Optimophobia in science

The leader of the UK opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, was quoted on the BBC news today as saying that if there is any increase in the Coronavirus “R-number” it will be the direct fault of the government. And therein lies much of the cause of the current fear pandemic across the world.

In a YouTube video from 2 days ago, Dr John Lee, a consultant pathologist and formerly professor of Pathology (in the English sense of “chief honcho”) at Hull York Medical School, was discussing the outbreak with journalist James Delingpole.

He describes how the system of having prestigious scientific advisory committees to governments has a built-in bias towards over-reaction to new problems. This is because if a scientist makes reassuring noises about, in this case, the risks of a new virus, and the situation turns out worse than he thought, he will lose his job. And as Lee points out, scientists get on to those committees because they like the prestige and know how to impress the right people, not necessarily because of a proven track record in prediction. (Do you remember that old definition of an “expert” as a has-been-drip-under-pressure”?)

This explains, in part, the panic responses to previous epidemics this century (though dwarfed by the present nonsense), such as Swine Flu, for which the UK government procured huge supplies of ineffective Tamiflu at enormous cost, for a disease with only 18,500 confirmed deaths worldwide. (I should add that later work suggests a much bigger death toll, but mainly in the developing world, putting it on a par with an average flu year – but since flu numbers are similarly understimated from year to year, it doesn’t alter the point).

The pessimistic modelling of SARS-CoV2 by Ian Ferguson, so influential across the world, confirms this (by the way – did you realise his paper was not even peer-reviewed?). Early on even he said that his 500,000 death estimate for the UK was highly unlikely, but that no-one would blame him for erring on the side of caution. He is wrong, of course, because many of us do blame him for just that: putting speculative numbers into a computer model and ruining the world economy, likely causing many more deaths than COVID-19, is very blameworthy, because it is irresponsible.

But then, it was also blameworthy of Boris Johnson to quote that by then long-discredited figure of 500,000 deaths in his first briefing after his own illness, as was his statement in Parliament that this was a “once a century” epidemic, which events have proved only to be true because of the politicians’ unprecedented response. But it is inevitable that politicians who are going to be pronounced guilty of genocide by opposition leaders are also going to take the most pessimistic scientific advice as “The Science” for political purposes.

The press too, whose job, it seems, is not to pursue truth but to find opportunities to accuse leaders of homicide (subject to the equal need to keep the public fearful), are another reason for both state scientists and politicians to preach disaster, and their own ability to avert it.

The same blame game, of course, explains why neither those scientists nor the politicians are willing to say now that they got it wrong in the first place. Opposition leaders and press alike are not going to do good-news headlines that it’s better than we thought and we can all have street parties and get back to normal life. The double agenda of maintaining fear and blaming leaders guarantees that instead they would be baying for the blood of Boris and Ian Ferguson both. That is shown by their obsession with Dominic Cummings’s job over actual news last week.

Knowing this from the start, it’s easy to see both why Ferguson spun a pessimistic oracle, and why Boris (and other world leaders) decided to run with it. It is another example of how science is far less dispassionate than its mythos pretends , which is also confirmed by how discussion of the accumulating contradictory data to the official position there seems to have been pointedly avoided on science-dedicated websites. Nobody likes to rock the boat and fall out.

Institutionalised pessimism, then, may well explain the panic reactions of world leaders to COVID-19. But it’s less clear why they all hit upon the astonishing remedy of shutting down their economies and, in all likelihood, producing a depression to rival that of the 1930s. That seems to have come from following the example of China and the suggestions of the WHO, and other motivations may well be at work there, given the unrequested calls from Influential People for a “new normal.”

Have you seen that 1990 quotation from an interview by the late Maurice Strong, so influential in the UN, the WWF and the IPCC… not to mention the oil industry… until his corruption was uncovered and he moved to China in 2006, and worked behind the scenes to increase that country’s influence on the UN?

What if a small group of world leaders were to conclude that the principal risk to the Earth comes from the actions of the rich countries? And if the world is to survive, those rich countries would have to sign an agreement reducing their impact on the environment. Will they do it? The group’s conclusion is ‘no’. The rich countries won’t do it. They won’t change. So, in order to save the planet, the group decides: Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?

Coming from a blogger, that would be a conspiracy theory. Coming from one of the world’s most influential people, it is worrying evidence that venial failures are not the only factors in play.

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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.
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