Data Games – A Techno Thriller

Data Games – A Techno Thriller

Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Father Brown, Harry Bosch, Nancy Drew, Joe and Frank Hardy, Sam Spade, Columbo, Lennie Briscoe, Inspector Clouseau, and Dominic Da Vinci:

Move over; there is a new super sleuth in town.

Meet Professor Ken Wheeler.

Ken is a statistician, and so by profession, he is a data detective. In his day job, he teaches at a northeastern university, where his biggest challenges are managing the expectations of students and administrators, while trying to impart statistical learning. At home, Ken rarely manages to meet the expectations of his wife and son. But as some statisticians are wont to do, Ken sometimes takes on consulting gigs that require him to use his statistical skills to help litigants sort out the role of chance in cases that run from discrimination claims to rare health effects. In this contentious, sharp-elbowed environment, Ken excels. And truth be told, Ken actually finds great satisfaction in identifying the egregious errors and distortions of adversary statisticians

Wheeler’s sleuthing usually involves ascertaining random error or uncovering a lurking variable, but in Herberg I. Weisberg’s just-published novel, Data Games: A Techno Thriller, Wheeler is drawn into a high-stakes conspiracy of intrigue, violence, and fraud that goes way beyond the run-of-the-mine p-hacking and data dredging.

An urgent call from a scientific consulting firm puts Ken Wheeler in the midst of imminent disaster for a pharmaceutical manufacturer, whose immunotherapy anti-cancer wonder drug, Verbana, is under attack. A group of apparently legitimate scientists have obtained the dataset from Verbana’s pivotal clinical trial, and they appear on the verge of blowing Verbana out of the formulary with a devastating analysis that will show that the drug causes early dementia. Wheeler’s mission is to debunk the debunking analysis when it comes.

For those readers who are engaged in the litigation defense of products liability claims against medications, the scenario is familiar enough. The scientific group studying Verbana’s alleged side effect seems on the up-and-up, but they appear to engaged in a cherry-picking exercise, guided by a dubious theory of biological plausibility, known as the “Kreutzfeld hypothesis.”

It is not often that mystery novels turn on surrogate outcomes, biomarkers, genomic medicine, and predictive analytics, but Data Games is no ordinary mystery. And Wheeler is no ordinary detective. To be sure, the middle-aged Wheeler drives a middle-aged BMW, not a Bond car, and certainly not a Bonferroni. And Wheeler’s toolkit may not include a Glock, but he can handle the lasso, the jacknife, and the logit, and serve them up with SAS. Wheeler sees patterns where others see only chaos.

Unlike the typical Hollywood rubbish about stereotyped evil pharmaceutical companies, the hero of Data Games finds that there are sinister forces behind what looks like an honest attempt to uncover safety problems with Verbana. These sinister forces will use anything to achieve their illicit ends, including superficially honest academics with white hats. The attack on Verbana gets the FDA’s attention and an urgent hearing in White Oak, where Wheeler shines.

The author of Data Games, Herbert I. Weisberg, is himself a statistician, and a veteran of some of the dramatic data games he writes about in this novel. Weisberg is perhaps better known for his “homework” books, such asWillful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty (2014), and Bias and Causation: Models and Judgment for Valid Comparisons (2010). If, however, you ever find yourself in a pandemic lockdown, Weisberg’s Data Games: A Techno Thriller is a perfect way to escape. For under $3, you will be entertained, and you might even learn something about probability and statistics.

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