The dumpster fire of COVID predictions has shown exactly why it’s important to sustain and nurture skeptics, lest we blunder into scientific monoculture and groupthink. And yet the explosion of “cancel culture” intolerance of any opinion that doesn’t fit a shrinking “3 x 5 card” of right-think risks destroying the very tolerance and science that sustains our civilization.
Since World War II, America has suffered two respiratory pandemics comparable to COVID-19: the 1958 “Asian flu,” then the 1969 “Hong Kong flu.” In neither case did we shut down the economy—people were simply more careful. Not all that careful, of course—Jimi Hendrix was playing at Woodstock in the middle of the 1969 pandemic, and social distancing wasn’t really a thing in the “Summer of Love.”
And yet COVID-19 was very different thanks to a single “buggy mess” of a computer prediction from one Neil Ferguson, a British epidemiologist given to hysterical overestimates of deaths, from mad cow to bird flu to H1N1.
For COVID-19, Ferguson predicted 3 million deaths in America unless we basically shut down the economy. Panicked policymakers took his prediction as gospel, dressed as it was in the cloak of science.
Now, long after governments plunged half the world into a Great Depression, those panicked revisions are being quietly revised down by an order of magnitude, now suggesting a final tally comparable to 1958 and 1969.
COVID-19 would have been a deadly pandemic with or without Ferguson’s fantasies, but had we known the true scale and parameters of the threat we might have chosen better tailored means to both safeguard the elderly and at-risk, while sustaining the wider economy. After all, economists have long known that mass unemployment and widespread bankruptcies carry enormous health consequences that are very real to the victims suffering drained life savings, ruined businesses, broken families, widespread mental and physical health deterioration, even suicide. Decisions involve tradeoffs.
COVID-19 has illustrated the importance of free and robust inquiry. After all, panicked politicians facing media accusations of “killing grandma” aren’t in a very good position to evaluate these tradeoffs, and they need intellectual ammunition. Not only to show them which path is best, but to bolster them when a left-wing media establishment attacks.
Moreover, voters need this ammunition so they can actually tell the politicians what to do. This means two things: debate that is transparent, and debate that is tolerant of skeptics….
How many times must humanity learn this lesson?