Neil Ferguson is the British Professor whose COVID-19 computer model predictions convinced the world’s most powerful political leaders to impose lock-downs and remove the basic human rights of billions of people almost overnight. As a result, Ferguson has arguably become the single most influential person of the great pandemic panic of 2020 who isn’t an elected member of any government. He will probably go down in history. But not in a good way. The humanitarian catastrophe that must result from the global lock-down is yet to unfold before the world’s horrified eyes.
The virus isn’t ‘dead’ yet, but it would take a second wave of biblical proportions to rescue Ferguson’s predictions. His model predicted Sweden would have 40,000 deaths by now. It actually has around 2,700. He also predicted the UK would have half a million deaths. It has nearly 30,000. No one would expect any computer model to make perfect predictions, but these aren’t even in the same ballpark as reality.
It’s fair to say, then, Ferguson’s model is close to useless. A recent article by Matt Ridley, author of Rational Optimist, provides detail on the model and includes damning assessments of it by members of the scientific community.
Details of the model his team built to predict the epidemic are emerging and they are not pretty. In the respective words of four experienced modellers, the code is “deeply riddled” with bugs, “a fairly arbitrary Heath Robinson machine”, has “huge blocks of code – bad practice” and is “quite possibly the worst production code I have ever seen”…
We now know that the model’s software is a 13-year-old, 15,000-line program that simulates homes, offices, schools, people and movements. According to a team at Edinburgh University which ran the model, the same inputs give different outputs, and the program gives different results if it is run on different machines, and even if it is run on the same machine using different numbers of central-processing units.
Worse, the code does not allow for large variations among groups of people with respect to their susceptibility to the virus and their social connections. An infected nurse in a hospital is likely to transmit the virus to many more people than an asymptomatic child. Introducing such heterogeneity shows that the threshold to achieve herd immunity with modest social distancing is much lower than the 50-60 per cent implied by the Ferguson model. One experienced modeller tells us that “my own modelling suggests that somewhere between 10 per cent and 30 per cent would suffice, depending on what assumptions one makes.”
My first reaction upon reading this was, ‘Jesus, it’s even worse than I thought.’ This should be the slogan for governments everywhere: even worse than you think.
As Matt Ridley also notes, Ferguson has a well-documented history of bad predictions when it comes to pandemics. During the 2001 Mad Cow disease outbreak, Ferguson warned the government that 150,000 people could die. Six million animals were slaughtered as a precaution, costing the country billions in farming revenue. In the end, 200 people died. During the 2005 Bird Flu outbreak, Ferguson estimated 200 million could die. The real number was in the low hundreds. In 2009, one of Ferguson’s models predicted 65,000 people could die from the Swine Flu outbreak in the UK — the final figure was below 500.
So, let’s summarise what happened about seven weeks ago. The UK government decided to restrict personal liberty to an extent not even seen during war time, knowing this would send the economy into a severe recession and destroy much wealth and many jobs, based solely on the predictions of a COVID-19 model cobbled together from old software, the code of which isn’t even fit for purpose, and which produces widely inaccurate predictions.
Unbelievable. Unbelievable in the sense of being unbelievably ridiculous. If it was the story line of a movie you might find it far-fetched. Peaceful society is constantly under assault from just such acts of government absurdity, although usually not this gigantic. That society not only survives but also somehow still manages to progress human welfare is truly miraculous. But this progress is forever under threat of being undone by the destructive actions of governments the world over.
When you think about it, it’s utterly bonkers how one person, who isn’t even a democratically elected member of any government, could have such a catastrophic impact on the global economy and the lives of billions of individuals. But this kind of lethal scenario is only ever a public emergency away in a world of governments powerful enough to shut down society overnight. An expert working for a private enterprise is a benefit to society. An expert working for a government is a menace to society.