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Can Dominic Cummings read the room? He's more interested in accurate predictions than elite consensus

Would you shake hands with Dominic Cummings? Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas via Getty

Would you shake hands with Dominic Cummings? Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas via Getty


May 25, 2021   6 mins

Back in February 2020, a blogger named Jacob wrote a post on his blog, Put A Number On It, called “Seeing the Smoke”. The title comes from a famous 1968 psychology experiment in which groups of three students were put in a room to fill out a questionnaire. Then the experimenters started pumping smoke under the door and watched how the students reacted.

Two of the “students” in each group were paid actors, told to ignore the smoke. The remaining, real students, presumably not wanting to look stupid or panicky in front of the others, ignored the smoke in 90% of cases. If students were on their own, however, they went to investigate the smoke 75% of the time.1

The point is that we don’t just care about whether there’s a real chance of danger – even apparently real, apparently obvious signs of very imminent danger, like smoke under a door. We also care, very much, about looking silly.

Seeing the Smoke drew an analogy with the coronavirus, which was then still mainly in Wuhan. “Human intuition is 
 very good at one thing: not looking weird in front of your peers,” wrote Jacob. “It’s so good at this, in fact, that the desire to not look weird will override most incentives.” The point of his blog was to give permission to worry. If you were the sort of person who would sit in a smoke-filled room until someone else stood up, he said, “I’m here to be that someone for you.” The point was to give you social permission to start making preparations, whatever those preparations were.

I read Seeing the Smoke, and shared it on Twitter, in an attempt to spread the permission. Dominic Cummings, at the time still the chief advisor to Boris Johnson, did as well, and said so in March this year. It, along with a Slate Star Codex blog post a few days later, “helped me and some others in no10 realise we were going terribly wrong”, Cummings tweeted. Put A Number On It is a key part of the rationalist blogosphere, and Cummings, like me, is a fan.

Cummings is going in front of a Commons select committee on Wednesday, to talk about the decisions the Government made as the pandemic spread to the UK. There will probably be mud-slinging and a lot of claims and counter-claims about who said what and when.

Certainly, the arguments over whether or not the Government was “pursuing a herd immunity strategy” seem extremely vulnerable to definitional problems – does that mean they planned to let the virus rip unchecked, or to slow and control its spread? But it’s definitely the case that in early March, the UK was talking about slowing, rather than stopping, the virus: its pandemic flu plan said “It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so.” Instead, they wanted to let the virus work its way through the population slowly, protecting the most vulnerable, while preventing it from ever overwhelming the NHS. You can call that a “herd immunity strategy” if you like, or not, but that was the goal.

And it does sound as though by 18 March, Cummings was pushing for faster lockdown. That was a few days after the publication of Seeing the Smoke, and around the same time as Tomas Pueyo published his influential post The Hammer and the Dance, calling for draconian, immediate lockdowns to crush the curve, which – if you acted early enough – could be reasonably brief, weeks rather than months.

Whatever one’s view of Cummings, an ability to see the smoke, despite the other people in the room apparently not seeing it, is an extremely useful skill. At the beginning of the year, the media didn’t want to look panicky, it didn’t want to look weird, so too many of us said things like “don’t worry about coronavirus, worry about the flu” or made fun of Silicon Valley types for refusing to shake hands.

There’s a phrase that is used a lot on social media, “read the room”. When people are angry about something, and someone else comes in and says “actually it’s a bit more complicated than that”, they are told to “read the room”. A classic example: when the political analyst David Shor tweeted, during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, that violent race riots in 1968 reduced the Democratic vote enough to tip the election to Nixon, he was told to “read the room” and that he was “tone deaf”. A few days later he was fired from his job.

“Reading the room”, understanding what the social consensus around some issue is and not straying too far from that consensus, is an important thing. I’m not belittling it: we live in a social world, and we need to understand the mores and demands of that social world in order to prosper in it – and to make that social world bearable for everyone.

If we all ignored the strictures of society, it would be chaos. That includes rules of not saying things that are true but offensive: parents will know the exquisite agony of having their too-young-to-read-the-room child saying things like “Look daddy, that man’s really fat”. I’m not calling for a total free-for-all where you can say anything you like as long as it’s true. But reading the room isn’t always useful, and it won’t tell you if the room is filling up with smoke or not.

Back in March 2020, there was an elite consensus on certain things. Masks don’t work. We shouldn’t panic (37 days before lockdown, UK newspapers were mocking people who were scared of Covid and telling you you were more likely to be killed by a cow). Travel bans don’t work. (I got that one wrong.) If you locked down early, the population would get “behavioural fatigue” after a few weeks.

And if you had read the room, you would have agreed with all of it. I know I often did. That’s what the experts are telling us! It’s only Silicon Valley tech bros who want us to stop shaking hands, and Donald Trump who wants us to close our borders. The trouble is, the room was wrong, and reading it correctly didn’t help.

The rationalists, as Matt Yglesias wrote after the Slate Star Codex kerfuffle earlier this year, are really bad at reading the room, and much better at seeing the smoke. They talk about numbers and facts a lot, and come to conclusions like “actually, if you want to do good in the world, you should contribute to antimalarial charities rather than getting angry about the hot-button issues of the day”. That is the opposite of reading the room.

Cummings, for better or worse, is also terrible at reading the room. And he admires people who are similarly bad at it – the abovementioned David Shor, for instance. He promotes rationalist and rationalist-adjacent people like the podcaster Julia Galef and the superforecaster (and occasional UnHerd contributor) Michael Story. He wanted to hire “weirdos” as government advisers. (As an aside, I suspect that one’s ability to read the room is related to one’s tendency to “decouple”.)

These days, it’s wrong not to like masks, and we’re criticising the Government for not shutting borders quickly enough to counter the Indian variant. Behavioural fatigue turned out not to be a thing. I haven’t shaken hands in 14 months. But we’re still reading the room when we agree with those things. It’s just that the room’s opinion has changed.

An interesting game is trying to work out what the room’s opinions will shift on next. At the moment, it seems to be starting to change on the question: did the coronavirus escape from a lab?

It’s funny, because the hypothesis “Covid escaped from a Chinese lab” sounds like a wacky conspiracy theory, but all its constituent parts, “there are labs working on gain-of-function research in viruses, including in Wuhan”, “major disease outbreaks have been started by viruses leaking from high-security labs”, and “the Chinese aren’t always super open and transparent about things”, are pretty uncontroversial. Whether it turns out to be true or not, the theory has gone from crackpot speculation to plausible hypothesis, but very few of the facts have changed; only the opinion of the room.

And interestingly, Put A Number On It borrowed the “smoke” metaphor from an earlier blog post by a different rationalist, Eliezer Yudkowsky, who was talking about the dangers of human extinction caused by AI. Perhaps we ought to take that a bit more seriously too. (Although I should declare an interest, since my first book was on that topic.)

Seeing the smoke, not reading the room: these are difficult things to do. They involve putting yourself outside the consensus, outside the cosy circle where we all agree: they risk making you look ridiculous, or worse. In the Covid era, though, reading the room rather than seeing the smoke probably cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Dominic Cummings has many faults, but I suspect he is better at seeing smoke than he is at reading rooms.

