by Freddie Sayers
Thursday, 29
July 2021
Debate
14:33

Have I been unfair to Neil Ferguson?

The professor is treated with leniency, even when he gets it wrong
by Freddie Sayers
NeilFerguson

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.

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.

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Sue Julians
Sue Julians
1 year ago

I am in complete agreement. The way Gupta has been treated is shameful, has anyone been completely correct? But she is constantly and repeatedly vilified, yet Ferguson seems to have more lives than a cat.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago

You have not been unfair at all – you were right to fire back. In fact you should take him to task further for trying to present his incompetence and negligence as somehow being “good”.
If there were no downsides to lockdowns and overly protective measures – then sure, better to be safe than sorry.
But he knows, we know, every-f-ing one knows it’s not that simple.
It is utterly irresponsible for him to present it as a binary good/bad option. His horrendously pessimistic wrong predictions almost certainly will have caused the deaths of many more people through the damage done elsewhere.

Last edited 1 year ago by A Spetzari
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

To me his words mean he intentionally makes his numbers high for political reasons, to generate fear, and thus compliance, and to justify the draconian abuse of personal freedom the Government is doing, and the insane wrecking of the economy and education. He is a Quisling.

Mike Poppleton
Mike Poppleton
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You’re maligning Ferguson as a scientist. Making allegations of his motivations which you do nothing to substantiate; I find this offensive in a public discussion forum. And your “Quisling” remark is just plain trolling. You really need to give some evidence/analysis to back these allegations up.
It’s well known that models produce a great variety of results, depending on input data sets, and even more, built-in assumptions about future behaviour of variables. The paper is interesting, but pretty light in its criticism of Ferguson: close reading his statements, even the quality of his photos and public image. Rather thin stuff.
It does suggest more interesting questions about systematic bias in media coverage of public experts, and comparisons, like the one he makes with Prof Gupta. I recall one estimate of the +ve vs -ve coverage of Jeremy Corbyn before the pre-election moratorium: about 75% of coverage, in right- and left-leaning sources, was negative.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mike Poppleton
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Poppleton

OK, I bothered to answer you as others may have drunk as deeply from the kool-aid as you, so may get some ideas of the reality of the covid response by this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwSkHHi-Gx8

These are two uber-Liberlas, but as they say a Conservative is a Liberal who was mugged by reality, so are they undergoing a change after the mugging. Bret Weinstein has been here on Unherd (uberherd) and done by Freddy as well, if you look back…

Anyway, the gist of the video is ‘Corruption’ “as I got closer to Medicine it gets really corrupt” he says of his research in biology Bret calls it ‘Capture’, corruption taking the regular people, and resistance can be futile.

(USA’s absolute power, absolute corrupt Fauchi controls $80 Billion grants as head of NIS, and gets to give it out to researchers based on how much they stick to his agenda driven policies – so research is only done in USA where Fauchi approves) – Ferguson is a mere tiny pawn in this all, but is a pawn.

At minute 37 he gets the story going, when he says ‘WAR PROFITEERS’ as the ultimate example we understand of a industry corrupting a government, and society even. ‘Military Industrial Complex’, as President Ike put it, or even ‘military–industrial–congressional complex (MICC)’

And Bret then explains how the entire university research industry has also fallen under what I call the ‘Medical Industrial Complex’ – and Now days the ‘COVID Industrial Complex’.

Politicos have been as ‘Captured’ by the Covid Industrial Complex, as it has been Captured by them, they are a conduit of untold Billions of $ to the mega rich and powerful, and total police powers to the Politicos.

This is Fascism, the welding of Government and Industry into one super body, and it is what we have today – but watch the video if you can put down netflix and what ever lurid horror it has on to distract from the squalid horror of modern reality.

The governments are corrupted to the core, what is called ‘The Swamp’ and this Trillions of covid spending, (90% pointlessly) is the greatest spending ever, on par with WWII, and so the corrupt buzzards are feasting on the misery, just as ‘Daddy Warbucks’ did off WWI arms profiteering.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Mike, sorry I snapped back in the post above – the thing is people excuse the one’s whose power and wrong convictions destroy huge amounts of people. I cannot so radially forgive – if you are making vital policy, and do it with full conviction , then the blame lands on the one deciding.

WWII can teach us all life’s truths, and the more you understand WWII history the more you understand mankind.

