Forge Friday Roundup - August 20, 2021

August 20, 2021

In today’s Roundup: school starts as COVID delta variant spreads; momentum builds for algorithmic oversight; spreadsheet errors haunt genetics literature; coming to grips with the reality of a hotter future; StyleGAN face provides master key; hunting missing heritability in disease; refusing blood from vaccinated donors; H-index usefulness wanes; trusting science but vulnerable to pseudoscience; passing over masks and vaccines for monoclonal antibody treatments; supercomputer plates up huge serving of pi; equity in clinical trial recruitment; much more:


  • “Practically every animal that scientists have studied—insects and cephalopods, amphibians and reptiles, birds and mammals—can distinguish between different numbers of objects in a set or sounds in a sequence. They don’t just have a sense of “greater than” or “less than,” but an approximate sense of quantity: that two is distinct from three, that 15 is distinct from 20….Now, researchers are uncovering increasingly more complex numerical abilities in their animal subjects.” At Wired, Jordana Cepelewicz rounds up recent research that suggests the animal world’s capacity for number sense extends well beyond the genus Homo.
  • Mmmmm, pi. Lots of pi.

Photograph of an old-fashioned skeleton or master key made of dark tarnished metal. Image credit: Everyday Basics/Unsplash
Image credit: Everyday Basics/Unsplash


  • “This face-of-all-faces is created by inputting a specific algorithm into the StyleGAN, a widely used ‘generative model’ of artificial intelligence tech that creates digital images of human faces that aren’t real. The team tested their face imprint on a large, open-source repository of 13,000 facial images operated by the University of Massachusetts and claim that it could unlock “more than 20% of the identities” within the database. Other tests showed even higher rates of success.” The ancient passe-partout, or skeleton key, may have found its modern counterpart in the “master face,” an AI-generated image capable of “juking” facial recognition systems, including ones used to control access to computers or electronic devices. Gizmodo’s Lucas Ropek reports.
  • “Since 2014, health systems around the country have partnered with Apple to tap into the mountains of data the company’s devices generate from patients. But most are still experimenting with these tools. While some doctors appreciate seeing records of home-monitored blood pressure, exercise, and the like between visits, for others the data is more of a burden than an asset.” At Undark, Sarah Kwon examines some of the caveats that may have to be overcome if the vision of doctors empowered to act based on rich pipelines of health data acquired directly from patients via apps and wearables.
  • The spreadsheet strikes again! (and again, and again…): “Embarrassing autocorrect mistakes are common fodder for Internet listicles and Twitter threads. But they are also the bane of geneticists using spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel. Five years after a study showed that autocorrect problems were widespread, the academic literature is still littered with error-riddled spreadsheets, according to an analysis of published gene lists. And the problem may be even worse than previously realized.” Nature’s Dyani Lewis has the story.
  • “We found significant variation across and within EHR vendors….No EHR vendor was associated with higher quality across all measures, and the 2 largest vendors were not associated with the highest scores. Only a small fraction of quality variation was explained by EHR vendor choice.” A research article published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association by Holmgren and colleagues examines variations in the performance quality of electronic health record platforms across different hospitals.
  • “Results revealed significant between- and within-vehicle variation on a number of metrics related to driver monitoring, alerting, and safe operation of the underlying autonomy. In some cases, cars performed better than expected but all cars exhibited both inconsistent and unsafe behaviors as well as poor driver alerting. These results highlight that a post-deployment regulatory process is ill-equipped to flag significant issues in vehicles with embedded artificial intelligence.” A preprint by Duke University’s Mary L. (Missy) Cummings and Ben Bauchwitz presents findings from tests of the semi-autonomous driver-assist systems used in Tesla Model 3 cars.
  • “Health care organizations and entrepreneurs are collectively spending billions of dollars to develop, implement, and refine machine learning models in medicine. But several speakers said those investments are being jeopardized by a lack of standards to evaluate these tools or guardrails to protect patients against errant results and unintended consequences.” STAT News’ Casey Ross reports on a gathering groundswell of support for closer scrutiny and regulation of machine learning in medicine at one of the premier health information technology conferences.
  • “It is hard to argue against the proposition that approaches to clinical research should treat not only men but also women fairly, and of course this applies also to other ways one might subdivide patients. However, agreeing to such a principle is not the same as acting on it and when one comes to consider what in practice one might do, it is far from clear what the principle ought to be. In other words, the more one thinks about implementing such a principle the less obvious it becomes as to what it is.” In a post at his Error Statistics Philosophy blog, statistican Stephen Senn explores issues of equity in clinical trial recruitment (H/T @F2Harrell).
  • “AI is, however, not just helping lawyers sort through documentary evidence. It can also now help them prepare and structure their case, and search for any relevant legal precedents.” BBC business reporter Padraig Belton looks at the growth of “robot lawyers” – that is, AI applications designed for an increasing panoply of legal tasks.


