Project your own probability

By Razib Khan | June 24, 2010 1:02 am

By now you’ve probably stumbled onto Wired‘s profile of Sergey Brin, and his quest to understand and overcome Parkinson’s disease through the illumination available via genomic techniques. I want to spotlight this section:

Not everyone with Parkinson’s has an LRRK2 mutation; nor will everyone with the mutation get the disease. But it does increase the chance that Parkinson’s will emerge sometime in the carrier’s life to between 30 and 75 percent. (By comparison, the risk for an average American is about 1 percent.) Brin himself splits the difference and figures his DNA gives him about 50-50 odds.

Brin, of course, is no ordinary 36-year-old. As half of the duo that founded Google, he’s worth about $15 billion. That bounty provides additional leverage: Since learning that he carries a LRRK2 mutation, Brin has contributed some $50 million to Parkinson’s research, enough, he figures, to “really move the needle.” In light of the uptick in research into drug treatments and possible cures, Brin adjusts his overall risk again, down to “somewhere under 10 percent.” That’s still 10 times the average, but it goes a long way to counterbalancing his genetic predisposition.

Do you think Brin’s chances are really 10 percent? Is he being an objective analytical machine, or is he exhibiting the ticks of systematic bias which plague wetware? This is interesting because when it comes to big-picture extrapolations individuals who come out of the mathematical disciplines (math, computer science, physics, economics, etc.) have a much better ability to construct models and project than those who come out of biology. Biology is dominated by masters of detail. The system-builders only have small niches across the sub-domains, with the exception of evolutionary biology where the system is the raison d’etre of the field. But though biologists lack strategic vision, they are often masters of tactics when on familiar ground. I would like to believe Sergey Brin’s estimate of the probability in his case, but I do wonder if biomedical scientists working on Parkinson’s are aware of powerful constraints and substantial obstacles which would force one to be less optimistic. I would of course assume that Brin though is aware of constraints, or lack thereof, because he has talked to the relevant researchers. On the other hand, would a biomedical scientist be totally candid with Sergey Brin due to even the silver of a possibility of a research grant of magnificent scope?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, philosophy
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  • “Shecky Riemann”

    Actually, I wouldn’t say that “biology is dominated by masters of detail” (…unless you’re comparing it to sociology); in fact biology by its sheer complexity almost makes such mastery impossible. For every detail ‘mastered’ a thousand others are missed or undefined at any given point in time. Still, given Brin’s age and the speed of medical advances (and the money society pours into them) I think his 10% figure is realistic.

  • zach

    my first thought was why did he donate so little?

    If I was convinced my risk factors for a disease were high as 50/50 and my net worth was $15bn, I would probably donate at least hundreds of millions to the research.

  • Ghoghoghol

    Actually I would peg his estimate as overoptimistic – “research into drug treatments and possible cures” – especially the latter part. However, he may have much better care than possible now, so his chances of full blown debilitating Parkinson disease will be 10%. But 40% or greater that he has symptoms or managed PD that allows him to maintain 80% or greater motor function. Something akin to what has happened with AIDS treatment.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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