FOOTNOTES
  1. A word of warning. This is a classic psychology experiment, and classic psychology experiments have had a bad time lately. A related concept, the “bystander effect”, is looking shaky. But I think this is one of the solid ones. Even if it isn’t, we’re only using it as an analogy.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

A very interesting article (and I am not always a fan of Tom’s work). However, as someone who is forever ‘seeing the smoke’ I don’t think it’s the case that people like me don’t ‘read the room’. We ‘read the room’ perfectly well, but constantly have to make a judgement on whether or not to speak out or to simply leave the room.
Personally I have believed the lab-leak hypothesis to he highly plausible for over a year. I threw out the TV over 20 years ago because I ‘saw the smoke’ and realized that the BBC was entirely rotten. I switched from being very pro-EU to being anti-EU over 15 years ago. And I could provide many more examples of ‘seeing the smoke’ some years before most people. One thing I have learned due to Trump, Brexit and Covid is that 99% of people – which obviously includes many intelligent people – are simply not aware of 99% of the facts at any given time. Thus it is literally impossible for them to ‘see the smoke’. This is partly, of course, because so many of them – incredibly – still passively consume the MSM and al its manipulation and lies by omission. There is no hope…

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I literally saw smoke once while in a meeting with about a hundred people. We were all listening to a lecture and smoke suddenly started to billow out from behind a wooden partition. For a second I froze. I was far from the nearest to the source of the smoke, and no one near it was moving. At this point, I stood up and marched swiftly past the speaker who was continuing his lecture while all about him respectfully listened. I moved swiftly to the partition, pulled it noisily aside, hearing as I did so, tuts from people sitting there, and revealed a small fire in a pile of curtains that had been stupidly placed so near a lamp that one part was touching it. The fire was easily extinguished, but would not have been had it been left another minute to develop.

Last edited 3 years ago by Tom Fox
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

There’s several accounts of stuff like this happening on 9/11. People who were in the 2nd tower watching the drama of the 1st tower unfold mostly stayed put – only a few dared to “see the smoke” with regard to their own building and walked out early.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Yes Katherine and also I recall a documentary about the sinking of a passenger ferry in the Baltic in the 1990s. One of the survivors described being in the bar sitting at a table and the ferry rather suddenly healing over at about thirty degrees and staying there. He said that while his fellow passengers busied themselves steadying their drinks and plates on the tables, he leaped up and rushed for the exit, and with difficulty making it along the crazily tilted staircase eventually exiting to the deck and climbing onto the bottom of the ship as it completely capsized. About a thousand people were drowned – the Estonia, I think was the name. Also – at the Manchester air disaster in which an engine exploded on a passenger plane as it was accelerating to take off, passengers queued patiently in the already burning fuselage and waited while imbeciles were unpacking their overhead lockers and looking for bags and coats. The person reporting this, the last person to escape alive, rushed over the top of the seats, leaving these idiots behind where they were overcome by smoke and fire.

Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

The phenomenon in evidence in the Manchester air crash in 1985 was not solely about ‘idiots’. The investigators found that whilst some passengers on the side of the aircraft where the engine exploded reacted immediately and made their way down the aisles to escape, others stayed seated despite the fuselage being engulfed in flames and the cabin filling with smoke. Worse still, passengers in window seats climbed over some of their neighbours who remained firmly in place.
Experiments carried out in the UCLA library in the 1960’s involved a librarian calling out for help whilst atop a ladder. In cases where a single student was present to hear the cry, the assistance was immediate. But as the numbers of unsuspecting students grew from two, three and upwards to six, the reaction times lessened, and on occasion no help was forthcoming at all. Researchers concluded that when in a group, many individuals are reluctant to take responsibility for action.
Clearly what happened in Manchester showed that the unwillingness or inability to initiate action also applies even when there is an urgent need to save oneself.

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Baseley

My mother always told me to to hope there was only one person around if i ever needed rescuing. This was back in early 50s. This phenomenon was well known. One can prove it many times through observation.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Baseley

I’m sorry, but those people frozen in apathy are idiots in my book.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Social embarrassment over-riding their own safety. Surely this also over-rides our animal instincts for self preservation? I went to university as a mature student to study a subject that attracted a lot of Britain’s ‘future leaders’ and what a rum lot they were. My theory is , that dispite going to boarding school , gap year etc they are like 14 year olds were at age 18 and age slowly , so they still gather with their ‘mates’ and do what the herd does. Basically incapable of independent thought.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Very true – and the incapacity for independent thought is getting worse thanks to social media. On the social embarrassment point, I would only add that people are so heavily invested in hoping everything will be all right that they are positively averse to taking emergency action – precisely because doing so involves an admission that the worst is actually happening. The history of various persecutions seems to touch on this same point – our tendency to take the “ostrich” approach.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Some people regard those like me who are a bit Type A personality and inclined to make a judgement and act quickly, as impulsive and even slightly weird. They wait in interminable traffic, as if they can do nothing but just await their fate. They won’t do a U turn to get out and find another way. I always do.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

On those occasions when I have just sat still, trusting in advice and assuming that all is well, disaster has ensued. On those occasions when I have done a sharp U-turn, often against the counsel of those around me, disaster has been avoided. And yet it is difficult to generalise from this, for always, always and nevertheless – one might have been wrong, after all.

imackenzie56
imackenzie56
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

As a long time, long distance commuter I can say with confidence that 95% of the time when I did a U-Turn I would have been better off staying in my lane on the creeping, crawling road! That’s why it is so hard to determine if the smoke” means anything.

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  imackenzie56

I think in the case when one is in a usual morning traffic creep, then your tactic of staying put is correct. It is judging the cicumstance if it’s unusual or not that makes the difference.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

If You can keep your head,When all about are losing theirs. 1) You are correct 20 You have misread the situation ..Apologies to rudyard..

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

I’m like you. And if i saw smoke in a room, there is no way i would sit there. Conversely, i don’t panic and stampede when all around me are. I see that, and the consequences, too often as i live in an earthquake area.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

I think the issue of being frozen in this fashion may result from the persistent socialisation we experience from early childhood. So much of it is about queuing and waiting in line for your turn. To escape from a plane or a sinking ship, you probably have to act boldly and selfishly. Anyone hanging about in a burning aircraft will not be alive long.

Bill W
Bill W
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

I was caring for a very sick relative at the beginning of January 2020 when I heard about Covid and was immediately very concerned about it and the possibility if not likelihood of airborne transmission and I was reluctant to admit my relative into hospital in early January.

Last edited 3 years ago by Bill W
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

You were using your instincts. What does an animal do if they don’t like something , they back off & assess the situation. We are taught to put our trust in the experts who we are told will make our world safe for us.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

I told my parents in March last year that on no account should they go anywhere near an NHS hospital. Of course, this is good advice at the best of times, but the thousands dead from catching Covid in the NHS killing fields have proved that I was correct.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Tell anyone you know who is old to be careful not to fall ie don’t take risks as don’t want to go as A & E at the moment either.

Tony Price
Tony Price
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

So if they had had a heart attack or been in a car accident and badly injured they should not go to hospital? Are you crazy?

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Price

They can’t avoid it in the cases you mention. However over 33 ,000 people have caught covid in hospital of whom almost 9000 died. These are official NHS figures-of course the others may have been sent home or to a nursing home & died. Doesn’t inspire confidence does it & certainly nothing to clap about.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Cummings blames Hancock for all that.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

When I saw the TV of Chinese falling in the streets I bought a oxygen regulator and filled my welding O2 tank, some cannulas (things go in your nose for O2, some Quercetin and zink, a sack of grapefruits, and a 20 pound bag of rice, quart of medical alcohol, giant packs of paper towels and bleach, and some other stuff. I was way ahead of the pack.
I got covid really early and never needed the stuff – but was very sick indeed, and glad to have the O2 by the bed in case.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

Best one i ever saw was a gas main flaring in the road as some cable TV guy had cut it with his masonry grinder. This was the HP 70 bar main, 30′ of flare and it was being blown horizontal in the wind. The cars in front of me carried on driving a few meters from the flame. As i did a rapid 180° and my tyres squealed the sheep driving toward the flame raged and shouted abuse.