Underwater photograph of a live nautilus with tentacles extended. Image credit: Shaun Low/Unsplash
Image credit: Shaun Low/Unsplash
  • The ABC Science Collaborative has produced a handy FAQ page for questions about masking, vaccination, and other aspects of COVID prevention and treatment, with a focus on school-age children. The page also includes a link to the ABC Collaborative’s recent New York Times article, penned by Duke pediatricians and researchers Kanecia Zimmerman and Danny Benjamin Jr, that describes the results of North Carolina’s experience with masking in the past year.“
  • We present a hypothesis of two types of variation, namely open and closed (hidden) systems, show that hidden variation provides a hitherto undiscovered ‘third source’ of phenotypic variation, beside genotype and environment, and argue that “missing heritability” for some complex diseases is likely to be a case of ‘diluted heritability’.” A recent review article by Rama S. Singh in the Journal of Molecular Evolution explores the drivers of “missing heritability” that affects how – or whether – so-called precision medicine works (H/T @mooreJH).
  • “Cuttlefish have one of the largest brains among invertebrates and can remember what, where, and when specific things happened right up to their final days of life, according to new research.” The Guardian’s Natalie Grover reports on recent research findings that suggest cuttlefish, already of interest to science for their intelligence, are also able to remember the time and location of feeding, even into (for a cephalopod) advanced old age
  • “In less than a century, climate change has upended conditions that have sustained life in the Mesophotic Zone for millions of years. Global warming, generated by human activity, has penetrated surface water and caused the water in front of reefs to become lethally warm and anoxic. Our work showed that the same species I studied at this place in 1984 were living and growing in water temperatures 3 to 5 centigrade cooler than now…. Like so much in our warming world, the delicate balance of the Mesophotic Zone, and the ancient animals in it, are being crushed by the human thumb of extinction.” At the aptly named Nautilus, marine biologist Peter Ward delivers a somber warning of the consequences of global warming, now threatening the eponymous creature that has hitherto managed to survive hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary challenges..
  • “Systematic [advance care planning], leading to proactive decision-making for treatment preferences by patients and their family members, can reduce unwanted medical interventions and the cost of care.” In an article for the New England Journal of Medicine’s Catalyst, Bhatia and colleagues present a recent experience with advance care planning and costs in the context of the COVID pandemic.
  • “When the Uppsala University team looked closer at the latest APP mutation they’d found, they discovered that the deletions led to new and different versions of amyloid. These were longer, with grabbier ends that more readily formed fibrils in lab tests….In short, broken gene makes even weirder amyloid protein bits, kills neurons fast.” STAT News’ Megan Molteni reports on a new study by Kilander and colleagues that has further complicated the still-evolving understanding of the molecular and genetic antecedents of Alzheimer disease.
  • “According to a translation of the news conference by a journalist at the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency, the vice minister of China’s National Health Commission, Dr. Zeng Yixin, said that the trouble arose when editors at Small deleted a paragraph in which the scientists described the sequences in the Sequence Read Archive.” At the New York Times, Carl Zimmer reports on the mysterious disappearance – and restoration, with accompanying explanation – of gene sequencing data from the early days of the COVID pandemic.
  • “The overall assessment underscores efforts to pin down how much more temperatures will rise if atmospheric emissions continue, and provides climate scientists’ most-confident projections yet over the course of the 21st century. One key metric that researchers employ to make their projections is 'climate sensitivity’, a measure of how much long-term warming would be expected on Earth from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide above pre-industrial levels.” An article by Jeff Tollefson breaks down the dire implications (and tightening confidence intervals) of the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, which emerges as the news is filled with stories of unprecedented weather-related disasters across the globe.
  • “This cohort study of 252 594 patients found that after the executive order was issued, there was an increase in missed primary care appointments and increased emergency department visits among people from Muslim-majority countries living in Minneapolis-St. Paul.” A research article published in JAMA Network Open by Samuels and colleagues examines the public-health ramifications of the Trump administration’s travel ban affecting Muslim-majority countries on persons from those countries who were living in the United States at the time.
  • “The school year is off to a rocky start for at least two Triangle universities. Both have reported large COVID-19 clusters among vaccinated students before classes have even begun - and one even originated at an outdoor event.” Sarah Krueger, a reporter for Raleigh, NC’s WRAL, describes recent COVID clusters appearing on campus at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill despite high rates of vaccination among incoming students, just as students are beginning to return for the fall semester.
  • A new and unwelcome wrinkle in the vaccine-refusal saga: “With nearly 60% of the eligible U.S. population fully vaccinated, most of the nation’s blood supply is now coming from donors who have been inoculated, experts said. That’s led some patients who are skeptical of the shots to demand transfusions only from the unvaccinated, an option blood centers insist is neither medically sound nor operationally feasible.” JoNel Aleccia reports for Kaiser Health News.


