No sacred cows

Dissent over coronavirus research isn’t dangerous – but stifling debate is

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

One of the paradoxes of the coronavirus crisis is that the need for public scrutiny of government policy has never been greater, but there’s less tolerance for dissent than usual. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London, which has done so much to inform the government’s decision-making. Remember, it was Professor Ferguson’s prediction last month that an extra 250,000 would die if the government didn’t impose extreme social distancing measures that led to the lockdown last week.

Anyone questioning Professor Ferguson’s analysis is likely to be met with a tsunami of opposition. Witness the furious reaction provoked by Professor Sunetra Gupta and her team at Oxford University when they published a paper suggesting half the UK’s population could already have been infected. The Financial Times printed a critical letter co-signed by a group of scientists that was reminiscent of left-wing academics denouncing one of their colleagues for dissenting from woke orthodoxy. They used the word ‘dangerous’ in their description of the Oxford research, as if merely challenging Imperial’s model would cost lives, and Professor Ferguson has made the same argument to condemn other critics of his work. ‘It is ludicrous, frankly, to suggest that the severity of this virus is comparable to seasonal flu — ludicrous and dangerous,’ he said.

But it’s only ‘dangerous’ to question his research if you take for granted that it is correct. What if the claim that 40 million people would have died if the world had carried on as normal is wrong? The Oxford modelling was criticised on the grounds that many of the assumptions made by Professor Gupta were ‘speculative’ and had no ‘empirical justification’, but the same is true of the Imperial model. The FT’s Jemima Kelly said Oxford’s research should be taken with a large dose of salt because it was ‘not yet peer reviewed’, but Imperial’s paper hasn’t been peer reviewed either. As John Ioannidis, professor in disease prevention at Stanford University, has pointed out, some of the major assumptions and estimates that are built into the Imperial model — such as the case fatality rate — ‘seem to be substantially inflated’.

A more prudent approach would be for the government not to place too much confidence in any one model, but to encourage different teams of experts to come up with predictions of their own and challenge their rivals. That’s the tried-and-tested scientific method and it has been bizarre to see respected pundits and senior politicians simultaneously argue that we should be strictly guided by ‘the science’ and that any scientist expressing dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy is behaving ‘irresponsibly’. Wasn’t that precisely the same argument used by the Chinese authorities for silencing the doctors who first raised the alarm in Wuhan? Shutting down dissent during an actual war might make sense, but in a war against a virus it is vital that we should stick to the scientific method. As Sir Karl Popper said: ‘The point is that whenever we propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it.’

We don’t want to repeat the mistakes we made during another viral outbreak, namely the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic. Tony Blair’s government adopted a strategy of pre-emptive culling which led to the death of more than six million cattle, sheep and pigs, with an estimated cost to the UK economy of £8 billion. That strategy was informed by predictive modelling produced by a team at Imperial College led by, among others, Professor Ferguson. Like today, there wasn’t much appetite for questioning his predictions. But we now have good reason to believe his analysis was wrong. Michael Thrusfield, professor of veterinary epidemiology at Edinburgh University, has written two critical reports about the government’s response to that epidemic, concluding that the Imperial College modelling was ‘severely flawed’.

I’m not arguing that Professor Ferguson’s advice this time is wrong, or that we should ignore the social distancing measures that the government has introduced. But before deciding to extend the lockdown for a further six months, we need to subject the assumptions built into the Imperial College model to more rigorous scrutiny. The best way to defeat this enemy will be to keep faith with our commitment to intellectual freedom, not to abandon it.

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