Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The downfall of 'Professor Lockdown': triumphs and failures of science based policies

Scientists normally think that a scientific theory can be good or bad independently of the moral status of the person who proposes it. But in politics, the messenger can be blamed. That was the probable reason for the downfall of Dr. Neil Ferguson, nicknamed "Professor Lockdown," whose moral position was destroyed by a sex scandal. For most scientists, Dr, Ferguson's personal misbehavior has no relevance to the validity of his models, but for politicians and for the public, it does. A lot.

You all read the story of the downfall of Professor Neil Ferguson, aka "Professor Lockdown," trashed worldwide in the media for having had his lover, Ms. Antonia Staats, visiting him during the lockdown period that he himself had recommended for everybody else. It was a blessing for tabloids and there is no doubt that Dr. Ferguson deserved much of the scorn and the ridicule that was poured on him. Yet, there are some elements in this story that make it different from an ordinary story of philandering.

Let's review what we know: it seems that Ms. Staats and Dr. Ferguson met first over an internet site and then it was Staats who went to visit Ferguson during the lockdown period at his home in London, and the same Staats who told the story to friends who, in turn, diffused it around. Ferguson didn't even try to deny the media reports, and he immediately apologized and resigned from his post of government advisor.

I don't know about you, but. to me, all this looks like a trap, sounds like a trap, even smells like a trap. So, it probably was a trap. Ferguson fell head first into it and he was neatly skewered.

Of course, I am not the only one who smelled the rat: there have been plenty of speculations about who decided to push Dr. Ferguson under the bullet train, and why. Some say that it was because the British government needed to distract the public from bad news about the epidemic. Others think of a disagreement between the government and Ferguson. And when a government decides that a scientist is a nuisance, you know what happens (think of the case of Robert Oppenheimer in the 1950s)

Whatever the case, we are not talking here about a despicable professor who flouted a few moral rules. It is all about the political struggle that underlies the coronavirus story. It was Ferguson who told the UK government that they were facing a stark choice: either to accept a huge number of victims, maybe half a million of them, or to wreck the UK economy. The government chose the second strategy, probably thinking it was the least damaging one. Several other European governments, for instance the Italian one, patterned their response on the basis of the views expressed by Ferguson.

And here we have the interesting point: going into lockdown was one of the very few cases of a major policy choice made on the basis of a scientific model, and I mean a really major choice.  Governments do enact laws on the basis of scientific data, but normally it is a matter of gradual changes that don't change people's lives. Say, there are laws regulating the exhaust emissions of private cars, but no laws (up to now) forcing people to walk. The lockdown was also a rare case of a policy derived not from past data but from a predictive model of the future. It was a huge novelty because, normally, politicians ignore scientists' predictions: they tend to react rather than "pro-act". 

The problem, here, is that science and politics use different languages to model reality. Science speaks in terms of data, politics uses narrative. There follows that if you want to use a scientific model for political purposes, you must translate it into a different language: the language of politics. That means turning quantitative models into narratives. And there lies the problem. A big, large, huge, humungous problem: there is no "Google Translate" service that smoothly turns scientific results into policy choices. When people speak different languages they are bound to misunderstand each other, sometimes with disastrous results.  

So, Dr. Ferguson's recommendations were translated into a narrative and the lockdown became a moral tale of good and bad behavior. People were told that if they didn't follow the lockdown rules, they were not just breaking the law, they were evil for putting the life of their neighbors at risk. 

That worked nicely for a while in the UK and almost everywhere in the world, with people accepting in good faith to be locked into their homes for the sake of the common good. But there was a problem: it soon became clear that the lockdown was doing great damage to the very people it was supposed to protect. Stuck in small spaces, often without a job, without money, and without perspectives, people's health was badly affected. Heart attacks, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and more: we can't yet estimate how many life-years were lost because of the lockdown, but wasn't the solution worsening the problem? Unfortunately, in narrative terms, moral considerations always take precedence over cost-benefit analyses, and so the question couldn't be asked in the public debate. But, surely, it was being asked privately.

Then, it started becoming clear that Ferguson's model had big problems. It was a hodgepodge of lines of code put together as needed, never comprehensively documented, never independently tested, never having undergone a sensitivity analysis. As far as I can say from my personal experience with modeling, it was a model good enough for academic research, but hardly a tool that could be used to guide the policy of a national government. The problem was that there was no way to test if the model was correct or not. What if the model had badly overestimated the effectiveness of the lockdown, as some elements seemed to indicate?

