Following Professor Neil Ferguson’s email exchange with one of our readers, which we published in yesterday’s Lockdown Sceptics, another reader decided to email him. He again replied. Here is their exchange in full.
Someone sent you an article written by Derek Winton and you replied to that person by sending him/her a handbook about conspiracy theories.
So – anyone who disagrees with you must be a conspiracy theorist? Is that it?
But the Derek Winton article made no reference at all to any conspiracy or conspiracy theory.
It is possible you know to take a different view from you without thinking that you are part of some conspiracy.
Your reply referred to above doesn’t come across at all well. You might want to consider proffering an apology for it.
All the best,
The Professor replied, with a couple of references that suggest he may have Googled “Lockdown Sceptics” and “no Second Wave” or “Casedemic” before replying.
Reductionist rhetoric such as “anyone who disagrees with you must be a conspiracy theorist?” rather makes my point. It is not just anyone.
Science is about alternative perspectives, debate and being prepared to change ones view. My views are driven by the data and analysis of it – not just that from Imperial, but from researchers globally. Like most other people working on the virus, I learn new things every week, and that sometime involves rejecting previous beliefs.
However, the Winton piece was an ideologically motivated rhetorical rant, not a serious scientific discussion. Criticising 15 year-old C code is never going to be scientifically persuasive, because the science never depended on that (or any other) code. Never mind the bizarre but persistent minority belief that the world locked down because of the results from one modelling study.
That post came from a mindset that has predetermined what the truth is, feels that the “mainstream” world is not listening, and seeks to use polemic rather than actual scientific research to change others’ minds. That ticks quite a few of the conspiratorial thinking boxes. Admittedly not to the same degree as the emails I receive accusing me of being a minion of Bill Gates in wanting to implant microchips in people. But that is not saying much.
That is not to say I don’t think it’s legitimate to disagree about whether the social and economic costs of Covid measures are “worth it”. Or indeed about whether compulsory measures or recommendations should have been adopted. Neither of those issues are fundamentally scientific ones.
What is dangerous “alternate reality” nonsense is using rhetoric and cherry-picking of the science to try to deny the threat posed by the virus. To give a couple of not too historic examples:
This last year has been a tragedy for the world, and the consequences will be with us for decades. The response of the scientific community has been a silver lining though. We have learned more about this virus in a shorter time than I could have conceived would be possible. That we have multiple vaccines now available is a remarkable achievement – and one which will benefit the control of many other diseases. And, unlike much of the rest of the response to the pandemic, that research has been a truly global and co-operative effort.
Instead of futilely trying to undermine the work of thousands here and abroad, perhaps try celebrating human ingenuity in the face of adversity. The pandemic has been a random, terrible event. It is no-one’s fault – and while every country has made mistakes, most decision-makers (and the doctors and scientists behind them) have been trying to do the best they can, faced with very difficult decisions.
Our reader then replied to him.
Thanks for your email in reply to mine. I am grateful to you for taking the time. I know you are busy.
Some lockdown sceptics have made predictions that haven’t come to pass. But is that not also true of Imperial College modelling as Derek Winton has said?
You may say that the reason your team’s BSE projection on which he comments never came to pass is because the Government of the day took the projections of that team seriously and took drastic measures to mitigate the disease’s impact.
But what about your telling the Guardian in 2005 that up to 200 million people could be killed by bird flu? Few precautionary measures were taken to mitigate the impact of Avian Flu and yet the number of deaths is a tiny fraction of that figure.
And in 2009 an Imperial College modelling team of which you were a member significantly over-estimated the likely death toll from Swine Flu.
Again nothing approaching a lockdown was imposed. I accept these things don’t mean your subsequent work should be dismissed, but by the same token I don’t think you can dismiss the central arguments of the lockdown sceptics – that the lockdown policy will ultimately do more harm than it prevents – just because some of their predictions turned out to be inaccurate.
Correct me if I have this wrong but I don’t think that the adverse health/educational/social/political/other effects of lockdown have featured in modelling with which you have been involved. Could be your view is that that’s not your bailiwick – is that how you see it?
(In fairness to you, I do see on looking again at your email to me that – whatever your modelling work says – you accept that there is room for debate on the question of the social and economic harms that Lockdown might cause – though you don’t refer to the harm to health it might/does cause.)
If you have a moment I’d love to know how you respond to the evidence that the most severe policies – such as stay-at-home orders and business closures – are not more effective at reducing overall transmission than the more modest policies put in place in countries like Sweden and South Korea. I’m thinking of the work of John Ioannidis and his colleagues at Stanford in particular.
In addition, there is the evidence that laypersons like me can see with our own eyes.
Such as the fact that Florida which didn’t lockdown again in the autumn/winter has a lower Covid death toll than some states that did and overall the average number of Covid deaths in those US states that haven’t issued stay-at-home orders is lower than in those that did.
Isn’t it at least arguable that had we kept to our Pandemic Preparedness Strategy we wouldn’t have significantly more Covid deaths than we’ve had in England after three lockdowns? And that we’d have far lower levels of collateral damage?
Some of the criticism directed at you is deplorable, vitriolic stuff which I find utterly unacceptable. Reprehensible in fact. I am not with the people who put out that kind of material.
I would like to see reasoned debate instead.
I would like to see you talking to Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and John Ioannidis for example.
In fact, I would love to see a proper grown up debate between the leading scientists on both sides of this issue on the BBC or Channel 4.
I bet if you proposed it to the Beeb they’d have a good look at putting it on. (I can’t know whether any of the people I refer to above would want to show up – don’t know them.)
Take it easy.
Professor Ferguson, who must, by this stage, have had a fairly good idea where his response was going to end up, replied:
Can I point out that I never “predicted” 200m would be killed by bird flu. The Guardian article you refer to was reporting this Nature paper – https://www.nature.com/articles/nature04017
What we looked at was what might unfold if bird flu (H5N1) gained the ability to spread from person to person. A threat which still exists, but not something we can predict the likelihood of happening (or ever tried). As I explained to journalists at the time.
That paper was a small part of a global research effort to improve preparations for a novel influenza pandemic which was stimulated by the emergence of H5N1. Pandemic planning has been a top priority for the UK Government since that time, with a novel pandemic being top of the UK Government risk register.
In relation to Swine flu, I think you are referring to the Dept. of Health reasonable worst case planning scenario which was agreed by SAGE in 2009. Multiple groups input into that, and it was never a prediction (rather it was closer to the upper bound of a confidence interval) – as the name implies – given the data available in April 2009, it quantified the worst case the UK Government might need to plan for. As more data became available, the uncertainty range narrowed and the upper bound on the confidence interval came down, leading the RWC to be revised down. That is how science works.
I would also note that SAGE has never revised the RWC for Covid agreed last March, largely because the severity we estimated for the virus turned out, unfortunately, to be basically spot on.
Stop Press 2: It now being 20 years since 2001’s Foot and Mouth epidemic and to mark the occasion John Lewis Stempel has written an interesting piece in UnHerd.
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