New Call to Examine Old Narratives

Original post: https://www.sesync.org/news/fri-2020-05-01-1507/new-call-to-examine-old-narratives-infectious-disease-modeling-study-casts

Infectious disease modeling study casts doubt on the Justinianic Plague’s impact

Annapolis, MD — Many have claimed the Justinianic Plague (c. 541–750 CE) killed half of the population of Roman Empire. Now, historical research and mathematical modeling challenge the death rate and severity of this first plague pandemic.

Researchers Lauren White, PhD and Lee Mordechai, PhD, of the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, examined the impacts of the Justinianic Plague with mathematical modeling. Using modern plague research as their basis, the two developed novel mathematical models to re-examine primary sources from the time of the Justinianic Plague outbreak. From the modeling, they found that it was unlikely that any transmission route of the plague would have had both the mortality rate and duration described in the primary sources. Their findings appear in a paper titled “Modeling the Justinianic Plague: Comparing hypothesized transmission routes” in PLOS ONE.

“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that a robust mathematical modeling approach has been used to investigate the Justinianic Plague,” said lead author Lauren White, PhD, a quantitative disease ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC. “Given that there is very little quantitative information in the primary sources for the Justinianic Plague, this was an exciting opportunity to think creatively about how we could combine present-day knowledge of plague’s etiology with descriptions from the historical texts.”

White and Mordechai focused their efforts on the city of Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, which had a comparatively well-described outbreak in 542 CE. Some primary sources claim plague killed up to 300,000 people in the city, which had a population of some 500,000 people at the time. Other sources suggest the plague killed half the empire’s population. Until recently, many scholars accepted this image of mass death. By comparing bubonic, pneumonic, and combined transmission routes, the authors showed that no single transmission route precisely mimicked the outbreak dynamics described in these primary sources. 

Existing literature often assumes that the Justinianic Plague affected all areas of the Mediterranean in the same way. The new findings from this paper suggest that given the variation in ecological and social patterns across the region (e.g., climate, population density), it is unlikely that a plague outbreak would have impacted all corners of the diverse empire equally. 

xenopsylla cheopis
Photo: Xenopsylla cheopis

 “Our results strongly suggest that the effects of the Justinianic Plague varied considerably between different urban areas in late antiquity,” said co-author Lee Mordechai, an environmental historian and a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC when he wrote the paper. He is now a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and co-lead of Princeton’s Climate Change and History Research Initiative (CCHRI). He said, “This paper is part of a series of publications in recent years that cast doubt on the traditional interpretation of plague using new methodologies. It’s an exciting time to do this kind of interdisciplinary research!”

Using an approach called global sensitivity analysis, White and Mordechai were able to explore the importance of any given model parameter in dictating simulated disease outcomes. They found that several understudied parameters are also very important in determining model results. White explained, “One example was the transmission rate from fleas to humans. Although the analysis described this as an important parameter, there hasn’t been enough research to validate a plausible range for that parameter.” 

These high importance variables with minimal information also point to future directions for empirical data collection. “Working with mathematical models of disease was an insightful process for me as a historian,” reflected Mordechai. “It allowed us to examine traditional historical arguments with a powerful new lens.” 

Together, with other recent work from Mordechai, this study is another call to examine the primary sources and narratives surrounding the Justinianic Plague more critically. 

White, L.A. & Mordechai, L. (2020). Modeling the Justinianic Plague: Comparing hypothesized transmission routes. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0231256

Contact information:

Lauren White, lwhite@sesync.org, National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, University of Maryland

Lee Mordechai, lmordechai@sesync.org, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

About SESYNC

The University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. For more information on SESYNC and its activities, please visit www.sesync.org.