Last edited 3 years ago by mike otter
dean edge
dean edge
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I think the role of the media should also be subject to rigorous scrutiny in the forthcoming enquiry. In general it suffers from a “Jim Acosta” problem with egotistical and not very professional performers like Rigby, Peston and almost everyone at the BBC pushing thier own personalities as universal geniuses or wits at the expense of providing information. From the beginning they have exagerrated every negative story in pursuit of drama and clickbait or blatantly political campaigning and I doubt they will ever recover.

Mark Walker
Mark Walker
3 years ago
Reply to  dean edge

The ‘room’ in UK was SAGE. Sadly the DHSC forgot to ask: Why, why, why, why, finally WHY, to the ‘Group Think’ SAGE advice given in March 2020.

Frank Nixson
Frank Nixson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Agree up to the point where Fraser says, ‘there is no hope’. I can’t agree that ‘there is no hope’. The public health authorities and the politicians have shown us that they are unequal to their duties. The politicians are conflicted by their ulterior agendas. The public health authorities are more than ready to sacrifice both their reason and their integrity to fame and political favor. Of course, there are some of them who are just not smart enough for the job. The ‘MSM’ has shown us that they are the brainwashed servants to the politicians, or their political tribe. They are not independent reviewers of fact. Many see this and that is why there is hope.

Last edited 3 years ago by Frank Nixson
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Frank Nixson

Many of us do indeed see it. But we are not in a position to do anything about it. To restore any competence or integrity to our political, cultural and administrative institutions would require an almost total clear out, and that is impossible for a number of reasons.

Mark Walker
Mark Walker
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Anders Tegnell from Sweden & LSHTM saw the smoke from Covid-19. He spoke out but he ‘room’ turned on him. Same for Prof Sunita Gupta from Oxford. The room (main stream science) was was just amplified by MSM. Scientists did not understand that a smoldering fire was creating the smoke. Next, Scientists/Advisors convinced everybody in UK to Lock-Down. Cost to UK about ÂŁ 400 Billion. Swedish deaths per million are lower than UK. Just by providing care for elderly & voluntary social distancing. They simply trusted the Swedish People.

chrisjperry2012
chrisjperry2012
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Walker

One thing the Tegnell has admitted is that Sweden did very badly (as we did) on care of the elderly. Other than that, I agree.

Tiny C
Tiny C
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Walker

Tegnell’s plan couldn’t and didn’t work for the UK. The Swedes are healthier and naturally cleaner than we are. Compared to Sweden’s neighbours it did badly, even financially. He and Prof Gupta were just plain wrong in their assessments of what numbers constituted herd immunity. You can argue that lockdown wasn’t worth the money but not using their advice.

Last edited 3 years ago by Tiny C
Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Tiny C

Its no use.
If you produce a cogent argument, people will only use it to reinforce their own bllinkered opinions.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Tiny C

There are less persons living per Square mile/KM in Sweden ..Most less populous areas,SARS2 was not as Virulent?…

Last edited 3 years ago by Robin Lambert
Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Walker

..and so it starts…
If you wait long enough looking at the smoke (Covid) , some wise guy will come along and tell you its the exact opposite eh Mark ?

Tony Price
Tony Price
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“the BBC is entirely rotten” – what a ridiculous statement! You may disagree with some aspects of their news coverage but that is a small part of their output – I listen to the Archers on Radio4 most days – is that rotten? Is it possible that ‘your’ smoke is wrong?

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Price

I’m curious. (I first listened to the Archers when i was a kid and had just take up archery. I assumed a connection. Haha. ) Anyway, a few years later, i was talking to a farmer who was desperate to get home to listen to the day’s episode. He explained that it was well-researched and totally current. If the Archers were selling sheep, for example, the local farmers did too. I had no idea that so much useful information was embedded in it and that the farming community both recognised and acted on it.
My question is, is this still the csse or is it purely a radio ‘soap’ now?

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Maybe you are referring to St Attenborough’s film driving walri over a cliff with drones and blaming it on global warming ?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Where is the F*** ing ‘Actors Shrieking and charging about in the dark theater yelling FIRE!’ experiment?

Surely that is 110X more appropriate to the covid experience than the smoke under the door one.

Cummings is a world class creep, he may have good points, but is just too much of a creep to give any power to.

elliston.c
elliston.c
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I’ll just throw this in as an analogy. It was a Jordan Peterson/Stephen Fry discussion I think where they mention mice on a raft. Unaware of any danger they might be in the mice run about the raft haphazardly and the raft does not capsize. Humans in a similar situation, aware of the danger of potentially capsizing and drowning, when feeling the raft tilting in one direction all rush to the opposite side of the raft and thus cause the raft to capsize. If there was a lab leak, and I believe the evidence both cIrcumstantial and coincidental is pretty overwhelming, then governments were aware of it from the get go (certainly the scientists advising them). What made governments react as they did, following the extreme example of the Chinese model, may have been the unknown potential of a chimeric virus.

Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
3 years ago
Reply to  elliston.c

It was indeed that discussion. And the analogy to the mice is a good one. Very often, in raising awareness, we make things far worse. BLM is a good example (if you interpret the movement very generously as non-political).

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson
3 years ago

All pandemic responses pursue a herd immunity strategy. That’s how you stop the virus spreading – by making sure insufficient people can catch the virus. It’s how we deal with measles, etc and is how vaccine programmes work.
The real question is whether the UK should have become like China and locked its borders, ruthlessly isolated everybody and then kept them locked in the country – as Australia and New Zealand have done – or gone down a more liberal route.
We can now see the issues with the lock out strategy – people hesitant to have a vaccine because it makes no logical sense to have one when you are under no risk from the disease.
And that means Aus and NZ currently have no out unless the vaccines get an awful lot better.
Cummings is rather too fond of the Chinese approach to statecraft for my liking.

Last edited 3 years ago by Neil Wilson
William Harvey
William Harvey
3 years ago
Reply to  Neil Wilson

Australia will continue to have (hopefully) small outbreaks over the next year or so whilst we slowly roll the vaccines out.

Maybe the repeated small but contained outbreaks might reduce the vaccine hesitancy that we currently have around the AZ vaccine.

The media have a lot to answer for on that hyping up the very small risks for (mostly) political gain..

Most folks here ( and most state govts) have been living as if covid doesn’t exist and can be kept at bay forever. It cant and vaccination is the only route out of our current isolation.

Funny enough I think the one thing that might speed up vaccine uptake would be if the airlines made a “no jab no flight” rule.

Tim Stewart
Tim Stewart
3 years ago
Reply to  William Harvey

I copped a bunch of flack last time I pointed out on here that Australia’s border controls have been very successful in insulating the country from Covid. Yes, they have also lessened the urgency of the vaccine program, but I don’t have a problem with countries that have been harder impacted going faster than us in that. In time, anyone who wants to travel will need to be vaccinated, No jab no flight is pretty much already a locked in strategy for the airlines planning their international flight ramp-up, regardless of legislation. Short term, the economy has done well, although only due to unprecedented fiscal and monetary policy, much of which has washed through to the property market. Who knows how that will pan out long term? Certainly not me, I thought house prices would tank.
Last time I commented on these lines I got pushback on various fronts. Firstly that I was clearly not living in Victoria – which I don’t, that’s true, but the problems in Victoria and to a lesser extent elsewhere were due to problems in the management and implementation of the quarantine system, not the principal itself. Secondly that various people were doing it tough due to the travel restrictions, and I do realise that there have been cases of people wishing to leave the country with effectively a one way ticket who’ve been knocked back – hardly the first time that good policy has been tainted by utterly inexplicable, bureaucratic nonsense. There has also been well over a year of people travelling back here successfully on repatriation flights. The heightened sense of frustration amongst expat Aussies in countries which have taken sudden turns for the worse is understandable, but does raise the question of whether they could have found the opportunity to leave earlier. And yes, the internal state border situations, whilst initially understandable, did get ridiculous and were more about premiers playing politics.
I had been planning a trip to the UK and Germany myself last year, to visit ailing family and friends, but it didn’t take a government edict for me to realise that I would sadly have to delay that.
So I’ll say again, and am happy to cop people’s well-structured opinions on this – give me a country where we were locked up (as in couldn’t come and go internationally) than the ones where people have been locked down and lost a year or two of their productive lives, be it in business and employment, education or personal well-being.

