Sunday, July 20, 2008

Can it be science without a hypothesis

Do we still need hypothesis? What is a hypothesis anyway? For that matter, what is science? Is collecting data and using IT tools to look for patterns still science? You use the results to FORM a hypothesis rather then INVENT a hypothesis first and then go test it with data. This is a critical question in our day and age. For a good example of the kind of question being asked i see Chris Anderson on The End of Theory in Wired Magazine:

This is my take: data is just data. Just because it is encoded in some system doesn’t make it any more or less likely to inspire a hypothesis than, say, looking at a sunset through polluted skies. Inspiration comes from data of all kinds- visual data from the sunset, or complex numeric data from a bunch of codes on a screen. The bigger question might be: where does science begin? If we loot at the sunset, or the enormous, dry, data set, and then create a hypothesis about why the sun is red, or why protein X and protein Y co-occur, where does the science begin? With the looking, or the hypothesizing? Hard to say and maybe not that important except when you are looking for grant money perhaps. Just sifting through data to look for co-occurrences is not good enough. Don’t get me wrong-it’s good. Just not good enough. You need to follow up with a hypothesis to make it ‘science’. So to me, it seems like science still must still, therefore, start with a hypothesis.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Low-fat, low-carb-which is best?
The news is out. Low-carb is as good as low-fat for losing weight, and may be even better for your cholesterol. The Mediterranean diet is better for reducing fasting glucose according to the study that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week. In the same issue of the NEJM there is a book review on the latest thinking on Metabolic Syndrome, the collection of biomarkers that puts a person at high risk of diabetes and heart disease at the very least. Apparently about 60% of those over 60 years of age in the US suffer from Metabolic Syndrome (previously known as Syndrome X, and maybe now known as Dys-metabolic Syndrome) which manifests as abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and an unfavorable cholesterol profile. The NEJM study showed the Mediterranean diet reduced fasting glucose, while the low-card diet yielded better weight loss and an improved cholesterol profile which made me think that either of these diet approaches could have far-reaching health benefits beyond weight loss if we took a closer look at what such diets do to Metabolic Syndrome as a whole.

The study took two years and participants appeared to remain compliant to the diets they were assigned. Weight loss was between 3 and 6kg for all groups with the least in the low-fat group and the most in the low-carb. The low-carb group, was the only group where calories were not restricted. Perhaps the low-carb diet curbs appetite in itself?

The article was interesting because it cobbled a sacred cow that says low fat diets reduce cholesterol. From this study it seems you are better off with low-carb to improve your cholesterol profile. The low-carb increased HDl and decreased LDL, whereas the low-fat diet had a negligible effect on LD although it did raise HDL.

The study has some flaws; it relies on self reporting for dietary compliance although relatives were instructed to encourage participants to stick to the plan. There were also few women in the study which is significant because the data did suggest some gender-based differences in effects of the three diets. Overall, I found the data interesting, and hope to see more of these longer term studies that study the effect of dietary composition on factors relating to weight and health. If 60% of us are truly suffering from Metabolic Syndrome, and hence will be looking for ways to slim down and de-fat our blood streams in the future, then the more of this type of study the better. Or maybe not. As Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food, 2008, The Penguin Press) might say, there should be little need to tell us what our bodies already know. We evolved to eat. Not too much, Mostly plants.

So why does it seem so hard?

Shai, I., et al., ., , . (2008). Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or low-fat diet.. New England Journal of Medicine, 359(3), 229-241.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga

I love Seed magazine. One feature is the salon that puts scientists and humanists together to talk about life, the universe and everything (see my 'shared items' link for the link to the article). This month, Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga talk about status, language,free will, cognition, and a few other topics thrown in. The conversation is stimulating especially when the pair get to talking about the region of the left hemisphere that MG has identified as The Interpreter. This is the area that takes in everything that is happening and makes sense of it, probably through language. It reminded me of Eckardt Tolle's Ego in his book A New Earth. Is that what the Interpreter is? The Ego? I would love for MG and TW to comment on that.
Another thread related to the meaning of language is also interesting. The two debate the importance of language as a means to make sense of the world. I agree with TW's basic conclusion that language is a artifact rather than a natural evolution of intelligence. Language allows us to ask why, say TW, and that's about it. That question inevitably leads to the rest of humanity. I think this relates to the ontology/taxonomy argument as well. Ontology is the state of being (ie experiential) and taxonomy or classification gives us a way to describe it through language. Classification of things into boxes is our attempt to artificially evolve our experience into something that can be described and therefore communicated. The problem is that we wrap way too many assumptions about context into our classifications so we end up falling over our categories, our words and ourselves when we try to box things in to predetermined slots. TW also talks about our experiences as humans always being contextualized by status, or lack of it. We cannot help but compare ourselves to the person in front of us. He talks of our affinity for fiction as being an extension of our obsession with status, and again I agree with him.
The final topic for the conversation was free will. The current debate about our dualistic minds and who really is responsible for our actions--our brain which makes us do stuff, or our true selves which actually commits the act. Apparently there are legal arguments abounding that try to allow people to say, my brain did it, not me. This, to me, is ridiculous. While I agree with Tolle and MG that dualism drives human behavior, there is no way to my mind that an individual should not be held accountable for his actions (except for the usual slippery slopes of mental illness that are often rightfully brought to bear in a court of law). Although we don't understand it yet, "we" are "brain mechanics+consciousness", and no matter how you look at it, that combo is all there is. Unless....well, maybe another blog..