Cheap quasi-repeat of a dear study of cheap-versus-dear fake medicines

January 31st, 2015

A new, celebrated medical paper echoes the beloved study that long ago earned an Ig Nobel Prize for medicine. The Los Angeles Times summarizes the new study, with the headline:

‘Expensive’ placebos work better than ‘cheap’ ones, study finds“.

The new study is:

espayPlacebo effect of medication cost in Parkinson disease,” Alberto J. Espay [pictured here], MD, MSc, Matthew M. Norris, MEng, James C. Eliassen, PhD, Alok Dwivedi, PhD, Matthew S. Smith, BS, Christi Banks, CCRC, Jane B. Allendorfer, PhD, Anthony E. Lang, MD, FRCPC, David E. Fleck, PhD, Michael J. Linke, PhD and Jerzy P. Szaflarski, MD, PhD, Neurology, epub January 28, 2015.

The 2008 Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to Dan Ariely of Duke University, Rebecca L. Waber of MIT, Baba Shiv of Stanford University, and Ziv Carmon of INSEAD for “demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine“. The team described their discovery in a 2008 paper:

Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy,” Rebecca L. Waber; Baba Shiv; Ziv Carmon; Dan Ariely, Journal of the American Medical Association, March 5, 2008; 299: 1016-1017.

The new study does not mention that 2008 prize-winning study, but does mention an earlier paper by Dan Ariely, one of the authors of that 2008 study, about booze:

Try it, you’ll like it: the influence of expectation, consumption, and revelation on preferences for beer,” L. Lee, S. Frederick, D. Ariely, Psychological Science, 2006;17:1054–1058.

Thus does medicine advance, with mutters – if not always mentions – of similar discoveries, made earlier, by other people.

The University of Cincinnati, home of several of the new study’s authors, issued a proud press release, which begins:

Study: Perceptions of Drug’s Cost May Affect How Much Patients Benefit

CINCINNATI—People’s perceptions of the cost of a drug may affect how much they benefit from the drug, even when they are receiving only a placebo, according to new research from the University of Cincinnati (UC).


Alberto Espay, MD, [pictured here] an associate professor in the UC Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine and director and endowed chair of the James J. and Joan A. Gardner Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders at the UC Neuroscience Institute, describes the findings in the Jan. 28 online issue of Neurology

The school of complexity

January 31st, 2015

Some like it simple. For those who do not, there is the International School of Complexity:

complexity logo

(Thanks to investigator Andrea Rapisarda for bringing the school to our attention.)

Earlier in the year, complexity (and Lipschitz-continuous Hessians) will be the subject of a talk at Imperial College London:

ImperialChemicalWorst-case complexity of nonlinear optimization: where do we stand?

Date: 11 Feb 2015
Time: 11:00 – 12:00

Speaker: Prof. Philippe Toint, Université de Namur (Belgium)

We review the available results on the evaluation complexity of algorithms using Lipschitz-continuous Hessians for the approximate solution of nonlinear and potentially nonconvex optimization problems.

The arrangements for the lecture involve a fair degree of complexity. The event is variously advertised as being organized (or something) by Imperial College London’s Department of Chemical Engineering, by Imperial College London’s Department of Computing, and by University College London.

BONUS (distantly related): The Vienna Summer of Logic

Bananas regulations clarifications

January 30th, 2015

Banana-pairThis year is (roughly) the 20th anniversary of the publication of EU Commission Regulation (EC) No 2257/94. So what better time to take another look at ‘Laying down quality standards for bananas’. The regulation caused, and continues to cause debate centering around the acceptable curvature of bananas – which some now cite as a standard example when trying to illustrate effects of what they see as bureaucratic meddling. For instance: ‘Farewell to bendy bananas’ (This is Money, 20 January 2005 )

However … a careful Improbable reading of the regulations reveals that there is definitely no statement specifying exactly how curvy bananas should or should not be – other than a blanket and indefinite declaration that they must be : “Free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers.” But exactly what constitutes ‘abnormal’ remains undefined.

The regulation document does have some other important information – such as the correct way to measure the length of a banana:

“The length of the fruit expressed in centimetres and measured along the convex face, from the blossom end to the point where the peduncle joins the crown. […] The minimum length permitted is 14 cm”

And, the quantity in bunches:

“The bananas must be presented in hands or clusters (parts of hands) of at least four fingers. Bananas may also be presented as single fingers.” Meaning, we believe, that bananas can be sold in any number as long as it’s not 2 or 3.

Note: Rumour has it that the so-called ‘Bent-Banana’ rules are to be, or maybe even have been, scrapped – but Improbable has been unable to verify this.

Plenty more: Improbable bananas research can be found here.


A rock, a paper, a scissors, a bunch of lizards

January 30th, 2015

Hannah Fry, in this Numberphile video, tots up the cases of rock-paper-scissors mathematics as applied to lizards:

This goes back, more or less, to a sex study published in the year 2000:

Polygyny, mate-guarding, and posthumous fertilization as alternative male mating strategies,” Kelly R. Zamudio and Barry SinervoPNAS, 2000 97 (26) 14427-14432.

Here’s a photo of rock-paper-scissors/lizards researcher Kelly Zamudio, of Cornell University, sitting on a pile of sand with a colleague:


Exit strangely, mathematician

January 29th, 2015

Peruse, if you will, the Rutgers catalog of mathematicians who had strange and/or colorful deaths. Kellen Myers is the keeper of same.

(Thanks to investigator Ginny Lewis for bringing this to our attention.)