Regular readers of this column may recall that, looking forward at New Year, I often refer to my favourite reading: The Coffee Table Book of Doom. Here is a flavour from the advertising blurb:
“…with the apocalypse at hand, don’t fret about dying uninformed. The Coffee Table Book of Doom is a revelatory, brilliantly funny, superbly illustrated and erudite compendium of all the 27 doom-laden horsemen we need to worry about – personal doom, gender erosion, asteroid impact, pandemics, super storms, sexual ruin – and much more besides.”
So, this year we actually had the pandemic.
Strangely however, despite a prediction of 500.000 deaths, an examination of the Office for National Statistics website shows that 2020 Spring/Winter deaths were far from exceptional over the last quarter of a century or so, and that the number of deaths have often been higher.
For years commentators will pick over the measures that we took to control the virus and history will judge. Even if I am ultimately proved wrong in the sceptical stance that I have taken, I believe the questions that I asked, and which have remained largely unanswered, have been the right ones.
Correspondents tell me to be silent because that I am unqualified to comment on science. I am sensitive to the criticism because it is true: I never got beyond O levels in 1973, indeed I failed Chemistry (having caused mayhem in the practical by using a 5 molar solution of sulphuric acid rather than a .05 molar solution, or something like that anyway. Maths was always my weakness, although I did acquire a reputation as a boffin during a residential accountancy training course. One evening, a delegation of students came to my dormitory to see if I had managed to solve the simultaneous equation with which they were all having such difficulty. They found me relaxing with Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I cast my eye over the equations and immediately came up with the solution. They looked at me in awe. I’ve never been able to account for it, perhaps just a complete fluke. In any event, it was to no purpose as I had decided that there had to be an easier way of making a living and was already planning my escape.)
We cannot allow ourselves to be led by experts. They need to make their method and their conclusions understandable and persuade us of their validity. We cannot have Doctor Heinz Kiosk ordering us about because he alone understands that it is for our own good. I fear that this is what has in fact happened throughout this pandemic. Ministers, against their natural inclinations, have followed advice to introduce restrictive measures with devastating consequences. I believe that they were ‘bounced’ by science and data-modelling that they did not understand and lacked the ability to establish its validity. That’s why I’ve advocated a competitive set of advisors to, at the very least, arm ministers with the right questions to ask.
Of Course, I acknowledge the possibility that the authors of the latest dire warnings and lock-downs may turn out be right, but it is prudent to be sceptical. Acceptance and reluctance to challenge are the worst responses for a politician.
The temptation is to remain silent for fear of revealing ignorance. I remember attending a presentation by a think-tank recommended by David Cameron’s strategy guru, Steve Hilton. I went with Greg Clark, now Chairman of the Commons Science & Technology Select Committee, who has a brain the size of a planet. It was complete gobbledygook to me. What a relief when we left and Greg turned to me and said “I have absolutely no idea what that was about”.
Again, I recall attending a lecture on space and time by an eminent scientist who raised the possibility of the same object being in two places at one time. When he illustrated this with a table, pointing to one leg ‘here’ and then the other leg ‘there’. I knew immediately I had wasted an evening.
Remember it was not the little boy’s courage that revealed that the Emperor was not wearing any clothes, rather it was naiveté.