The professor is treated with leniency, even when he gets it wrong
Something Professor Neil Ferguson said to Politico yesterday jumped out at me. Defending his prediction that Covid cases in this wave would reach 100,000 and possibly 200,000 (they seem to have peaked at less than 50,000), he mused, “I’m quite happy to be wrong if it’s wrong in the right direction.”
It seemed quite a significant reveal, that he openly considered overly pessimistic forecasts to be “wrong in the right direction,” and so I put it on Twitter. Perhaps predictably, it was widely shared — this single tweet has currently been read by 850,000 people.
Prof Neil Ferguson tells Politico:
“I’m quite happy to be wrong if it’s wrong in the right direction.”
But why is making overly pessimistic forecasts an error in the right direction? The fact that gov scientists think that way has enormous consequences.
— Freddie Sayers (@freddiesayers) July 28, 2021
I then had a pang of guilt. As some people commented under my tweet, had I misinterpreted the professor? Perhaps all he was saying was that the health of the nation is more important than his predictions and so he is naturally happy that the situation is better than he had feared? Was I unfairly twisting his words into a “gotcha” moment that never happened?
But consider this more charitable explanation. Even if that is what Prof Ferguson did mean, it surely reveals the same thing: that because the outcome is better than feared, he is able to use the positivity to brush over his faulty forecast. The jaunty “happy to be wrong” language does not suggest a man who is gravely confronting the real-life consequences — in terms of life-changing government policies, widespread anxiety — of his overly confident, overly pessimistic prognostications. Instead it suggests exactly the misapplied precautionary principle mindset that has driven his detractors mad during this pandemic.
Meanwhile, spare a thought for those scientists who were “wrong in the wrong direction”. For his errors, it looks like Ferguson will get away with a wrap across the knuckles from pollster Nate Silver and a snarky piece on the cover of The Daily Telegraph. For her apparently over-optimistic early speculations, Professor Sunetra Gupta has been subject to an unremitting and widespread campaign of public humiliation, along with attempts to smear her as financially corrupt and a wicked Right-winger. Even today, the Guardian and other media outlets are still trying to gain access via FOI requests to Oxford University to all her private emails with colleagues, advisors, journalists and doctoral students, in an attempt to uncover wrongdoing of some kind. It must be terrifying. Imagine the disincentive to future academics and scientists — why would anyone speak out?
When I interviewed Neil Ferguson early in the pandemic I had no doubt of his sincerity, and that is still true. But there’s a demeanour of certainty, the posture of the expert who calmly has all the answers, that is not helpful; there’s a distinct ideological tilt in favour of collective action that crosses over into the political; and a sense, with all those media interviews and romantic photoshoots leaning wistfully against trees, that he enjoys the attention rather more than you would hope for an infectious diseases boffin. That he has worked out how to survive and thrive in the political media conversation is pretty self-evident.
When you consider the enormity of the impact his advice has had on societies across the Western world, it seems fair to hold him to account.