Now, let's assume that someone in the upper echelons understood that the case for the lockdown was not at all so clear cut as it had seemed to be at the beginning. Then, a huge problem appeared. The government couldn't just tell people, "oops... folks, we made a mistake. We beggared you for no reason." 

Think in narrative terms, as politicians do, and remember that the lockdown had been framed as morally and ethically as "good" while no lockdown framed as "evil." The politician who proposes to end the lockdown would be seen as evil himself/herself. There follows, as politicians know, that the way to change policies is to change the narrative. That has rules, just as science has rules. Typically, evil cannot be turned into good (Sauron can be defeated but not turned into Gandalf's friend). But it is possible to turn good into evil when a supposed good guy turns out to be actually evil (Saruman the White who turns into Sauron's ally). And that's the key: turn the good guy into the bad guy and then the narrative can be changed. 

At this point, the path is clear: take the person who proposed the lockdown, Neil Ferguson, and turn him into an evil, amoral, egoistic, and reckless character. That can't have been difficult: mounting a petty sex scandal surely poses no problems for a national government. Of course, we have no proof that this is exactly what happened, but the gist of the story is clear: Ferguson's head had to roll. And it had to roll as noisily as possible. Afterward, the whole edifice that the former good guy had built can be targeted at will with the heavy artillery of the media.

It is happening. Not only Ferguson is being shredded to pieces (actually, all the way down to atomic particles), but also his work is being massively and aggressively criticized. Note what Elon Musk said about him: “This guy has caused massive strife to the world with his absurdly fake ‘science." We'll have to see how things will evolve in the coming days but right now, if things keep moving in this direction, the lockdown is a dead hippo in the water. And so be it: it had to be.

From this story, we can also learn something about the climate debate. You see on the image at the beginning of this post how the enemies of climate science had no qualms in associating Neil Ferguson with Michael Mann, a climate scientist often targeted with all sorts of smears and lies. Fortunately, so far Mann has been able to avoid getting entangled in some stupid scandal, but scientists as a category came under attack for lack of coherency when they use planes for their international meetings where they recommend people to stop using fossil fuels. No government ever implemented serious model-based policy choices about climate, although many of them claimed to have done that. But if something serious were ever to be done to follow the recommendations of climate science, you might see a much nastier backlash against climate scientists. 

Will we ever able to blend science and politics together? For sure, it is a very difficult task. We need nothing less than a completely different political language, a way of debating that would search for common ground instead of focusing only on shooting down the bad guy of the story. But that will take time, to say the least. And, in the meantime, we keep navigating toward the future thinking that the reefs don't exist if they are not mentioned in the media.

A comment from Mr. Kunning-Druger, Ugo Bardi's personal troll.

Glad to see that you finally recognize at least some of your many mistakes, Mr. Bardi. And the mistakes made by this friend of yours, this despicable Mr. Ferguson -- despicable indeed, as you say. And you even have the gall to tell us that he created a model that is "good enough for academic research, but not reliable enough to be used as a policy tool." Why don't you say things the way they are: that model is crap. Yeah, stuff that comes out of a bull's rear end. And you gave yourself away when you said, "good enough for academic research." Shameful: you scientists spend public money to publish academic papers just thinking of your academic careers and then you take planes to go to academic meetings and enjoy nightlife and cocktails at the expense of the taxpayers! And then you think you can tell us what to do. You even think you can tell the government to lock everyone in jail as if we were criminals. But it is not the people who are criminals: it is you and your fellow scientists who are criminals. Now, this scandal about the coronavirus is going to really destroy you -- and I can split an infinitive here, just like the public will split your gang and have all of you truly skewered, not just in a metaphorical sense, ha! This is the end of the whole scam called "climate science" and you know that very well. Mankind can thank Mr. Ferguson for this: at least he made it clear what kind of people those "scientists"
(so to say) are. Ugly, amoral, reckless, evil, power-hungry monsters -- not surprising that they ganged up together to create the scam called "global warming" just to fill their pockets with public money. Make no mistake: we'll remember this scandal. It is the beginning of the end of fake science and scientists.


  1. The thing I don't understand about the UK's lock-down policy is that China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc had an effective lock-down policy in place and never had the "benefit" of Neil Ferguson's analysis. They put those policies in place based on common sense and what could have been back-of-the-envelope calculations from their own health ministries. So the attack on Ferguson is essentially a straw-man and clearly a need to create a Bond-villain as you describe.

