Waiting for medicine’s black swans

A recent article written by Sabrina Doyle published in the Canadian Medical Association (March 20, 2012, vol. 184. no. 5) talks about the era of black swans in medicine. Black Swan theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I find this article a bit funny because my reading of Taleb’s point is that our current way do doing scientific research does not allow us to predict (i.e., know in advance) any big fundamental changes (called black swan events) because we rely on data were the outcome is known (i.e, the thing we predict already happened) and over use regression analyses that ignores the impact of rare events. In the article the idea that we can ‘find’ the black swans with current methods prevails: 

For example, Hayden noted that 13% of emergency room admissions at the Vancouver General Hospital were caused by adverse drug reactions. But the Canadian Pharmacogenomics Network for Drug Safety, which has been logging case records and DNA samples from across Canada for five years, is now drawing conclusions about which population groups may have an adverse reaction to a drug.
Such knowledge will help to close the ever-widening gap between the vast amount of money that is being poured into drug research and the much smaller number of drugs that are now being approved, he added.”

This, to me, is a good example of an incomplete understanding of the black swan problem (I’m not claiming to understand it much better mind you) that relies on data and philosophies to answer questions that they are ill-equipped to answer.

Thanks to Catherine Pirkle for introducing me to Taleb’s work.

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