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Computing the coronavirus

COVID-19 studies highlight the need for reform

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee looks at a coronavirus-related chart Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren (file)

Computing the coronavirus

The dizzying pendulum of conflicting information experts have offered during the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the perils of relying too much on computer models for scientific studies.

More than 20 scientists and experts wrote an editorial in the June 24 issue of Nature saying the politicization of COVID-19 research shows the need for change in conducting and reporting computer modeling studies. They also criticized how politicians use the results.

“Pandemic politics highlight how predictions need to be transparent and humble to invite insight, not blame,” the group wrote.

Despite myriad COVID-19 studies, researchers cannot provide precise and reliable numbers and predictions because of the number of unknowns about the disease, the editorial noted. Politicians and policymakers need to pay attention to the inherent uncertainties in computer models. Just like weather reports are helpful but have significant limitations, computer models are useful in understanding COVID-19, but “political rivals often brandish them to support predetermined agendas,” the writers said. Scientists should be frank about the unknowns in their studies and not project more certainty than their model deserves. And politicians must not cherry-pick the results they like.

The writers of the editorial also encouraged scientists to keep their models simple and openly share their biases, noting that modeling techniques are never neutral: “Results from models will at least partly reflect the interests, disciplinary orientations, and biases of the developers.”

Additionally, people need to understand that computer predictions offer possibilities, not certainties. The World Health Organization predicted on May 7 that 83,000 to 190,000 people in Africa could die of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic. Researchers came to that number by incorporating 10 uncertain probabilities and increasing each by 10 percent—an arbitrary number with no scientific basis, the editorial writers explained. But people believed those predictions gave an accurate picture of the future. As of Thursday, Africa had seen more than 12,200 deaths from the coronavirus.

Mathematical projections become dangerous if people expect too much of them, the writers said, adding that without appropriate guidelines, “model predictions become Trojan horses for unstated interests and values.”

David F. Coppedge, the founder of the website Creation Evolution Headlines, noted how the editorial writers’ suggestions could affect a wide range of political policies and controversies.

“Take some of the leading political controversies of the day—COVID-19 policy, climate change, transgenderism, Darwinian evolution—and run them through the five recommendations,” he said. “What survives?”

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of WORLD News Group’s board, offered a similar commentary on his podcast The Briefing: “When you’re in the middle of a moral controversy, when you’re in the midst of a political controversy … it is very frustrating to see, but very revealing to understand, that science is invoked in ways that actually aren’t scientific.”

A paradise tree snake

A paradise tree snake

The science behind flying snakes

Researchers just discovered the biomechanics that allow paradise tree snakes in South and Southeast Asia to fly up to 70 feet from one tree branch to another.

In the study, published on June 29 in Nature Physics, the researchers observed and measured more than 100 live snake jumps and developed a 3D, anatomically accurate computer model to study the creature’s movements before and during flight.

The scientists discovered that the snakes follow a sequence of movements that allow them to glide through the air. The snake jumps by curving into a J shape. Then, as it launches, it flattens all of its body, except the tail, like a ribbon. The flattened body acts like a wing, producing drag and lift forces when air flows over it as the snake begins to drop.

At the same time, the snake begins to undulate using two types of waves simultaneously: a large, sideways one and a smaller vertical one. The vertical waves move twice as fast as the horizontal ones. Scientists know of only one other snake—the sidewinder—that uses double waves to move, but its waves occur at the same frequency.

The computer model showed the undulating movements helped the tree snake to balance the lift and drag forces so it wouldn’t tip over while gliding. They also let the reptile travel farther.

The scientists hope their research can help design mechanical snakes for rescue workers to use in search operations. J.B.

A paradise tree snake

A paradise tree snake

Ancient Viking civilization

Archaeologists have unearthed two longhouses that represent the oldest Viking settlement discovered so far in Iceland. The structures are decades older than historians expected based on when they thought the seafaring Norse people settled in the country.

Longhouses were turf-covered, wooden halls up to 250 feet long and 20 feet wide. The structures had enough rooms to house several families and had stone hearths at the center. Viking families sometimes stabled their animals inside to protect them from the cold.

The researchers found two longhouses. The older one, built around A.D. 800, is one of the largest longhouses ever discovered in Iceland and likely served as a summer settlement for workers.

“This was a pattern of the settlement of the islands in the Atlantic Ocean,” Bjarni Einarsson, the archaeologist who led the excavations, told Live Science. “First, we had the seasonal camps, and then the settlement followed.”

The other hall, measuring 130 feet in length and dating to A.D. 874, sat on top of the older structure. Inside, the archeologists uncovered one of the most valuable collections of silver, ancient coins, ornamental glass beads, and rings found in Scandinavia, according to Einarsson. The trove included Roman and Middle Eastern silver coins, as well as hacksilver, pieces of cut and bent silver that Vikings and other ancient cultures used as currency. The archaeologists also unearthed everyday artifacts, including several spindle whorls used for making twine or thread. —J.B.­­

Radioactive Europe

Authorities in northern Europe recently detected a slight increase in radiation levels. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands said its calculations indicated the radioactive isotopes were man-made and came from the direction of western Russia. Officials expressed concern a damaged fuel element in a Russian nuclear power plant could be causing the increase, though they could not identify its exact location.

The Russian news agency TASS reported the two nuclear power plants in St. Petersburg and the Kola plant near the northern city of Murmansk were operating within normal radiation limits.

Nuclear safety watchdogs said they found small, harmless amounts of radioactive isotopes in parts of Finland, southern Scandinavia, and the Arctic, but they could not offer any guesses about where they came from. J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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