The Danger of Letting Lab Coats Run the World

Thursday, May 14, 2020
By Paul Martin

By Bill Dunne
May 14, 2020

It should be clear by now that most of the world’s leaders were stampeded over the lockdown cliff like so many lemmings. What caused the stampede is even more remarkable: a tiny coterie of obscure, soft-spoken epidemiologists in white lab coats playing with numbers.

Americans trying to keep up with the torrid pace of new developments over the past few months have been hearing about that work — the data-modeling these people do by feeding selected data and a variety of assumptions into a computer. The computer then disgorges diagrams and charts that attempt to describe the future progress of diseases like COVID-19. The most frequently cited COVID-19 modelers are those at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington and similar organizations at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Imperial College in London.

Imperial College is where the brightest star in this tiny constellation emerged. He is Dr. Neil Ferguson, director of the Centre for Global Infections Disease Analysis at the college. Until a little sex scandal sidelined him just recently (delicious story for another day), he was also a key member of the group that has been directing the British government’s response to the coronavirus. For that work, the thin, pale, bespectacled 52-year-old has been given a shorter title: Professor Lockdown.

The title is well deserved.

Mid-March saw a rapid upsurge of reported COVID-19 events, starting on March 11 with the World Health Organization’s official designation of the coronavirus as a pandemic. At that point, the spread of the disease was obviously already global, with new cases popping up everywhere. Frightening headlines filled newspaper pages and TV screens daily and hourly. Nine states in the U.S., the first being California on March 19, started issuing statewide shutdown orders. Boris Johnson’s government did the same for the entire U.K. (There’s been no nationwide lockdown in the U.S., Trump instead coordinating with the governors on their responses and enlisting help from the private sector.)

The most frightening headlines of all were kicked off by Ferguson’s authorship of a report issued on March 16. Here’s the key paragraph, abbreviated, with emphasis added:

In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behavior, we would expect a peak in mortality (daily deaths) to occur after approximately 3 months[.] … In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in G.B. and 2.2 million in the U.S., not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.

Those lines went a long way toward spooking all but a handful of other states in the U.S. to join the lockdown parade. But note the word “unlikely” in parentheses. That any society in the face of a serious epidemic would take no mitigating actions was not just unlikely. It was a ridiculous assumption to make, as was the assumption that there would be no change in people’s behavior. They were great assumptions, however, if the aim was to cause panic.

What, we may ask, was Ferguson’s record on prognostications on epidemics prior to COVID-19? Not so good, according to Brendan O’Neil, a British journalist and editor of the online journal Spike. O’Neil writes:

In 2005 [Ferguson] said up to 200 million 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”.

To this, let’s add something from a science reporter, James Ball, who raised other questions about the soundness of Ferguson’s research process. As he writes in the Spectator:

In a fairly unusual break from best practice, Ferguson did not release the code on which his model runs (and has run in various forms for several years), saying it was largely undocumented and would make little sense to outsiders. This is poor practice for multiple reasons, not least of which being that replicating another’s work is a core principle of science, and essential to check workings. It’s also well known among programmers and scientists alike that most code eventually contains errors and idiosyncrasies, for which we must remain constantly vigilant. Far, far simpler models than Ferguson’s have ended up containing huge errors that have drastically altered their conclusions.

However that may be, the only thing the American public heard was that more than two million Americans might be dead in three months.

Recall, by the way, that on January 29, which was nine days after the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the U.S. and two days before President Trump issued his ban on travelers from China, the president announced that he was forming his Coronavirus Task Force. But it would be almost March before the Task Force got into high gear.

It turned out to be quite a bull-riding test for Trump — being bucked by a frightened public over the looming apocalypse portrayed by the media and by the unfolding economic catastrophe he knew could not continue.

How much of a lemming was President Trump? Or the state governors? All of them were, to one degree or another. Thus, we were plunged into the grandest of experiments in authoritarian paternalism, whereby we plebeians — i.e., those without government jobs — are deemed incompetent to judge if it’s safe to take a dip in the ocean or a walk in the woods. We can, though, crowd into a Walmart or the local supermarket.

Soon, however, the president saw the cliff ahead and started pushing against the lockdown express. It took some delicate maneuvering, and however much credence he ever gave to the 2.2 million number, he cannily co-opted it for his political purposes, using it to boast that his administration’s actions have prevented such horrific numbers from becoming reality.

Ferguson has conceded a bit to his critics, but he also proudly noted that his 2.2 million number had the effect of pushing policymakers into the lockdowns he believed necessary. But Ferguson and his fellow experts might have done well to appreciate what the 19th-century economist Frédéric Bastiat meant when wrote that the prescriber of nostrums must be mindful of not only that which is seen, but also that which is not seen.

What is not seen, as Victor Davis Hanson notes, is “the likely larger human toll from suicides, family and substance abuse, lapsed medical procedures and tests, and wrecked businesses and lives from the lockdown.” Statistics, for example, from the Centers for Disease Control on May 8 indicate that vaccination against childhood measles has declined by as much as 60 percent nationally since the states started ordering the lockdowns.

Then there is the global perspective. From a United Nations policy brief on April 15: “Economic hardship experienced by families as a result of the global economic downturn could result in hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths in 2020, reversing the last 2 to 3 years of progress in reducing infant mortality within a single year.”

Let’s sum up with a brutal truth coming from another British commentator, Toby Young, who writes that Ferguson “suffers from the same fundamental arrogance that progressive interventionists have exhibited since at least the middle of the 18th Century — wildly over-estimating the good that governments can do, assuming there are no limits to what ‘science’ can achieve and, at the same time, ignoring the empirical evidence that their ambitious public programmes are a complete disaster.”

Great lesson if we can learn from it.

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