Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wisdom of the Crowds on House?

This past week, I was watching one of my favorite TV shows House, and I was surprised when they mentioned The Wisdom of the Crowds (WOC). For the most part, the show got the main points of the theory correctly; i.e., the aggregation of knowledge from many diverse people can perform better than a single expert opinion. In the scene, the patient does not trust his doctors and posts a $25,000 reward to the person who first presents the correct diagnosis. After receiving many different opinions, he aggregates them, takes the diagnosis most often given, and demands treatment. Of course, this fails and everyone is given the impression that the theory is faulty. One problem - this is not a true example of the theory.

The problem is the style of the monetary reward - it encourages quackery opinions to stand-out more than normal. A fundamental principle that is often ignored when discussing WOC is the incentives for offering opinions are often small and are rarely monetary or form transitional wealth. An example of transitional wealth is money: I can give someone a dollar and they can now use that dollar to buy something. Non-transitional wealth only possesses value to the person who created it. An example is pride: I can create pride in myself and I may be able to find pride in the actions of others, but I cannot be proud and give that pride to someone else. Another good example is By labeling songs, I can recover them quicker, but someone else may find my choice in labels confusing, wrong, or meaningless. The wealth is entirely within me.

The reason it is important to monetize opinions and effort in this fashion is that it acts as a noise filter; i.e., The Wisdom of the Crowds does not mean every nut delivers an opinion. For example, if I poll the average person on the street (at least in America), I will find some very wrong answers. Most people do not know what a molecule really is. This might explain why many people have a fear of things with "chemicals," which is a rather ridiculous statement that I have previously ridiculed. Further, only 1/3 of people can state what the purpose of DNA is. In other words, the average opinion is, well, average.

We can actually think of WOC from a statistical sampling perspective. While it's true that on average the group opinion will be better than an individual, it does mean that this is occurs with probability of one. The purpose of the WOC is to remove bias, but not expertise. Or from a Bayesian perspective:

P(correct answer AND crowd) = P(answer|crowd)P(crowd)

If I have a bunch of creationists, I am not going to get the correct answer (evolution). Same for medical diagnosis. If I tell people that they'll get $25,000 if they guess the correct answer, then their monetary gain is high. Unless their monetary cost is high as well, they'll offer any crap-based solution they could get from a little bit of time on Wikipedia. Worse, in this particular example, it's the cranks and quacks who are more likely to respond. Who do you think will respond quicker to that reward, a guy going around selling reflexology out of his Winnibego or the Head of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins?

However, I must admit that my ears perked when I heard the phenomena cited on a primetime TV show.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bill Maher and His Role in Anti-Science

I recently was amazed at the amount of crap that Bill Maher stated in this video:

First off, it is not true that you go to jail in the USA if you practice alternative medicine. Rather, alternative medicine is protected. For example, anything you consume can be protected as a "dietary supplement" under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which was pushed by the bipartisan team of Orrin Hatch (R) and Tom Harkin (D) (bipartisan does not mean good). The DSHEA states that it is up to the dietary supplement manufacturer to ensure the product is safe. There is no need to prove efficacy or safety in a controlled setting prior to marketing. Further, while it is true the manufacturer must ensure that any material on the label is true, any claim can be stated by using the catch-all phrase:

"These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent _______."

In other words, "we made all this shit up and didn't even bother to test it. Here, have seconds." The FDA only steps in if they can find evidence that it is harmful after people have been affected; e.g., Zicam. In fact, Zicam is a great example because it is even mislabeled as a homeopathic treatment, but is not one since the concentrations in Zicam are way too strong - strong enough to have any effect (whether good or bad) disqualifies it as being homeopathic. So, not only are alternative medicines not regulated as medicines, there is not a regulation on themselves.

Second, Bill Maher's statement that we have not improved in the cancer fight is a bold face lie. Cancer rates have been steadily declining for years. But why research when you can just make crap up?

Third, his statement that we have such a big health care system because "we are so sick" is absurd. I am going to refrain from the public/private debate because this blog is about science and engineering and not politics. But Maher's assertion about the size of our health care system is not correlated with any health markers. Rather, it is simply a matter of diminishing returns and efficiency. In fact, if our problem was simply tied to health, we would not be arguing over whether people are covered by insurance. Instead, we would be fighting about ways to make people healthier; e.g., tax on sugars, increased physical education in schools, anti-smoking legislation, etc. (Note: I am not giving any opinion on whether we should do any of these; I am just stating that we would probably be debating these topics.) Regardless of your stand on health insurance, this is largely absent from the debate, except as a way to raise funds for a form of public health. The reason is that our health is not tied to the increase in health care costs.