Do you know General Gamelin? He was the BAD, and WRONG, General who handed France to Hitler, and thus the most dreaded war in human history ran as it did.

He relied on the Magenoit Line (as Patton said, ‘Fixed Fortifications are a monument to human stupidity’) He then scattered his tanks and armor and even men all over the border, so when the Germans punched through he could not assemble a defense. Gamelin sat on in a distant castle as Headquarters where he allowed NO telegraph or radio (security reasons!) and all communications in and out to the army had to go by motorcycle carrier!!! So he lost France Catastrophically, although they were as armed and maned as the Germans. THEN General Petain took over, and what a vast idiot he was!

Now you can say these guys were top experts (and were thought so, both WWI Heroes) so we cannot call them idiots, but …

I malign Ferguson (‘You’re maligning Ferguson as a scientist.’) because he lost the covid war, he was WRONG, he used bad data and a supreme self confidence to do more harm to the world than can be understood. Naturally the IDIOT Boris is ultimately the Captain of the ship, but the navigator he appointed just ran the ship strait into the iceberg. That is why I malign him! He has wrecked the country, and by doing so has given succor to other World Leaders to do the same to their nations!

USA Had Fauchi, who was EVERY bit as bad, but Trump did not just hand him the reigns – (Should have fired his corrupt a*s though)

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

PPPS

““Quisling” remark is just plain trolling.”

He surrendered the country without a shot fired. Ferguson surrendered the country to covid, he got everyone locked down, got the government printing Trillions to pay them, to import all the goods they were not making wile locked down and to pay all the business shut, and schools emptied, and NHS shut the doors to the citizens, and the Billions and Billions printed for the ultra wealthy and the Covid Industrial Complex. The word fits.

Mike Poppleton
Mike Poppleton
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Hi Sanford
Thanks for your detailed replies above. I can’t give them or your references the time they deserve right now but will get back to you as soon as i can

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

Picking up that comment and responding as you did should not be the cause of any guilt on your part, Mr. Sayers.
“I’m happy to be wrong if it’s wrong in the right direction” might be a phrase that scientists use amongst themselves and know exactly what it means, but as a layperson, I cannot wring any clear meaning out of it whatsoever. And where there is ambiguity, there will be interpretations and the accompanying range of different reactions – all of which will have some level of justification (provided they are rational).
I interpret this phrase as a kind of “better to have been safe than sorry” which many people will agree with without further ado. However, in view of the serious effects which overly pessimistic forecasts had in the real world during this pandemic, I find this kind of breezy rhetoric disturbing and arrogant.
A “yes, I was too pessimistic and this did have certain negative consequences which I acknowledge but let’s all move forward now”, would have been more suitable (if not quite so snappy-sounding).

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
John Hicks
John Hicks
1 year ago

Eleven million sheep and cows have reason to regret this Mr.Ferguson “got it wrong in the wrong direction,” back twenty years ago. Then the disease was foot and mouth. Although the 149,800 people then selected by Neil Ferguson to accompany the demise of the sheep and the cows, will today be able to celebrate him “getting it wrong in the right direction,” through their failure to also succumb as he then predicted.
Scientific over emphasis is hugely destructive in any context. It has greatly diminished the credibility of climate science too. It is, I think, a very important matter to discuss. Sanford Artzen provides a credible reason. “Right directions and Wrong directions” are subjective appraisals having little to do with science or with its practitioners.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  John Hicks

Don’t call it climate science. It has nothing to do with science. It is the wishful thinking of a group of malignant indviduals who have founds a means of making the world pay attention to them and extorting money at the same time.

jill dowling
jill dowling
1 year ago

I thought he’d resigned from Sage for proving himself a total hypocrite and clearly not believing his own bull. Why are we listening to him?

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
1 year ago
Reply to  jill dowling

Personally, I wouldn’t mind him being a bit of a shagger if he was nailing the day job too.

Mike Poppleton
Mike Poppleton
1 year ago
Reply to  jill dowling

Look , he resigned after admitting breaking the restrictions, like a number of leading figures have. Can you substantiate “clearly not believing his own bull” ? Do you have some insight to his mind you can share with us ?
If you can’t, you’re just sounding off against someone you don’t like. Not very enlightening.

