June 3, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
Science Needs More Moneyball: Baseball’s data-mining methods are starting a similar revolution in research
June 3, 2012
The Moneyball story, in book and film, champions a data-mining revolution that changed professional baseball. On the surface, Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, who found a way to lead his cash-strapped club to success against teams with much bigger payrolls. Beane used data to challenge what everyone else managing baseball “knew” to be true from intuition, experience and training. He pioneered methods to identify outstanding players he could afford because they were undervalued by the traditional statistics used by the baseball elite.
This film was marketed as a sports movie. When I saw it, I knew right away what Moneyball is really about: the thrill and triumph of data mining. It’s an instructive tale of how existing data can be examined for meaning in ways that were never intended or imagined when they were originally collected. Beane and his colleagues challenged the time-honored trinity of batting average, home runs and runs batted in (RBIs) as the essence of the offensive value of a player, replacing these statistics with newer measures based on the same data. They worked off theories developed by baseball writer and historian Bill James, who posited in the 1970s that the traditional stats were really imperfect measurements. James’s approach didn’t just replace one intuition with another. He let the game decide which stats did the best job of predicting offensive output.
This approach is not easy. Trying to directly predict the number of games won would confound the skill of a team’s offense with its pitching and fielding. James figured that one could test each offensive stat by trying to predict the total number of runs produced by each team over the course of a season, thus eliminating any effects of defense. It turned out that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were far superior to any individual offensive statistics used up to that point. James and others similarly devised statistics for pitching and fielding that were more independent of context.
Beane’s use of the new statistics is appealing because it defeated the wisdom and training of other industry experts. His approach is summed up in one of the best scenes from the Moneyball film. Armed with his new data-mining methods, Beane challenges other talent evaluators about a player they all deem “good.” A scout counters him, praising the player’s swing. Beane’s reply: “If he’s such a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?”
In other words, expert intuition aside, the data don’t lie.
As I see it, the baseball revolution produced an “idiot’s guide” to creating a team roster—a handbook based on things one can learn not through decades of experience and intuition but by applying general quantitative methods. It’s the same kind of approach we should employ more in the sciences. Mountains of data and a capacity for analyzing them have also become available to science in the past few years. Data are now poised to trump the intuition of experts and the “facts” that scientists have championed over the years.
For instance, consider my own field, biology. Every biologist “knows” what a species is—a group of organisms that can successfully produce viable and fertile offspring. Biologists have long believed that species defined this way represent the fundamental units of ecology and evolution.
In the case of evolutionary microbiology (my specialty), it is particularly important to be able to recognize all the fundamental units of ecology among closely related bacteria. We especially need to distinguish those that are dangerous from those that are not and those that are helpful from those that are not. Indeed, we would like to identify all the bacterial populations that play distinct ecological roles in their communities.
As in baseball, the discovery of bacterial diversity has experienced a transition from relying on the subjective judgment of experts to objective and universal statistical methods. Originally, discovery and demarcation of bacterial species required a lot of expertise with a particular group of organisms, involving difficult measures of metabolic and chemical differences. To make the taxonomy more accessible, decades ago the field complemented this arduous approach with a kind of idiot’s guide, where anyone could use widely available molecular techniques to identify species—for example, a certain level of overall DNA sequence similarity.
One popular universal criterion (among others) is to identify species as groups of organisms that are at least 99 percent similar in a particular universal gene. The problem is that—like the case of baseball where batting average, RBIs and home runs were used to supplement expert knowledge—nobody in microbiology tested whether the new molecular techniques actually came closer to solving the problem of recognizing the most closely related species.
Unfortunately, microbiology’s current DNA-based idiot’s guide, as well as the expert-driven metabolic criteria that preceded it, has yielded species with unhelpfully broad dimensions. For example, Escherichia coli contains strains that live in our guts peaceably, as well as various pathogens that attack the gut lining and others that attack the urinary tract. Moreover, established fecal-contamination detection kits that are designed to identify E. coli in the environment are now known to register a positive result with E. coli relatives that normally spend their lives in freshwater ponds, with little capacity for harming humans. And E. coli is not alone—there is a Yugoslavia of diversity within the typical recognized species: Much like the veneer of a unified country that hid a great diversity of ethnicities and religions, E. coli (and most recognized species) contains an enormous level of ecological and genomic diversity obscured under the banner of a single species name.
June 3, 2012
For over thirty years, Harvard undergraduates have packed Sanders Theater for Michael Sandel’s course on justice. PBS has broadcast the lectures and more than three and a half million people have clicked to watch them on YouTube. Thanks to all this exposure, Sandel has become the most famous teacher of philosophy in the world, and his classes—sober, good-humored, serious—have shown that it is possible to take philosophy into the public square without insulting the public’s intelligence.
The doctrine that Sandel wants to take into the square is a sustained critique—from something like the center—of liberalism as a public philosophy. Since his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, which appeared thirty years ago, he has been the most prominent critic of John Rawls’s idea that the liberal state must be neutral in relation to the public good. He thinks that the liberal state cannot be neutral because it must protect the lives and the interests of individuals, and its laws, taken as a whole, enact a particular vision not merely of the right but also of the good.
The ultimate good in a liberal state is liberty. But Sandel thinks that liberty is not enough for life in a liberal order. A liberal political order should be more ambitious. It should aim at “soulcraft,” or the shaping of a citizen’s character. It should promote the virtues of honor, respect, and sacrifice, and wean people away from private selfishness, and make them more devoted to the public good. Without these civic virtues, the liberal republic will lack the community spirit to maintain a healthy democracy. As he once observed, “The public philosophy by which we live cannot secure the liberty it promises because it cannot inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”
By prizing only the value of liberty and hence of private property, Sandel has argued, liberalism disarmed itself in the battle against the power of money. The liberal state has allowed market principles to shape public debate and mold private consciousness, leaving a public world in which (as Oscar Wilde said) too many of us know the price of everything and the value of nothing. So Sandel is trying to force open a space for a discourse on civic virtue that he believes has been abandoned by both left and right.
