Commentary on The Price of “we Know Best

Brendan O’Neill:

It’s worth thinking about the largeness of this scandal. Ferguson’s scaremongering, his predictions of mass death if society didn’t close itself down, was the key justification for the lockdown in the UK. It influenced lockdowns elsewhere, too. Of course, this isn’t all on Ferguson. He does not exercise mind control over Boris Johnson. It was a combination of disarray among the political class and the wild clamouring of the media elite for the severest lockdown possible that led to the working people of Britain being decommissioned and almost the entire population being put under an unprecedented form of house arrest. But Ferguson’s figures, his graphs and models, his worst-case scenarios, were the godly pronouncements upon which this historic disruption of society was based. And Ferguson fully backed the lockdown that sprung from his work.

‘Godly’ is not an exaggeration. The speed with which Ferguson’s models – mere models, remember – were transformed into a kind of Biblical writ, a revelation of doom, was extraordinary. I had that number of 500,000 thrown in my face during media discussions about the lockdown. Anyone who questioned the wisdom of the lockdown, or merely suggested it should be very brief, would find themselves being battered by Ferguson’s figures. Almost overnight it became tantamount to blasphemy to question these models. Again, this wasn’t Ferguson’s doing. It was the political class’s dodging of moral responsibility for tackling Covid without destroying the economy, and the media’s searing intolerance towards anyone who questioned the lockdown, which led to the ossification of his models into tablets of stone that you queried at your peril. But in more serious times, a modeller would have bristled at the naked use of his work to enact unprecedented political measures. Ferguson should have said something.

Code Review of Ferguson’s models:

Imperial finally released a derivative of Ferguson’s code. I figured I’d do a review of it and send you some of the things I noticed. I don’t know your background so apologies if some of this is pitched at the wrong level.

My background. I wrote software for 30 years. I worked at Google between 2006 and 2014, where I was a senior software engineer working on Maps, Gmail and account security. I spent the last five years at a US/UK firm where I designed the company’s database product, amongst other jobs and projects. I was also an independent consultant for a couple of years. Obviously I’m giving only my own professional opinion and not speaking for my current employer.

The code. It isn’t the code Ferguson ran to produce his famous Report 9. What’s been released on GitHub is a heavily modified derivative of it, after having been upgraded for over a month by a team from Microsoft and others. This revised codebase is split into multiple files for legibility and written in C++, whereas the original program was “a single 15,000 line file that had been worked on for a decade” (this is considered extremely poor practice). A request for the original code was made 8 days ago but ignored, and it will probably take some kind of legal compulsion to make them release it. Clearly, Imperial are too embarrassed by the state of it ever to release it of their own free will, which is unacceptable given that it was paid for by the taxpayer and belongs to them.

The model. What it’s doing is best described as “SimCity without the graphics”. It attempts to simulate households, schools, offices, people and their movements, etc. I won’t go further into the underlying assumptions, since that’s well explored elsewhere.

Notes, here.