Scientific Papers Are Hard To Read

Most of the general information I’m seeing on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 is good! I’m pleased not to be complaining about it for a change. There’s one part of the information flow that needs qualification, though.

That genre is the scientific paper. Scientific papers and Twitter threads from scientists often require interpretation. What I’m seeing now is that articles by reputable science journalists are a better guide to what we know than individual papers or threads.

Scientific papers are usually focused very narrowly, but the authors may do some speculating, sometimes labeling it as speculation, sometimes not. Papers on this virus and its disease are being published very quickly, which is good, but they may be less clear on points like this because of rapid editing. In any case, a single paper seldom has broad implications.

They also may come to wrong conclusions, not because anyone is doing anything wrong, but because not all the data are in. For example, here’s a New Scientist article on why children seem more resistant to the virus than adults. One way that could happen is that adults’ more developed immune systems overreact to the virus; however, the other day, in a press conference, Anthony Fauci said that the problem is that older adults’ immune systems are weaker. We just don’t know at this point.

I saw a thread about modeling the outbreak that looked very scary. Modeling depends on many assumptions, and I’m not seeing them stated. This is something I know something about: the mathematics of epidemiology overlap greatly with the mathematics of chemical kinetics, which was a large part of my career.  BTW, this is a very cool illustration of how a virus spreads. It could also be repurposed for chemical kinetics.

That thread contained many, many assumptions. I could figure out what some were, and there were enough parameters not known well that I would not trust that modeling. I take it as one possibility among many and wonder what would happen if you tweaked some of the parameters. The scary thing is that the UK is planning its response on the basis of a model.

And be particularly careful of the claims of profit-making companies. In this case, the real story seems to be “We want to make a bunch of money if the government will give us some more and approve all our applications.” It’s possible they have something that will be useful, but this article doesn’t tell us that.

If someone touts a scientific paper or presents a “model”, I read it and mentally file it for comparison with later results. I seldom retweet it. Or you can forget about it too. If there’s a real breakthrough, we’ll hear about it.