Roger le Clercq
Roger le Clercq
3 years ago
Reply to  William Harvey

Rename the Oxford AstraZeneca as OZ instead of AZ and the Australians will be won over.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Neil Wilson

It makes no logical sense to have a vaccination if you are under no risk ?
How thoughtful of you

David Slade
David Slade
3 years ago

My god, we really are doomed to a future of catastrophic over reactions if ‘permission to panic’ is seen as intelligence.

Seeing the smoke – in relation to advocating unprecedented and Draconian measures to tackle the virus – seems a bit myopic, more like seeing the smoke through tunnel vision and reacting by running in to the fire.

I’m also not convinced that you can take a uni focus on stopping one particular threat (a virus) as a sign of superior problem solving (that may not be the point of the article, but it seemed implied). The problem isn’t just the virus and it is more likely that those who resisted Cummings hawkish calls where simply seeing the bigger picture, rather than failing to take it seriously.

It’s often the refrain of pseudo-intellectuals that they can see an urgency others can’t when in fact they are simply missing the context others are aware of.

In any case, should a man who openly expresses admiration for the Chinese practice of nailing people up in their homes be considered a useful contributor to any discussion? Surely we lose far more in the long run through allowing such things in our society? (You could, after all, be really hyper aware of the threat and just shoot the first person to test positive – but I like to think that even zero coviders draw the line at execution at the point of a positive test).

No, I remain unconvinced Cummings has any superior insight or analytical rigour in this regards. He’s just an authoritarian trying to give an intellectual underpinning for the unspeakable.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

Awesome comment. Are you real ?

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

The trouble is that the smoke in this case seems to been a false signal , to deliberately mislead. If you are basing all your actions on something wrong, everything else will be wrong. The particular circumstances of Cummings and his wife are that they have a poorly child , which naturally makes him more anxious. China has used covid like a decoy duck to achieve more power against a weakened world.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Nice article.

It’s ok to have got lots of things wrong throughout the pandemic – the wretched thing is not exactly chartable, if it was, it wouldn’t have been such a problem worldwide. But we must be open enough to be able to say: I changed my view because more information came along, or I was proved wrong, rather than mulishly stick to one outlook.

It is obvious that the quick creation and more importantly rollout of the vaccines changes the risk equations. I thought at the outset we wouldn’t see vaccines rolled out for at least a couple of years – not so much because vaccines wouldn’t be created, but because governance bodies wouldn’t sign off on distribution, because doing so puts a whole bunch of peoples neck on the line if the decision goes wrong. Indeed, this was (and arguably still is) the view across the populations in Europe (outside the UK), including the EU governance structures.
It also fascinatingly illustrates a few things about different profiles of risk appetites in different nations and about the magnified payback of guessing right or wrong. It is also curious that different political suprastructures have yielded different decision profiles – decision-by-committee in the EU and China led to different outcomes, as did decisions by, in effect single individuals, in countries like USA, UK, Brazil, etc.

The thing about risk probabilities that is mostly unacknowledged is this: you can be right about your assessments and still make a sequence of decisions that go bust overall. Imagine you started with a pot of money and a small guaranteed advantage in the odds. Well, you can still go bust, the guaranteed odds advantage is not enough to prevent that. To illustrate, say you gambled your whole pot on one outcome – you put it on black. All it takes is (the less likely) red to come up and you are bust. So this leads to the question: how much should you risk on any given bet to maximise your chances of both gaining and not going bust? The maths of this was worked out by Claude Shannon (and shame on you if you don’t know who that was) and John Kelly in the 1950s, a bunch of formulas called the ‘Kelly criterion’. And playing the odds is part of the survival strategies innate to most living things. There is a species of python (no, not the indentation dependent language), whose strategy is to just pick a spot and just wait… for prey to come along and fall in it’s lap. In doing this the python is continually risking death – they often come close to starvation (and indeed sooner or later starve) but as an odds strategy it clearly works because the python exists.

And risk taking is something of a mindset – it paid off for the Vikings and the Brits, although the rewards profile is spectacularly binary – as proven by plenty of young dead people in far flung places they went to to plunder, vs a small number of uber-rich people who succeeded, which projects to a small number of uber-rich nations. It seems to me people in the west, Europe especially, are in serious danger of forgetting that their wealth and success was built on massive risk taking by individuals.

Last edited 3 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Loved that comment. Very insightful.

Richard Lord
Richard Lord
3 years ago

I’m less concerned about herd immunity than I am about herd mentality. We are at the point where it’s nearly criminal to speak out against the herd mentality, whether it be coronavirus, black lives matter, transgender rights, etc.

Cummings, I’m sure, has many flaws, but being afraid to speak out against ‘the flow of the room’ is not one of them. Sadly, his other flaws lead to him being self destructive.

Being called by a select committee this week is a naked attempt by parliamentarians to muddy the waters and pressure the government, at a time when they have plenty of more important things on their plate. Cummings interrogation should wait until the public enquiry.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

I sympathise with Dominic Cummings in this respect. I really do. How often have I found myself being the one noticing the smoke, saying out loud that the Emperor has no clothes, failing to read (or really not caring about) the room. And then getting the flack for it or being called an “android” for saying what I see, paying no regard to the prevailing social mood. Perhaps I’m overly rational – or somewhere on the autism scale. Who knows. Who cares? It’s fine to be like this and the world does need people like this – but in terms of getting on in the world with the least amount of aggro possible, then you need to learn to pick your battles. Be aware that cottoning onto an answer or a pattern or a conclusion is one thing; knowing when other people are ready to hear about it is another.
Sometimes it can feel like other people are so bloomin’ slow on the uptake, it’s massively frustrating. You end up feeling resentful of the ones you see as “not having got it yet”. In Cummings, that has clearly twisted into something slightly more malignant and misanthropic.
But it’s just the way it is. Cummings can’t force his conclusions – however rational or correct or justified – onto other people if they (“the room”) aren’t ready.

Last edited 3 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

This is the eternal problem of democratic politics: how to convince the multitude? And how ethical is it to get their support for some particular, apparently beneficial policy by appealing less to their reason than to their emotions? And on top of that, the “enlightened Cummings” of this world have to remember that they are fallible themselves. There is no solution to these problems, at the end of the day, which is one of the many reasons why Conservatism carries so much weight: moving in any direction is fraught with danger; moving everybody in any direction is all but impossible; frightening them into motion carries risks of stampede, so it is best to stay put – which means sustained tradition, low migration, political moderation and low expectations. When I behold the miserable, divided, hysterical and abusive state of today’s west, I am only confirmed in this approach.

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

We appear to be very alike.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago

Glad to hear that “the room” is finally starting to come around to the lab leak theory… I’ve always thought this was the most likely cause. If it walks like a duck etc.

peterdebarra
peterdebarra
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh


 next : the Room demands Reparation 
 ( ! )

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  peterdebarra

The room demands new wallpaper

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Very early on in the pandemic, I happened upon a YouTube documentary by a journalist/film maker who literally followed the clues and concluded it was indeed the Wuhan Lab from which it escaped. I believe he was actually filming in and around the area. (I haven’t re-watched it since so my memory of the details is not good.. ) He discovered that the female bat researcher had been disappeared and documents he had found had also subsequently been removed. He also noticed the Dr Fauci connection etc. It was a totally convincing piece of research. I wonder if the video has been taken down.
I actually sent the link to CNN at the time but heard nothing back. Unsurprisingly.
I find it so strange that only now are people coming around to the idea. Or thinking the idea is new.

