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Hack Your Health: A Discussion with Thomas Goetz, Author of The Decision Tree

There’s a lot about the modern world that’s bad for your health, especially for the more technically inclined: Hours a day sitting in front of a computer; the temptations towards a worse diet and less quality sleep.

Fortunately, new developments in technology and information-gathering have given geeks the tools to fight back against bad health by turning their analytic obsessiveness towards the final, unhackable frontier: themselves.

In an interview with Geekosystem, Thomas Goetz, the executive editor of Wired and author of the new book The Decision Tree, fills us in on the health pros and cons of modern living, how we can turn ourselves into algorithms, and the health-monitoring technologies of the future, from sleep quality monitors to biomarker libraries:

See also: Goetz’s interview with our sister site Mediaite. You can find more information about The Decision Tree at the book’s official website: it’s available in hardcover and for Kindle at Amazon.com.

Geekosystem: Decision trees have been around for a while, and it’s, you know, more an analytic concept than a new development. So why do you think that decision trees are more relevant now than they were in the past?

Thomas Goetz: So, the reason the reason I hit on the decision tree is because basically, the information we’re getting is very complicated. The onslaught of health information is endless, and it’s difficult for any one person to navigate their way through all that. So that’s where this idea of an algorithm or decision tree seems promising to me, because it’s … You know an algorithm is basically just a series of steps and then throw in some statistics and probabilities in there, and you’re working your way towards outcomes. That, speaking in geek terms, that is what our health is, it’s a bunch of inputs with the desired output of good health. So that was where it seemed like I could just kind of found myself constructing the decision tree sort of the structure of the book and the information that I was trying to get across.

GS: People have always had access to their health inputs of one form or another … what sort of inputs do you think we have now that you see as most important compared to the information that was not available in the past?

TG: Well there’s two parts to the equation. One is the amount of health information that we have available to us and are being expected to keep up to date with. It comes everywhere from the Internet, to new research, to our new lab tests and screening tests that are available. The other set of the equation is our own individual data which is — there’s more of it and its easier for us to access, or at least it should be. So we’re able to access personal health records and put all of the information from our doctor’s office into a form that we can understand and we can control. Then there’s just all sorts of other information, what we would consider ambient information; how much sleep we’re getting, what our diet is, how much exercise we’re getting. And all of that can be quantified and turned into data, which become inputs. And the opportunity really is to combine the two. To use our individual data to personalize or customize the aggregated and more generalized health information and research that’s available. So this is where the algorithm kicks in. We’re using our own statistics and information and intention as a shelter for the overall information.

GS: In your HuffPo piece — I feel like there is a potentially negative side to all of this. The data that’s specific to you is helpful, but when you read the statistic like “60% of people don’t get enough vitamin D” if you take action on that without asking the question “how does this pertain to me” it’s not as useful —

TG: Right.

“You have your film geeks and even your financial services geeks. Your music geeks. And one thing we have not devoted ourselves to, or wanted to become the experts at is our own health. Which I think may have been the case because it just has been elusive and difficult to quantify, or difficult to understand or comprehend. But those tools are becoming available so you can.”

GS: So I mean, do you think that the mainstream media’s health statistics can have a negative effect?

TG: Well it can have a negative effect if we’re not parsing that information. There’s this thing called the Lake Wobegon effect, the scenario where you have a fatal illness and the doctor says “Try this drug, and you can have a 10% chance of surviving.” Well, most of us deceive ourselves and think we’re going to be in that 10%. That’s considered this Lake Wobegon effect, where we always put ourselves in the ideal percentage even when it’s terribly small. So the trick is, how can we actually know that better? So, nothing in medicine – medicine and health care is always probabilistic, always going to be a statistical guess, a statistical kind of quest for an absolute truth. And the great boon of new information is that we are able to understand with greater detail what side of those percentages might we lie. We’re able to kind of winnow ourselves or winnow the information and basically have better probabilities every step of the way. Now, the end result is still a probability. There are no sure things in health care. And especially not in life. I mean you can do everything perfectly and still end up with a kind of disease from out of the blue that killed you at 35. So even though there are no certainties there are such a thing as better probabilities.

GS: Just going back to the geek angle — Geeks, and more generally people, are, as a function of modern life, more sedentary, not eating as well. Even with information in hand, do you think its possible to sort of hit a situation where you know what you’re supposed to do but it would require a radical life change to sort of achieve that?

TG: I think for the kind of geeks, if you have a geeky or a quantitative disposition to begin with, you’re potentially ahead of the game. You’re potentially behind the game because you might be a type with a more sedentary lifestyle; less exercise, less physically fit all of that. But the approach or the opportunity to be an early adopter in some of this stuff, some of these tools and opportunities to really geek out on ourselves – I mean it’s kind of always interesting to me how you have all sorts of geeks. You have your film geeks and your – even your financial services geeks. Your music geeks. And one thing we have not devoted ourselves to, or wanted to become the experts at is our own health. Which I think may have been the case because it’s so hard — it just has been elusive and difficult to quantify or difficult to understand or comprehend. But these tools are becoming available so you can. If you want you can – you know the iPhone, is this remarkable device where there are thousands, literally thousands of apps, that let you track and monitor and just kind of turn yourself into data, and for a lot of people it’s very appealing and it becomes a very easy way and actually a fairly intuitive way – if you come from a geeky side – an intuitive way to start engaging your health.

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