Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Quantified Health Prize Deadline Extended

3 Post author: alyssavance 05 January 2012 09:28AM

(Original Post: Announcing the Quantified Health Prize)

I've recently been hired by Personalized Medicine, a new research company trying to bring Less Wrongian rationality to the medical world. We're giving away a $5000 prize for well-researched, well-reasoned presentations that answer the following question: What are the best recommendations for what quantities adults (ages 20-60) should take the important dietary minerals in, and what are the costs and benefits of various amounts?

Entries are now due by January 15th, 2012. This is an update from the original date of December 31st, 2011. However, we will not change this deadline again, and it will be strictly enforced. If you submit your entry on January 16 at 12:01 AM Pacific time, we will not read it.

Why enter the contest? If you have an excellent entry, even if you don’t win the grand prize, you can still win one of four additional cash prizes, you’ll be under consideration for a job as a researcher with our company Personalized Medicine, and you’ll get a leg up in the larger contest we plan to run after this one. You also get to help people get better nutrition and stay healthier.

More info about the contest, and instructions for submitting entries, can be found at the contest website at http://www.medicineispersonal.com/contest/home. Good luck!

Comments (45)

Comment author: Solvent 06 January 2012 05:48:54AM 3 points [-]

I am working on my entry to this competition right now. I am having great fun.

How many other people are working on entries?

What happens if, for example, me and three other people submit entries, but mine is mediocre? Do I still get a prize?

Comment author: Zvi 12 January 2012 12:46:00AM *  6 points [-]

We will award all five prizes as long as we have five entries. Period.

Comment author: Solvent 12 January 2012 12:50:16AM 1 point [-]

Sure.

I pretty much finished my entry just five minutes ago. I've had lots of fun doing this. I look forward to seeing what you think of it.

Comment author: Kevin 06 January 2012 07:52:04AM 5 points [-]

So far my public count is you, me, the scallop guy, and Gwern gave up. Low enough competition that more people should try making an entry with 20 hours of work.

Comment author: Solvent 07 January 2012 10:32:03AM 1 point [-]

How much work have you put into yours so far?

Comment author: Kevin 08 January 2012 07:47:37AM 0 points [-]

Maybe 30 hours? I do have a long way to go, so it's probably unrealistic to expect some Less Wrongers to actually be comfortable submitting something based on 20 hours.

Comment author: Solvent 08 January 2012 08:07:27AM 0 points [-]

I would guess that I've put about the same amount of time into it. I have a ways to go, too.

Comment author: wedrifid 06 January 2012 08:27:13AM 0 points [-]

So far my public count is you, me, the scallop guy, and Gwern gave up.

I aborted mine too. :)

Comment author: Solvent 07 January 2012 10:31:48AM 0 points [-]

Why?

Comment author: wedrifid 07 January 2012 10:59:12AM 1 point [-]

Perceived unreliability as an income source.

Comment author: Solvent 07 January 2012 11:15:15AM 4 points [-]

Do you feel like donating any notes or research to me (and anyone else who wants it, out of fairness)?

I'm sure this would help my efforts, as well as those of anyone else who wanted a copy.

If you send me anything, I'm happy to distribute it to anyone else who asks for it from me, so it won't inconvenience you.

Comment author: Zvi 13 January 2012 01:04:43AM 2 points [-]

The number of people we know will enter is low, although the number that do enter could turn out to be high. However, if you're looking for an income source then convincing us to hire you by entering the contest is an excellent idea.

Comment author: Yvain 18 January 2012 02:09:31AM *  4 points [-]

I surprised myself by managing to submit an entry to the contest an hour or two before deadline.

I don't want to say it wasn't very good, but...well, I could either discuss all the minerals, discuss a mineral or two in suitable depth, or vastly exceed the recommended word count and the amount of time I could reasonably devote to this project. I won't say what I chose, since that might bias peer review, but looking at the peer reviews, it looks like many of the entries had very different interpretations on where to go with the question and a lot of it is going to be who was lucky enough to interpret it in the same way the judges do.

The ID numbers of the entries I was told to peer review are kind of obtuse. I guess I won't speculate on what they might mean about the number of entries publicly, lest giving secret peer-review information be against the rules or something. But I am very curious how many people entered. I told a friend to enter the contest with a single-sentence entry saying just "Minerals are good for you and you should eat more of them"; just in case the contest had fewer than five entries it would be the easiest $500 she ever earned. She quite properly refused.

Also, looking over my desktop today I realized there's like a 25% chance I accidentally turned in a super-rough-draft with a similar name to my final copy. So, um, if anyone got a paper for peer review where the references are things like [small-calcium-study] or [that-one-experiment-with-the-potassium] and there's no abstract or recommendations, let me know now so I can disqualify myself and avoid further humiliation.

Comment author: Solvent 18 January 2012 03:41:20AM 2 points [-]

None of my three peer-reviewed ones are like that.

I don't think any of my three ones to peer review are Kevin's, because we discussed what we were doing. So there's at least five entries, so your friend wouldn't have made the $500 anyway.

