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Predicting the flu; MH17 conspiracy theories

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By Peaceray and Gamaliel

Using Wikipedia search data to predict the flu

The H1N1 variant of the flu
The H1N1 variant of the flu
Los Alamos logo
Los Alamos logo

Rachel Feltman, in The Washington Post (November 4), examined research in which a team, mostly from Los Alamos National Laboratory, headed by Kyle Hickman developed a model that enabled them "to successfully predict the 2013-2014 flu season in real time" by employing "an algorithm to link flu-related Wikipedia searches with CDC data from the same time." Apparently when individuals search for information about the flu and its symptoms in Wikipedia when they feel ill, this generates data useful in forecasting the flu season. Feltman also noted another study in April gathered similar results using data from Wikipedia.

Feltman wrote that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes that it does not track the spread of the flu very well. This may be because many flu sufferers choose to weather it out at home rather than seeking medical treatment. Another factor is the time lag in healthcare providers reports to the CDC. This gives the CDC an accurate picture of the extent of the flu, but only about two weeks after the fact. Recognizing that there are better means of tracking the disease through internet searches and social media, the CDC has instituted a competition to find better flu models.

The MIT Technology Review (November 3) also covered the article. It quotes Hickman and his colleagues as saying that "Wikipedia article access logs are shown to be highly correlated with historical influenza-like illness records and allow for accurate prediction of influenza-like illness data several weeks before it becomes available," but that "since our model does not account for reinfection or multiple strains of influenza, the tail of the epidemic is not predicted well after the peak of flu season has past."

An abstract and a PDF of the original article, "Forecasting the 2013--2014 Influenza Season using Wikipedia", can be found here.

Wikipedia features in Flight 17 conspiracy theory

A Sukhoi Su-25

The International Business Times reports (October 26) on a new documentary from the Russian RT called MH17 - The Untold Story. The documentary claims that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in the Ukraine in July, was shot down by a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 and presents Wikipedia edits it deems as suspicious.

In the West, it is generally accepted that Flight 17 was shot down by a Buk missile system operated by pro-Russian separatists. The New Republic reports that conspiracy theories denying this abound in Russia and are promoted by the Russian government and media. The most prominent theory, and the one proposed by the RT documentary, is that the flight was shot down by a Ukranian Sukhoi Su-25, a close air support jet widely used in Eurasian air forces. The New Republic cites edits to Wikipedias in multiple languages in support of this theory, some of them originating from Russian government and media organizations.

The problem with this theory is that the service ceiling of the Su-25 is 7000m according to its manufacturer. Flight 17 was flying at over 10000m before the crash. Russian military officials have claimed that the Su-25 can reach and operate at the higher altitude, and a number of Russian edits to Wikipedia have altered the maximum altitude of the Su-25 accordingly.

In the documentary, Peter Haisenko, a former Lufthansa pilot, supports the theory that Flight 17 was shot down by an Su-25 and claims that Wikipedia was actually edited to reduce the maximum altitude of the jet.

In brief

Jejomar Binay
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I read the opposite, which was even more confusing; somehow the process of predict flu has involved MH17 conspiracy theories. I don't think a semi-colon in a list of only two items is valid. --Escape Orbit (Talk) 13:54, 7 November 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • As far as I can quickly tell the English Wikipedia has the 7,000 meter ceiling figure from 26 December 2011 (before which it did indeed say 10,000m) up to the afternoon of 21st of July when an edit war, mainly with IPs, erupted, resulting in the page being semi-protected, in which state it remains to this day. All the best: Rich Farmbrough22:33, 6 November 2014 (UTC).
  • Usually, when stories refer to specific edits, I try to find them, but the documentary was unclear as to which particular language Wikipedia he was referring to, or perhaps he meant multiple Wikipedias. I suspect he was referring to the German Wikipedia, but as I was unsure, I just quoted him and left it at that. Gamaliel (talk) 23:08, 6 November 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • The Irish Independent included the quote -

"Men have no problem writing in an authoritative voice in an area they know nothing about. Women say 'Oh, I'm not enough of an expert in that' - but we'd never hear a man saying that." Jimmy Wales

- which as well as being a sweeping generalisation, made it into University Challenge (or a previous incarnation of the quote did), in the same episode where the question about the divisions of a distribution labelled 25th, 50th and 75th was answered "quartile". All the best: Rich Farmbrough22:51, 6 November 2014 (UTC).
  • There's something very basic about this whole 7K m versus 10K m thing that seems obvious to me that I haven't seen mentioned (maybe if I spent a bunch of time reading about this topic I would find it). Why does anyone think that a fighter has to reach the altitude of a target in order to shoot it down? What's to stop an air-to-air missile from rocketing from the point of launch (at, say, 6K m) toward the target (at, say, 10K m)? Am I missing something here (possible), or are people being really stupid by not thinking about that (also possible)? I am not even speculating here about which side shot the plane down—whoever did it is a piece of shit, regardless. I am just asking about obvious logic. Quercus solaris (talk) 17:49, 8 November 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • @Quercus solaris: There were many technical questions regarding that piece I was unable to answer. That is the problem with conspiracy theories: the conspiracy theorist can speculate wildly without needing facts or knowledge, but the resulting theories often require specialized expertise to definitively debunk. I did some research, but none of the media sources have addressed this beyond pointing to the manufacturer's specifications. I even sent off an email to an aviation expert but got no response. Getting those answers would require time, effort, and knowledge that I don't have to devote to a short Signpost piece. A definitive answer will unfortunately wait for something like Popular Mechanics or Skeptoid. Gamaliel (talk) 18:21, 10 November 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • Thanks, Gamaliel. Just want to reassure that I wasn't picking on the journalism at all—I was just wondering about the apparent logical gap in the antiaircraft arguments or counterarguments. I hold the participants in the debate responsible for addressing that (not the reporter who reported the debate's existence). Admittedly, I won't spend the time to follow up within that debate to see whether the question gets answered. Thanks to all of the reporters who write the Signpost—I enjoy reading it and appreciate the volunteering that produces it! Quercus solaris (talk) 23:52, 10 November 2014 (UTC)[reply]


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