SESYNC’s Public Health Immersion Workshop: Interdisciplinary Themes of Resilience and Social Determinants of Health

By: Lauren White

Original post: https://www.sesync.org/news/tue-2020-02-25-1935/sesync%E2%80%99s-public-health-immersion-workshop-interdisciplinary-themes-of

In a recent Immersion workshop on public health, SESYNC postdocs had the opportunity to interact with three public health scholars whose research programs span environmental exposure, feedbacks between human health and sustainability, and mental health and cognition. During the two-day workshop, these scholars covered a range of topics—beginning with the foundations of public health and public health methods and then building to the applied contexts of how to foster community engagement, develop community partnerships, and manage these relationships in an international setting.

Jennifer Vanos, Assistant Professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, researches the effect of extreme heat and air quality overexposure on human health, especially in vulnerable populations. Her work focuses on a solution-based approach to understanding how we can modify the environment to mitigate these risks. Katie Fiorella, Assistant Professor in the Master of Public Health Program and the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences at Cornell University, explores the links between environmental change and human health and food security in her research. A common research question is how the environment affects human health, but Dr. Fiorella also investigates an under-explored corollary: how human health affects how humans manage the environment. Within the field of environmental psychology, Gregory Bratman, Assistant Professor in the College of Environment at the University of Washington, investigates how our experience of nature affects human cognition and functioning.

One of the interdisciplinary goals of SESYNC involves creating a culture where researchers have appropriate knowledge of other disciplines and have opportunities to engage in dialogue and develop a common language. During group discussions and reflections, SESYNC postdocs were challenged to identify how their research connects with public health research themes. For Xavier Benito-Granell, PhD, a SESYNC postdoctoral fellow focusing on paleoecological questions, resiliency was a connecting theme for the workshop. “[Resiliency] embraces a wide spectrum of disciplines, including public health and ecology, in the sense that communities (individuals, societies, ecological [systems]) have the capacity to adapt and respond to long-term stresses and disturbances,” Dr. Benito-Granell reflected. Likewise, postdoctoral fellow Florian Gollnow, PhD, found that the ecosystem benefits of nature for health and human well-being tied into the conceptual understanding of his research on tropical deforestation. 

Social determinants of health were another emergent theme of the Immersion workshop. Many participants learned for the first time that public health researchers quantify human health and well-being  as a function of genetics, medical care, and social determinants (e.g., education opportunities, income level, racial segregation). SESYNC postdoctoral fellow, Fushcia Hoover, PhD, a social-ecological urban hydrologist who infuses her research with approaches from environmental justice theory found the workshop to be a valuable experience. “I was motivated and encouraged by the scholars’ and workshop’s emphasis on building healthy and happy communities. It was great to see a field [public health] that does not put all the responsibility on the individual but recognizes the institutional drivers that affect health and well-being,” said Dr. Hoover. 

This workshop was part of SESYNC’s Immersion Program, which offers a series of collaborative workshops led by distinguished scholars. This program is designed to immerse participants in theories and methods foundational to understanding current environmental challenges and their underlying socio-environmental systems.

“We All Have Bad First Drafts”: Lessons from a Professional Science Writer

By: Lauren White and Alaina Gallagher

Original post: https://www.sesync.org/news/fri-2019-12-20-1713/%E2%80%9Cwe-all-have-bad-first-drafts%E2%80%9D-lessons-from-a-professional-science-writer

“As a scientist, you are a professional writer,” said Dr. Joshua Schimel during a recent science writing workshop held at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). During this event, SESYNC postdocs had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the storytelling process.

Schimel, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, is the author of Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Using this book as a basis for the workshop, Schimel provided SESYNC postdocs with insights into how to effectively connect with different audiences when writing about their research. 

Prior to the workshop, participants developed writing samples that followed the OCAR format: opening, challenge, action, and resolution. Later in small groups, participants then had the opportunity to give and receive feedback on those drafts, focusing on the topics of structure, flow, and word choice. Dr. Schimel argued that all good manuscripts have these same elements of a good story. “Writing science is about telling a story about nature,” he said.  

