Is there more to the lockdown story than we thought?Let’s start by keeping in focus the line, attributed to Disraeli “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”. I was reminded of this in a recent FT interview with Professor Anthony Costello, a public health specialist at University College London, who observed “ We’ve been running this epidemic like Robert McNamara, the US Defence Secretary in the Vietnam War, who collected vast quantities of data to assess the war’s progress. We should have been more like the other side, fighting a guerrilla war against the virus”. Sadly, we all know McNamara’s strategy ended in tears and tens of thousands of deaths. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t taken long for the scientists to fall out, starting with the Oxford University study that disputes the way data is being gathered in the first place. The scientist in all this who has been elevated to godlike status by the politicians, Public Health England, most of the media, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, is of course one Professor Neil Ferguson, head of the Imperial College research team that has produced the computer model , which is guiding the lockdown, and has Prime Minister, Boris Johnson firmly under his spell. He has considerable form. For detail on this see here.
In summary, this is the scientist whose modelling led to the culling of 6,000,000 animals in the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic now deemed as a flawed approach.This is also the man who predicted up to 50,000 people would die of mad cow disease (actual death toll 177), and declared in 2005 that up to 200,000,000 could be killed from bird flu (actual death toll 282). So what about his COVID-19 model? Well this one is based on a 13-year-old computer model that was worked up for a possible influenza pandemic.
Is the research water tight?The model is unpublished, hasn’t been peer reviewed and according to reports doesn’t take account that the trajectory of flu viruses is different from coronaviruses, which have different incubation periods. Being led by modelling gave rise to an apposite letter to the FT from Mr Edmund Booth, a retired engineer. He believes “computer models should inform decision- making,” but do not replace the need for qualitative “narratives” on which the best judgements are made. He cites the example of the Millennium footbridge over the Thames, “shortly before it opened and became wobbly”, its chief engineer claimed in a paper that such a slender, elegant bridge would not have been possible to build safely without the huge number-crunching software that had by then become available. But of course that software didn’t include “the narrative of the wobbliness”.
The more we continue to be led by the science of Professor Ferguson and others, it would seem the more that deployment of common sense (always a rare commodity) has gone by the board.Doctor John. D. Cook, who has spent much of his career helping companies solve complex problems involving maths, statistics and computing, said in a paper back in September 2014 “ common sense is vitally important in statistics. Attempts to minimise the need for common sense can lead to nonsense. You need common sense to formulate a statistical model and to interpret inferences from that model. Statistics is a layer of exact calculation sandwiched between necessarily subjective formulation and interpretation…common sense is necessary to map probability theory to applications and to evaluate how well that map works”.
Fear over facts?I suggest the Cabinet, the media and most of the country are being fed a life-threatening soup made up of disputed science , questionable modelling and dubious statistics. By now common sense surely tells us that: Those under 40 should be allowed back to work and education. Shops, garden centres and places of worship should be allowed using the same social distancing measures as employed by the supermarkets. Parks, including the National Parks should be re-opened again observing the social distancing rules. However, there is evidence that the Government is beginning to recognise this necessity at least. The elderly and the vulnerable should be asked to stay at home but this should now become a matter of choice. In many cases mental and life threatening damage will be done by continuing to lock up this part of our community. I am sure this is not an exhaustive list of common sense actions but it is a start. For example, I haven’t here gone into the Treasury’s obsession with the statistical probability that in providing across the board loans and subsidies to companies and the self-employed, 5% of the claims may be fraudulent so they won’t permit the 95% to be saved. Or indeed the Treasury’s paranoia about offending the EU’s State Aid rules when it is 100% clear France, Italy and Germany are rightly ignoring such when it comes to tackling COVID-19 fallout. All that is for another day. Meanwhile, the time has come for Boris to take back control from his questionable scientists and start deploying some Churchillian common sense.
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