David Simpson
David Simpson
3 years ago

The problem is that “the room” is often and almost entirely created by the media amplifying and mirroring back to us the views of a minority, and sometimes, just their own bubble. Yes, be aware of what “the room” is feeling, be careful what you say and to whom, but keep looking, all the time, for the smoke, or the elephant. And act accordingly.

Edward Hamer
Edward Hamer
3 years ago

But there are a lot of different rooms… I think I read my own rooms pretty well (even well enough at times to point out the window now and again without looking too weird), but I don’t share the same rooms as many people I know.
As regards Covid specifically, some of us have stayed in the “don’t overreact and set up a biosecurity police state” room from March last year, and we’ve stayed there (shaking hands regularly) throughout. I think that’s a different room from the “it’s all a conspiracy/5G/Bill Gates” room, but people in Tom’s room might mistake the two.

Last edited 3 years ago by Edward Hamer
Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
3 years ago

While Cummings may have seen the smoke in the room, his conclusions are largely incorrect and based on fallacies. The only possible thing that may have reduced the number of deaths would have been to protect the nursing homes. Whether that would have had a substantial effect on say a 2-year time scale is doubtful, however, given that life expectancy for those in nursing homes is rather short. The truth is that a virus will virus, and complete elimination is absolutely impossible once spread in the community at large has occurred.
From my perspective, what the last year has shown is how easy it is to get people to follow senseless orders (and believe in them) when one makes them fearful. This goes for example to the whole issue of lockdowns (which had essentially zero impact), masks (which were known to be largely useless in the community as amply demonstrated by years of research with influenza dating back to the 1918 spanish flu pandemic, and where it was also obvious that masking outside was a complete waste of time), and the inappropriate use of vaccination. i.e. Vaccinate those at risk (i.e. say over 60 and those with severe co-morbidities) but tread very lightly for those where the risks from COVID are minimal (i.e. the young), given that the side effects from the current crop of vaccines are definitely non-zero, and significantly worse than every other vaccine on the market. Indeed in the US VAERS, the number of adverse effects and deaths associated with the Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines exceed those from all other vaccines combined.
Lastly, Tom shows his lack of critical thinking, despite all the analogies about “smoke in the room”. The idea that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was always the most likely explanation – it wasn’t some crackpot conspiracy theory. And everybody in Wuhan knew this, including a Chinese colleague of mine who was there for the Chinese New Year but managed to get back to the US before flights were shutdown. Think about it. The wet market hypothesis required a whole series of events to take place. Yet the Wuhan lab, located in the heart of Wuhan, was experimenting with 1000s of corona bat viruses and was conducting gain-of-function research (funded indirectly by none other than the US National Institutes of Health through Fauci’s NIAID, and funneled indirectly through Peter Dazdak’s Global Institute of Sustainability). Further, the Wuhan lab was operating at the low BSL2 level when they should have been conducting this type of research at the BSL4 level. Even at USAMRIID, leaks are not unheard of. But they have been controlled given that USAMRIID is located on an army camp at Fort Detrick.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
3 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

I don’t believe the comment about crackpot conspiracy theory was meant as a neutral judgement but rather a description of how it was perceived in the mainstream at the time. As Tom points out in the article, that belief was manufactured by people with an agenda, and thus the sudden Damascene Conversion of people who once rejected it out of hand to taking it more seriously is a topic worthy of study. Which is what he’s doing here.

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Agree about the Wuhan Lab. See my earlier post.

Hilary Arundale
Hilary Arundale
3 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

You describe perfectly what my nose has been smelling for the whole of the last 15 months. Thank you!

John Mcalester
John Mcalester
3 years ago

There is sometimes a fine line between seeing the smoke and crying wolf.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  John Mcalester

Last year the newspapers showed an image supposedly smuggled out of people just collapsing dead. This obviously terrified the authorities who thought it would happen here. There were several odd things about it-the way it was filmed & the way people just fell over-like the theatrical collapse rather stagger most people have if they feel unwell. I don’t think this was a secret film at all but deliberately put together to cause fear.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

If you wish for a very current problem of “reading the room” as against seeing the “smoke”, think about climate change.
The room is decidedly for net zero, but is the smoke?
The smoke sees the destruction of our standing of living, by changing to intermittent power sources.
Should I believe in the room or the smoke?

niallmurrayuk
niallmurrayuk
3 years ago

The “reading the room” idea is useful I think in an international context. Living here in Hong Kong, one of the key differences in the response and success of that response as the virus arrived was the nature of the “room”. Having experience of SARS as a collective memory, all the locals immediately started wearing masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing etc. without a word from the government. To extend the analogy, as an expat, I felt very much like the locals were reacting as if there was smoke, even though I couldn’t see it, but I went along with the measures as their very seriousness brought me into line. Months later, people back home were still sending me “masks don’t work” articles. Maybe in future, we need to make sure the “room” is better prepared.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
3 years ago

“Read the room”. Which room? The one full of people who can think for themselves or the one full of people told what to think? I can guarantee with this manufactured Covid crisis that a room full of people who switched off the BBC a year ago will be completely different to the room full of people who are glued to their TV’s from 6pm to midnight!
One thing for me is clear : the vast majority of the UK/US population are happy to be led and have someone else think for them. The cult like behaviour and idol worshipping is astonishing. That video of the very camp guys and their interview of Fauchi in the US was sickening. People have got tattoos of their vaccination dates and appointment cards, you can buy “mask” earrings FFS. I kid you not all online go have a look. Jaw dropping stuff.

Tiny C
Tiny C
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

You’re making the assumption that those who don’t agree with you aren’t thinking for themselves. There are people on both sides who have blind opinions and other people who look at the information and come to their own conclusion. Those who never have a bad reaction to flu would have a different opinion to someone who is decimated by a dose. The older generations would have different priorities to the young. Most of them think that your view of the situation is generated by internet crackpots. The truth is somewhere in between.
The loudest sceptic voices have decried every part of the official point of view and so damaged any persuasive power to mitigate things like lockdown length.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

I suspect Cummings is an ego manic who thinks he’s the fount of all knowledge. A shallow glib technocrat whose only effectiveness is less than that of Lynton Crosby. Cummings has been made out to be some kind of genius by the left because is suits their narrative of the public didn’t understand and were mislead. The truth is that the left has been talking to its self and engages in magical thinking unchallenged. Lecturing people that have spent their entire adult live specialising in a field of knowledge be it virologists or the armed forces isn’t being a super forecaster but arrogance.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

What are you talking about? The left HATE Cummings.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

You completely misunderstand Cummings. For a start, as Tom Fox points out, he is everything the left hates. And he is anything but a technocrat. In fact his entire purpose is to oppose and debunk the technocrats at the EU and national levels.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

And the point goes over your head. The left blame Brexit on him misleading the public not the public thinking the EU is bad. They make Cummings out to be the evil genius that deluded the public. The reality is that a ramshackle incoherent mob like UKIP can pick 8 million votes at a general election, all the referendum needed was basic competence. If May had listened to Lynton Crosby instead of Nick “strong and stable” Timothy, she would have had a 60 seat majority. Cummings isn’t a genius, he managed to win narrow majority in a referendum and beat a terrorist supporting racist in a general election. He plan was to recruit a bunch of arm chair experts who would have been as about as useful as the Rand corporation in the Vietnam war.