One of the most important things a writer should keep in mind, Schimel said, includes learning to live with bad first drafts. Schimel shared his philosophy that good writing isn’t about getting the first draft perfect, it’s about getting a final draft that’s good enough. The goal should be to limit self-criticism during early drafts and hone the ability to edit effectively during revisions. 

Another key component of best writing practices, according to Dr. Schimel, is to smooth the way for the reader. Conventional writing in science can be obscure and difficult to read, but a more difficult to read piece is not de facto more scientifically sound. “As the author, it’s your job to make the reader’s job easy,” Dr. Schimel said.

This workshop was part of SESYNC’s Immersion Program, which offers a series of collaborative workshops led by distinguished scholars. This program is designed to immerse participants in theories and methods foundational to understanding current environmental challenges and their underlying socio-environmental systems. 

Three Lessons I Learned from Attending the 2019 Science Writers Conference as a Scientist

By: Lauren White

Original post: https://www.sesync.org/news/wed-2019-11-27-1636/three-lessons-i-learned-from-attending-the-2019-science-writers-conference

A doodle showing the presentation points of a talk titled, "Is Antartica's ice collapsing?"

A doodle drawn by Lauren White during the ScienceWriters2019 conference. Lauren’s notes capture some of the literary devices used by Dr. Richard Alley, Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences and Associate of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State University during his talk on why understanding how quickly Antarctica’s ice shelf is collapsing is critical to predicting sea level rise. 

Recently, I attended my first Science Writers Conference, which was held this year at Penn State University, in State College, PA, on October 25–29, 2019. I’ve been interested in science communication for a long time and have dabbled in writing blog posts for a few scientific journals and non-profits. Despite this interest, I’ve had very little formal training in science writing, so I was excited to explore these skills in a professional context. Here are a few of my takeaways for other academics and researchers interested in communicating science:  

1.   Telling a good story might mean thinking differently than we’re used to.

I know many other scientists who are interested in and excited about science communication. But, crafting a story that conveys our research at large can be challenging when our training encourages us to focus on the particulars. As scientists, we are taught to couch our language in uncertainty, and when we are too close to the problem, it can be hard to connect the nitty gritty details of our everyday work back to the bigger picture.  

But I learned one helpful solution is to partner with mentors who specialize in communication to get critical feedback. Identifying the key points of your story takes practice but is important!  Because whether you’re presenting a scientific poster or making a pitch to an editor, finding the essential elements of a story is key to making the strongest impression. 

2.    We do not all have to communicate the same way. 

The traditional mode for communicating science involves sending out a press release after an article is published. However, there is no one-size-fits-all model for how we should communicate our science. Some people may prefer writing articles, some may enjoy participating in podcasts, and some may even enjoy talking about science on stage with a beer in hand. The trick is to find the format that works best for your personality and schedule. Some additional avenues to explore include: The Conversation, an op-ed forum for academics to write directly to the public and news outlets; an “Ask Me Anything” thread on the Reddit r/science community; vlogging like “Your Brain on Blank” by neuroscientist Shannon Odell; or live comedy shows like “Drunk Science.”

3. Use literary devices liberally.

Some general advice that I hear over and over again as a scientist is to avoid jargon, but less often do I hear alternatives for how to communicate complex concepts in science. One of the things I enjoyed most about this conference was the opportunity to listen to experts speak on subjects outside my background. These talks were fascinating not only because I learned about new topics, but I also had a chance to see how these experts communicated their ideas to a general audience. 

One of my favorite talks was by Dr. Richard Alley, Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences and Associate of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, from Penn State University. At various points throughout his talk, he compared Antarctic ice sheets to pancakes, flying buttresses, and zippers. Because of these analogies, I did not need to understand the Cauchy stress tensor to understand the general implications for accelerated ice collapse. Incorporating literary devices like similes and metaphors are powerful tools to explore for communicating our science. 

Below are some other doodles that I drew during the conference that capture some of the storytelling techniques used by the presenters.