    BTW, I kind of understand what goes into the contagion compartmental models as we are one of the few to actually apply them to analysis of resource depletion. The approach works pretty well, yet I do wonder what Ferguson is doing creating thousands of lines of C-code to create such a model while the primary factors are so basic, i.e. quarantine vs no-quarantine.

    1. I tried to make some sense of Ferguson's model, but to me it looks like a jumble of unwarranted assumptions and uncertain parameters. If you compare his model with the peak oil models, there are similarities, of course -- but peak oil models were calibrated against an estimate of the extractable resources. Nothing similar is available for an epidemic -- so they start from fitting a growing exponential curve and then they play with the parameters. But they could as well have been examining a goat liver, as the ancient haruspices did. It is random science for random results.

    2. I looked at your article. Yes, I agree with you: the SIR model is basically the same as the peak oil model. It is something that I already noted in a paper of mine The problem is always the same: these dynamic models catch the behavior of the system, but they are difficult to quantify. And, in my opinion, the more parameters you throw in, the farther from reality you get. I think this is the weakness of Ferguson's model.

      It is a basic "philosophical" mistake. Ferguson is an academic (soon perhaps he will be a former academic) and academics are sloppy modelers. I would never fly in a plane designed by people like me!!!

    3. And note that peak oil models, despite being calibrate with real-world data, underestimated the volume of oil production at the peak of more than 30% and the date of the peak of more than 10 years! From a qualitative viewpoint, it was not a bad result, the models caught very well the behavior of the system. Quantitatively, though, it was another matter.

    4. Agree that any modeled behavior involving human decision-making will be impossible to validate beforehand, simply because this is game-theory territory and modeling game-theory is an intractable problem.

      And if we think that peak oil models may be off, then the climate change models by definition will also be off. As you say, qualitatively probably OK, but quantitatively no one can say how much or how fast the world will warm without an accurate emissions model.

    5. Yes, this story is telling us a lot of things also about climate models. Not only models are approximate, but when they include human decisions, they become unreliable. The problem is not the models, the problem is the human attitude toward them. We are influenced by a deterministic vision of science that goes back to Newton's apple. We think models should make predictions - it is completely wrong. But it is an easy excuse. Here, in Italy, a government officer blamed the scientists for the mistakes he made because they didn't provide him with "exact predictions." And onward we go. Sometimes I think we should return to looking at the livers of sacrificed goats, it might be more reliable

  2. I am still baffled by why people were so obsessed with "models"

    There is only one relevant parameter here, the infection fatality rate.

    With no measures to stop the virus, then most of the population will get it (it is clear that the uncontrolled R_0 is way above 2, and from then on arguing the difference between, say, 80% and 85% is just silly).

    If most of the population gets it, then IFR*(1-1/R_0)*population_size will die.

    That during the first sweep through the population, subsequently untold millions will die throughout the years during lower level outbreaks. And that is assuming lifelong immunity is conferred by even having a mild case, which is in fact highly doubtful.

    That is all that was needed to know to guide policy making.

    "Models" can be used to project how quickly people will catch it and die, but that is of pretty much zero importance in the grand scheme of things, the important questions are first, whether millions will die or not, and second, are we going to have to live with the virus after that or not. The answer is very clear "yes" on both.\

    From the one the only sane policy decision is to do what's necessary to clear the virus from the population.

    Some will probably bring the importance of models for knowing whether the healthcare system will get overwhelmed or not, but that is a distraction too -- you would have to "flatten the curve" for many many years so that everyone gets it while staying under ICU capacity. And 1% of a huge number of still a very large number of dead bodies to pretty much the same extent as 5% of the same huge number is.

    We have developed a very unhealthy obsession with "models", computation, statistics, etc., to the point where it is inhibiting instead of helping rational thought. A lot of time all that it's doing is muddying the waters and preventing people from seeing the big picture and the key core features of the problem in front of them.

    Same problem with "peer review" -- I have observed on so so many occasions in the last few years non-scientists (and even some scientists) treating "peer reviewed research" as gospel without having any idea what's in it, and using it to peddle some outright absurdities. Zero effort to understand what is in the "peer reviewed" papers, zero ability to grasp the concept that a lot of academic journals have no real peer review standards and that whole disciplines are completely intellectually bankrupt (not in the hard sciences, but economics and the humanities are mostly like that), zero understanding that even in the serious ones a lot of crap gets through because of the stochastic nature of 2 or 3 random people who may or may not be paying proper attention and who may or may not be truly qualified to review a paper supposedly safeguarding the process...

