The Aporkalypse: Researchers Want Your Help

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

A Stanford team that's studying the public's knowledge of, and response to, H1N1 flu, has a survey and they're looking for willing participants to fill it out. Here's team member Marcel Salathé:

There is a possibility that the situation might develop into a pandemic if the virus continues to spread around the globe. The news media report excessively about this threat, and while health officials urge people to stay calm, there is an increased level of anxiety in the population.
Models have predicted that when a disease breaks out, changes in behavior in response to an outbreak, and in particular in response to information about an outbreak, can alter the progression of an epidemic. While this makes intuitive sense, there is no good data to test such a hypothesis. One of the major problems is that emotional reactions and behavioral response to an epidemic is generally assessed quite some time after the epidemic has fizzled out."

Short version: They're trying to figure out whether the info dump about H1N1 flu that you're getting from the media and the Web might really be enough to educate us all right out of a pandemic. I know that theory has come up in the comments threads on my previous flu postings. Let's help find out it if it works!

Take the survey here

EDIT: Marcel Salathé answers a couple of reader questions from the comments thread here. First, about when the results will come out and how you can see them:

There are a number of options. We will collect data while the epidemic runs its course - how long that's going to take is unpredictable, so I cannot really say more about the timeline - we just don't know yet. But we're constantly monitoring the data, and once we start finding interesting patterns we will certainly publish those quickly and make them open access. Feel free to publish my Stanford email address, and people who want to the results can send me an email."

Second, are Boing Boing readers completely screwing up the data by virtue of their savvyness? Salathé says it's a concern, but he doesn't think it will mess things up too badly, and he needs the volume of response more:

I am relatively confident that once we have a large enough sample we will get a good feeling for the average level of concern in the population. Yes, it might be that the ones responding to the survey are not the ones most panicky. On the other hand, one could also make the argument that people who are absolutely unruffled and calm might not be bothered to take the survey either. There can always be bias in any direction. In principle, any online survey has the potential for bias (by the fact alone that the survey is online) - but with a large enough sample one can avoid most of the problems regarding bias."

Boing Boing also isn't the only large-volume return place Salathé has published the survey link, so he's confident his results won't be all-BB, all the time. He does say that if you've got suggestions on more places to publish the survey link that are likely to be BB's polar opposite, you should contact him.


  1. There’s a kind of delicious irony in the anxiety I was feeling about the flu yesterday.

    I felt feverish (thankfully briefly), and I began to feel extremely anxious that I was getting the flu — not because I’m scared of the flu, but because I didn’t want to have to eat my words, telling my friends to stop freaking out.

  2. Where can we find the results from this survey, once it is completed? What time line are we looking at?

    I found it hard to answer some of the questions — I don’t use Twitter or Facebook — but the area for responding/evaluating them if you don’t use them failed to come up.

  3. I think this is a really cool idea. However I would hazard a guess that this is going to be heavily biased and should not be used to determine the general population’s knowledge of the flu.

    If only because people who find these scientific studies interesting are quite often the same group of people who follow scientific thought processes. Which I might hazard to guess means that they would weigh the information and look for logical solutions as opposed to just straight panic.

    However people who just straight panic might not be reading into web sites and information sources that would link to this study.

    While I’m sure the team at Stanford are aware of this kind of problem it does rather debunk it’s usefulness.

  4. Prunk , I think you hit it, at least for BB readers; we tend to be more tech-savvy and/or science savvy in general.

  5. To the question “How accurate is the information you get about swine flu from the following information sources?”, I’ll let you know when I start oinking.

  6. Meh… I figure if I’m wrong about my odds of actually catching H1N1, I’ll be to dead to care.

  7. I also found the questions a bit wanting. For example, how accurate is the information I get about swine flu from the radio? Well, that depends on whether “the radio” is “all radio media” or “the radio” is “the radio stations that I listen to”. I chose the latter, because WTF do I know about “all radio media” except for what I read about on boingboing!

  8. Prunk, There are ways to correct for education levels and such – that’s probably why they ask how much education respondents have. Stanford is a pretty good research institution so they are likely correcting for that.

  9. I couldn’t click “Not at all concerned” hard enough. I wish this was a paper survey, so I could draw gigantic, glowing arrows pointing to that response.

  10. Now, what’s really troubling is the fact that posting this on BoingBoing is going to taint the survey results in the same way a digg flood for a poll would. Yes, they will attempt to statistically control for highly internet savvy users, but the results will still be biased.

    Might even warrant alerting the researchers to the post so they have some context for the results over the next 2 or so days.

  11. first there was SARS. then Bird Flu. Now Pig Flu.

    combined, they all managed to kill far, far less people than regular flu does in an average year.

    color me indifferent to the latest media frenzy.


