“What’s not going to change in the next ten years?” (via Pedro de Bruyckere’s “From experience to meaning” blog)

I normally hate Twitter “threads”, which often seem all too pompous, tendentious, and flat out wrong. But here’s a good one, via Via Pedro de Bruyckere’s From Experience to Meaning blog.  And it is also a thread that makes me think a little better of Jeff Bezos.  Here’s the beginning :

 

When I read the first tweet of this thread by Benjamin Riley I had the feeling we were up to something good. And Benjamin didn’t disappoint. I won’t make it into a habit of posting something like this on this blog, but I do wanted to share this here as I know that many of my readers would otherwise miss this:

Benjamin Riley@benjaminjriley

Please forgive me for the following tweet thread (not to say tirade) that will attempt to connect Jeff Bezos, , predicting the future, and cognitive science together. Get ready!

Benjamin Riley@benjaminjriley

First, here’s the quote from Jeff Bezos about building a business when the future is uncertain (it’ll take a few tweets): “”I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one…”

Benjamin Riley@benjaminjriley

Bezos continues: “I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

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#LivingLibrary – College of Psychiatrists of Ireland event for #GreenRibbon month, 31st May 2018

I will be speaking as a living book in this:
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The College is delighted to announce our 4th annual event in partnership with See Change for Green Ribbon Month – A Living Library
When it comes to mental health everyone has a story to share and we find comfort, empathy and compassion in shared experiences. Social contact is known to be one of the most effective ways of reducing mental health related stigma and discrimination so with this in mind, and to mark Green Ribbon month, the College is delighted to announce our ‘Living Library’ event, a library come to life in the outdoors!

At our library the ‘books’ are a little different, they are people; people with different experiences and stories to tell related to mental health including those who have experienced mental health issues and illness, their family members and carers, and the psychiatrists who help them towards the path of recovery. Mental health stigma too often creates discrimination and misunderstanding so we want to give members of the public the opportunity to connect and engage with psychiatrists and people they may not normally have the occasion to speak with.

The aim is to better understand the lived experiences of others who have experienced or facilitated recovery from mental illness and distress and to challenge their own assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes. We invite you to ‘read’ the human books through conversation and gain understanding of their experiences.

For Green Ribbon Month Let’s End the Stigma by not judging a book by its cover and develop a greater understanding of each other’s stories.

Thursday 31st May 2018
12.30pm – 2.30pm
St Stephens Green, Dublin

This is a Free Event, but space is limited. Book your place here.

What children say when they are asked what they think about the brain.

(update May 19th 2018, this is an old post I am very sporadically updating)

I am interested in what we think of when we think of “the brain.” I am planning a post compiling the various technological metaphors that are used when people talk about the brain – from the steam engine  / pneumatic metaphors of the 19th Century to the computer metaphors of today. Of course, these metaphors (especially the computer one) assume a kind of literal meaning so that we forget that the brain really isn’t  a computer.

Anyhow, one interesting topic that may or may not have been systematically and academically studied is what children think of when they think of the brain. There is almost certainly some academic work out there on this – my own plan is to ask every few months the following questions:

What is a brain?

Where is  your brain?

What does your brain do?

 Until the children in question tell me to go away.

And because I am interested in sleep also, I will ask

What happens when you sleep?

(May 2018 update — um I haven’t actually done this)

February 24th 2015

Child aged four and four months

Where is your brain?
(touches neck, goes off and plays elsewhere)

Later on

Where is your brain?

(touches head)
What does your  brain do?

It keeps your forehead in place

May 24th 2015

Same child

 

What is a brain?

Your forehead’s bone

Where is  your brain?

Here (touches forehead)

What does your brain do?

Makes you think. Anything else? Mmm -mmm

Oct 2nd 2015

Same child.

What is a brain?

In your head.

Where is your brain?

In your forehead.

What does your brain do?

It makes you think.

Anything else?

That’s all.

May 18th 2018

What is a brain?

A brain is weird looking thing that helps your memeory stuff and keeps you breathing. Without a brain you would forget how to breathe and die

Where is your brain?

Your brain is on the top of your head in your skull. It has bones surrounding it so you can’t get anything in your brain except for your memory love and stuff like that.
What does your brain do?

It helps you live, helps you put stuff in your mind and helps you breathe. It helps you hug and remember what your hobby is.

Don’t Take Notes With A Laptop – from @andymcnally

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Original Scientific American article.

Far transfer through music? This longitudinal study suggests it works!

A post on the potential “far transfer” of music education – ie the longer term impact on cognitive ability. I like the way that Pedro restrains his enthusiasm here! “Far transfer” is tricky to study, but also is a factor in education that needs to be considered when subjects/disciplines are accused of lacking “relevance”

From experience to meaning...

I’m a musician as some of you might know and very much in favor of music and music lessons, but I’m a bit hesitant about this new study. It sounds like great news: cognitive skills developed from music lessons appear to transfer to unrelated subjects, leading to improved academic performance.