Comment author: Vaniver 18 January 2012 02:16:23AM 2 points [-]

told a friend to enter the contest with an single-sentence entry saying just "Minerals are good for you and you should eat more of them"; just in case the contest had fewer than five entries it would be the easiest $500 she ever earned. She quite properly refused.

Agh. I totally would have done that. Too bad I didn't think of it.

Comment author: Solvent 18 January 2012 03:40:06AM 2 points [-]

You seem to know more about the minerals off the top of your head than I do in total, and I submitted an entry. You totally should have submitted one, even with just an hour's work, for that purpose.

Comment author: Kevin 05 January 2012 11:40:03AM 3 points [-]

Pointer to my post on the other thread -- wondering if anyone giving this a serious shot came up with anything other than a basically dietary mineral only strategy without supplemental minerals.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/8nx/announcing_the_quantified_health_prize/5lbo

Comment author: Zvi 18 January 2012 06:49:48AM 0 points [-]

Of the entries that took the contest seriously, each clearly has something to contribute to the overall picture. They take different points of view, and I feel far more informed with all of them than I would have been with any one of them. In my mind, the contest was clearly successful.

Comment author: thomblake 05 January 2012 03:54:04PM 2 points [-]

I once again am wishing I wasn't working on an unrelated dissertation right now.

Comment author: tut 05 January 2012 02:33:20PM 0 points [-]

What are the best recommendations for what quantities adults (ages 20-60) should take the important dietary minerals in, and what are the costs and benefits of various amounts?

Eat food like a sane person. If you don't have any underlying problem that prevents you from absorbing a specific nutrient you most likely don't need any supplementation. If you do think that you might have such a problem speak to a doctor.

Comment author: army1987 05 January 2012 06:03:28PM 8 points [-]

Good advice, but you have to already know what a sane person eats to follow it. In a world with several major countries with a two-digit prevalence of obesity, I think lots of people don't.

Comment author: jimrandomh 05 January 2012 03:30:04PM 8 points [-]

Eat food like a sane person. If you don't have any underlying problem that prevents you from absorbing a specific nutrient you most likely don't need any supplementation. If you do think that you might have such a problem speak to a doctor.

Absolutely wrong. This mistaken belief comes from a boolean model for health - that is, that you are sick or healthy, rather than one of a million levels and variations of slightly-more or slightly-less healthy. It also fails to acknowledge all the widespread deficiencies, and the safe compounds we've discovered that provide health benefits but aren't found in food.

There's also the fact that taking supplements lets you optimize micronutrients and macronutrients separately. For example, if you want more vitamin C which is mostly in fruit, but don't want sugar which is also found in fruit, then it's easy. The same applies to things you want to avoid. Using supplements prevents there from being a tradeoff between micronutrient intake and other things you might care about.

Comment author: tut 05 January 2012 03:54:57PM *  -2 points [-]

This ... comes from ...

Nope. This comes from the fact that when you do proper studies about overdosing (which is what you do with needless supplementation) various micronutrients you find that it is at best useless and at worst harmful. Then I added my own spin on the cause of it rather than listing studies for each chemical because I can't be bothered to write a meta study.

... if you want ... vitamin C ...

Then you should eat at least some fresh food. If you are a normal American or European you should probably also eat more fruit, but you don't need to worry about your vitamin C intake. (Unless you take more than ten times RDI ie one pill per day, in which case you should decrease your intake of vitamin C and still eat more fruit)

Edit: Based on jimrandomh's claim below I think that I should clarify that by "needless supplementation" I mean any supplementation done when it has not been demonstrated (eg with blood work at a clinic) that you have a deficiency of that particular mineral.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 January 2012 09:03:16PM *  9 points [-]

Edit: Based on jimrandomh's claim below I think that I should clarify that by "needless supplementation" I mean any supplementation done when it has not been demonstrated (eg with blood work at a clinic) that you have a deficiency of that particular mineral.

Bayes disagrees with you.

If you know that most people in your country (the United States for example) are deficient in vitamin D then prior to having blood work done, and absent any other evidence you have collected that suggests you are an exception, you should expect to be deficient in vitamin D.

Comment author: thomblake 05 January 2012 04:26:55PM 5 points [-]

This reeks of status quo bias. How do you suppose that 'eat like a sane person' (as though that were precise advice) gives exactly optimal nutrition, with no gains to be had from any increase or decrease of anything? It seems vanishingly improbable that there is no substance that a human could benefit from getting slightly more or less of in the diet.

Your comment about "overdosing" is correct, but irrelevant. Note that those studies often also demonstrate that people with bad diets actually do gain from taking multivitamins. The question isn't whether taking a bottle of vitamin C pills will prevent AIDS; the question is what the optimal intake of vitamin C is, relative if necessary to everything else.

If, for example, there is a slight health benefit to be had from ingesting 1 mg less of msg and .001 mg more of riboflavin than people normally do, then your claim is false. How are you so sure that there are no such benefits for any substances?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 January 2012 05:13:01PM 8 points [-]

How do you suppose that 'eat like a sane person' (as though that were precise advice) gives exactly optimal nutrition, with no gains to be had from any increase or decrease of anything? It seems vanishingly improbable that there is no substance that a human could benefit from getting slightly more or less of in the diet.

