Who is responsible for the mess we are going through?
In my view the scientists, of course. Let me clarify. I hold the scientists (not science) who advise politicians responsible for the impact the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has on our lives. Science has thrived one more time by identifying the new corona virus and following methodical steps in order to better understand and manage it.
Politicians in the UK and around the world sought guidance from experts in order to understand how deadly and threatening the new virus is and what would be the best course of action to follow. The experts who provide scientific advise are all renowned and established academics with long experience in research.
Being a scientist and academic of this caliber means two things; firstly, they have a profound and deep understanding of statistics. The major concept in statistics is the law of big numbers (and in epidemiology for that matter). Studying a big number of cases is what leads to conclusions and not looking at individual cases. When those experts stand in front of the public every day and report number of deaths due to corona virus and new infections they do exactly the opposite from what scientific methods entail. When they look at those daily numbers and try to identify trends in order to convince the public that things are getting worst or not you, they look at individual cases and, then, jump to generalisations. This is exactly the opposite from what universities around the world teach and labs practice.
There is, also, another aspect in statistics that is not respected by the experts in the current situation. In statistics they teach that even if you are able to identify an event or a change, it does not necessarily mean that this change is important or, in stats jargon, statistically significant. Reporting that in April there were 3,500 deaths due to corona virus is pretty much meaningless (although scary as absolute number) unless you look at the expected deaths without the presence of the virus. To make the point, if the expected deaths are 3,400 and now we have 3,500, then would we say the difference is significant and, thus, a point to worry about? Of course, other analytics needs to be considered (e.g. standard deviations, etc.) for a complete answer but I think the point I make comes across.
The second characteristic of those experts is that they have spent their whole academic lives in pursuing, sweating and breathing publications; this is the name of the game in academia and this is how careers are built. Getting published comes with what is called (blind) peer review of the research. This is the process where a piece of work is published after being thoroughly reviewed by other experts in the field. In the majority of cases the reviewers are not aware of the author of the work they review; this blind reviewing process is what gives confidence to academic publications.
In the crisis we are facing, a day came where experts stood in front of prime ministers and politicians and presented their professional evaluation about the extent of the impact of the virus to the population. I am certain they started the presentation like this: “According to the model we use, we estimate …such and such… rate of infection and …such and such… casualties”. The “…such and such…” numbers is what scared politicians; when you tell them you expect 250,000 casualties they think of the panic and the impact it can generate (not to mention the loss in votes but I will refrain from being mean right now).
But very few paid attentions to the more important part of the sentence; the fact that they use models to do the projections. In scientific terms, this is absolutely acceptable but it comes with a catch. The catch is that models are constructions that rely on assumptions and hypotheses. Otherwise, they are not manageable and do not work. Whatever comes in a model in terms of quality, equivalent outcome it produces. If the assumptions and the data are rubbish, then the conclusions are rubbish. To make things worst, the conclusions may look solid and it may be hard to identify the problems.
This is where the peer review process I mentioned earlier becomes significant as it can catches such weaknesses. The reason I am writing all these is because no one knows (or at least only a handful of people do) what the assumptions of the models the experts used are. When, as an academic, you seek approval of your models (research) by your peers for every little tiny thing you research in every imaginable niche area your expertise lies, what would we expect when you are dealing with a situation that affects countries, economies and even generations of people? I would personally expect to see the brightest minds in this country scrutiniseing the models and reaching to a consensus on whether the projections are eligible. I don’t think we have such an approach in the case you are dealing with.
For avoidance of any confusion; I am not saying the lock down and isolation are wrong; or, that the deaths are fake. They are very real, the NHS has taken a huge load and the health care professionals are giving their lives for the patients. Given the validity of the models, the subsequent actions may seem appropriate and the consequences unavoidable. What I am not convinced of is whether the models and the perspective that is presented at the highest level are valid.
Now, you may wonder how is it possible such smart, educated and capable scientists act like this? Well, I do not have a clear answer here. The only thing that comes to mind is something I read a while back:
Never underestimate the collective stupidity of otherwise intelligent individuals