    1. Clear enough, but the problem is that we don't know what is the IFR, because we don't know how many people are actually infected and asymptomatic. This uncertainty makes all attempts of quantitative modeling nearly useless.

      Then, you are right about academic journals being a scam. Science is going fast down the drain and I wonder how long it will take for the public to realize that they are being ripped off by a gang of parasites who think they are entitled to waste public money just because they tell each other that it is so.

    2. You don't really need to know the IFR down to two decimal points, all you need to know is whether it is bad enough. Quite clearly it is -- when people did blanket PCR testing they did not find the mythical orders of magnitude more asymptomatics that some will have you believe there are out there.

      And the first such surveys were already done in January/early February in China.

      In terms of the credibility of science, I think we are long past that point. But the coronavirus situation is especially bad. Remember how the WHO spent three months telling the world that everything is fine, there is nothing to worry about, the virus is not transmitted from human to human, there is no need to close borders, keep flying, there is no pandemic (a pandemic was declared only when there was community spread in something like 100 countries!), etc. That does wonders for the credibility of the scientific establishment.

      And then there is the specific problem with this being a medical crisis.

      In much of Europe this is less of an issue, but in the US, where medicine is entirely for-profit, you are asking regular people to follow the advice given by the same medical establishment that is, from their perspective, extracting a third to a half of their income through outright racketeering. Naturally there is not a lot of trust left -- yes, the reality is that the doctors only account for something like <10% of the total rent extraction, but that distinction is lost to the unfortunate patients getting those bills, and it is not like the doctors have rebelled against the system, which they could in principle do and force a change.

      Same thing in Eastern Europe -- there the system is officially not as brutal and inhumane as in the US, but the reality on the ground is the same rapacious rent extraction, through illegal and semi-legal means. Again, that does not create any trust in whatever is coming out of the doctors' mouths.

    3. Just want to point out that this statement is questionable "If most of the population gets it, then IFR*(1-1/R_0)*population_size will die."

    4. It is valid within very simplified assumptions

    5. And, Georgi, I think you are very optimistic when you say that we know that we know the mortality rate to any decimals!

    6. If R_0 can go from 0 to a high number, the factor (1-1/R_0) will go negative if R_0 < 1, which can happen. R_0 is actually more like a rate and will always go to the asymptote of a logistic, just at different rates, much faster with a higher R_0. It may be that the value gets truncated and stops growing when a vaccine is found, then I can see how the formula would apply.

    7. Yes, clerly it doesnt work for R_0 <1. Unless that condition raises the dead from their graves

    8. Do you mean R_0 or R_t?
      R_0 is the reproduction number for a fully susceptible population, behaving normally. It can vary geographically.
      R_t is the actual reproduction number at a certain time in a certain population, and depends on peoples' behavior and other factors.

    9. This is the paper that suggests that R0 needs to be treated carefully

      If we treated the equivalent of R0 for resource depletion (consider the logistic curve of Hubbert) then the (1-1/R0) would mean that the URR would depend on the rate at which it is extracted. That's wrong.

      And the AGW deniers (now pandemic deniers) at Judith Curry's blog are taking advantage of this (1-1/R0) misinterpretation to spread FUD, which they are very experienced at. BYW.

  3. Aren't we in danger of exaggerating the downfall of science? In my admittedly limited experience (to postdoc level, then I left) disciplines like astronomy, physics, geology, botany, zoology etc are in good shape and it is mostly the disciplines that intersect with medicine (i.e., molecular biology and the biomedical sciences) that have problems, because of the corrupting influence of all that money from the pharma-industrial complex. Basically the closer you are to the clinical bed the more caveat emptor.

    As for some journals being trash that's always been the case but the hierarchy is well known. Science is a conversation as much as it is a body of results and you need to be part of the conversation, i.e., plugged in, to know how to parse the results. It is has been that way since the origins, e.g., since the foundation of the Royal Society.

    1. As a postdoc, you were not exposed to the really bad part of science. But, overall, you are right. Scientists in disciplines such as astronomy, physics, etc.. are almost never corrupt in monetary terms. And most of them try to do their best to promote science. But the problem of the bad (Newton's) apples is everywhere.

  4. "Professor Lockdown" now UP on the Doomstead Diner! :)

    Coming Tomorrow to a Laptop near you a Rant on the Infrastructure problem. It's why the Filthy Rich won't be Jet Setting ll that much longer than J6P.


    1. Infrastructure Rant now UP on the Doomstead Diner!


    2. "Professor Lockdown" now UP on Global Economic Intersection as well! :)

      Your local Infrastructure: Who's gonna fix it? now UP on the Doomstead Diner.


