Progress Report, Spring 2020

McCarthy: Progress Report
Michael Gwyther-Jones/Flickr

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For the past three years, the life expectancy of Americans has been decreasing, and Steven Woolf, a professor of population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, is trying to figure out why. He’s skeptical of the hypothesis that attributes this decrease solely to “deaths of despair”—such as those caused by suicide, opioid addiction, or alcoholism—because deaths related to hypertension, diabetes, and obesity have also increased during this period. “What is it about American life that’s causing this pattern?” he asks. “There are lots of unanswered questions.”

After examining 60 years of data from each of the 50 states, Woolf has concluded that a decline in our collective health has been under way since the 1980s, when the country experienced massive economic changes, including deregulation and a rise in unemployment. Around the same time, President Reagan and Congress also rolled back funding for 1960s programs such as Medicaid and Head Start that had produced robust gains in life expectancy and other measures of health, Woolf says. “You ended up with communities in which people have been under enormous economic stress for decades,” he says. “They may adopt unhealthy coping behaviors to deal with this stress, such as smoking or drinking more, or overeating, or taking drugs.”

Woolf finds that the recent drop in life expectancy is concentrated in the Rust Belt, southern Appalachia, and northern New England, regions that have seen manufacturing plants, coal mines, and car factories close. Although mortality rates decreased for children and the elderly, the rates among the working-age population of 25- to 64-year-olds in these areas increased. The problems of finding work and supporting their families have taken a toll on workers’ health.

Woolf also noticed a divergence in life expectancy at the state level, a phenomenon that began almost 30 years ago. For example, the gap in life expectancy between adjacent states, like Kansas and Colorado, grew after the 1990s. New York had a lower life expectancy than Oklahoma in the early 1990s; now, it ranks third in the nation for life expectancy. Woolf wonders whether this divergence reflects the different policy choices states made after the 1980s, when power shifted from the federal government to the states—some of which have chosen not to adequately fund health care programs.

The trend affects not only public health outcomes, Woolf notes, but also the economy: a sicker workforce that’s dying earlier generates higher health care costs and is not as competitive in a global economy. “There has to be some middle ground,” he says.

A Question of Fairness

Anyone who has ever asked Alexa a question or watched a movie recommended by Netflix has dabbled in artificial intelligence. But many professionals have been slow to apply AI technology to their day-to-day work. Joseph Avery, a psychology PhD candidate at Princeton with a background in computer science and law, believes that the criminal justice system in particular could benefit from this technology. He sees AI as a way to help attorneys identify and root out racial biases, forming “clear, unbiased baselines on which to anchor their decisions.”

With support from the New Jersey–based Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, Avery surveyed 327 criminal defense attorneys from around the country and collected data on their implicit and explicit racial attitudes. Implicit attitudes are less subject to conscious control and are difficult to change, which could be a problem for attorneys and their clients in criminal cases.

One solution? Eliminate some reliance on the individual attorney. In a forthcoming report for the IBM Center for The Business of Government, Avery uses data from an Illinois prosecutor’s office to show how computer models could help establish race-neutral, machine-generated scenarios by providing attorneys information for making their decisions, such as which charges to pursue and which to dismiss during a plea bargain.

One model shows how a case would resolve according to the historical record. A second model shows how the case would resolve according to some counterfactual, such as if the defendant were white rather than African American. The third model shows how the case would resolve if the defendant were treated race-neutrally. Armed with these “suggestions,” the prosecutor can then better assess his or her decision-making as a case progresses through the criminal justice system.

Avery’s goal is to have prosecutors use computer modeling for actual cases. Having devised a protocol to ensure that the modeling is fair, he is currently exploring how the models can help train new prosecutors.

Beneath Our Feet

Harvard University seismologist Marine Denolle has studied geologic hotspots such as Indonesia and Tokyo to better understand destructive earthquakes. Now she and a team of graduate students are turning their attention to Seattle.

Seattle is located in a large sedimentary basin, which can trap and amplify seismic waves. It also is in a fault zone that runs across Puget Sound and into the city’s southern neighborhoods. Denolle’s team buried 100 seismic sensors across this zone to record every vibration in the ground, including in the sedimentary basin. When she and her students went to South Seattle, residents were eager for them to install the sensors. In some cases, the residents even helped dig the holes.

“It’s unusual in science to get such a warm welcome from the community,” said Natasha Toghramadjian, a Harvard graduate student on Denolle’s team. “People wanted their kids to be home when we installed the sensors.”

Denolle is trying to learn whether an earthquake’s shaking would be more intense near the edge of the basin. If it is, she says, such information would be useful to earthquake engineers and local authorities. So far, Denolle says, the data coming in are “so rich, we can work on it for years.”

Wasting Time Online

Ever look up and realize with horror that the three minutes you planned to spend on your phone have turned into an hour? The University of Washington’s Alexis Hiniker, who studies how humans interact with computers, wants to change that experience. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Hiniker is researching ways to make smartphone app usage more positive and less compulsive.

People “don’t have full control when using some platforms,” such as YouTube and Twitter, she says, and they don’t feel good about the amount of unproductive time they spend on these sites. Although Hiniker acknowledges that such platforms are designed to hold users’ attention for as long as possible, she believes that social pressure will compel developers and designers to talk about such issues. Unless companies make some changes, they’ll leave themselves open to disruption when people simply delete the apps, “because it’s crucial that people feel good about the investment of their time.”

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Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia. She is at work on a book on Norman Maclean.


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