In his view, American progressivism has given up arguing that money is sometimes corrupting, and contents itself with believing that a fairer redistribution of wealth is the sum and substance of political justice. And if the progressive left ignores the corruption of wealth, the conservative right moralizes riches as a validation of personal effort and a sign of personal virtue. But as Sandel wrote in 2009, “Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.” Certain things of value—love, loyalty, friendship, honor—are corrupted when we try to put a price on them. Restoring the value of what is beyond price should go hand in hand, he argues, with a politics of the public good, a good in common that is more than the maximized economic utility of solitary individuals.
This style of civic moralism certainly deserves a place between the hectoring discourses of left and right; and as the popularity of Sandel’s lectures suggests, he has attracted a large audience with it. The problem is that it is not at all obvious what kind of politics it is. Sandel is too committed to liberty to legislate virtue and too committed to the public good to let the market rip. Where this leaves him is less than clear. He believes that the civic virtues are like muscles, strengthened by exercise and atrophied with disuse, so he wants Americans to exercise their public virtues in order to weaken the influence of money on their private motives. He thinks they can do this in a public conversation about virtue, rather like his Harvard classes. These are estimable sentiments. But once the conversation is over and we have all had our say, it is unclear what public policy we should support. The question that hovers over what Sandel is trying to do is whether it is a politics at all, or just an elegiac jeremiad to lost virtues.
JEREMIADS ABOUT THE corrupting effect of money and greed on republican virtue go back a long way—all the way to the Stoic critics of the late Roman republic. This language of virtue and corruption has shaped the Western debate about what money does to our souls and our public life. After the fall of Rome, Christianity took charge of the struggle to roll back money’s empire. Christ driving the money changers from the temple inspired two thousand years of righteous anger at money’s profanation of the sacred. When capitalist societies emerged in early modern Europe, Christianity focused on the private realm, the corrosive effect of money on people’s souls, while the republican language of virtue and corruption focused on the public realm, capturing moral unease about what money was doing to politics. Moralists from Machiavelli to Mandeville asked how market societies, driven by greed and avarice, could generate the public virtues necessary to maintain free government…
You Really Are What You Eat: When it comes to staving off the problems of aging, your diet is your friend- or enemy
June 3, 2012
If your mental image of an older person is someone frail and thin, it may be time for an update. For the generation currently moving through middle age and beyond, a new concern is, well, growing: obesity. Government figures show that Americans in their 60s today are about 10 pounds heavier than their counterparts of just a decade ago. And an even more worrisome bulge is coming: A typical woman in her 40s now weighs 168 pounds, versus 143 pounds in the 1960s. “People used to start midlife [at a lower weight] and then lose weight when they got into their 50s, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore,” says David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of The End of Overeating.
If you’re entering that danger zone now, be aware that it’s not going to get any easier to lose weight, because people need fewer calories as they age. Blame slowing metabolism and the body’s tendency starting in midlife to lose muscle mass—a process known as sarcopenia—and gain fat, especially around the abdomen. (Fat burns fewer calories than does muscle.) “All that conspires to make it harder for people to maintain the same body weight when they eat their usual diets,” says Alice Lichtenstein, director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “People have fewer discretionary calories to play with, so they need to make better food choices.”
But paying attention to what you eat isn’t only about controlling weight; the need for certain vitamins and minerals increases with age. One is calcium, necessary to protect bones. Another is B12, since some older adults make less of the stomach acid required to absorb the vitamin. More vitamin D also is required. “The skin gets less efficient at converting sunlight into this vitamin, so more is needed from other sources,” Lichtenstein says. Fewer than 7 percent of Americans between ages 50 and 70 get enough vitamin D from the foods they eat, and fewer than 26 percent get enough calcium.
Eating right and staying lean are both crucial for maintaining health throughout the years. Carrying an extra 20 or 30 pounds with you into old age doesn’t bode well for attempts to head off the myriad diseases that strike in midlife and later and are linked to weight—including diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. If weight is a problem, it is especially important to limit processed foods that combine sugar and fat. Studies with rats indicate that when the two are added to chow, animals can’t easily stop eating, says Kessler. This happens in humans, too, he says, and food manufacturers have taken note and added sugar and fat to many products.
So what should people eat? A healthful diet at midlife is the same as for younger adults—it’s just that the stakes may be higher. The focus should be on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low- and nonfat dairy, legumes, lean meats, and fish. (While there is no single “longevity diet,” a Mediterranean diet—similar to a conventional healthful diet but with more emphasis on fish and olive oil—has been tied to a decreased risk of heart disease and reductions in blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol. Mediterranean dieters may also outlive non-followers by two to three years, research suggests.) For someone whose current diet is far from this ideal, Lichtenstein advises starting small: load more veggies on the dinner plate; eat more skinless chicken or beans in place of hamburger. (A singly daily serving of processed or unprocessed red meat may boost the risk of premature death, according to a recent study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers.) And exercise. Walking briskly for at least 30 minutes every day makes it easier to get away with the occasional cookie. With further fine-tuning of that basic healthful eating plan, you can greatly improve your odds of staving off the major barriers to a vital old age:
Heart Disease. By now, every American surely knows the roll call of foods that affect your heart, for better and for worse. Good for the ticker: monounsaturated fats like olive oil and the omega-3 fatty acids found in such cold-water fish as salmon and herring and in flaxseed and walnuts. Harmful: too much red meat and full-fat dairy, because of their saturated fat content, and margarine and baked goods, because of the trans fats they contain…