Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flue Conspiracy Theories and Their Consequences

And so the conspiracy theories about the swine flu begin. One example is this YouTube video that claims at a minimum that the company Novavax, which claims it could produce a swine flu vaccine in as little as 12 weeks, is hyping the dangers of the swine flu just to boost its stock. The stock (NVAX) has risen by over 300% in the past week.

But the YouTube video goes on to make the charge that people associated with the company deliberately created the swine flu through genetic engineer and released it for personal profit. In cases like this I prefer to stick with the old maxim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. It has served me well in the past. Such evidence is certainly not available at this time. Nevertheless, this conspiracy theory will no doubt spread wider than the actual flu before this is over.

It does raise an interesting question though. With so many companies involved in genetic engineering, it is certainly possible that the first mass epidemic from a genetically engineered disease won't come from a terrorist group pursuing some political cause, it may instead come from a company pursuing financial gain. Is this really such an extraordinary claim? Given the carnage caused to the world economy by a small group of executives pursuing large personal financial gains, I find it hard to dismiss such an idea by simply waving your hands and saying “nobody would act that irresponsibly”. If anything, it could be argued that the extraordinary claim is that this would never happen given the tremendous financial windfall that could occur to any company with the right vaccine or antibiotic to combat a major outbreak. Perhaps this episode will be the beginning of a wake-up call about the need to bring genetic engineering under some stricter controls, and to admit that it is just one of those things that is not appropriate for open pursuit in a lightly regulated free market.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tim Berners-Lee on the Future of the Web

I just watched a TED Talk by Tim Burners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. His main point was that the current Web was mainly a collection of linked documents, and what we need to do next is transform it into a collection of linked data. Once a major portion of our data becomes freely available on the web, it will start generating major social benefits.

Tim mentions two items that resonated with me. First, ALL government data should be freely available on the Web. After all, we paid for it, and we should rightly claim free access to it. (There may be some exceptions, such as personal data of government employees, but this is a relatively small portion of the government data). It seems to me that in a truly free open society, the "Freedom of Information" act should become almost obsolete since everything that it would have been used for in the past is now readily available. That would be a wonderful principle for the Obama administration to follow.

The second issue is medical data. Three years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. We caught it early and now I'm cured, but it is a much more common problem than many people realize. One thing that really surprised me is that I was not asked to fill out any survey on my lifestyle or exposure to various chemicals. It would seem to me that such detailed background data should be collected about everyone who has a major disease and made available to researchers looking for common links. This is just one example of data that should be on the web. In this case it has potential for major health benefits if links can be established to various things that increase the risk of a disease.

There are two interesting items that Tim Berners-Lee did not mention about the future of the web. First, it is establishing new business models. Old ones, such as newspapers and the music recording industry are having to make substantial changes to survive. Significant new developments, specifically the open source software movement and Wikipedia could not have been predicted by any business model analysis before they happened. Yet they are becoming increasingly important.

The second unforeseen development is the use of the web for organizing mass social movements. and various other political movements are examples of this. Allowing groups of people to come together and organize in ways that were previously impractical may be one of the most profound impacts of the web in the long run.