Next, Maher goes into the conspiracy theory that "Big Pharma" is only interested in treating symptoms is wrong on two fronts. First, several Western medicines and treatments are specifically designed to treat the underlying disease and not symptoms. For example, antibiotics are specifically designed to kill the bacteria causing the infection. You cannot get more offensive than that. If you have heart surgery, an improperly or non-functioning heart valve is either repaired or replaced. This is not to say that all Western medicines treat the underlying case. In some cases, there is no proven cure; therefore, we do the next best thing, which is to manage symptoms. This does not mean that research there is no research into fixing the underlying cause. For example, in 2007 we saw the first vaccine against bird-flu and in 2006 we saw Gardasil. Second, when did alternative medicines start treating diseases? For example, homeopathy was developed before Germ Theory and specifically treats symptoms. Like cures Like? That is treating symptoms. If I have a cold, homeopathy says that the cure is onion because both cause my eyes to tear and agitate my mucus membranes. These are not the cause for the cold - they are the symptoms. Not one homeopathic practitioner ever links onion to the death of viral rhinopharyngitis.

I have no idea why Maher gets a pass from the skeptical and scientific community. It's likely due to his non-religious beliefs. However, this is a gross mischaracterization. The truth is that Maher is religious, but not in the Westernized "only one God in the sky" fashion. He's religious in that he believes in unproven methodologies. Jeffrey Tobin is right: there is no such thing as alternative medicine; it's either medicine, unproven, or disproven. Acupuncture? It's not alternative; it's not medicine because it does not work any better than a placebo. Anytime you put faith in unproven methodologies, you are making a non-scientific statement about the world. Saying there is a "life force" called Qi is nothing more than a religious statement.

Even if Maher were correct about cancer rates not declining (and he clearly is wrong), it does nothing to validate his point. This is simply a straw-man argument. Just because we do not have a solution does not mean you get to make up whatever crap you want to fill in the holes. It does not work for Intelligent Design and it does not work for medicine. Of course, science does not know everything. If it did, we would not be running experiments because, we would already know the answer. But that does not mean that we do not know something. Is there a cure for all cancer? No, but that does not mean we have not found ways to cure some cancers, detect and treat earlier, and increase the life expectancy if diagnosed.

So, to sum up: Bill Maher has more in common with Creationists than he would probably like.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Musical Training Helps The Cocktail Party Problem?

There has be a lot of press about a recent article in Ear & Hearing, but I found a good bit of it misinformed, sometimes grossly. For example, here are some disturbing misinterpretations:

1) "After years of Mom telling you to turn off the music to protect your ears, there’s finally scientific evidence that music can be good for your hearing."

2) "Music training can help reorder nervous system"

3) "The findings strongly support the potential therapeutic and rehabilitation use of music training to address auditory processing and communication disorders throughout the life span."

In actuality, the paper discusses none of these. I'll take these in turn:

1) This is actually two different statements: that there is benefit to listening to music loudly and that just passively listening to music can help. The most irresponsible is the former. While I'll admit that the statement does not directly say that increasing volume is beneficial, their slight attempt at humor implies it. The study did not discuss any possible benefit about listening to music loudly. As for the later ("passive listening to music can help") is definitely not within the paper. In fact, the study compared people with extensive musical training versus those with no musical training. The amount of time listening to music passively was not a variable within the study. Further, the so called "Mozart effect" has repeatedly been shown to be false (for a some references click here; for a funny discussion, one can check Penn & Teller's Bullshit!), despite the rather silly product market. The distinction between passively learning and actively learning is significant because it is true that research indicates the musical training may increase cognitive abilities in non-musical areas (see the "article" link above), but this cannot be said for passive listening.

2) The paper does not specifically address anything about the brain being rewired. In fact, since all musicians started practicing an instrument before the age of seven, it is likely that the brain wasn't being "rewired," but rather being "developed" in a different environment. This gets into (3) because...

3) The authors do not say anything about the potential for therapeutic products. Again, since the musicians had extensive training and started before the age of seven this study cannot answer the question about whether the effect can occur if someone begins training at a later age.

So just what did the study say?

I encourage you to read it first hand, but this is effectively what it says:

1) When presented with noise from the same source, people who have received life-long musical training performed better in remembering and processing oral sentences in four-talker babble.

2) When the noise is presented from coming from the same source (i.e., loud speaker), there was no difference.

3) The processing part is important because it signifies that working memory is the determining factor.

