Science is not infallible

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Science is not infallible

Science is not infallible

Every morning, when I go for my regular stagger-stumble, I meet many of the same people in roughly the same spot. I do not know who they are, nor do they know me, but we wave, nod, smile, and exchange brief pleasantries. With social distancing in full throttle, it is not possible to have a quiet word with anyone these days. Everything is conducted at a shout.

There is the elderly woman, probably younger than me, who passes in the opposite direction each day. She has a spring to her step, walks at a fearsome pace, and we exchange, “Good morning!” at speed. She smiles, I smile, but neither of us has a clue about the other. I sometimes wonder if one day we will meet more formally yet realise it is unlikely to happen.

The situation this morning - 19 May 2020 (courtesy Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University)

The situation this morning – 19 May 2020 (courtesy Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University)

There is the overweight young man in a long, jet-black, fur-lined jacket walking hand-in-hand with his girlfriend. Neither looks English and the man’s coat is there in all weathers. The pair are always walking in the same direction as me, and surprisingly are even slower. They are the only people in London’s Hyde Park whom I am able to overtake. I want to spend time with them as well. I would like to ask, “Why are you here? What is your country? How’s it all going during lockdown?”

And the middle-aged couple, man and woman, I am sure from a distant European land. They walk side-by-side, never hand-in-hand, but always less than a metre between them. I have no idea who they are, but they are invariably in deep discussion and enjoy each other’s company. I wave to them, they sometimes wave back, but their pace does not waver for a moment.

I usually holler, “Good morning!” When I do, they respond with a half-smile, although never utter a syllable.

Today was different. I met the usual gang – the woman, the young couple, a few others, too – but this time the distant Europeans had ceased being a pair. There was just him, no sign of her. The man was walking solo for the first time since incarceration, sorry lockdown, made its unwelcome appearance.

“Where is she?” I shouted.

The man lifted his hanging head, briefly smiled, and carried on past, walking in the opposite direction.

“Your companion!” I called at the retreating form. “She’s not with you. Is she OK?” The lonely figure simply shrugged its shoulders as the man went on his way, his head dangling equinely downwards.

It means that I cannot wait for tomorrow, to see if the woman has returned. I will be there, first thing in the morning. These days, especially with the less sprightly, Covid-19 can strike without warning. Anyone at any time. Before you know it, you have become a statistic.

As the pandemic progresses, recrimination is beginning to gather pace. Politicians are being blamed for not having a crystal ball to see accurately into

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary - "We must continue to be guided by the science." Really?

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary – “We must continue to be guided by the science.” Really?

the future, because that is what is expected of them. There is nothing predictable about the virus. The Chinese are being accused of causing just about everything and, for the first time, have also supported a full review of the global response to this crisis. I was not expecting China to do that. Initially, they had opposed calls from the USA and Australia for the outbreak to be investigated, but now they appear to have relented. They have said the investigation should only take place after the pandemic is over. That could be a very long time, so a delay would be much to their advantage.

Perhaps more fascinating is to watch scientific dissent also gather momentum. Science has never been free of recrimination. Malcolm Kendrick, in his article The Mad Modellers of Lockdown, picks apart the earlier advice given to the government by Neil Ferguson of London’s Imperial College. I cannot see Kendrick and Ferguson meeting for a beer when this is all over. Here is Kendrick writing:

“The main point is why the bloody hell, how the bloody hell, did this man – and his group – come to hold so much sway. His figures underpinning the original model could not be verified, because he would not release the source data. Even if the figures had been available for scrutiny they kept swinging wildly about the place and have already been proven to be blindingly inaccurate.”

See what I mean about the beer?

If there is scientific distrust of the Imperial College recommendations, which led to the country being in lockdown, the same can be said about care homes. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Therese Coffey, has declared that some of the advice ministers received about care homes was wrong. Sky News asked her if the government had, in hindsight, made an error with their approach to the care sector. Given that politicians rarely, if ever, admit to a mistake, Therese Coffey replied:

“You can only make judgements and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time.”

More tellingly:

“If the science was wrong, the advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people then think we made a wrong decision.”

Science is being made a scapegoat.

Richard Feynman - science is at best inaccurate (Wikipedia)

Richard Feynman – science is at best inaccurate (Wikipedia)

I am directly involved with care homes at the moment. From being a war surgeon to becoming a care home adviser is not a role I had predicted. Strangely, I am finding it pleasant, time-consuming, my colleagues are charming, while the need seems to double daily.

The staff do work day and night and are there, often with inadequate protection, perhaps more in the frontline than their hospital colleagues. No one should ever forget them. I have a clear and vested interest. Somewhere well south of London, I have an elderly relative whom I have not seen for two months. She is being looked after in her home by a carer, and so far, both are intact. I am not about to forget what carers do for a solitary moment. Their workplaces should have been prioritised from the start.

Science continues to be cited. The politicians appear to be at their most comfortable when they are hiding behind it, without realising that science itself is at best inaccurate. This was summarised well by Richard Feynman in 1955, a long time ago:

“Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure – that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true.”

Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, so his words should be taken seriously.

These days, UK politicians repeatedly say they have been following the science when making their decisions. Brian Cox, the professor for public engagement in science at the Royal Society has recently declared that to say science is being followed is not an appropriate defence. With an unpredictable pandemic in progress, it is very easy to make a wrong decision. To blame science is to undermine the scientific process. This viewappears to be held by no other than the President of the Royal Society himself, Venki Ramakrishnan. He, too, has won a Nobel Prize and was knighted in 2012. They do not come more eminent in this country, unless you happen to be a member of the Royal Family.

Consequently, for modern politicians to say they are being guided by science is not a statement I understand. It is perhaps designed to give the bigwig an air of authority when so many politicians have a poor understanding of science and mathematics. I cannot say that of Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry and I wager can outthink her own scientists. But in UK, of the 25 ministers who attend Cabinet, only three have scientific backgrounds. Much of what the government has instructed has been based on scientific models. For example, the Prime Minister once talked about 500,000 deaths being avoided. How could he possibly know? That number came from modelling and was a number based on supposition.

A near perfect correlation, yet utterly improbable

A near perfect correlation, yet utterly improbable

This leads me to a question that I do not believe can be answered, certainly not by me. The fact that daily deaths in UK have now started to fall, is that because of lockdown, or would it have happened anyway? Might it be a spurious correlation? Such correlations are quite common, as shown by Tyler Vigen’s web site, Spurious Correlations. For example, Vigen shows that the number of people who die by becoming tangled in their bedsheets correlates precisely with the per capita cheese consumption in the USA. Or, the number of people who drown in a swimming pool correlates with the power generated by US power plants. These correlations are manifestly improbable, but they highlight well how difficult it is to say that one event was specifically related to another.

That is why the world needs scientists, who understand that science is imprecise. It has faults, as do we all, and must not become a political scapegoat.