Mike Page
Mike Page
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Sorry but May was a disaster – competent box ticker, and efficient at some management levels and prob a fairly nice person but utterly useless at free-thinking and leading the country. An unforgiveable and disastrous appointment! Cummings – unnecessarily not-so-nice but obv sharp and right on Brexit and the inadequacies of the civil service but doing himself no favours with his current spat. A Chinese accidental, premature or purposeful leak of this virus clearly plausible and we should be fully aware of this and plan before it happens again

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

What I never understand about Mr. Chivers is that while he is very diligent in applying scepticism to pseudo-scientific quackery, he never thinks to apply this to woo-woo that he actually personally believes in, like climate change.
In that example “the room” is about one or two dozen enviro-whackjobs who infiltrated the universities 20 to 30 years ago and perverted their discipline to the point where it needs to disband. This happened because the left knows that as nobody will vote for leftism, the way to implement it is to do so stealthily and undemocratically. So you announce that we have to destroy western prosperity and personal liberty because science, and no, you don’t get to discuss the matter because you’re not a scientist.
I’ve never known Tom even consider this. His view seems to be that science is something leftists vote on for him, and they’ve voted that there isn’t any smoke. So that’s all right then.
In the same way, leftists take over quangoes and start implementing the left’s anti-white, anti-western, anti-civilisation agenda through museums and stately homes.
Sometimes you need to read the room and recognise that you personally are both the room and the smoke.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jon Redman
Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I would have thought it obvious that the climate IS changing. However, the REASONS for this is what i hear being argued about. Could be just the planet’s cycle as ever. Probably humans have made some impact. It would be odd if we haven’t. But isn’t the Pole shifting position as well? (I gather that one theory is shifting weight distribution because of the melting ice. )
Either way, if my house is on the coast at a foot over sea level, i think i would be worried and sell up.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

The climate’s always changed but the world has generally been more prosperous when it was warmer.

Jo Rose
Jo Rose
3 years ago

But who would you sell it to? Common sense would dictate to any possible buyer that its in a precarious position surely.

William Gladstone
William Gladstone
3 years ago

This is why our civilisation is done for. When the science guy whose stock in trade should be objective measurable fact is too scared to see the smoke we have had it.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

Strange thing is Boris was presented as a quirky individualist , now it seems he in thall to any green things his fiance likes. Nelson may have had his Emma , but she didn’t advise him on navigation matters.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

You mean the guy that has no expertise in virology should have been listened too. Next time you break a bone I suggest you should seek treatment from a geologist, after all they both deal with calcium deposits. That’s science isn’t it.

Digitis Impudicus
Digitis Impudicus
3 years ago

Now if I was a sceptic about the origins, treatment of or indeed the existence of covid 19 I could use the same ‘can’t see the smoke’ argument and that Boris ‘can’t see the smoke’. There are many many scientists and medics who are eminent in their fields, Nobel Prize winners included, who see this as no more than a particularly severe seasonal flu epidemic. Indeed, one doesn’t have to be either a scientist or a medic to wonder why the World Health Organisation (WHO) changed the definition of a pandemic by excluding reference to the words “with enormous numbers of deaths and illness.”

Last edited 3 years ago by Digitis Impudicus
Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

The coronavirus seemed to me to be all smoke and no fire. If it wasn’t for the media telling me 24/7, I would have been completely unaware of any pandemic.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
3 years ago

The possibility that the virus leaked from a lab was always just that. A possibility. Not crackpot speculation. The problem for us rationalists is that where the virus is concerned, there is lots that we still don’t know. And for those of us who are not virologists, much that we may never grasp. The air is now, predictably, thick with the sound of axes being ground by Monday morning quarterbacks, generating more heat than light. But at least the BBC has been denied its favourite soundbite about the UK having the worst death rate in Europe.

Tiny C
Tiny C
3 years ago
Reply to  Graeme Laws

The problem for the early suggestions that it was due to a release from a lab was that it was tied up with the idea it was deliberate which is highly implausible. Also the wet markets are such a mass of new diseases and droplet creating activities that it was a reasonable possibility. However the probability that the disease came from their lab went up the more evasive the Chinese became to the point that it now looks highly likely.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
3 years ago

There’s a genuinely interesting story lurking in here about the little community of internet rationalists but it’s still unclear if Tom will ever write it.
I’m pretty much the prototypical guy who should be a part of that community: spent years working in Silicon Valley, reads Scott Alexander and has done for a while, writes articles about Bayesian reasoning, conspicuously refuses to read the room when saying things that are believed to be true (often to the frustration of managers and colleagues), etc etc.
And yet I’m now very glad I never really associated myself with that whole set, because – and there’s no nice way to say this – the last year has been disastrous for their credibility. The “Rationalists” have collectively put a bullet through their own heads because when it came to the crunch they wet their pants and immediately forgot everything they were so cooly writing about just months before.
Everyone should treat psychology skeptically because it’s filled with underpowered studies on 25 undergrads, they said! But also, everyone should freak out about COVID IFRs estimated from 25 cases!
Every problem they claimed to be campaigning against suddenly surfaced in their own behavior. They were huge fans of Bayes Theorem and superforecasting, but when they heard on Twitter about a predictions of an extraordinarily low probability event, they forgot to ask what the prior probability of false positive predictions was. An important question given that epidemiology over-predicts epidemic sizes by multiple orders of magnitude with P=1.
And sadly once they or other ‘spokes-rationalists’ publicly committed that movement to the super pro-lockdown position, they couldn’t row back. Just like Dom Cummings, many of those people still believe that mask mandates and lockdowns really work, despite the overwhelmingly strong evidence to the contrary. Some are still fist-bumping even though “COVID spreads primarily via fomites” died as a theory a year ago. Their self-proclaimed rationalism is of no use to them now it seems, because to recognize what a giant hole the experiences of Sweden, Texas, Florida and so on blow in that whole narrative would render them no longer rationalists, but worse, failed rationalists. Or phrased another way, just ordinary middle class people who spend a lot of time blogging but in the end can’t call the big ones any better than anyone else.
Although the above sounds mean, I’m actually quite sad about all this. The rationalists do at least care about the right things. I should be (and once was) naturally allied with Cummings, and believed he could achieve great things in Number 10. I cheered when he brought in a superforecaster and was dismayed when the decrepit Westminster elite puked him out for saying things that, on being checked, turned out to be true. What better evidence could there be that government required the cold winds of rationalism to blow through its corridors? And yet it’s clearly failed.
All this has made me even more of a libertarian. There’s one group of people who are allowed to change their minds without suffering any social consequences, who can commit themselves to a position and later reverse it without losing their careers or reputations, and that’s large groups of voters. Whether they vote with a tick or a dollar makes little difference – they can change their views as new information comes in without suffering for it. That’s a capability no amount of clever blogging can ever replace. The way to stop COVID mass hysteria happening again is to drastically reduce the size of the government, and drastically increase the number of referendums controlling whatever remains.

Paula Jones
Paula Jones
3 years ago

The smoke under the door turned out to be the deaths of elderly people kicked out of hospital beds to die and infect others, unequal policing of protests during lockdowns – dependent on the ‘sensitivity’ of the matter being protested – and the creeping authoritarianism as the public’s ready compliance emboldened the politicians. The trouble is, that smoke was coming under the door that was behind us, so nobody was even looking.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paula Jones
yeadon_mike
yeadon_mike
3 years ago

This discussion ignores the fact that every central narrative point we’ve been told is a lie. We’ve been told there are no safe & effective treatments when there are copious options which have been suppressed. See Dr Peter McCullough et al review in American Association of Physicians & Surgeons website.

William Cameron
William Cameron
3 years ago

The Media seem to be the actors in the smoky room. So busy trying to wrong foot everyone they ignore the danger they are creating with their misleading reporting.

Sue Ward
Sue Ward
3 years ago

I too “saw the smoke” in February 2020 as I have friends in the Far East and watched the pandemic emerge through their experiences. My British colleagues and family looked at me with bewilderment as I started using sanitiser and avoiding crowded places. However by the time I read about Diamond Princess and 3 weeks of lockdown had passed I was becoming more sceptical: this was clearly a problem for some cohorts but not for everyone. It was not the Black Death.

