Fie on your experiments!

The title is a (mis)quote I used back in 2011, here. I’m reminded of it by a typical headline in the Telegraph today: “Watch: Will Sweden’s coronavirus gamble pay off?”. But as a spokesman from Sweden said not too long ago, the real gamble – or unevidenced experiment, to be more precise – is being conducted by the other nations, including America and Britain. Sweden has just based its response on universal precedent.

I’m still not sure how the same novel idea of “shutdown” came simultaneously to so many nations as the way to manage this pandemic. From the start, it was never expected to match the severity of the 1918-19 “Spanish Flu,” and it pretty soon revealed itself to be even less lethal than some of the forgotten pandemics in my lifetime, such as Asian and Hong-Kong flu. Nobody in the history of the world, as I pointed out back in mid-March, has ever attempted to control a disease by shutting down society. But now everybody – except Sweden – has done so, and the inevitable mission-creep from “flatten the curve so health services can keep pace” to “Stop this spreading until we find a cure” has caught the politicians in a PR trap of their own making. By using “Save Lives” as a propaganda slogan, they have made every inevitable death seem a policy failure.

I say “a trap of their own making,” but it would seem that they genuinely have “followed the science,” but only in the sense that they have exposed themselves to a particular type of scientist, who adhere (it appears) to a particular view of epidemiology. It is an open secret (surprisingly uninteresting to both media and public) that from the start Imperial College’s gloomy predictions of half a million UK deaths were based on models with guessed parameters, that were forcefully rejected by its rivals at Oxford. Why was Imperial’s model adopted?

Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-based Medicine argues that the data shows not that lockdown is working, but that the disease peaked naturally even before the locks went on, so that we are now seeing the natural slowing of the disease more than the success of a draconian experiment. And they predicted that from the beginning. Sweden’s close match to America, and its significantly better record than Britain, appears to confirm their assessment. As does even Italy’s obedient compliance to the general pattern of improvement.

Another medical scientist, obviously not a member of the inexplicably anonymous SAGE scientific advisory group, was discussing the costs of lockdown on the BBC yesterday. He introduced the dreaded concept of “QUALYs,” “Quality Added Life Years” – an idea I hated as a hands-on clinician for its implicit suggestion that one could put a monetary value on human life. Still, my objection was that this economic value should not impinge on my care of individuals: in planning national resources centrally for the NHS, such rationing measures are necessary. QUALYs are used to determine whether the NHS will provide treatments of high cost and limited benefits.

Yesterday’s spokesman made one very startling point: if QUALYs had been properly assessed, lockdown would never have been imposed in the first place. In essence, as the interviewer correctly inferred, the life of a SARS-Covid-2 patient has been assigned a value far higher than that of cancer patients, the mentally ill, and so on. And certainly far, far higher than that usually assigned to very elderly patients with co-morbidities each winter.

Another interview on BBC news this morning suggests one reason this has been allowed to happen. Although the anonymity of SAGE’s membership makes it impossible to judge the bias of its scientific advice accurately, this professional, a social scientist, is pretty sure that SAGE lacks adequate sociological input. He says that its behavioural psychologists, much cited by Boris Johnson at briefings before the lockdown, are aware of only a very limited field of study – ie, how much the public will put up with removal of their civil liberties. This, of course, leaves the question of the harmful sociological effects of such drastic measures inadequately addressed, not to mention the more politically familiar, but perhaps epidemiologically less interesting, economic effects.

I’m not sure how much sociological advice the Swedish epidemiologists took, but there is a level at which certain things are “bleedin’ obvious.” Even someone like me immediately saw that shutting down the economy and society was a pretty risky experiment to combat what is, in historical perspective, a run-of-the-mill pandemic. I suspect that the Swedish authorities (before they realised they were the only ones in step) simply saw no more of a sensible solution in total lockdown than they would in nuking all the centres of infection.

In fact the more I think about it, the more bizarre and dangerous an experiment the world’s reaction appears. Given the high stakes involved – the livelihoods of every nation and individual on the planet – the advice for the world to switch off normal life, in the vague hope that it would switch back on afterwards without too much damage, makes cold-war atmospheric nuclear testing seem like primary school science.

It almost seems parallel to those experiments under fascist science establishments in wartime Germany and Japan, where in the spirit of objective intellectual inquiry prisoners’ hearts were artificially stopped to see if they could be successfully restarted afterwards. The suffering was scientifically irrelevant. The failures became part of the data to be explained. The brain-damage was the price of progress.

It is, of course, unfair to compare the policies of our democratic governments under the guidance of well-meaning scientists with the experiments of a corrupt Nazi medical establishment. After all, the latter only performed their crazy experiments on individuals.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Medicine, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fie on your experiments!

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Amen. i also question the universal same reaction when they complained everyone was not listening to each other. That surely moved in fast circles. it does seem some model took hold. I always thought it was a humbug but I based it on math. In canada its only twenty thousand, at most, who now have it and mostly its less impressive then a short cold. However several thousand did die but maybe from other flues anyways. still it was tiny. yet in Canada they make no pretence but all must obey the master.
    In fact its america who had it worst and not china at all. I think they will say aw shucks we did all this to save some thousands of elderly people plus a suspicion it might be worse for them and middle aged people. i guess its right if thats true.
    there has been good here from it. Only the great embarrassment of a modrrn people accepting such drivel is the issue. It shows experts rule.
    I remember the churchill example of how in WWI the men at some beach were, did, cover up thier bodies because experts said the sun was dangerous and in WWii , i think the same beach, the men were swimming in swimtrunks only. His point was experts are wrong and we obey them to a stupid degree. He once said to a long list of experts opinions BRING in another list! Old famous Winney stuff if anyone remembers

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Robert, my own ambivalent conclusions about the “cult of the expert” are best summed up in a 2018 post.

    Expertise is real – we all have some in our personal fields whether they be astrophysics or managing kids. But the problems come from some expert or another managing to persuade non-experts that he’s infallible, or at least that his opponents are, by disagreeing, non-experts.

    I saw that phenomenon, re COVID-19, in the report that some scientist had concluded the virus was a laboratory creation because it contains DNA sequences found in HIV. Some expert in reply said that, as any real virologist knows, such sequences are common to many viruses. And he may well be right, except that I subsequently discovered the guy who raised the suspicion is the one who got the Nobel Prize for discovering HIV!

    In the real world, such things should be matter for expert debate – in our world, those in power prefer to pick one set of experts who teach the pure religion of The Science. And as you mention, such trust has a very poor historical track-record.

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