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Corona Diaries: a professor’s downfall

May 7, 2020
First Council of Nicea, 325 CE

Yesterday, in Would you let a dancing bear mind your sheep? I suggested that one of the reasons for the delay in the British government’s taking action to deal with the coronavirus was that its main skills are in winning elections rather than governing the country that elected it. But that’s only part of the story. The brouhaha over Professor Neil Ferguson is another.

I can see both sides of the argument over whether Ferguson should or should not have been allowed to resign from SAGE, the British government’s advisory committee over his breaking of the lockdown rules.

On the one hand, he’s a valuable contributor to the scientific effort to defeat the coronavirus. To let him go without a warning or a reprimand is a self-defeating act at a time of national crisis.

On the other hand, he of all people, given that his model predicted dire consequences unless the government imposed the lockdown, should have set an example. Therefore he’s guilty of unpardonable hypocrisy.

Yet beneath the simple question of expediency versus morality, it seems to me that there’s something rather grubby going on. At best, grubby, at worst, tending towards deep-stateish.

To deal with the grubby first. Why is it relevant to the debate on his indiscretion that his visitor happened to be female. Not just female, but his “married lover”? Would the reaction have been the same if The Telegraph, the paper that broke the story, had simply reported that he had a visitor?

If the person visiting him had been his mum, his therapist, his sister or a minister of the church giving him spiritual sustenance, would he have been fired, or even outed in the first place?

If the answer is probably not, then we’re dealing with a common-or-garden sex scandal, the kind of story the Telegraph normally leaves to Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids. Or, to put it in Sun-speak, it’s the sex wot did for him.

Then it gets darker. According to a number of sources, the Telegraph had the story some time ago. The indiscretion happened in March. Why did it wait until now to out the professor? Why did it out him at all? Surely a quiet word from Boris Johnson to the publisher of the newspaper, citing the national interest and so forth, would have killed the story. And don’t tell me that the government didn’t know what was about to break.

Further, why did the Telegraph follow up with a report casting doubt over the efficacy of his model? Is this new news, or did they deliberately save it until the week in which the government is preparing a plan for easing the lockdown? The Telegraph’s article is paywalled, so here’s a Daily Mail piece that references it and summarises the argument.

At this point you could start trotting out the investigating reporter’s clichés: follow the money, and cui bono?

If you’re a deep-statist, you might leap to the conclusion that the Telegraph was acting at the behest of the substantial group of lobbyists, donors and politicians who want the lockdown to end because they’re terrified of the impact on their personal finances. Or if you were of a less dark disposition, you may think that these same people are public-spirited citizens who fear for the country’s economic future if the current restrictions are allowed to continue.

By squashing Professor Ferguson, and then using other professors to trash his reputation, you cast doubt on the whole premise of the lockdown, and damage the credibility of the government in the process (as if its credibility isn’t damaged enough already).

Alternatively, did the government, prompted by shadowy figures unknown to us, acquiesce in Ferguson’s outing because it knew his model was flawed, and his misstep gave them an opportunity to get rid of him without having to admit it screwed up by taking his advice in the first place?

Very nasty stuff, and a juicy conspiracy theory in the making, especially if the lockdown is eased, thousands more people die in a second wave, and we’re looking around for people to blame.

Then, while digging around trying to find out more about the flaws in the good professors’ model, I happened on a conversation that sent me temporarily insane. It was on a website called Lockdown Sceptics. I immediately sensed that I was straying into a room full of Martians, somewhere in which – due to my ignorance of the subject – I had no place.

But I read on anyway. The conversation began with a software engineer who used to work for Google comprehensively trashing the Imperial College software. It was old, not fit for purpose, full of bugs and written by amateurs. It was followed by others who supported her opinion, and yet more people who disagreed. Most of them preceded their input by rising up to their full online height and stating their credentials, as in “I have thirty years’ experience of writing software etc etc”.

Try this for size as an example of the content:

“Stochastic” is just a scientific-sounding word for “random”. That’s not a problem if the randomness is intentional pseudo-randomness, i.e. the randomness is derived from a starting “seed” which is iterated to produce the random numbers. Such randomness is often used in Monte Carlo techniques. It’s safe because the seed can be recorded and the same (pseudo-)random numbers produced from it in future. Any kid who’s played Minecraft is familiar with pseudo-randomness because Minecraft gives you the seeds it uses to generate the random worlds, so by sharing seeds you can share worlds.

It reminded me (and forgive me if you’ve heard this analogy from me before) of the interminable arguments in the early centuries of Christianity over the nature of Christ’s divinity. It was said that in the equivalent of pubs in Constantinople, fights would break out between ordinary people over the meaning of the Holy Trinity.

I’m not sure that ordinary people like me are likely to start throwing lattes over each other in Starbucks over stochastic models. But a dive into that website took me into a deep hole of specialist opinion that left me none the wiser, and, had they been available, would have required a couple of prozacs for me to escape with my sanity after delving any further.

The point of this diversion is that if I, a classicist by education, struggle to understand a tenth of what these people are saying, what are the chances that Boris Johnson, also a classicist, but unlike me caught in the middle of a shitstorm, had any option other than to rely on what his scientists were telling him in plain English?

Which opens up an alternative to a conspiracy theory – that the whole episode was just one in a series of cock-ups.

Given that the scientists all had their own interpretations of what was going on, was the problem that Boris and his political advisers had to choose between one interpretation and possibly several others, and chose the “wrong” one?

Further, did the Telegraph out Ferguson for the usual reasons: it’s a newspaper struggling to sell its product and grasping any opportunity to maximise its subscriber base?

And finally, when we look back at this whole mess, will we conclude that one of the main reasons why we got here is because something, to quote the movie title, was lost in translation?

Only time will tell.  

From → Politics, UK

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