News & Politics

What Has Cheating, Scare-Mongering Coronavirus Modeler Neil Ferguson Ever Gotten Right?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist and lead author of the Imperial College of London’s coronavirus model that led the world’s leaders to shut down economies and lock us all in our homes, cheated on the lockdown he proposed. At least twice. He was also cheating on his wife with a woman in an open marriage.

But it’s cheating on the lockdown that led to his abrupt resignation from his posts atop Britain’s top science advisory groups. He broke the lockdown that he prescribed for the rest of us. Wrap your mind around that.

What does this say about Ferguson’s faith in his own model?

Brendan O’Neill is rightly outraged at Ferguson’s behavior.

Ferguson’s booty call with his married lover actually reveals a great deal about the 21st-century elites and how they view their relationship with the masses. It’s one rule for them and another for us. They can carry on enjoying sneaky freedoms because their lives and jobs are important; we can’t because we are mere little people, whose silly work lives can casually be disrupted, whose love lives can be turned upside down, and whose families can be ripped apart. The Ferguson affair provides an illuminating insight into the new elitism.

Letters to the Guardian editors on Ferguson’s actions reflect yet another partisan divide, as some on the left will justify all manner of misbehavior if it’s done by a member of their political team. Whataboutism for me but not for thee, it seems. We’ve known about this since Clinton and we’re seeing it play out again with Joe Biden.

Ferguson’s self-centered attitude is all over the place, reflecting both an elitism and rank ignorance of economics and consequences. No society can sustain having large percentages, representing millions of people who want to work to feed themselves and their families, unemployed. People who are still being paid ought not lecture the millions of unemployed. Police should certainly not waste resources running stings on them and judges certainly should not be jailing them.

No society can sustain having their economic engines gutted for any real length of time. It’s just not sustainable. And we were never given a choice or say in the matter. There should have been economists and financial modelers standing alongside the epidemiology modelers so leaders could pick their poison and calibrate their responses based on a more complete picture that included the economic consequences of massive shutdowns and lockdowns. There were no good choices, but leaders could have made better choices.

That never happened. We’ll live with the consequences of this for years, maybe decades, to come. It’s warping our future. Just as the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II represent dividing points in history, so will the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic may turn out to be the most consequential of all of them.

O’Neill goes on to list several times over the past couple of decades Ferguson sounded the alarm over a grave new threat, only to have the facts catch up with him and prove him wrong.

In 2005 he said up to 200million people could die from bird flu – the final global death toll between the years 2003 and 2009 was 292. In 2009, the UK government based its ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ for the impact of swine flu in Britain on Ferguson’s models, saying around 65,000 people could die. In the end just 457 people died. In 2001 Imperial modelling on foot-and-mouth disease shaped government policy, which was to cull six million sheep, cattle and pigs. Later, an expert in veterinary epidemiology said that modelling was ‘seriously flawed’.

I’ve been more tolerant about the coronavirus models than most, because models should start out wrong and improve over time. That’s how it’s supposed to work. No one knew much about this virus when China chose to cover up the outbreak, leaving the whole world to fight blindly for far too long. The initial models were bound to have high rates of error, and then improve.

But Ferguson’s models haven’t improved over time. Not in this crisis, anyway. His track record is terrible. His model predicted about 20 times the number of deaths Sweden should have experienced by now for staying open as that country did. Why does anyone listen to him at all?

Especially when Neil Ferguson doesn’t even listen to himself.

We shouldn’t dismiss modeling. We should stop listening to this modeler — because he doesn’t even listen to himself — and never listen to him again. Governments must rethink their approach to data starting right now. Include professional data scientists who work in industry, not just academia, and include the economic impacts as well.

This goes for climate modeling too, by the way. This should mark the end of academia’s data priesthood. Its high priest doesn’t even believe in the canon anymore.

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