Sketchy genetic algorithms are the worst
Math is intimidating. People who meet me and learn that I have a Ph.D. in math often say, “Oh, I suck at math.” It’s usually half hostile, because they’re not proud of this fact, and half hopeful, like they want to believe I must be some kind of magician if I’m good at it, and I might share my secrets.
Then there’s medical science, specifically anything around DNA or genetics. It’s got its own brand of whiz-bang magic and intimidation. I know because, in this case, I’m the one who is no expert, and I kind of want anything at all to be true of a “DNA test.” (You can figure out everything that might go wrong and fix it in advance? Awesome!)
If you combine those two things, you’ve basically floored almost the entire population. They remove themselves from even the possibility of critique.
That’s not always a good thing, especially when the object under discussion is an opaque and possibly inaccurate “genetic algorithm” that is in widespread use to help people make important decisions. Today I’ve got two examples of this kind of thing.
DNA Forensics Tests
There seem to be two problems in this realm. First, there’s a problem around contamination. The tests have gotten so sensitive that it’s increasingly difficult to know if the DNA being tested comes from the victim of a crime, the perpetrator of the crime, the forensics person who collected the sample, or some random dude who accidentally breathed in the same room three weeks ago. I am only slightly exaggerating.
Second, there’s a problem with consistency. People claiming to know how to perform such tests get very different results from other people claiming to know how to perform them. Here’s a quote from the article that sums up the issue:
“Ironically, you have a technology that was meant to help eliminate subjectivity in forensics,” Erin Murphy, a law professor at NYU, told me recently. “But when you start to drill down deeper into the way crime laboratories operate today, you see that the subjectivity is still there: Standards vary, training levels vary, quality varies.”
Yet, the results are being used to put people away. In fact jurors are extremely convinced by DNA evidence. From the article:
A researcher in Australia recently found that sexual-assault cases involving DNA evidence there were twice as likely to reach trial and 33 times as likely to result in a guilty verdict; homicide cases were 14 times as likely to reach trial and 23 times as likely to end in a guilty verdict.
Opioid Addiction Risk
The second example I have today comes from genetic testing of “opioid addiction risk.” It was written up in Medpage Today by Kristina Fiore, and I’m pretty sure someone sent it to me but I can’t figure out who (please comment!).
They don’t make their accuracy claims transparent (93% for Proove), and scientists not involved with the companies peddling the algorithms are skeptical for all sorts of reasonable reasons, including historical difficulty reproducing results like this.
Yet they are still being marketed as a way of saving money on worker’s comp systems, for example. So in other words, people in pain who are rated “high risk” might be denied pain meds through such a test that has no scientific backing but sounds convincing.
Enough with this intimidation. We need new standards of evidence before we let people wield scientific tools against people.