By Peter Andrews, Irish science journalist and writer based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in genetics
We were supposed to be “following the science,” but now the scientists are falling over themselves to admit they didn’t get it right. How on earth did we end up in this ridiculous situation, and can we ever trust “experts” again?
While it seems that the initial coronavirus attack has largely blown over, at least in Europe, learning lessons will be crucial to better deal with the next pandemic. But learning lessons is hard when the “experts” seem more bamboozled than ever.
The first such expert is, surprise surprise, British epidemiologist and academic Neil Ferguson, who has been put in the rather uncomfortable position of having to justify his actions. Hauled up in front of the British House of Lords on Tuesday, Ferguson was forced to admit, in response to a question about the apparent success of the Swedish model, that Sweden had “got a long way to the same effect” without imposing lockdown. This is an overt admission that he now thinks that the UK lockdown was (and is) pointless. As opposed to the covert one that involved multiple illicit visits from his mistress.
More weirdly, Ferguson said that Sweden had achieved this by adopting “quite similar science” that his Imperial College London team did. This seems to be a reference to the fact that a study from Uppsala University took the Imperial apocalypse-model, but predicted only a fraction of the number of deaths that he had.
But when pressed on this point, Ferguson denied that the Swedes had followed the same science, saying “First of all, they did not use our model. They developed a model of their own.” This is despite the fact that the Uppsala study quite clearly states, “We employed an individual agent-based model based on work by Ferguson et al…”
Perhaps Neil thinks they mean a different Ferguson. But I have given up trying to decipher the inner workings of this strange man’s brain, from which came the notion that without lockdown, 500,000 Britons would die of Covid. That said, the simplest explanation is usually the best, and maybe he just forgot to carry a one.
So in the great battle of ideas, it seemed on Tuesday that the UK had raised the white flag in the face of the advancing Swedish hordes. But just a day later, in an amazing twist, the Swedes raised a white flag of their own – and this one split into strips for additional self-flagellation.
Anders Tegnell,Sweden’s state epidemiologist, told Swedish radio on Wednesday that “if we were to encounter the same disease again knowing exactly what we know about it today, I think we would settle on doing something in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done.”
In other words, Sweden’s laissez-faire attitude to hindering the spread of the virus has resulted in people getting killed, and had they been stricter in putting emergency measures in place to stop people gathering or to improve social distancing –as the UK did– more people would be alive today. That is, in Tegnell’s revised opinion.
This is an astonishing turn of events, not least because while Sweden has had proportionally more Covid deaths than neighbouring Norway, Denmark and Finland, it is by no means an outlier in Covid deaths. It is about the same as France, Ireland or any number of other countries that imposed hyper-strict lockdowns – not to mention the really badly hit countries like Belgium. While the UK’s comparative rates based on deaths per million of population are significantly higher (580 per million versus Sweden’s 450 per million).
‘We were just following the science!’
All of this obfuscation, backtracking and U-turning is enough to make anyone dizzy. Why all the confusion? Much of it stems from a great fallacy that has entered the discussion: politicians eagerly declaring that they cannot be held accountable for their decisions, because they were just “following the science.” But have they been?
Science is not a school of thought, a religion, or a philosophy. It is a methodological process. The distinction is crucial. Science has no tenets or commandments. Nothing is ever beyond the reach of doubt in science; nothing is ever declared “right” or “true” and thereafter engraved on a stone tablet somewhere, never to be questioned again. It is the process of getting things less wrong, rather than getting things right.
So when the politicians say that they are just following “the” science, you know that they are talking out of their hat. It is a nonsense piece of political-speak, and one they hope functions as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. But you can only play a card so many times before people start to notice.
Who needs them?
So who, then, is right, and who is wrong? Or rather, who is right now about being wrong? Amidst all this confusion, only one thing seems clear. That is, that all the experts, the consultants, the politicians and the other gatekeepers of policy, do not have a clue what they are or were doing.
Throughout this crisis they have adopted a schoolmarm’s air of absolute moral authority in their addresses to the public… while actually flailing about blindly in the dark. This is despite multiple U-turns and not abiding by their own rules, in the case of Neil Ferguson, of Scotland’s former chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood and of others.
These people have zero credibility, and the results their master plans achieve seem to work out as no better (and sometimes worse) than randomness, or no plan, would achieve. More and more people are starting to realise this, and to ask who needs them anyway. Follow the science? It’s been more of a case of that silly old children’s game, Follow the Leader…