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
1 year ago

Absolutely agree. The key point is in Freddie’s tweet – that being overly pessimistic in a forecaster is just as heinous a sin as being overly optimistic since both potentially have grave consequences.

chuckpezeshki
chuckpezeshki
1 year ago

It’s very difficult to understand the current crisis in epidemiology through the lens of cultural evaluation of one person — obviously, there are multiple people at any one time inside a culture (Ferguson/Gupta) yet the way that they are treated, as well as what they think are dramatically different.
If we look at things, however, through a relational/knowledge lens, then the reasons jump out in relief. That’s what I write about. I call this perspective Structural Memetics. It is transcultural, and looks at how social networks and their connectivity create influence as well as knowledge on the individuals inside the various systems. It is a dive into the DeepOS of how humanity operates — a window into The Matrix.
If you’re interested, you might read this piece. Why, indeed, are people so fixated on masks? The answer will surprise you.
https://empathy.guru/2021/07/19/the-structural-memetics-of-masks/

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  chuckpezeshki

The issue has not been Epidemiology from the earliest times when the questions of who and how many were getting in focus, say April 2020.

This is entirely actuarial, and then the choice on whose human years are better risked, and how much harm to society is worth what level of cost for what outcome of whom. Then the epidemiologists can plan their defense, once they know the cost parameters and goals.

That the old and infirm were ‘protected’ by destroying the education of the young, that the young will carry a huge burden to repay, that the very nation is put in economic peril, that all citizens lost all personal freedom, self determination, – many lost Business, jobs, savings, travel to see family and friends, mental and physical health…THOSE were the Choice. THEN the epidemiologists could lay a plan, once you First figured who should carry the costs. The old and infirm, as all history says are the last to spend limited resources on – or the Young and the productive who make the money and raise the children and keep society going, and build the future. It was decided everyone would harmed, no Triage as any same disaster calls for.

chuckpezeshki
chuckpezeshki
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Might read that piece I posted — it pretty much supports your thesis — but on a DeepOS level.

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
1 year ago

This maniac and all his enablers should be in jail for their crimes against the people.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

No, he is a pawn. The Political leaders looked at their stable of experts, judged them each by how much appointing them would further the political goals, and so selected this sociopath. He gave them carte blanche to engineer what ever effect they wished – which was obviously to beat society into submission, make the wealthy very wealthy indeed, and I suspect, to break the Middle Class. (by breaking the economy, which is coming soon)

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

Freddie – kudos from the East Coast of Canada. You are exceedingly fair and reasonable. As a physician, I think you have a great grasp of science and the issues that feed off it in the wider social discussion. Keep up the good work.

Graff von Frankenheim
Graff von Frankenheim
1 year ago

You should have been far more harsh with this ridiculously alarmist quack, who, besides being a charlatan and a poltroon, is probably secretly funded by the Chinese like everyone else at Imperial College. We should get an UWO (undisclosed wealth order) on this guy and vet his finances for the last 30 years.

kathmelia2
kathmelia2
1 year ago

‘Happy to be wrong’ is the smug line of a closet fence-sitter. Second guessing public reactions to narratives based on inflated worrying statistics and models is a dangerous game with unintended consequences.
Your judgment on both occasions, Freddie Sayers, was sound.

Keith Dudleston
Keith Dudleston
1 year ago

At first sight, there does seem to be a double standard going on here. One Prof admits to breaking the rules, resigns and is quietly reinstated while his adversary is pilloried, investigated and smeared. Who is behind the campaign against Prof Gupta? Why not do a bit of investigating yourselves?

James Joyce
James Joyce
1 year ago

Isn’t this exactly what Tony Fauci has done in the US? Didn’t he say that he DELIBERATELY lied to the public about what he believe the % necessary to reach “herd immunity,” because of something along the lines of his belief that this was what the public might be willing to accept? His plan–and he followed through–was to then “move the goalposts,” saying Well, now it’s really 60%, not 50%, and then edge it up a notch.
This is an excellent essay, though Freddie should have no pangs of guilt. Neil Ferguson deserves to have his errors, dissected and analyzed, and he is not above legitimate criticism.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

The true number of cases has been more than 50k a day: 62K according to civid Zoe; and it’s quite possible deaths will be running around 100 a day in the next two weeks. Nobody can explain the sudden drop in cases. Nobody, with knowledge of epidemic theory, would have predicted it. Ferguson was not an outlier.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jonathan Bagley