The problem with Cummings is he saw the smoke in February 2020 but apparently he can still see it now, long after the fire went out! Of course his other problem is his Barnard Castle jaunt. One rule for me and one rule for thee is never a good look!

Last edited 3 years ago by Sue Ward
Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

The thing about Cummings and Johnson – that music hall act you were told was compelling but which actually made you want to chuck cabbages – is that they understand one thing very, very well:

You do not have to fool all of the people all of the time, you only have to fool most of the people some of the time.

It matters not one little bit if someone can read you like a book, because if you have pulled the wool over the eyes of ten people for every one person who can read that book, you are home and dry..each and every time.

This is the lesson for the 21st century: democracy is no protection against despotism. The modern despot has learned how to harness the democratic process to serve his own ends.

Last edited 3 years ago by Kremlington Swan
Adam C
Adam C
3 years ago

Welcome to the most recent instalment of Tom’s fantasy island, where he yet again imagines he’s a free-thinking maverick, pushing against the elite consensus with a dose of hard-hitting truth.
Rather than someone thoughtlessly repeating the blind hysteria, panic and junk science he’s picked up in his right-on and righteous twitter bubble.
Tom, Lockdowns are the elite consensus. And after all this time, the only thing you have to justify them is those dodgy models and seeming ignorance over the urban density of Sweden.
Cognitive dissonance is PITA, but really, pretending that Lockdowns have worked in the face of real-world evidence, just because your mate who does modelling said they do, and you know it’s obvious that the sun goes around the earth etc, is just a bit embarrassing.
Wait until you hear that Covid is endemic though. And that viruses perpetually mutate. The implications of that will blow your mind. PERMANENT LOCKDOWN! EVERYONE PANIC, FAUCI WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG! etc etc.

Tiny C
Tiny C
3 years ago

The problem for Boris vs Cummings is that the Herd Immunity plan existed at least as far back as 2007. I doubt that it changed much up until March 2020. It wasn’t an MP construct, it was created by experts and was originally conceived as a response to H5N1 that had a case fatality rate of 80% upwards. The scientists assumed that if it ever jumped to humans it would become much less fatal* and the plans considered a cfr of 2.5% with 50% of people catching it and 10% hospitalised. The psychologists decided that the public would not stand for lockdowns and a policy of business as usual was devised. They read the room wrong. I pointed out at the time that they never put the population stats and worked out that the hospitalised would decimate the NHS and the pop up hospitals would be useless without staff to operate them. Even as 2.5% were dropping dead, we’d be demanding to work. Really? All the plans were geared towards that and so when covid struck they had no plans for what we actually did.
I proposed (to anyone who would listen) that if you started at a pandemic of 80% fatal and asked ‘would we do X eg shut borders at that cfr’ it would give a better idea if such a measure would be necessary. I’m not sure that we’d have expected to have lockdowns at under 1%cfr but at least we’d have had plans for something worse and could have used them for covid.
* like the Chinese, the West has done gain of function experiments on diseases, one of which was bird flu H7N9. Taking 2 ‘mild’ strains found in Chinese wet markets they combined them to produce a strain that was not only transmittable but 100% fatal. Scared the pants off the scientists and the authorities. The idea that diseases get milder the more they spread has always been a myth (in the short term) as H5N1 proved when it changed from a mild strain to one that wiped masses of wild birds out.
But all that seems like the plot of a movie, especially as the 2009 swine flu pandemic was such a non event. Governments and doctors were sure that a modern health service could handle a modern pandemic, even when they never plugged modern population figures into the equations. At first the scientists and politicians like Boris thought covid was a bit of an adventure that we’d excel at. They didn’t read the room that many wouldn’t act like there was crisis going on thus take any protective measures and certain parts of the community still aren’t (see Bolton). Whereas others would act like we were back in 1918 (cfr 3%-5%). I don’t know what they built their behavioural policies on but they failed to read the rooms.

Karen Jemmett
Karen Jemmett
3 years ago

I tend to see the world through the eyes of someone with terminal cancer… I just want to get off the God awful carousel and enjoy what little time I have left to myself. Is that a good analogy for leaving a smoke filled room? It’s the hope that’s unbearable…

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

I wish I could make a resolution I could adhere to. A number of times now I have decided that once people have made their minds up there is no dissuading them.
I don’t know what it is that stops them. It is as if their opinions are held down by elastic. When you put a contrary view there seems to be the possibility of some movement, but the elastic snaps them back into the existing belief.

There would be more eloquent ways of putting it, for sure. Perhaps there is a model of cognition which explains the extreme reluctance to change one’s mind. There are certain beliefs people simply won’t give up, no matter how much evidence is paced before them. They just ‘know’ they are right.
I looked at the tests that were done on masks. The data I looked at showed the efficacy of N95 grade masks when they are sealed around the face and when they are not sealed. Their efficiency dropped spectacularly when they were not sealed. Hardly surprising, since air was venting around the edges quite freely.
There was additional data which demonstrated the filtering capacity of the different materials ordinary barrier masks were made of.

However, what was missing from this table was data which showed how effective these barrier masks were when sealed and not sealed.

And that is nor surprising, either, because in order to breathe in a mask that effectively filters exhaled air you have to have a valve built in, or it has to fit so loosely air can escape around the edges.

I believe the data was not included, or not even collated, because it was obvious that it would have no relevance to masks that could never be sealed around the face (unlike N95 masks).

I then reached the conclusion that virus suspended in aerosol form would pass in and out of people’s lungs quite unimpeded by any of the face coverings that were being used day to day.

There followed from that the conclusion that wearing these masks would not just fail to stop the spread of the virus, but would accelerate it as people collected together in groups to do permitted activities.

I have tried to put this argument – it is no more than that – to people on so many occasions I have become quite exhausted by the effort.

Not a single person has even accepted the possibility that my perspective might be valid, let alone changed their mind from the belief that masks work.

Jos Vernon
Jos Vernon
3 years ago

Tom back on form! A small topic but a goodie.

One has to be a bit cautious of these experiments. It’s interesting how people behave in extreme circumstances but one has to bear in mind that is precisely because they are extreme circumstances.

You can be sure that if the test subject worked part time in the fire department that they would have a reaction. Smoke is not an extreme circumstance for them.

Likewise during the pandemic plenty of experts have had opinions. Sometimes they are seeing the smoke but unfortunately much of the time they are just plain wrong.

Superforecasting requires a level of independent thought but the main thing we know about it is the the thought has to be independent from your own thought – your own prejudices. People with ideologies almost always make terrible superforecasters.

I like Cummings. He’s a sort of magnificent beast. The kind of animal you would admire in a zoo. But he’s a ridiculous person and his ideologies are directly at odds with the type of person he want to be.

Mavericks are different. They are not the same as superforecasters because they are looking for the black swan. When they are right they create paradigm shifts that change the world. But unfortunately 99% of mavericks are just opinionated idiots.

Nigel H
Nigel H
3 years ago

The problem with reading the room, and behaving accordingly, is that now one is expected to behave like the room wants one to behave.
Then it becomes that one is expected to think like the room is thinking so now all are thinking accordingly.
When everyone is thinking the same, all that usually proves is that the thinking has now stopped. 

