ZIKA: Making Sense of the Studies

Alessandro Vespignani is one of the leaders in “network science” at Northeastern University. His works with big data and a lot of real time information to forecast health epidemics.

On July 28th, Vespignani, released a study regarding the Zika virus and predicting the amount of cases in the Americas. At the beginning of August, reports were coming out of about 30 cases of the virus and a rigorous campaign to kill the mosquitos carrying it. Vespignani surmises that there are an estimated 30,000 cases in the United States.

But wait, did the study say there would be 30,000 cases? No. I will say, I am no expert in epidemic research and network science, and I had great difficulty directing the study. But to the best of my ability, I could not find the 30,000 projection.

Like most, I consumed the press release first, which was very easy to understand. In it, there is an interview with Vespignani where he clearly states, “We don’t project very large out­breaks in the con­ti­nental U.S.” He added that, “But there is a cer­tain set of coun­tries in the Amer­icas that has the right mos­qui­toes, the right weather, and the right socioe­co­nomic con­di­tions for major out­breaks.”

News outlets, The Atlantic, WBUR, Boston Magazine, grabbed onto the 30,000 number.

On September 6th, a press release went out about the study clarifying that there forecast as bad as it sounded, with the 30,000 number. Vespignani said, “If there are any, there will likely be just one or two.”

I think this little hiccup in the delicate process of reporting what studies tell us shows really how much it resembles a game of “telephone.” The childhood game of whispering a comment in one person’s ear and they pass it down a line of 20 or so friend, and then the comment is completely different then the original.

Moral of the story would seem to be: practice caution when reporting on academic studies. But that’s only half of it. Maybe researchers and academics can be more clear in informing their findings to the press or the public directly. Things can get lost in translation on both sides.

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