop a new review or oversight body beyond the traditional IRB structure to ensure that we don’t harm patients while trying to protect them.

The Science of Detergents

For an episode in the latest season of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell travelled to Cincinnati to meet the product development teams at Proctor and Gamble behind their laundry and dish detergents. Gladwell was floored by the amount of science and research put into every element of detergents. It turns out there is a lot of effort that goes into developing the perfect soap, and there is good reason for it too. Good detergents allow for cold water washing, which drastically reduces the energy and carbon emissions associated with running a dishwasher or washing machine. Good detergents make things more efficient, which we need if we want to address the climate crisis. P&G has rows of washing machines and dishwashers all testing different formulas of detergents, to examine performance, wear and tear on the machines and clothes/dishes, and how their products perform relative to competitors.
I was reminded of Galdwell’s podcast when I looked back at a line from Mary Roach’s book Gulp. She writes, “Higher-end detergents contain at least three digestive enzymes: amylase to break down starchy stains, protease for proteins, and lipase for greasy stains (not just edible fats but body oils like sebum). Laundry detergent is essentially a digestive tract in a box. Ditto dishwashing detergent: protease and lipase eat the food your dinner guests didn’t.”
The two authors both highlight the surprising amount of effort in terms of science and research that goes into something most of us overlook. Detergents contain digestive enzymes that we may have in our bodies to make them more effective. Real scientific application and study has gone into giving us something so mundane, but it can still have a real impact on how our world moves forward while addressing climate change. Its comical to think of detergents as a digestive tract in a box, but it really is an important and scientifically interesting field of study.
Scientific Obsessives - Mary Roach - Gulp - Malcolm Gladwell - The Bomber Mafia

Scientific Obsessives

In the author’s note for his book The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell writes about people with obsessions. He writes, “I realize when I look at the things I have written about or explored over the years, I’m drawn again and again to obsessives. I like them. I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up every day life and just zero in on one thing. … I don’t think we get progress, or innovation, or joy, or beauty without obsessives.”
Obsessives, Gladwell argues, are neither good nor bad, but often play crucial roles in the advancement of technology, the winning of historical wars, and in the development of society. Making scientific breakthroughs, convincing large numbers of people to live their lives a certain way, and pushing through failure until one finds a new way to do something often requires an obsessive quality in order to persevere, connect minuscule dots along the way, and stay interested in something that others barely care about.  Mary Roach would agree.
In her book Gulp, Raoch writes, “Dr. Silletti was delighted to hear that  I wanted to visit the saliva lab. People rarely ask to visit Erika Silletti’s lab. I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry. I think it’s fair to say that some degree of obsession is a requisite for good science, and certainly for scientific breakthrough.”
Studying something as off-putting and seemingly boring as human saliva requires an obsessive quality about science, research, inquiry, and the human systems that form the first part of our digestive system. I can’t imagine lots of people are eager to listen to Dr. Silletti talk about her research, it probably isn’t fun dinner or cocktail party talk, but Dr. Silletti continues on with her lab. Her discoveries, and the discoveries of everyone working in rather gross areas of science, are dependent on a level of obsession. Without such obsession, the scientists and researchers would not carry on studying their particular fields, and we wouldn’t get the breakthroughs and discoveries that come from their science. This is the argument that Roach makes in Gulp, and it is part of her explanation for why she has written so many books that focus on the relatively gross side of scientific inquiry.
In the end, Roach and Gladwell reach the same conclusion. Technological and scientific advances require obsessives. Progress is not linear, science is not clear cut, and new discoveries and breakthroughs require patience and a willingness to believe that something is crucially important, even when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. Obsessives are the ones who will spend every minute of the day thinking about the tiniest new discovery and trying to apply that to their specific obsession, ultimately paving the way for breakthroughs. We owe a lot to obsessives, and we should thank the obsessive researchers and the obsessive journalists for the breakthroughs and stories about how those breakthroughs came to be.

