Even algorithms need human consent

The 511 / November 26, 2020

For information in the 20th century, we called 411. The 511 includes: 

  • a handful of paragraphs about health tech or some other science-y thing
  • 1 sentence for reflection (and maybe a laugh), and 
  • 1 track I’ve currently got in heavy rotation.

Contact tracing and the question of trust

Celebrations across the country today will be muted, no doubt, due in large part to the pandemic and its recent surge. While the United States is not alone in this regard, let’s take quick stock of why, from New Mexico to Montana to Ohio and back again, the numbers continue to surge.

In “People proving to be weakest link for apps tracking COVID-19 exposure,” reporter Rae Ellen Bichell explores how, in Ireland and Switzerland, for example, more than 20% of their populations use a contact-tracing app. In the US, with the federal government’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, the response falls short of “patchwork”: that analogy suggests a connection of disparate elements. With only 12 states using phone-based, contact-tracing apps, it’s more of a scatter shot.

This uneven effort has all sorts of limitations that even the most crackerjack programmer cannot solve — namely, generalized doubt. People doubt it will matter. They doubt their privacy will be respected. They doubt the efficacy of government at multiple levels. So, either they don’t download the app or, if they do download the app, they don’t use it. In October, in North Dakota, Bichell notes, “about 90 people tested positive and received the codes required to alert their contacts. Only about 30% did so.”

Bloomberg Law, October 13, 2020.

The flipside of doubt is trust, which continues to be eroded in the US by partisan politics and media, and the White House especially. Nearly a year before the pandemic lockdown, Scientific American noted how “the Trump administration’s unprecedented record on science will harm people across the country, especially the most disenfranchised. While the sheer number of attacks on science is shocking, what a lack of science-informed policy means for our country is even more shocking.” Science only takes root in societies with healthy levels of trust. When politicians sow doubt in that soil, our shared sense of belonging, the balance between our freedoms and our responsibilities, wither and perish.

Harvard’s Julia Marcus, in a recent article in the New York Times, says more than she means about the recent surge of infections.

“Somebody says something, and somebody else says it, and then it just becomes truth,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University. “I worry about this narrative that doesn’t yet seem to be data-based.”

Small Gatherings Spread the Virus, but Are They Causing the Surge?,” New York Times, November 23, 2020

Enrollment in general, and for contact-tracing apps in particular, depends upon trust. Early adopters can create momentum, even across state lines, and build toward critical mass, “the percolation threshold,” or the tipping point. A favorite analogy for such developments is, of course, a viral pandemic.

Stay safe, and get that turkey to 165 degrees — Fahrenheit, of course. 🙂

5(1)1 — On life from a position of generosity and growth

““If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”).”

cal newport, from  So Good They Can’t Ignore You
51(1) — In rotation: Sly & and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”

I hope you, too, have reasons to offer a “Thank You” to your friends, your family, and your collective health today. Things do look grim, but, as Leonard Cohen notes, there’s a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in. May this song add some sweetness and light to your day. Enjoy!

As you may know, Sly & the Family Stone weighed heavily on the imagination of rock critic Greil Marcus, and took up a sizeable section of his landmark book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music (1975). I’ve written about that book, in an essay on Hamell on Trial, in case you’re interested.

Please share this post with someone you know who’s interested in health, leadership, and music.

I’m also on this thing called Twitter (@randaldoane). While it may be a passing fad, let’s connect, just in case it proves enduring.

If you want to talk about a grant proposal you’re working on, or a newsletter that needs more pop, drop me a line over here.



People proving to be weakest link for apps tracking COVID-19 exposure,” Rae Ellen Bichell, Kaiser Health News (in Fierce Biotech) | November 20, 2020. https://www.fiercebiotech.com/medtech/people-proving-to-be-weakest-link-for-apps-tracking-covid-exposure .

“The Trump Administration Has Attacked Science 100 Times … and Counting,” Scientific American, May 29, 2019. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-trump-administration-has-attacked-science-100-times-and-counting/ .

“Midwestern States Surge Toward Top of All-Time U.S. Covid Cases,” Bloomberg Law, October 13, 2020. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/coronavirus/midwestern-states-surge-toward-top-of-all-time-u-s-covid-cases.

Apoorva Mandavilli, “Small Gatherings Spread the Virus, but Are They Causing the Surge?,” New York Times, November 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/23/health/coronavirus-holiday-gatherings.html?searchResultPosition=1.

# # #

Published by Randal Doane

Living the good life in NE Ohio. I dig science and the written word. Let's build something amazing together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: