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Friday, May 4, 2012

Does Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Govern the Study of Human Behavioral Risk?

Yesterday I wrote how as many as one in twenty observational medical studies could be "right" - the rest wrong.

So today I was perusing the following Wired article.

Jogging makes you live longer is the point of it.  The article covers a mortality study that looked at the deaths of joggers and non-joggers over several decades from 1976 through 2003.

The bottom line is that, according to the study, if you jog (man or woman) you might expect to live an extra six or so years.

So let's think about this: how could a study determine such a thing?

Now, let's take a simpler "study" and see how that might work.

Say I want to have a pumpkin contest and see which farmer grows the largest pumpkin.  So on June first I hand out free pumpkin seeds to anyone who wants to be in the contest.  Then I post a sign that September for my contest and people bring me their pumpkins to weigh in on October 15. 

The first year Mr. Jones is the winner.

Every year thereafter for a few years I have the same contest and Jones is often the winner.

But then Smith appears one year and his pumpkins are even larger - by 5% or so on average.

So Smith starts to win.

While I can make a lot of observations about what I have just described the problem what facts do these observations really convey?

Smith apparently has found a way to grow pumpkins larger than Jones.  But since I have no visibility into the processes used by either Smith or Jones I really cannot say anything concrete.

For all I know Smith may be doing something Jones is not (like planting his pumpkins earlier from old seed stock).

Similarly with studies like the jogger study.

We don't know what else these joggers are doing so how do we create a causal link between jogging and longer life?

Almost by definition joggers are "more conscious" of their health than non-joggers so maybe there are other activities (good eating, vitamins, etc.) involved.

But since no study can really probe that deeply and reliably into someone's life over such a long period can we really say anything for sure?

Epidemiology talks about risk.  Risk being the notion that something bad will happen, e.g., a heart attack, if you cholesterol is too high.

But clearly there must be some sort of "inverse" to that: supposing that your cholesterol is low then does something good happen? 

In the light of the fact this study was done, according to the article, in Denmark, we can call it ksir.

And what about jogging?  Is it associated with ksir?

What about good eating?

What about low stress?

But its interesting how you never see anything like ksir being discussed: only risk.  Yet one would imagine that the sword cuts both ways - somethings might be bad - others good - and both with measurable outcomes.

I suppose if ksir was real than people would discover it and live measurably longer than others - but as far as I can they don't.

Certainly jogging alone does not necessarily eliminate the risk of, say heart disease.  Just ask Jim Fixx.  While he is credited with starting the boom in jogging in 1977 with his "The Complete Running Book" he died jogging on the road of a heart attack.

One might think that risk and ksir are like the two sides of a balance - I can do things "good" for me and things "bad" for me.  But that's not how it works.  A balance has no notion of time, for example.  So I might do something bad for a while and then something good for a long time - but the damage caused during the "bad phase" may not be repairable.

Balances only measure the weight of things at a given moment - no balance I know of can look back over time for a comparison.

Perhapst risk and ksir are conserved like momentum or energy?

Humans have not found a way to make effective relative comparisons over time: is it better to have smoked, quit smoking and jogged as compared to having never smoked or jogged?

No one knows...

I think that the bottom line here is that most of this "medical data" is basically just "anecdotal."  Joggers, all things being equal, might live longer, smokers live less long. 

But certainly this differs quite a bit from individual results. 

Some very old people smoke and never get cancer. 

Some joggers, like Fixx, die young.

To a large degree this is like quantum physics: large collections of particles, atoms, molecules and so on behave in ways we see as predictable at the level of our perception: a cue ball rolling along a billiard table. 

But individual particles, like an electron in the cue ball, are completely unpredictable individually.

Similarly large collections of people have statistically predictable behaviors: one cannot predict the mileage of any one individual for any one particular activity such as jogging or smoking.

Perhaps humanity is not designed to operate for the individual - just as a cue ball is not governed by the unpredictability of the individual electrons inside it.  Instead I imagine that humanity is design more to be like the cue ball - rolling in some direction regardless of the behavior of the individual elements inside it.

But I think science misses this looking at something that, as Heisenberg says, is uncertain: the action of an individual particle (or human) which we cannot know.

Only statistically can we know things at the quantum level and I suspect the same is true for humanity at large and its "health."

The real question I think is this: is it possible to make substantial changes to the direction of the cue ball by individual actions or is our individuality quantum based in some way so that by definition humanity will always remain unpredictable?

I do not think humanity knows the answer to this and until it does we are mostly going to be jousting with windmills.

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