Tomorrow we begin a blog experiment, one we already judge has failed. In January Marc Lipsitch and his team at the Harvard School of Public Health published a splendid paper using a mathematical model to investigate the spread of antiviral resistance in the control of pandemic influenza. When we read it our first thought was to write a substantial blog post about the results. The paper was published in PLoS Medicine almost the same week as another mathematical model on spread through the air traffic system by Colizza et al. and the Colizza paper seemed to get most of the newswire notice. But the Lipsitch paper is important in several respects. It has extremely interesting results of interest to planners or anyone else interested in pandemic influenza. And it is instructive. The Harvard team are expert modelers and subject matter experts. This is modeling done the right way and PLoS Medicine is an Open Access journal, so the entire paper was available for free download. Readers could follow the explanations with the original paper in hand. So we decided to go ahead and explain it in detail.
Why consider this an “experiment”? The experiment was to see if a paper that used a coupled system of non-linear ordinary differential equations as its main technical tool could be explained sufficiently so a lay audience could understand what was involved and how the model worked. In that way they would have a better appreciation for the findings and some understanding of an important tool, mathematical modeling. We took it as a personal challenge, and that part of the experiment succeeded, we think. We have been teaching a long time and it is our experience you can teach just about any subject to non-technical audiences if you take the time and effort. Some of the posts might take more focus and attention than most readers can afford or desire to devote to them, but we think most everyone who reads this site could make their way through the explanation if they invested the effort.
That’s where, we judge, the experiment fails. The blog format is both flexible and constraining. Readers come for short, usually stand alone, posts about something they’re interested in or just to see what’s being said in the blogosphere, a venue that has become surprisingly influential. They don’t come for a connected series of sixteen posts on a single specialized scientific paper.
Yes. Sixteen posts. This surprised even us. We read the original paper in an hour or two and it seemed straightforward. It wasn’t until we set out to explain it in detail — enough detail so a lay reader could see what was going on in almost every paragraph, figure and equation — that we began to realize how many moving parts there were that we took for granted. Even the figures took a couple of paragraphs each, sometimes a whole post for one figure. We’ve spent between almost forty hours writing this series. We wouldn’t do it again. We got a great deal out of it ourselves, for to teach is to learn twice. But it is a cost-benefit question for both reader and writer.
However we did do it, and it would be a waste to just delete the final drafts. We’re not forcing anybody to read them and some of you, no doubt, will do so with interest, and we hope even with pleasure. If we want most people who read us to keep coming here, we will have to keep posting in the usual blog style, though. We’ll also keep doing that to the best of our abilities.
We took a risk we don’t think paid off. Live and learn. First post, tomorrow.
Table of contents for posts in the series: