Coronavirus Lessons From the Asteroid That Didn’t Hit Earth

  • Date: 02/04/20
  • Benny Peiser and Andrew Montford, The Wall Street Journal

Scary projections based on faulty data can put policy makers under pressure to adopt draconian measures.

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the limits of scientific modeling to predict the future. The most consequential coronavirus model, produced by a team at Imperial College London, tipped the British government, which had until then pursued a cautious strategy, into precipitate action, culminating in the lockdown under which we are all currently laboring. With the Imperial team talking in terms of 250,000 to 510,000 deaths in the U.K. and social media aflame with demands for something to be done, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had no other option.

But last week, a team from Oxford University put forward an alternative model of how the pandemic might play out, suggesting a much less frightening future and a speedy end to the current nightmare.

How should the government know who is right? It is quite possible that both teams are wrong. Academic studies often suffer from a lack of quality control, as peer review is usually brief and cursory. In normal times this doesn’t matter much, but it’s different when studies find their way into the policy world. In the current emergency, it is vital to check that the epidemiological models have been correctly assembled and that there are no inadvertent mistakes.

Several researchers have apparently asked to see Imperial’s calculations, but Prof. Neil Ferguson, the man leading the team, has said that the computer code is 13 years old and thousands of lines of it “undocumented,” making it hard for anyone to work with, let alone take it apart to identify potential errors. He has promised that it will be published in a week or so, but in the meantime reasonable people might wonder whether something made with 13-year-old, undocumented computer code should be used to justify shutting down the economy. Meanwhile, the authors of the Oxford model have promised that their code will be published “as soon as possible.”

It isn’t only the U.K. that’s plagued by inscrutable models that describe very different futures. It’s a problem that governments around the world now face. Is there anything that can be done to make the predictions put in front of policy makers more reliable?

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