No Minister

A spherical cow of uniform density in a frictionless vacuum.


Neil Ferguson is the “gold standard” of disease modeling, according to the New York Times and Washington Post. So naturally the British Government turned to him for advice in dealing with the Chinese Bat Eaters Lung Rot Disease.

The following was the chart that scared the living daylights out of various governments around the world, not just Britain’s, when it appeared in March.


The chart was produced by the Imperial College epidemiological model, for which Ferguson is the spokesman and it portrayed the so-called “worst-case” scenario where US and GB societies did nothing. Not just that their governments did nothing, but that their people also did nothing. Needless to say the latter is not the modern experience of people facing a deadly epidemic: they were always going to change their behaviour, starting with limiting their contact with other people.
But the paper, that chart, and those terrifying numbers, forced governments to do something as well, which is how we ended up with our lockdown.
The thing is that the model had other scenarios for such reactions as well, and while they were also publicised they didn’t get quite the attention. That’s a pity because those scenarios, including so-called “best-case” ones, also totally over stated the death toll of COVID-19, usually by at least one order of magnitude. In the following series of OpEds I looked at this problem, and that of other related models such as the IHME ones in the US, and ours, which appear to have suffered the same problems.

Using the IHME model in the USA led to graphs like this one for New York City.

The reality on April 4 was 15,905 people hospitalized. The IHME model overstated the actual number by 400 percent. The same thing happened the next day, April 5.

This was produced well into the pandemic when input data should have increased in quality.

But it turns out that this is not the first time Mr Ferguson and his models have been off by huge margins.

2001 – CJD or Mad Cow, courtesy of the NYT:

But Dr. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist in another group of highly respected researchers led by Dr. Roy Anderson at Imperial College in London, said the new estimates were ”unjustifiably optimistic.” His group published estimates a year ago predicting that the number of variant C.J.D. cases might reach 136,000 in coming decades.

Twenty years later, we can safely conclude that Dr. Ferguson’s model erred on the high side of what “might” happen in subsequent decades.

2005 – Bird Flu, courtesy of The Grundian:

Last month Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, told Guardian Unlimited that up to 200 million people could be killed.“Around 40 million people died in 1918 Spanish flu outbreak,” said Prof Ferguson. “There are six times more people on the planet now so you could scale it up to around 200 million people probably.”

The Bird Flu’s death toll from 2003 to 2020 is 455.

2009 – Swine Flu, courtesy of the Daily Mail:

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘This virus really does have full pandemic potential. It is likely to spread around the world in the next six to nine months and when it does so it will affect about one-third of the world’s population. 

‘To put that into context, normal seasonal flu every year probably affects around ten per cent of the world’s population every year, so we are heading for a flu season which is perhaps three times worse than usual.

To be fair he didn’t shit himself over a death toll on that occasion, which is a good thing because the Swine Flu death toll globally eventually amounted to between 12,000 and 18,000 over a period of years.

The fact is that Mr Ferguson has a record of making stupid – and I’ll repeat that word – STUPID worst-case predictions about the threat of new viruses. And he has done so repeatedly, which indicates that there has been no change in the thinking behind these models or the models themsleves. Ferguson recently revealed that he hasn’t modified the thousands of lines of un-documented code he wrote years ago and it’s never been opened to the community for peer review. Oh – and it’s in “C”, which is damned near obsolete. Could have been worse I guess: COBOL?

Given how badly these models have screwed up, defenses of them have already begun to appear, of which this Atlantic Magazine article is one of the better ones:

At the beginning of a pandemic, we have the disadvantage of higher uncertainty, but the advantage of being early: The costs of our actions are lower because the disease is less widespread. As we prune the tree of the terrible, unthinkable branches, we are not just choosing a path; we are shaping the underlying parameters themselves, because the parameters themselves are not fixed. If our hospitals are not overrun, we will have fewer deaths and thus a lower fatality rate. That’s why we shouldn’t get bogged down in litigating a model’s numbers. Instead we should focus on the parameters we can change, and change them.

This asshole is just going to shrug off the social and economic devastation inflicted across the globe with talk of paring branches and how it could have been much worse. Jesus, it’s as though the writer is scripting Being There II:

As long the roots are not severed all is well. And all will be well…  in the garden.


I’ve picked it because it’s a great example of how small seeds of truth can be spun into defending bullshit. The models do not actually account for the “costs” outside of their frame of reference. They’re not supposed to, but the projections of huge death tolls caused decision makers to make equally huge decisions. Not litigate the numbers? The numbers are the whole fucking point. Without those numbers the models are meaningless.

That sort of blinkered shit is not acceptable. It is not acceptable that a model consistently blows out its best-case projections time and time again. It is not acceptable when that model is being used by governments to make society-impacting decisions that will damage the lives of millions of people. It would not be acceptable in engineering and most sciences, including much of medicine.

In recent interviews Ferguson himself has started to sound a bit more thoughtful as to the non-disease impacts and exactly how we’re going to get out of this mess, beyond the mere mechanics of how to lift a lockdown. That’s nice, but frankly he’d be the last person on Earth that I’d turn to for advice at this point.

I think he’s begun to sense that whereas all those older predictions were forgotten because nothing much happened as a result of he and his fellow geeks running computer simulations, this time they’ve had huge and terrible real-world effects. These models were given a high profile by people like him and massive coverage by the MSM. They were clearly represented as predictions of what would happen.

Fuck that. This is no longer an exercise in onanistic computer modelling. People like Ferguson and the IHME crowd and the Otago University chappies and their models are going to be investigated and people beyond the politicians are going to be held accountable.

See Also

Bonus feature: Mr Ferguson’s Headlines

2001 – CJD or Mad Cow Disease

2005 – Bird Flu disaster in America


2009 – Swine Flu 



Written by Tom Hunter

April 17, 2020 at 1:20 pm

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