Bonk

On one of the first few pages of her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach writes the following tribute: “This book is a tribute to the men an women who dared. Who, to this day, endure ignorance, closed minds, righteousness, and prudery. Their lives are not easy. But their cocktail parties are the best.”
Bonk is an exploration of our scientific exploration of sex. For many reasons, sex research has been difficult to carry out and often taboo. Researchers face extra challenges getting funding, are treated with skepticism, have trouble finding subjects, have trouble publishing important findings, and can be publicly ridiculed for their research. Roach writes about the euphemisms that researchers have to employ when describing their studies, switching words related to sex to more physiologically based words. She also writes about the range of topics that become difficult to study because of their relation to sex – topics related to genitals, especially to the female body, even if they are not sex specific topics.
Across the book Roach identifies important themes in global culture. Humans are often driven by sex, surrounded by sex, or confused by something sexual, but we rarely discuss sex or anything related to it in a direct way. Even intimate couples find it difficult to have honest and direct conversations about sex. In some ways it is fair to say that sex is hyper-present in the United States, but this doesn’t mean we are ok with openly discussing our sexual experiences with other people, even neutral and independent researchers.
This has created a challenge where we all have many questions and uncertainties related to our sexual development, our sexual orientation, and physiological sexual responses to stimuli throughout our lives, but few good places to get answers to those questions. Even if we can study these topics, it is not easy to access, share, and discuss that research. People who do such research, or claim to be interested in such research, are often stigmatized and other people who know their research interests may not want to associate with them to avoid the same stigma.
Ultimately, what I think Roach believes is that we should work to be more honest and develop better conversations around the science of sex. I think this is something Roach believes is necessary in many academic and scientific fields, not just those related to sex. Her work has generally made an effort to study and explore topics that are gross, taboo, and overlooked, but are always present and important. Sex is something that has many individual and social factors, and failing to research sex leaves us stuck with ignorance, where strong voices can win out over the reality of many people’s experiences. Better science, study, and discussion will hopefully help us better understand ourselves, our bodies, and our physical relationships with others.
Stories from Bid Data

Stories from Big Data

Dictionary.com describes datum (the singular of data) as “a single piece of information; any fact assumed to be a matter of direct observation.” So when we think about big data, we are thinking about massive amounts of individual pieces of information or individual facts from direct observation. Data simply are what they are, facts and individual observations in isolation.
On the other hand Dictionary.com defines information as “knowledge communicated or received concerning a particular fact or circumstance.” Information is the knowledge, story, and ideas we have about the data. These two definitions are important for thinking about big data. We never talk about big information, but the reality is that big data is less important than the knowledge we generate from the data, and that isn’t as objective as the individual datum.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “a generation ago, a marine biologist might have spent months doing a census of his or her favorite species. Now the same biologist has immediate access online to millions of data points on fish, eggs, stomach contents, or anything else he or she wants. Instead of just doing a census, the biologist can tell a story.” Science has become contentious and polarizing recently, and part of the reason has to do with the stories that we are generating based on the big data we are collecting. We can see new patterns, new associations, new correlations, and new trends in data from across the globe. As we have collected this information, our impact on the planet, our understanding of reality, and how we think about ourselves in the universe has changed. Science is not simply facts, that is to say it is not just data. Science is information, it is knowledge and stories that have continued to challenge the narratives we have held onto as a species for thousands of years.
Judea Pearl thinks it is important to recognize the story aspect of big data. He thinks it is crucial that we understand the difference between data and information, because without doing so we turn to the data blindly and can generate an inaccurate story based on what we see. He writes,
“In certain circles there is an almost religious faith that we can find the answers to … questions in the data itself, if only we are sufficiently clever at data mining. However, readers of this book will know that this hype is likely to be misguided. The questions I have just asked are all causal, and causal questions can never be answered from data alone.”
Big data presents us with huge numbers of observations and facts, but those facts alone don’t represent causal structures or deeper interactions within reality. We have to generate information from the data and combine that new knowledge with existing knowledge and causal hypothesis to truly learn something new from big data. If we don’t then we will simply be identifying meaningless correlations without truly understanding what they mean or imply.
Data Driven Methods

Data Driven Methods

In the world of big data scientists today have a real opportunity to push the limits scientific inquiry in ways that were never before possible. We have the collection methods and computing power available to analyze huge datasets and make observations in minutes that would have taken decades just a few years ago. However, many areas of science are not being strategic with this new power. Instead, many areas of science simply seem to be plugging variables into huge data sets and haphazardly looking for correlations and associations. Judea Pearl is critical of this approach to science in The Book of Why and uses the Genome-wide association study (GWAS) to demonstrate the shortcomings of this approach.
 