Why I’m not so sure? Well, this kind of far transfer is not something easy to achieve and I don’t want to get my hopes up too high. So, let’s have a look at the press release:

Structured music lessons significantly enhance children’s cognitive abilities — including language-based reasoning, short-term memory, planning and inhibition — which lead to improved academic performance. Published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, the research is the first large-scale, longitudinal study to be adapted into the regular school curriculum. Visual arts lessons were also found to significantly improve children’s visual and spatial memory.

Music education has…

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Theranos, hype, fraud, solutionism, and eHealth

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Anyone who has had to either give or take a blood sample has surely thought “there must be a better way.” The promise of replacing the pain of the needle and the seeming waste of multiple blood vials has an immediate appeal. If there was a technology that could

Theranos were one of the hottest health teach startups of the last decade. Indeed, their USP – that existing blood testing could be replaced by a pin prick – would have been a genuinely disruptive one.

Theranos was founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Holmes, then 19 years old, who dropped out of studying engineering in Stanford in order to start the company. In 2015 she was named by Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made female billionaire in history, with an estimated worth of $4.5 billion. In June 2016, Forbes revised their estimate to zero. What happened?

At times of writing, Holmes has been charged with “massive fraud” by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, and has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and accept a ban from serving as a company director or officer for ten years. It is unclear if a criminal investigation is also proceeding.
At its height, Theranos had a seemingly stellar team of advisors. The board of directors has included such figures as Henry Kissinger, current US Secretary of Defence James “Mad Dog” Mattis, various former US Senators and business figure. In early 2016, in response to criticism that, whatever their other qualities, the clinical expertise of Mad Dog Mattis et al was perhaps light, it announced a medical advisory board including four medical doctors and six professors.

 

Elizabeth Holmes’ fall began in October 2015, when the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou published an article detailing discrepancies between Theranos’ claims and the actual performance of their technology. This was in response to a Fortune cover story by Roger Parloff, who subsequently wrote a thoughtful piece on how he had been misled, but also how he missed a hint that all was not what it was.

 

Theranos’ claims to be able to perform over 200 different investigations on a pinprick of blood were not borne out; and it turned out that other companies’ products were used for the analysis of many samples.

 

The fall of Theranos has led to some soul-searching among the health tech stat up community. Bill Rader, an entrepreneur and columnist at Forbes, wrote on What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Theranos:

 

     I have been watching first in awe of perceived accomplishments, and then feeling burned, then later vindicated, when the actual facts were disclosed. Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted their efforts to have been both real and successful – they would have changed healthcare for the better. Now, that seems unlikely to be the case.

 

By now, almost everyone has heard of Holmes and her company, and how she built Theranos on hype and secrecy, and pushed investors into a huge, $9 billion valuation. Now everyone in the industry is talking about this and lawsuits are flying.

Just a couple months ago, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist appeared on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” and instead of talking about the elephant in the room, he diverted to a defense strategy for the Theranos CEO.

 

He claimed Elizabeth Holmes had been “totally attacked,”and that she is “a great example of maybe why the women are so frustrated.”

He also went on to say, “This is a great entrepreneur who wants to change health care as we know it.”

 

The last statement was the strangest thing he said. Wouldn’t we all like to change things for the better? But “wanting” and “doing” are two different things.

 

 

 

Rader’s piece is worth reading for clinicians and IT professionals involved in health technology. The major lesson he draws is the need for transparency. He describes being put under pressure by his own board; why wasn’t he able to raise as much money as Theranos? It transpires that Theranos’ methods may make life more difficult for start-ups in the future, and Rader fears that legitimate health tech may suffer:

 

Nothing good has come of the mess created by Theronos secrecy, or as some have characterized, deception. The investor has been burned, the patient has been left with unfilled promises (yet again) and life science industry start-ups, like my company, have been left with even more challenges in raising much needed investment. And worse of all, diagnostic start-ups in general are carrying an unearned stigma.

 

In this interesting piece, Christine Farr notes that the biggest biotech and health care venture capital firms did not invest in Theranos, nor did Silicon Valley firms with actual clinical practices attached. As Farr writes, the Theranos story reflects systemic issues in funding of innovation, and the nature of hype. And one unfortunate consequence may be an excessive focus on Elizabeth Holmes; a charismatic figure lauded unrealistically at one point is ripe to become a scapegoat for all the ills of an industry the next.

 

The “stealth mode” in which Theranos operated in for the first ten years of its existence is incompatible with the values of healthcare and of the science on which it is based. Farr points out how unlikely it would be that a biotech firm vetting Theranos would let their lack of peer reviewed studies pass. The process of peer review and building evidence is key to the modern practice of medicine.

Another lesson is simply to beware of what one wants to be true. As written above, the idea of Theranos’ technology is highly appealing. The company, and Holmes, sailed on an ocean of hype and admiring magazine covers. The rhetoric of disruptive and revolutionizing healthcare featured prominently, as the 2014 Fortune magazine cover story reveals:

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Perhaps a healthy scepticism of claims to “revolutionise” health care will be one consequence of the Theranos affair, and a more robustly questioning attitude to the solutionism that plagues technology discourse in general.

