Critique the Models, but Dump the Nanny State

Monday, April 20, 2020

Writing at Issues and Insights, Michael Fumento reviews the record of Neil Ferguson, whose epidemic model set off a wave of draconian government actions, like indefinite mass home detention, across the West:

We shouldn't act like this person, nor tolerate the government making us do so. (Image by Erik Mclean, via Unsplash, license.)
The ... crisis we face is unparalleled in modern times," said the World Health Organization's assistant director, while its director general proclaimed it "likely the greatest peacetime challenge that the United Nations and its agencies have ever faced." This was based on a CDC computer model projection predicting as many as 1.4 million deaths from just two countries.

So when did they say this about COVID-19? Trick question: It was actually about the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone five years ago, and the ultimate death toll was under 8,000. [links in original]
This brings to mind the following memorable quote regarding the transmissibility of Ebola, from an interview of epidemiologist Amesh Adalja by Scott Holleran: "You really have to work to become infected -- it's not like measles -- and you have to be in very close contact while not wearing personal, protective equipment like gowns, gloves and masks."

I don't know if this is part of what that model was missing, but I'm glad governments didn't force us all to act on that first guess.

But Fumento wasn't done with Ferguson, yet:
Later, avian flu strain A/H5N1, "even in the best-case scenarios" was to "cause 2 (million) to 7 million deaths" worldwide. A British professor named Neil Ferguson scaled that up to 200 million. It killed 440. This same Ferguson in 2002 had projected 50-50,000 deaths from so-called "Mad Cow Disease." On its face, what possible good is a spread that large? (We shall return to this.) But the final toll was slightly over 200.

In the current crisis the most alarming model, nay probably the most influential in the implementation of the draconian quarantines worldwide, projected a maximum of 2.2 million American deaths and 550,000 United Kingdom deaths unless there were severe restrictions for 18 months or until a vaccine was developed. The primary author: Neil Ferguson... [links in original]
Meanwhile, deaths in the US are at or near a peak (It remains to be seen whether there will be a second "wave" in the fall.) and preliminary serological evidence indicates that the hospitalization and death rates for COVID-19 may be exaggerated by a factor of 50-85.

Having noted these things, I have to state that I disagree with Fumento's thesis that we should "permanently dump epidemic models." They can provide a preliminary estimate for a ceiling of how bad a pandemic can be, despite the many difficulties that go into producing a decent model.

Where things go awry are (1) the sad state of modern journalism, where the relentless focus on sensationalizing worst-case scenarios seems to find a match only in the shocking level of ignorance of the people reporting on same; (2) the dangerous concentration of improper power in the hands of government officials, who treat such preliminary estimates as gospel and too often bow to the whims of the loudest and most irrational ninnies among their constituents; and (3) the generally bad thinking among the public, caused by the general collapse of Western philosophy expertly diagnosed by Ayn Rand decades ago.

The proper use of a model at an early stage of an epidemic emphatically includes a willingness to change course as modelers correct their predictions with new data. Such course corrections would be far easier to accomplish by individuals, acting on their best judgement, changing their behavior to best maximize their chances of surviving and prospering -- than by government officials whose primary motive is to get reelected, acting as they do within a system that is practically designed to pressure them into making poor decisions based on the precautionary principle.

Rather than throwing out models, we need to throw out the nanny state.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

This illustrates a deep problem with science as well (also driven by the collapse of Western philosophy). When you look at global warming, COVID-19, astrophysics, even taxonomy and paleontology, far too many scientists forget that models are, at best, working hypotheses. Scientists have stopped viewing models as testable predictions, and instead have started viewing them as the primary source for data. This undermines the very foundation of science; what drove science forward for two glorious centuries was that scientists took it as an absolute that all theories, regardless of their nature, must always be grounded in observable facts. Once we dropped that--around the 1950s in physics, a bit later in other fields--science became little more than a guessing game. We saw indications of what this could do when the Soviets abandoned evolutionary theory and nearly starved their country; we saw more when "theoretical physics" abandoned any pretense at describing the world (see Hawking's statements on the subject). Now we're seeing the results in medicine. The body count for this epistemological failure is on par with a mid-sized war.

Gus Van Horn said...


Your mention of the body count reminds me first of the losses of life (partial lives, in the form of time and money wasted; and whole lives, in terms of suicides (and worse, if this goes on much longer)) due to economics; and second, losses of life (and lowered quality of life) due to the nationwide ban on "elective" medical procedures during the pandemic.

If we ever adopt the Green New Deal, it will make Lysenkoism look like a fun parlor game by comparison.