 
Pearl writes, “It is important to notice the word association in the term GWAS. This method does not prove causality; it only identifies genes associated with a certain disease in the given sample. It is a data-driven rather than hypothesis-driven method, and this presents problems for causal inference.”
 
 
In the 1950s and 1960s, Pearl explains, R. A. Fisher was skeptical that smoking caused cancer and argued that the correlation between smoking and cancer could have simply been the result of a hidden variable. He suggested it was possible for a gene to exist that both predisposed people to smoke and predisposed people to develop lung cancer. Pearl writes that such a smoking gene was indeed discovered in 2008 through the GWAS, but Pearl also notes that the existence of such a gene doesn’t actually provide us with any causal mechanism between people’s genes and smoking behavior or cancer development.  The smoking gene was not discovered by a hypothesis driven method but rather by data driven methods. Researchers simply looked at massive genomic datasets to see if any genes correlated between people who smoke and people who develop lung cancer. The smoking gene stood out in that study.
 
 
Pearl continues to say that causal investigations have shown that the gene in question is important for nicotine receptors  in lung cells, positing a causal pathway to smoking predispositions and the gene. However, causal studies also indicate that the gene increases your chance of developing lung cancer by less than doubling the chance of cancer. “This is serious business, no doubt, but it does not compare to the danger you face if you are a regular smoker,” writes Pearl. Smoking is associated with a 10 times increase in the risk of developing lung cancer, while the smoking gene only accounts for a less than double risk increase. The GWAS tells us that the gene is involved in cancer, but we can’t make any causal conclusions from just an association. We have to go deeper to understand its causality and to relate that to other factors that we can study. This helps us contextualize the information from the GWAS.
 
 
Much of science is still like the GWAS, looking for associations and hoping to be able to identify a causal pathway as was done with the smoking gene. In some cases these data driven methods can pay off by pointing the way for researchers to start looking for hypothesis driven methods, but we should recognize that data driven methods themselves don’t answer our questions and only represent correlations, not underlying causal structures. This is important because studies and findings based on just associations can be misleading. Discovering a smoking gene and not explaining the actual causal relationship or impact could harm people’s health, especially if they decided that they would surely develop cancer because they had the gene. Association studies ultimately can be misleading, misused, misunderstood, and dangerous, and that is part of why Pearl suggests a need to move beyond simple association studies. 

The Importance of Happiness

Following the introduction of his book 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman starts chapter 1 with an exploration of why it is important to be happy.  He explains a study by Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California that reviewed hundreds of studies regarding happiness to find what was common between them all.  One thing her team found is that happiness does not just result from success, but in many ways it actually causes success.  Wiseman summed up Lyubomirsky’s research by writing, “happiness makes people more sociable and altruistic, it increases how much they like themselves and others, it improves their ability to resolve conflict, and it strengthens their immune systems.”

 

Wiseman’s book dives into the science of the ideas and strategies in self help books.  Many of the books are meant to increase happiness, even if their main goal is to help someone in a specific area.  Becoming a better leader, achieving financial peace, and becoming more self aware all have an end goal of helping someone reach a more happy state of mind.  Wiseman starts his book with this quote to show just how important happiness can be, and why we all strive for it.  His quote shows that those who are happy are able to have more personal and engaged relationships, perform better in their career, and live healthier.  The question he sets out to explore is what methods for improving happiness have a scientific backing behind them.

 

I enjoy the quote from Wiseman that sums up Lyubomirsky’s findings because I think it is something we all understand.  I think that we can all vision a happy version of ourselves, and that version does have meaningful relationships with a long and healthy life at the center.  The quote also shows me that it is not a bad thing to try and understand this happiness to a greater extent through reading.  Often times reading self help books carries a certain stigma, but with the importance of happiness, there is no reason not to try and understand happiness and its ties with success.