January 27th, 2015

Can Precision Medicine Do Better Than Precision Weather?

This article was originally posted on Larry’s blog at Forbes.

Looking out of my New York City window this morning at the meager 6 inches of snow on the ground I can’t help wondering if precision medicine in the foreseeable future will be able to do a better job than precision weather forecasting today.

Weather forecasters, using all the tools of modern science, blew it big time. Meteorologists thought they had enough data and sufficiently sophisticated models to accurately predict a huge snowstorm. Using this knowledge politicians and other experts thought they could prevent a major disaster from taking place. Instead they created their own disaster. Here in NYC the entire city was shut down over fears of the dangers of a once in a century blizzard.

Is the human body simpler than the weather? Will we be able to accurately predict, prevent, and treat serious diseases in the future? What are the consequences when precision medicine blows a major forecast?

Don’t get me wrong: precision medicine has a great future and is not going to disappear. But we need to think about the unintended consequences and harms it can cause. We need to be optimistic but our optimism should not be unbridled. We must try to keep in mind all the things that can go wrong.

One more thought:

Did any of the forecasters report the confidence intervals for the predicted amount of snowfall? Did Governor Cuomo have access to this information, and if he had would he have understood it? Should TV forecasters report this information? Is the situation in New York City today a consequence of scientific illiteracy?

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