    Anon I’m dying! That is just so F’IN hilarious…

  13. Nutbastard: You are indifferent to the latest media frenzy. There. I hope that helped. ;D

  14. On Tue I twittered (throughout the day) a fictitious story about the Swine Flu in NYC being an Al Qaeda weapon, that people were dying by the tens-of-thousands, and that the army was quelling riots and burning bodies.

    Before I got to the part about the dead becoming undead, and zombie chaos, I got tons of people retweeting/following me…. thinking everything was real.

    The whole point was doing a creative exercise to see what people on twitter would believe… I thought it would be a funny contrast to how most people were using social media.

    Far too many people are using scare tactics and morally reprehensible fear mongering / paranoia ( in the style of fox news ) to boost their social media brand. People want twitter followers so badly, they become worse than info-mericials or sweeps week… everyone trying to break the story and create hooks that are completely insane.

    That being said , I think because of Twitter and all the “Brand You” crap that people are pushing, Paranoia will run rampant… and the masses people are educated with bad information to the extent of being complete fucking idiots scared of their own shadow.

    1. Far too many people are using scare tactics and morally reprehensible fear mongering / paranoia

      Oddly, this sounds a lot like what you just described doing yourself, Jonathan_V. The fact that it was “all a soshul expuriment”, as we used to say on Live Journal, doesn’t make it any less fear-mongering and–I think–any less morally reprehensible.

  15. Greetings

    One issue was not noted on the survey, I take a immune suppressing drug called Humira for Crohns. It along with Remicade, Emberol etc also used to treat RA among illnesse

    I have a concern about flu that certainly exceeds the norm but its not panic just a reasonable awareness that my immune system is hindered and can’t fight back if I get sick even if the doctor gives me “oinkment”

  16. I think there’s a huge difference between saying something completely outlandish and unbelievable like:

    Al Qaeda’s weaponized Swine Flu is killing Millions in NYC. Don’t trust the media!


    You are at risk of dying from Swine Flu if you don’t read these 10 safety tips.

  17. questionnaire is flawed.

    when is it healthy to eat pork?

    when its not factory farmed.

    bbc reported (accidentally i think) that the town at pt 0 invmexico painted its hospital literally JUST before bbc arrived and received a sudden shipment of meds, which it had none of previously.

  18. RE: the update just posted

    I constantly worry that, as a BoingBoing reader I’m just to savvy for anyone’s good.


  19. #s 21, 22, 24: Shades of Orson Welles doing War of the Worlds, 21st century style.

  20. i don’t know how to link,but theres a pretty lively discussion going on at tilted forum project ( hope this helps the survey.discussion is in general discussion.

  21. Am I the only one who kept getting distracted by Marcel Salathé’s name and thinking of Yosemite and El Capitan instead of the swine flu?

  22. I’ve got the flu (the normal kind) at the moment, and am seeing the doctor on monday, as its been chronic. I’m just hoping I don’t get quarantined because of a paranoid doctor.

  23. “with a large enough sample one can avoid most of the problems regarding bias”

    Seriously? I’m no survey designer, but adding more biased respondents (if that’s what boingboing readers are) doesn’t seem like it would make the survey less biased.

  24. I hope that savvy bOINGbOING readers are bearing in mind, as they fill out the survey in their thousands, that the swine flu is the divine punishment meted out to us by the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and that the only sure way to avoid it is to wear pirate costume at all times

    1. the only sure way to avoid it is to wear pirate costume at all times…

      Media, Somali, Arrr or butt? I’ve got two of them covered.

  25. TUCKEL:

    Well, if you’ve got the flu don’t miss the opportunity for some fun. If you cough kinda heavily in public, as you breath in try to make that piggy oinky sound.

    If you have a big coughing fit, try to add a squeal or two.

    Back during SARS I had a bad, wheezy cough, so I’d sometimes cough out, “SAAAAAAAARS” while wheezing.

  26. The 1918 flu pandemic, caused by another H1N1 virus, started with a mild, early wave in spring and early summer. The flu lab at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US estimates that the R0 of the 1918 virus in spring was only 1.45. That shot up, they estimate, to 3.75 when the virus began its lethal second wave the following autumn.

    Much may now depend on how quickly the new H1N1 virus from swine adapts to people.

  27. I have a cold right now… I know it’s not the flu, but given the current positive feedback loop the media is making about the swine flu, people will probably suspect it is. Great.

  28. How many people live in your household? Well, I live in a dormitory, at least for a few more weeks… i.e. if swine flu ever actually becomes a problem here we’re all screwed. I do my best not to worry, however there are plausible-but-unconfirmed cases at the school down the road, and I don’t want to think about how many of the 26,000 kids here could’ve possibly, y’know, gone to Mexico for spring break…

    That said, it doesn’t actually bother me on a daily basis. Just when I start thinking.

Comments are closed.