The authors then hypothesize that because musicians are better able to pick up on low-level auditory cues, they have more resources for working memory, and, therefore, able to process oral information more efficiently.

This is yet another call to caution whenever research is being presented by the media. It's important to ask to read the final article, including the headline, before you agree to give your consent. Radio Station? Say it ain't so!

I'm a huge fan of and the work they do, but I've always been a little curious as to their role with CBS. Apparently, CBS has decided to use the online radio station for something that it is not: a terrestrial, non-personalized radio station. While it might be "neat" to use this tool to see what's popular among the specific demographic of the online station, by no means is this a great tool for recommendation - which is at the heart and core of's mission. What would such a station play anyway? Depends a lot on the type of "chart" they are using, but suffice it to stay, most plays will fairly bland in terms of their novelty factor. For example, let's look at the current Top Ten artists: (Note: This was written around September 8th and published later, so the current artists are different, but concepts are the same).

1) Radiohead
2) Beatles
3) Coldplay
4) Muse
5) Michael Jackson
6) The Killers
7) Metallica
8) Kings of Leon
9) Red Hot Chili Peppers
10) Artic Monkeys

Besides the obvious British bias, we can see that the most common artists are not exactly "strange." They are all (at least) decent, respected bands. Some have been around a while (Radiohead, Coldplay, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers) and some are staples of any music list (Beatles, Michael Jackson). However, I wouldn't exactly say that these bands are strange to radio play (yes, to some degree, Kings of Leon and Artic Monkeys are not as common, but I would hardly say that they get almost no radio play, at least in the US). (As an update, on today, September 18th, the Beatles passed Radiohead, which came out September 9th. While this does show the power of's "buzz meter," it is hardly unforseen. Further, this is an example of already popular, known bands simply trading places.)

Also, these two bands are really in the list due to recent releases, as evident from the current Top 10 tracks:

1) Kings of Leon - "Sex on Fire"
2) Kings of Leon - "Use Somebody"
3) MGMT - "Kids"
4) Arctic Monkeys - "Crying Lightning"
5) Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"
6) Lady GaGa - "Poker Face"
7) Muse - "Supermassive Black Hole"
8) MGMT - "Time to Pretend"
9) Black Eyed Peas - "I Gotta Feeling"
10) MGMT - "Electric Feel"

Yeah, these are all very rare indeed. Hint: If the artist is being asked to play at the MTV Music awards, then it is a safe bet that the artist is not a rare find. What if I contiue farther? Well, #14 is "Wonderwall" by Oasis and thank God because I haven't heard that about a bajillion times.

About the only good list would be the "Hyped List," but this is more than likely just following new releases. Truth is that a station that would be that eclectic probably won't fair well since users would be hearing a high degree of music they don't like (i.e., people probably will not like bouncing from niche to niche).

The truth is that this violates the very nature of - personalized music discovery. Will the radio station fail? No, of course not. It will actually be interesting to see how well the record companies try to follow the Wisdom of the Crowds. This is, after all, capitalism. It was always believed that record companies tried to make people like certain bands, but in truth, the record companies just knew what most people either liked or, at least, could listen to without running from the room screaming. Truth be told, Nickelback and Creed suck, but most people can listen to them because it isn't so awful that I can't either tune it out or stop myself from sticking pencils in my ear . It's just boring rock template music. People didn't buy millions of Spice Girls albums because they had a bunch of money in their pocket, found themselves in a record store, and didn't know what else to buy. They bought it because they wanted to (and you know who you are and should be ashamed of yourself - if my sister had a webpage, I'd link to it here).

I fear this radio station will just be yet another radio stations which focuses on the rather narrow "head" of the long tail and never really gets into the niche markets. The reason? Radio execs focus on what's popular and what will be popular. They are still successful in this, but what they lack is the ability to tailor distribution channels to individual needs and wants. It is not the price of songs that is destroying the music business. If that were true, then as online marketers slashed prices, sales would increase. But this hasn't happened because, despite what Napster fans would have you believe, it was never about prices, but about finding the music that you, and only you, wanted. This is the market that sites like are designed to infiltrate - but a radio station broadcast to millions cannot capture this ability. On the other hand, one can hope that I will be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Terry McBride interviews with Paste

Phew! It's been a while! Guess I've been busy getting a MIREX submission for chord detection completed. Anyway, news of the day: recently Terry McBride sat down with Paste Magazine for a quick "Where are we going?" interview. It's a very quick, but good view of how the music industry is finally dealing with their new role.

Thursday, August 13, 2009