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.


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)