  5. The longer that uncontrolled spread of the virus is prevented, the more time doctors have to learn how to treat the disease, and the more that can be learnt about the virus. There is also the prospect of new designer drugs to treat the disease coming online later this year, and probably a vaccine. You don't need a model to understand the benefits of this.
    In any case, allowing an uncontrolled outbreak would be more devastating to peoples' well-being than the lock down. Sadly, the USA may become an example of this.

    1. >>allowing an uncontrolled outbreak would be more devastating to peoples' well-being than the lock down

      I doubt that since the UN has forecast up to half of the world's workers are or soon will be out of a job, and most of these will be in less developed countries where no job means no food, and potentially famines like we have not seen before. Won't take long to find out.

      In the meantime, in the USA, about 55 million workers are jobless. Think air travel, tourism, car industry, oil industry - a lot of these people will not get their jobs back. Millions of newly unemployed versus thousands, vast majority elderly and in poor health, dying from virus. As Ugo stated previously, the straw that broke the camel's back.

  6. This is another case of "Let's go burn down the observatory so this will never happen again." as in the "Bart's Comet" episode (S06E14) of the Simpsons.
    If you have never seen it, whatch it now.

    Scientists and intellectuals have been the target of lynch mobs since the time of the Pythagoreans 2500 years ago. People do not need a government conspiracy, like a honey trap, to do go and do so (though it surely helps).

    A shift in the epistemics of our society can be seen in the recent decades attacks on scientists. Democracy and Science have been the twin children of enlightenment. They are both governed by reason, are necessary for a reasonable government and cannot exist without a reasonable government.

    I think we left that age of reason and enlightenment behind.
    I mean: Trump, Modi, Putin, Ping, Bolsonaro, Lukashenko, Al Sisi, Erdogan, Assad, Saud, Nethanyahu, Orban, Johnson, ... These guys rule the majority of the people of the world right now and they don't give a f*ck about reason, scientists and science, if its not in their interest.

    Why would we expect reason to play a role in bahaviour of the people in a world like this?
    Why should we expect respect for science or scientists?

    To have politics based on science and reason, scientist have to understand that what they do is political. Scientists can't complain about the degrading influence of science on politics if they keep up the delusion of science being unpolitical.

    To have an influence on politics is the definition being political.

    It is utterly unreasonable to complain about a lack of influence on politics while claiming to be unpolitical.

  7. This is unrelated. Please allow me to share that with you all anyway. Its too good.

    This is how the company "Vivos" imagines a future market for "high netwoth families":

    In the vicinity of Jena in Germany they are building a "shelter" for the rich in a former soviet cold war bunker. Yu can get a luxury appartment for "only" 2 million US$.
    ("Utlimate Security! Ultimate Protection! Ultimate Comfort! A priceless investment for your protection").

    Slogan "Where else will you go if there are no other viable survival options".

    This is the ideology of the rich cast in steel and concrete. Its a gigantic symbol to the utter stupidity of capitalism. I am a amazed.

    1. Morlocks?

    2. inverse Morlocks maybe. The poor went underground in H.G. Wells Time Machine, not the rich.

      I recommend looking at the ads from Vivos. They have put together a really comprehensible List of pseudo - science - paranoia- lunacy apokalypse scenarios.

      The rich are endangered by the wrath of god/biblical apokalypse, the mysterious Planet-X, immigrant invasion, anarchy :), super vulcanos, comets, Pandemics, terrorism ....

      No mentioning of climate change though. I wonder why. Probably Vivos found lots of climate change deniers in its customer base?

      Could it be possible that they already have too many ancieties and have no "space" left for climate change? Maybe thats the real explanation? they deniers are already paranoid at maximum capacity.

      The world has grown to the limits of paranoia!

    3. I guess that's true, people shy away from bad news. But don't forget what happened in the case of the tobacco industry.

  8. Ugo, thank you for another most readable conversation. I won't comment on Prof Ferguson, except to point out that twice previously (SARS and Foot & Mouth) he made predictions that were wrong by orders of magnitude, and when inplemented caused much unnecessary suffering and loss.

    However, the prediction that in an epidemic, everyone susceptible will eventually become infected is about as solid as anything in the biological sciences. It is based on the work of Lotka, Volterra and (indirectly) Kolmogorov, it has been validated by nearly a century of subsequent research and experience, and in my opinion you can take it to the bank.