Clinicians and health IT professionals should be open to innovation and new ideas, but also hold on to their professional duty to be confident new technologies will actually benefit the patient.

Why isn’t William C Campbell more famous in Ireland?

There have been only two Irish winners of Nobel Prizes other than Literature and Peace – Dungarvan-born Ernest Walton for physics in 1951 and Ramelton-born William C Campbell for Physiology or Medicine in 2015.

My memory of being in school in the 1990s was that Ernest Walton loomed fairly large in science popularisation at the time. I recall quite vividly coverage of his death in 1995, but also recall his being quoted and profiled fairly extensively. Of course, I could be a victim of a recall bias – I probably am. Yet it does seem that William C Campbell has not had nearly as much coverage, especially when you consider how media-saturated we are now.

Or perhaps that is the whole point. It feels like a silly comparison, but is may be like the Eurovision; once we cared deeply about winning this competition and getting recognition, now there is a flurry of excitement if we get to the final. Having said that, it isn’t like we have had any other science Nobels to get excited about since 1995.

Of course there is a reasonable amount of coverage of Campbell, in the Irish Times in particular some of it quite recent. A fair percentage of online coverage seems to be from the Donegal papers of the hail-the-local-hero variety, which is fair enough.

A search for ‘William Campbell “Irish Independent”‘ starts with two articles from the Independent on Campbell, then has this , then a range of articles about unrelated topics.

I came across this excellent piece on “the fragile culture of Irish journalism” by Declan Fahy – the fragility exemplified by the coverage of Campbell’s prize:

The reporting of Campbell’s Nobel win illuminated several more general features of Irish media coverage of science. The story originated outside Ireland, yet its local dimension was stressed. Its tone was celebratory. It was not covered by specialist science journalists. Only The Irish Times probed deeper into the background of the scientist and his work.

The story was interesting also because of the aspects of Campbell’s story that were not developed. Reporters did not use the announcement as a jumping-off point to explore some of the novel dimensions of Campbell’s story, such as the rights and wrongs of pharmaceutical companies’ ownership of drugs that could help millions of the world’s poorest people, the unseen research work of an industry-based scientist, and the complex case of a scientist of faith with an admitted “complicated sense of religion”.

The superficial reporting of the Campbell story is not an isolated case. It reflects more generally the state of Irish science journalism, where there are few dedicated science journalists, a shortfall of science coverage compared to other countries, a neglect of science policy coverage, a reliance on one outlet for sustained coverage, a dependence on subsidies for the production of some forms of journalistic content, and a dominant style of reporting that lacks a critical edge.

(in passing, Walton was also a scientist of faith, although perhaps with less “complicated sense of religion” than Campbell)

Fahy goes on, in what is a an extract from a book co-edited by Fahy, “Little Country, Big Talk” to enumerate some fo the issues both within the structure of media institutions and within Irish society and culture overall which contribute to this relative neglect. While there is an Irish Science and Technology Journalists Association, there is not a critical mass of science journalists. Writing in 2017, Fahy observes:

Compared to the US and UK, Ireland has a far less developed culture of science journalism. There are currently no full-time science journalists in mainstream Irish newspapers and broadcasters. The Irish Times had a dedicated science editor in Dick Ahlstrom, who has now retired (and, during his tenure, he had other significant editorial duties at the news organisation).

The Irish Times also had a longtime environmental correspondent, Frank McDonald, who retired in recent years. Earlier this year, former editor Kevin O’Sullivan combined these two roles, becoming environment and science editor. The paper also has a health correspondent and a specialist medical writer. The Irish Independent has an environment editor, Paul Melia.

The public service broadcaster, RTÉ, has had specialists in science or technology, but its correspondents have usually had dual briefs, reporting on education or health as well as science, and tending to cover education or health more so than science. That tendency, identified by Brian Trench in 2007’s Mapping Irish Media, has continued. In 2016, the incumbent in the role is responsible for science and technology, and tends to cover technology more than science.

Fahy also discusses the wider place of science in Irish culture and society. There are many many fascinating stories to tell about science in Ireland, such as Erwin Schrodinger’s time here (perhaps illustrative of Fahy’s point is that the very first Google result for “Schrodinger in Ireland” is this) and the many many stories collected by Mary Mulvihill in Ingenious Ireland. As I have just posted on Seamus Sweeney, I only learnt while researching this post that Mary Mulvihill died in 2015.

Of course, some of these stories can be told with a celebratory, or I-can’t-believe-this-happened-in-little-auld-Ireland focus, which again illustrates Fahy’s point. My own perception is that in 1995 the situation was actually a little better than it is now – that Irish science journalism is not in stasis but actually in reverse .

One striking point made by Fahy is that the science beat is often combined with health or technology- and these tend to win out in terms of focus. And the hard , critical questions don’t tend to get asked – often there is a strong bang of barely rewritten press release about articles on science topics.

Another thought – the retirement of Dick Ahlstrom and death of Mary Mulvihill alone robbed the already small pool of Irish science writers of some of the finest practitioners. Irish journalism – like Irish anything- is pretty much a small world and a couple of such losses can have a huge impact.