A doodle showing notes and some of the story techniques used during a science presentation

Dr. Nichole Lazar, Professor of Statistics at the University of Georgia, explained how the concept of statistical significance is facing a new reckoning in the sciences and that these ideas will continue to change through time with different disciplines having different needs. 

A doodle showing notes and some of the story techniques used during a science presentation

Dr. Jonathan Lynch, University Distinguished Professor of Plant Science at Penn State University, explained how exploiting different plant phenotypes can help crops perform better under drought and nutrient limited conditions. 

A doodle showing notes and some of the story techniques used during a science presentation

Dr. S. Shayam Sundar, the James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University, gave a talk about why fake news is so pervasive. In an ironic twist, his own press release on machine learning approaches to detect fake news morphed into its own version of fake news. 

Modern Insights Into Plagues of Old

See original post: https://bit.ly/2Mh4xgv

By: Lauren White

One less commonly known plague of antiquity is the Antonine Plague (165-190 Common Era [CE]). According to some historians, the Antonine Plague spanned the entire Mediterranean region, killing between 10-50% of the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor, Lucius Verus, and his co-regent Marcus Aurelius are two of this epidemic’s purported victims. Some historians even assert that it crippled the Roman military, leading to the end of Pax Romana. 

In his recent seminar at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC),  historical epidemiologist, Professor Tim Newfield, counters this “maximalist” or extreme interpretation of the Antonine Plague with a more nuanced argument. He asserts that this epidemic was not the mass source of mortality as has been previously described. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University, Newfield uses collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to bring new evidence into discussions of the deep past (1st millennium CE). 

Newfield suggests that the exaggeration of the Antonine Plague’s impact is a product of two issues. The first issue is how historians incorporate (or fail to incorporate ) the latest evidence from other disciplines. For example, while there have been new advances in climate science surrounding a climate event in 6th century CE, many historians continue to cite the same paper from over a decade ago. Unfortunately, he said, historians may pull studies from other disciplines into the historical realm but decontextualize them in the process. While Newfield has supplemented his own historical interpretation of primary sources with the latest pollen, genomic, and archeological data, he notes that it is imperative to work with interdisciplinary colleagues who can provide their expertise. Newfield stated that, “solely through an interdisciplinary framework can historians make historians relevant to contemporary frameworks.”

The second issue is how historians weigh the descriptions of contemporary vs. primary sources. He notes that unlike non-contemporary accounts, contemporary accounts of the outbreak are not particularly dire or descriptive. The result is that scholars build their arguments on non-contemporary sources and continue to distance themselves from the actual descriptions in primary accounts.

During his seminar Newfield traced three waves of maximalist historian interpretation surrounding the Antonine Plague. In the final maximalist wave originating in the 1960s, he said historians shifted the narrative to argue that the Antonine Plague was likely a smallpox outbreak that led to 10 million deaths.  Newfield offered several counterarguments. Much of this hypothesis relies on tax documents from the Roman Province of Egypt, which detailed a declining tax base. Newfield notes that this single locale was taken as a template or substitute for other parts of the empire, but that historians should not assume that such local or regional patterns are universal.  External factors like a large volcanic eruption in the region could also have been at fault. Also, more recent molecular studies suggest that smallpox likely emerged several hundred years after the observed outbreak. Although the evidence is not rich enough to pinpoint a definitive alternative diagnosis, Newfield said, “By pointing out the errors in the approaches that have been taken so far, I think there is value in that.”

On the relevance of historical disease research to modern disease research, Newfield pointed out that often our conceptions of disease are based on assumed common knowledge rather than detailed scholarship. These assumptions then inform research and funding agendas. Newfield also points to the role that historians can play in synthesizing datasets that are of use to disease researchers.  Newfield said, “Historians can bring their skillsets to the table and construct long-running [time] series.” In turn, historians can learn to ask better questions. Newfield stated that, “more historians should be engaging with academics outside of their field.”

SESYNC holds a Seminar on Tuesdays throughout the academic calendar year. For more information about the Fall 2019 lineup of speakers, please see our schedule.