    In consequence: most political action is irrelevant; there is nothing that will change the eventual number of victims; we can only change how slowly this happens. But the notion of a lockdown to protect the health care system is fatuous, because people in droves are deliberatley avoiding the health care system for fear of catching "something worse". Yes, as you mentioned, this is simple game theory, and of course few scientits and no politicians understand game theory.

    And now, people on the borderline of poverty are rebelling against the lockdown because they would rather work and take their chances than fall of an economic cliff. What else did these petty tyrants expect, when they deliberately abandoned "the human use of human beings"? No, I guess they also don't understand the Kantian Categorical Imperative.

    This does not bode well for the basic fabric of society.

  9. Hoping you read french. I think you will enjoy this reading.
    The part "Des modèles et de l’approximation" is related with your post.

  10. The model that seems to work for predicting death can be taken from influenza data, though most are adamant about saying CV-19 is not like the flu. You just take the death rate of influenza times the approximate number of people you think will be infected, which can also be taken from influenza. Since most with influenza die of respiratory problems and influenza is an RNA virus like CV-19, this seems like a logical approach. I did this a month ago, and it holds up fairly well (you get about 200,000 deaths in the USA). I think at least someone advising Trump is doing this, though I'm speculating.

  11. Two things:
    1) Although models are usefull,they must be based on assumptions,and unexamined assumptions are quite commonly wrong.The late economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."
    2. Here in the USA, we may actually see an uptick in confidence in scientists ...from a very low base, admittedly ... simply becaause people will realize that science at least tries for truth, while the political and media people don't even consider truth, only spin ... what you politely call narative, many would call bs.

  12. Well, if this ass was set up by MI5 or whatever, at least he got some honey from the pot rather more than many in lock-down here in the UK. That may be the real source of rage....

  13. Ugo: Spot on.

    Look, having been a minion in science for the bulk of my life, if can tell you that smart people who are right the bulk of the time can be complete f%^$wads. But, that seems to bother the bulk of the population who have bought into the image (propagated by scientists) of scientists as saints.

    Nope. Scientists is just people. Smart people. But they are equipped with the same genitalia and personal issues as the rest of society.

    Perhaps when science stops having a PR department, we can get some serious work done.

    Ferguson is quite smart and was probably correct. Shame about the penis thing.

  14. Virus proved to be excellent control mechanism. The damage is such that enemies in the West will have less economic and logistic power to harm others. If only could all the enemies in the Western Europe and Five Eyes die! But for the time being huge economic damage will do the trick. I look forward to see the demise of the West.

  15. During long period of time Westerners developed a civilization which does not have any spiritual dimension. It's 100% materialistic civilization. Therefore it is easy to scare Westerners with some disease, they are so afraid for their life. It seems to me that Chinese did the best diversion of the West ever, and, surprisingly, possibly unintentionally. I am surprised that Russians and Chinese don't use this trick more often. It's very effective especially because Western journalist are so easy to buy. It would be even possible to invent story about some new disease and suckers in the West will buy it hook, line and sinker.

  16. "it soon became clear that the lockdown was doing great damage to the very people it was supposed to protect. Stuck in small spaces, often without a job, without money, and without perspectives, people's health was badly affected. Heart attacks, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and more: we can't yet estimate how many life-years were lost because of the lockdown, but wasn't the solution worsening the problem? Unfortunately, in narrative terms, moral considerations always take precedence over cost-benefit analyses, and so the question couldn't be asked in the public debate. But, surely, it was being asked privately."

    I venture in here with trepidation, as I am about as far from being a scientist as is possible, but I also recall Prof. Fergusson's predictions on Foot & Mouth, which massively overstated the case and caused colossal damage to the countryside and farmers' livelihoods. I also remember an earlier forecast about the number of nv-CJD deaths that turned out to be way out, but at least perhaps brought about some improvement in animal feeding.

    The downsides to lockdown listed in the paragraph I've pasted above may not have been part of any official government debate, but I certainly know people who predicted them (including me, which is where social science and a smattering of economics comes in). It seems Johnson is in no hurry to hold an inquiry into the handling of it all, but the longer he leaves it (unless of course it's safely after the full term of this government) the more clear the fall-out will become. Of course it's possible to put a cost on mental ill-health, missed diagnoses, each person made unemployed, each child taken into care because of domestic abuse, all the horrors of being locked away for months. Cost benefit analysis could and should be applied to all these. And to the rapid increase in CO2 pumped out as people spurn public transport in favour of private cars, after years of persuading them out of their cars. Even the new cyclists and scooter users won't necessarily stick with them when winter comes.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)