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel H

”Groupthink” is Key to Modern ”Experts” SAGE needs stuffing. 4 legs Good, Two legs Bad?…

Ian Standingford
Ian Standingford
3 years ago

Allied to this is the concept of the “Overton Window”. This defines what it is acceptable to say at any given time. There is, of course, little relationship between this and what we actually think or feel….

andy thompson
andy thompson
3 years ago

This smoke on this occasion is coming from Cummings himself; he’s burnt toast. ‘Hell hath no fury like an ex SPAD scorned’

Last edited 3 years ago by andy thompson
Pete Pritchard
Pete Pritchard
3 years ago

The room is generally full of absolute idiots. Reading it is very easy. Do the opposite thing as the idiots.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

Interesting article. I guess if Cummings is not so good at reading the room and Johnson’s main (only?) skill seems to be reading the room and pandering to it it was inevitable that they’d fall out.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
3 years ago

Interesting and a reminder of my own experiences. One well known old example is the madness of repeating the same experiment in the hope of different results. Or to try two fixes at the same time, indeed fixing something but not knowing which was successful. In Cummings’ case, he isn’t a herd creature and, viewing the herd’s mistakes, took all herd behaviour as wrong regardless. Add a sprinkling of ego, narcism and elevation to the corridors of power, et voila, he sees smoke, yes, but whose? None that concerns his little world..

Last edited 3 years ago by Zorro Tomorrow
Jesse Jones
Jesse Jones
3 years ago

Reading the room is a valuable skill, but it is of little use when the room is full of cretins, as it has been so throughout the Covid experience. The only sensible option then is to see the smoke and make a rapid escape.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago
Reply to  Jesse Jones

Bud I done wanna die of de covid, innit. It be deadly and sh(t and OMG you are well sexist for even saying that?

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
3 years ago

There might be something of a false dichotomy here. Cummings is extremely good at “reading the room”. His terrified and gauche performance before journalists when Boris hung him out to dry showed that he has a very good perception of values and what happens to people when they breach them.
And he might be great at “seeing the smoke”, but an ability to ignore the consensus does not make someone an expert epidemiologist.

Anna Lloyd
Anna Lloyd
3 years ago

i think it’s just called plain old intuition and the confidence not to follow the herd. It’s not rocket science. People with shallow emotions have to calculate everything to the tiniest detail and invariably get things wrong. Unfortunately, it’s these types that run the world now because it’s dominated by numbers. Perhaps that’s why I intuit that I live in a Digital Dystopia?

Jorge Toer
Jorge Toer
3 years ago

Interesting facts about human behaviour,,but all ways, the best is to investigate the source of the smoke, without care about the rest of people do.
Is on this days a storm of manipulative manifestations against Israel’s government&military&Jewish in general.
A profoundly investigation about reality is cero&everyone follow the same.
To stop and think ,,is not to be members of the club,,a very sad facts.

Tim Gardener
Tim Gardener
3 years ago

Is Tom arguing that a couple of blog posts “Seeing the Smoke” and “The Hammer and the Dance” (combined with the Imperial Model) were enough to tip Mr Cummings over the edge and into lockdown fanaticism?
And this is a good thing?
Furthermore it was appropriate for the government to panic and make truly draconian interventions based entirely on the precautionary principle?
What about all subsequent evidence on (i) the cost in terms of human suffering as a result of lockdowns; (ii) the inaccuracy of the Imperial models (we were promised fewer than 48,000 deaths if we implemented all the non-pharmaceutical interventions); (iii) the demonstrable uselessness of face coverings; (iv) the government’s use of misinformation and fear as a weapon against the people. Where is the smoke?
The Hammer and Dance Man should be hanging up his hammer and his dancing shoes.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim Gardener

The fascinating thing in all this is the extent to which a comforting lie is not just believed in the face of concrete evidence that undermines it, but defended with alarm and hysterical accusation.
So successful with their manipulation have the behaviourists (who advise the government) been that people insist on hanging on to the face coverings that the behaviourists understand create the fear that makes them impossible for people to give up.

I’ve got news for you people, you who lurk in the shadows and do the devil’s work: you are going down, not up. Laugh it up while you can.

Last edited 3 years ago by Kremlington Swan
Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago

Normality bias: people refuse to consider the awful or extraordinary

  • watch Vesuvius as you are vaporised
  • its impossible to leave the EU
  • Covid is a big globalist plot and virus labs don’t leak
  • UFO’s are sheet lightening
Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

I find it funny that some people who recognized the COVID inevitability early, and point back to their early recognition as signs of their brilliance. They don’t point to all the times they got other predictions wrong, and realize that this was perhaps just one lucky call.
My wife (a psychiatrist with a deep interest in, and years of reading about, infectious disease – who also manages our retirement savings) called COVID in Feb, sold most of our stock before the COVID crash, then bought back at bargain prices. God bless that woman!! However, her take on it when I tell her she was brilliant is “meh, I could have been wrong and ended up looking like an idiot”.
I won’t even get into my feelings about lockdown being unethical, undemocratic, and communist, as opposed to the “correct response” as is implied by this article…

Stewart B
Stewart B
3 years ago

The 10% who ignored “the room” and went to check on the smoke presumably didn’t discover a fire but rather researchers pumping smoke into the room.

It is an experiment about human behaviour and says nothing about whether non-conformists are right or wrong.

Who cares whether Cummings can “read a room”.

Last edited 3 years ago by Stewart B
Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago

Another thought provoking piece from Chivers.

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago

Let us never forget how all the Very Serious Vox people insisted it was SO RACIST to be concerned about the virus in Feb 2020.

ed martin
ed martin
3 years ago

so what’s new in populist politics?
whether its Argentina’s peronism or UK’s debt/inflation obsession.
and what do we learn?

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

Dear Dom,

You are said to have a brain. Would you mind explaining why you are wearing that mask in that photograph?

Would you mind explaining to everyone what use you think it is?

The gaps that can clearly be seen around the edges are, to a clump of a million virus, like the Grand Canyon is to a ping pong ball.

zsretic1701
zsretic1701
3 years ago

Room of doom? I guess we were not staying in the same one. Obviously article is confusing efficiency of the early lockdowns with the one’s awareness over the gravity of the problem. It is not entirely clear if forcing entire population in closed spaces potentally facilitated spreading of Covid19 against the conventional winsdom that it stopped.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
3 years ago

I saw the smoke in Feb/Mar 2020, by which I mean I was terrified of what would happen to the country if it were shut down. After being bellowed down by the left wing authoritarians I knew, I shut up. But I was still terrified.
I also believed the story about the lab leak. It was the most plausible. I endured a lot of sneering and jeering about that too, and about my belief that the Wuhan virus was seeded in Europe in September 2019.

Last edited 3 years ago by rosie mackenzie
si mclardy
si mclardy
3 years ago

I did not realize that it is a foregone conclusion that we could have eradicated the virus with harsher lockdowns implemented earlier? obviously the earliest lockdown would have been to stop cooking up damn viruses in a lab. When New Zeland has their freedom back I will evaluate how well lockdowns work.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Cummings was presumably employed by Johnson as the proverbial ‘out there’, possibly on the spectrum’ blue sky thinker, not just as a tedious, workaday second guesser.

The thinker of the unthinkable, the sayer of the unsayable, that unique person at the vanguard who could see things that others, even the amazingly bright ones, apparently couldn’t.

In short, he had a name to live up to.

If he’d waltzed into every No.10 meeting and proceeded to agree with everyone on everything or just kept schtum each time then that mystique he’d spent years apparently crafting around himself would have disappeared pretty toot sweet I should imagine.

Thus the real art, it seems to me, isn’t so much just ‘seeing the smoke’, that’s less than half the battle, but convincing enough of the others in the room to see it too and, on that last point, if what Captain Hindsight is saying is true, he utterly failed to do so.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Roger le Clercq
Roger le Clercq
3 years ago

Reading the room aka groupthink. The very reason UnHerd is so well named

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
3 years ago

You morons have to start tuning into Steve Bannon. Since March 2019 he has had the Chinese whistleblower on who worked in the Hong Kong virology lab that was intimately connected to the Wuhan lab. She escaped and yelled from the roof tops that this virus came from the “Gain of Function”, weaponization lab. Raheem Kassam from the National Pulse has repeated this but none of you morons wanted to anything but the CCP talking points: “Conspiricy theory” and “Wet Market”. You are joke!! And now you are exposed.