19th century pseudoscientific phrenological chart purporting to show the physical seats of emotion, character, and cognition in a human brain. Public domain/Wikipedia
Public domain/Wikipedia
  • “We identify two critical determinants of vulnerability to pseudoscience. First, participants who trust science are more likely to believe and disseminate false claims that contain scientific references than false claims that do not. Second, reminding participants of the value of critical evaluation reduces belief in false claims, whereas reminders of the value of trusting science do not.” An interesting social-science paper published by O’Brien and colleages in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology finds that embedding references to or citations of legitimate scientific research in pseudoscience can make people more receptive to the latter, even when the recipient espouses trust in science.
  • “For almost as long as Facebook has had its singular cache of data about the behavior and attitudes of billions of people, outsiders have sought to obtain it. But, increasingly, the social network is taking steps to restrict access to the very data needed by the public to understand the scope of the problems and to potentially combat them, some experts and insiders say.” The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin, Cat Zakrzewski, and Tyler Pager report on growing concerns, including among government officials, about the opacity of Facebook’s trove of internal data on misinformation that’s being propagated on the platform.
  • “According to Koltun’s analysis, when the h-index was first created it was reasonably good indicator of who might win future awards. But this ‘predictive power’ started to wane over the years. ‘To the point that now the correlation between rankings induced by the h-index in physics, for example, and rankings induced by awards and recognition by that academic community – the correlation is zero, there is just no correlation,’ says Koltun.” Once again, the pursuit of a simple metric for assessing the quality of academic productivity runs aground on reality as the h-index, long a key criterion of academic promotion and tenure decisions, is judged and found wanting. Chemistry World’s Jamie Durrani reports.
  • “The results demonstrate that, while there were subtle influences on responses, people’s initial emotional reactions to a letter reporting collateral findings and their intention to contact their doctor immediately were not affected to a noteworthy degree by the role of the letter’s signatory or whether the pragmatic clinical trial was described in the letter. People’s subjective impressions of the letter’s clarity and of their own level of understanding were generally lower for versions of the letter that included a description of the trial.” A recent research article by Weinfurt and colleagues from the NIH Health Care Systems Collaboratory, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, explores patients’ reactions to notifications of medical findings that occurred incidental to their participation in clinical research.


Small girl smiling as a health care worker applies a bandaid to her arm following an influenza vaccination. Image credit: CDC
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • “After examining this issue from all angles, as a parent I’m confronted with this: As variants become more and more infectious, we face the reality that nearly everyone is likely to get COVID-19 at some point unless they’re vaccinated. Even for kids, the latter is so, so much better than the former. That makes the decision pretty easy. For the sake of everyone, we need to start vaccinating younger children as soon as possible.” At The Atlantic, pediatrician Aaron Carroll lays out the argument for vaccinating younger kids (under 12 years of age) for COVID.
  • “When it comes to housing law, the problems that Blackwelder confronts begin with an asymmetry of information. Some landlords have done business with hundreds or even thousands of tenants, and they can generally afford legal advice. Many tenants do not know their rights, and lower-income tenants are typically unable to hire an attorney to inform them of what they are. It is often more rational simply to do whatever the landlord asks—to be an “easy” tenant—than it is to push for fair treatment, particularly given the risk of retaliation…” A wrenching story by the New Yorker’s Oliver Whang examines the human dimensions of the ban on evictions imposed during the COVID pandemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and what the lifting of the moratorium could mean.
  • “It may be a seductive argument, but it’s nevertheless an utterly gruesome notion that deserves unequivocal repudiation before anyone spends another damn minute considering its implementation. It’s callous and not likely to work. Moreover, it threatens to undermine what little popular and political progress we’ve made toward universal health care.” At The New Republic, Natalie Shure argues vehemently against the idea of charging higher insurance premiums for people who have not received COVID vaccinations.
  • “Editorial commentaries by content experts help readers understand and interpret the implications of the studies they accompany. However, the value of the synthesis of evidence and opinions is diminished when authors have relevant financial associations.” A research letter published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine by Hameed and colleagues investigates potential financial conflicts of interest among experts tapped by journal editors to pen commentaries to accompany publication of original research papers reporting clinical trial results.
  • “Vaccine preventable deaths and illness are occurring across Africa, Asia, and Latin America at an unprecedented speed and scale. These continents are being outmanoeuvred by rich nations flexing their market power. Let us be clear what is causing these deaths: a free market, profit driven enterprise based on patent and intellectual property protection, combined with a lack of political will. Contrary to claims, it is possible to make enough vaccines for the world.” A sharply worded editorial by Hassan, Yamey, and Abbasi published in BMJ describes current policies of wealthier nations that affect global vaccine access as “protection racket” that victimizes less wealthy countries.
  • “A.I. developers should not simply ‘move fast and break things,’ to quote an early Facebook motto. Real technological advance depends on respect for fundamental rights, ensuring safety and banning particularly treacherous uses of artificial intelligence.” A New York Times opinion article by Frank Pasquale and Gianclaudio Malgieri urges citizens and legislators at multiple levels to push for more stringent evaluation and regulatory structures for artificial intelligence applications with impact in the public sphere.
  • “The push to medicate rankles public health officials and some within the Biden administration, who say the governors' stance misleadingly implies Covid-19 can be treated easily, like the common cold. They note treatments like Regeneron’s antibody cocktail…are essential but part of a limited arsenal to keep patients from being hospitalized or dying, not a game-changer that could help end the pandemic.” At Politico, Dan Goldberg describes the growing frustrations of public health officials as some state governors downplay vaccination and mask use amid worsening COVID numbers while at the same time expanding the availability of expensive treatments with monoclonal antibodies.