It does not seem vanishingly improbable to me. Any organism that must eat complex foodstuffs (which includes all animals big enough to see) must deal with the fact that they have no way to obtain precisely the right quantity and proportions of everything that they need. Their bodies therefore need to be robust to wide variations in their dietary content, resulting in a plateau, possibly a very wide one, between deficits and excesses that do measurable harm. If this is so, then there is no such thing as the exactly optimal amount of a nutrient. Instead, there is a broad range, and if you manage to hit that barn door it doesn't matter where.

Comment author: thomblake 05 January 2012 06:18:04PM 2 points [-]

That explanation seems to require:

  1. "everything that we need" is optimal
  2. What we needed in the ancestral environment is exactly the same as what we need now

Already, there are a lot of substances I ingest that cause varying effects - increased productivity, increased creativity, increased fun, decreased pain - that each has its own tradeoffs. Even if it exists, I think the 'plateau' doesn't account for everything I care about, and there is obvious room for improvement.

And it would be really weird if the plateau didn't have some little peaks and valleys on it.

Comment author: AlanCrowe 05 January 2012 06:37:06PM 3 points [-]

I think that what you say has to be true at the population level. (The panda provides an obvious counter example, but since the panda is going extinct, that is merely a nit pick. Successful species, such as rats or humans are robust to wide variations in their dietary content.

However, at the micro-level, the truth of this proposition is maintained by ruthless culling. The rat population is riddled with weaklings, who lose out in life due to diet-induced health problems.

As for the human population, we have a different perspective on these matters. I can start from a prior belief that my body is probably robust to wide variations in dietary content, but I need non-zero probabilities on a wide variety of dietary vulnerabilities so that updating will work if events supply evidence.

Comment author: MixedNuts 05 January 2012 05:30:23PM 1 point [-]

Moreover, the organism can afford to require precise balance between nutrients foobar and bazqux if they are nearly always found in the same proportions in its food. When you start supplementing foobar but not bazqux, you won't like the results. And you'll need a lot of knowledge to take into account all such interactions.

Comment author: thomblake 05 January 2012 06:22:35PM 2 points [-]

And you'll need a lot of knowledge to take into account all such interactions.

Right, that's what's being called for. A lot of knowledge.

Comment author: army1987 05 January 2012 06:05:32PM 0 points [-]

That sounds plausible. Any specific real-world examples?

Comment author: MixedNuts 05 January 2012 07:19:22PM 1 point [-]

I am not a nutritionist, but I once read in The Economist that something like that was going on between omega-6 and omega-3, and between short- and long-chain omega-3.

Comment author: army1987 05 January 2012 06:15:14PM 2 points [-]

If you are a normal American or European you should probably also eat more fruit, but you don't need to worry about your vitamin C intake.

Dunno what you mean by “normal”, but I suspect the median American or European take significantly less vitamin C than would be optimal.

Comment author: jimrandomh 05 January 2012 04:22:36PM *  1 point [-]

Nope. This comes from the fact that when you do proper studies about overdosing (which is what you do with needless supplementation) various micronutrients you find that it is at best useless and at worst harmful.

You slipped your conclusion into a premise, when you called it "needless supplementation". That's not what we're talking about; the goal here is to find which compounds, specifically, do need to be supplemented. And I think it ought to go without saying that if you overdose on anything harmful, you're doing it wrong.

Basically, nutrition and supplementation is really complex. If you try to take supplements without engaging with that complexity then you might get hurt; but if you do engage the complexity, you can achieve great benefits.

Comment author: MixedNuts 05 January 2012 04:29:04PM 1 point [-]

if you do engage the complexity, you can achieve great benefits

Surely the question is whether you can reduce the uncertainty enough (about nutrition in general and your own metabolism in particular) that it starts beating "eat like a sane person"?

Comment author: army1987 05 January 2012 06:09:31PM 0 points [-]

For example, if you want more vitamin C which is mostly in fruit, but don't want sugar which is also found in fruit, then it's easy.

I think that if you don't drink lots of soda/eat lots of cake/other similarly insane stuff, you're very unlikely to get too much sugar from fruit alone.

Comment author: orthonormal 07 January 2012 06:13:06PM 0 points [-]

That's obviously the default best recommendation unless someone finds serious evidence of a better way, but I'm pretty sure that the goal of the study is to see if there's already serious evidence of a better way out there.

Comment author: Kevin 15 January 2012 07:10:16AM *  1 point [-]

There isn't really, my paper is basically suggesting that this null hypothesis is not rejected. A sad state of affairs.

Comment author: jimrandomh 05 January 2012 03:30:20PM 0 points [-]

Does this mean you haven't gotten a good enough paper yet?

Comment author: army1987 05 January 2012 06:06:54PM 4 points [-]

They changed the deadline a while ago.

Comment author: Zvi 13 January 2012 01:06:17AM 0 points [-]

I'm not going to look until after the deadline; people are allowed to update their entries until then. Also, people are holding their entries until the last minute as you would expect.

We changed the deadline when we got feedback that the short deadline and timing around the holidays was discouraging participation.