UK measures against Covid-19 — cosmetic and inefficient

29 Mar, 2020 at 10:58 | Posted in Politics & Society | 11 Comments

The error in the UK is on two levels. Modelling and policymaking.

First, at the modelling level, the government relied at all stages on epidemiological models that were designed to show us roughly what happens when a preselected set of actions are made, and not what we should make happen, and how.

covidThe modellers use hypotheses/assumptions, which they then feed into models, and use to draw conclusions and make policy recommendations. Critically, they do not produce an error rate. What if these assumptions are wrong? Have they been tested? The answer is often no. For academic papers, this is fine. Flawed theories can provoke discussion. Risk management – like wisdom – requires robustness in models …

Second, but more grave, is the policymaking. No 10 appears to be enamoured with “scientism” – things that have the cosmetic attributes of science but without its rigour. This manifests itself in the nudge group that engages in experimenting with UK citizens or applying methods from behavioural economics that fail to work outside the university – yet patronise citizens as an insult to their ancestral wisdom and risk-perception apparatus. Social science is in a “replication crisis”, where less than half the results replicate (under exact same conditions), less than a tenth can be taken seriously, and less than a hundredth translate into the real world …

So what is called “evidence-based” methods have a dire track record and are pretty much evidence-free.

The obvious policy left now is a lockdown, with overactive testing and contact tracing: follow the evidence from China and South Korea rather than thousands of error-prone computer codes. So we have wasted weeks, and ones that matter with a multiplicative threat.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb & Yaneer Bar-Yam


  1. The last sentence should end “… multiplicative and mutating threat.” The more hosts, the more mutations that are the fittest for that type of hosts. Relying on herd immunity may cost you the heard.

  2. “The obvious policy left now is a lockdown…”
    Obvious ?? Is a vaccine likely in the next few months? Or years?
    This article is the worst kind of naive myopic panic-stricken over-reaction.
    It makes no attempt to compare the health and economic consequences of alternative strategies over the medium and longer terms, allowing for uncertainties regarding vaccines.
    Hard life and death choices are unavoidable. The article provides no suggestions on the options, their analysis or how decisions could be reached.
    The Chinese lockdown and other measures may have stopped the spread of the disease temporarily, but this is not a long term solution, nor one that will work throughout the world for more than a few months. The Chinese are now terrified that there will be a second wave.
    Fortunately it seems that the USA government is currently doing more serious thinking.

    • What should be defined as serious thinking depends on what one define as serious. If economists can not find support for the saving of threatened human lives in their economic ideology, this ideology and the economists that follow it may try to cancel their membership in the human race. But the virus will not take any special consideration to them because of that.

  3. To control any process, you have to have a model (a theory of system and mechanism) and a flow of information (aka “feedback”).
    I would think it obvious that stupid (no model or a faulty model) and blind (no information or bad information) are not likely to work as control strategies, but apparently in our computer age quite a few have failed in their education to grasp these pre-requisites of control.
    The great failure of the U.S. to test widely among people who were not acutely ill was catastrophic in its consequences, but no one was fired for that bit of monumental incompetence. Now measures devastating to the economic welfare of the country are being adopted, with melioration of that devastation being lavished on the worst and richest. If as Kingsley suggests any one is thinking, they are thinking about how to steal more.

  4. Lockdown is stupid for me because I regularly self-isolate outdoors. But I am such an outlier apparently that even Taleb ignores my existence. Perhaps I am not a squeaky-enough wheel? Taleb and policymakers seem perfectly willing to punish me by forcing me off public land, when I am taking great care not to shed virus outdoors. The healthiest thing I can do is get outside, stay in the rainforest for a week at a time, alone. But Taleb eagerly shuts down my access because even though I’ve been a germophobe for over a decade, now I get lumped in with all the rest of you who called me crazy for worrying about chains of transmission.
    If the danger is respiratory, the fresh clean moist air in a stand of old growth is the best treatment. But I’m forbidden because the modelers don’t have me in their models and so they gate off the outdoors. I guess I’m acceptable collateral damage. Taleb should be consistent and advocate for liberalized suicide markets, because lockdown is worse than the disease, for me.

    • When dealing with a major outbreak, surely creating problems for a few outliers is acceptable. How much resource should be spent checking up on you and providing you with an exemption certificate when so much resource is needed trying to help the majority comply with necessary quarantine-style measures?

      • A state cop kicked me out of a public campground last week. He could have made an exception.
        In the end, it should be your responsibility not to catch this virus. If you are afraid, self-isolate yourself. Wash your hands when you go to a public site. I wiped down the surface of the table at the campspot. At another, dispersed site I moved to after being evicted from the campground, I was not in danger of infecting anyone because I avoid people. I also try not to break possible chains of transmission back to animals by burying all biological waste, packing out trash, and practicing leave-no-trace as I always do.
        Why should I be deemed guilty without trial?
        Lockdowns are about much more than this virus. When Governor Cuomo justified the suspension of civil liberties by saying “your actions affect my health”, he is fundamentally mistaken: you should take responsibility for your health, and use words and teach by example to get others to behave as you think they should.
        In my case, I am doing my best not to spread virus. It is much healthier for me to self-isolate outdoors. The closest contact with another human I had was with the cop telling me to leave the campsite.
        I would love to take soil samples and measure how long this virus survives outdoors. Does sunlight kill it? How long does it survive on dirt? If I bury waste, does that keep it away from mammals long enough for the virus to die?
        Shutting down my access to the outdoors is a vast overreaction that says more about control than public health. I am doing my due diligence. Government should not ignore my existence. Forcing me indoors results in huge stress. Saying “stay home” is like saying “let them eat cake” to those of us without stable homes. My preferred home is outside.
        Again, government should at least legalize suicide so I can opt out of your crazy, controlling, irrational, distasteful society and its arbitrary and fickle rules.
        Of course you can just ban my posts and hope I disappear quietly. If I kill myself (as my brother, my long-time best friend, and my father did), at least it won’t show up as coronavirus-related, so that’s a win for government lockdown statistics …

        • “I also try to break possible chains of transmission back to animals” (delete the “not”)

    • Or, they do not admit to the “model” they have.
      In a model of mechanism, it makes no sense to exclude individuals observing appropriate social distance from public parks and the like.
      In a model of moral meaning, however, you should be suffering. I saw a piece by Rod Dreher writing at the American Conservative, that exemplified this kind of perverse puritan thinking. His editor headlined Dreher’s essay, The Selfish Revelers.
      This is oddly relevant to economics, where the moral preaching of right-wing toads consistently beats out more functionally realistic analysis.

      • Yes, the public policies of Washington State are about much more than this virus.
        Compare Sweden:
        “[S]wedes love the outdoors – and officials have said that forcing people to stay inside would be physically and mentally unhealthy.”
        I was listening to a Canadian radio station while violating stay-home orders last week and wishing my government was as reasonable; Vancouver officials explicitly said that no one would be charged for being in public when they had no place to go. My governor has been strongly threatening the opposite.

  5. “According to Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, the dominant voices in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the scientific expert group advising the government, were mathematical modellers and behavioural scientists, including Halpern.”

    “Anthony Costello, a UK paediatrician and former director of the WHO, also fiercely criticised the decision to stop tests. “For me and the WHO people I have spoken to, this is absolutely the wrong policy,” he said. “The basic public health approach is playing second fiddle to mathematical modelling.”

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