When the Imperial College London coronavirus model released its pandemic predictions in March, the results were as shocking as they were terrifying. Under the coding of Professor Neil Ferguson, the computer program predicted that as many as 2.2 million Americans could die from the coronavirus unless strict lockdown procedures were followed. The model was used by the White House, the CDC, and government officials in the United Kingdom to make decisions about how far to take economic shutdown measures. And with those grim figures looming in the air, the answer was obvious: Take it as far as humanly possible.
Those early decisions – which have not entirely been corrected in the U.S. or Europe – may have cost the global economy untold billions in production. It’s just as foolish to be an economic doomsayer as it is a public health one, but the outlook does not look good. Certainly, it is hard to believe that every single one of the millions of jobs lost will come back. Indeed, with the restaurant and entertainment industry absolutely decimated by the shutdown orders (as well as the general public’s fear of infection), it is likely that many businesses will shut down forever. No government loan will be enough. Recession is here.
But did it have to be this way? How much did those early – and quite faulty – predictions affect the decision-making process?
And why were the predictions so…off?
The answers to those questions are still not clear, but a new article in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper shows that Ferguson’s model had some significant problems. Experts told the paper that the model was “totally unreliable,” producing predictions that could not be replicated by any other researcher.
“It was a buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming,” one data modeling expert told the Telegraph.
David Richards of British data company WANdisco said, “In our commercial reality, we would fire anyone for developing code like this and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust.”
No one, including the U.S. and the UK, relied solely on the Imperial Model’s grave warnings when deciding what to do about the shutdown. Other factors, including other models, the dire scenes coming out of Lombardy, Italy, and the uncertainty surrounding the method of coronavirus transmission, all played a role. But there’s no question that Ferguson’s botched program helped turn our global response into something…well, something it probably didn’t need to be.
Meanwhile, of course, Ferguson himself was ignoring his own lockdown advice so he could go rendezvous with his married lover.
Maybe he knew his model was junk long before everyone else did.