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Your relatives are bacteria

When Charles Darwin’s famous book, “On the Origin of Species,” was published in 1859, it took science and society by storm. Coming on the heels of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Darwin’s book catalyzed a veritable new industry of trying explaining the natural world, both to good and ill effect (for instance, the idea of evolution gave racists new ammunition in their efforts to discriminate against non-whites). To-date (save…

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Turning to Big, Big Data to See What Ails the World

Image from IHME website Like many fields, public health is in the midst of a data revolution: randomized control trials, pay-for-performance and value calculations, all based on data, are changing our ideas about what works and how to finance it. The impact of these new methods to gather and evaluate data pales, however, next to the Global Burden of Disease Report, an attempt to understand what sickens us and kills…

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Discovery vs. filtering

If you’re like most people, when you want to learn about a new subject, you hop into your web browser and do a Google search. You assume that Google will give you search results that are trustworthy and that best reflect the nature of the question you’re asking. But given Google’s secrecy around their search algorithms, can you trust those results? The Wall Street Journal made a Freedom of Information…

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Learning to See Data

FOR the past year or so genetic scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have been collaborating with a specialist from another universe: Daniel Kohn, a Brooklyn-based painter and conceptual artist. Mr. Kohn has no training in computers or genetics, and he’s not there to conduct art therapy classes. His role is to help the scientists with a signature 21st-century problem: Big Data overload. Advanced computing…

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Are we entering the Anthropocene era?

Have we left the Holocene era behind and entered an Anthropocene era—a post-Holocene geological age of our own making marked by man-made environmental toxins like plastics and carbon isotopes from nuclear detonations? Some scientists think so. “Taking full ownership of the Anthropocene won’t be easy,” writes Andrew Revkin. “The necessary feeling is a queasy mix of excitement and unease. I’ve compared it to waking up in the first car on…

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Avoiding Data Pitfalls, Part 1: Gaps Between Data and Reality

It’s easy when working with data to treat it as reality rather than data collected about reality. Here are some examples: It’s not crime, it’s reported crime. It’s not the number of meteor strikes, it’s the number of recorded meteor strikes. It’s not the outer diameter of a mechanical part, it’s the measured outer diameter. It’s not how the public feels about a controversial topic, it’s how survey respondents are…

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New research reveals infectious disease model for homicide

New research in Chicago finds that homicide victims are concentrated among a tiny network. Tracing that network might lead to public health measures to protect would-be victims. STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Visit any city and people are going to tell you that some parts of town are at higher risk for crime. That’s a bad neighborhood, they might say; there’s more gun violence there, more assaults, more homicides. And if you…

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Global carbon dioxide emissions in one convenient map

World leaders face multiple barriers in their efforts to reach agreement on greenhouse gas emission policies. And, according to Arizona State University researchers, without globally consistent, independent emissions assessments, climate agreements will remain burdened by errors, self-reporting and the inability to verify emissions progress. Now, an international research team led by ASU scientists has developed a new approach to estimate CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels – one that provides…

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