An epidemic of doomsday forecasts

Worst-case scenario thinking has clouded political judgement for decades.

James Woudhuysen

Forecasts about the impact of Covid-19 have caused considerable controversy. For 30 years, I have been a professional forecaster, specialising in the social, economic and political dimensions of tomorrow’s technologies. And for years I have joked that, because of the 21st century’s acute uncertainty about the future, forecasters have never been in greater demand – and have never been less credible.

Some charge that good forecasts about Covid-19 should have been acted upon much sooner. For instance, the Daily Telegraph reports that in October 2016, government departments, NHS trusts, the military, the British Medical Association and more than 1,000 other organisations performed a three-day simulation of how NHS hospitals and other services would likely respond to a viral pandemic not dissimilar to today’s Covid-19. The operation – codenamed Exercise Cygnus – led experts to issue eerie warnings about lack of critical care beds and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). However, Theresa May’s government suppressed its results.

Others say that bad forecasts have been criminally complacent. The Times reports that, as late as 21 February this year, the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) declared the risk from Covid-19 to be merely ‘moderate’.

The critics are now rushing in. They indict politicians for ignoring the ‘good’ forecasts and thus failing to prepare beds, PPE, tests and ventilators. And they blame ‘bad’ forecasters for understating the threat from Covid-19.

But for decades, Britain has endured doom-laden forecasts about everything from health to IT and CO2. Science writer Matt Ridley is right to upbraid the authorities for having cried wolf about past epidemics, leaving them ill-prepared for this one.

As Frank Furedi explains in How Fear Works, since the 1970s the fading of society’s traditional motivations, ideologies and meanings, plus its growing confusion about values and morals, have made elites lack confidence about dealing with risk and uncertainty. Worst-case scenarios dominate their thought and their forecasting, especially when it comes to health. This state of panic and confusion also accounts for the failure to accept the more prescient kinds of forecasts which could have helped prepare for the right healthcare strategy.

Once the world is seen as beyond comprehension, forecasting The End becomes an easy position to default to. And when the claims of experts have to compete for attention, forecasters will often try to shout the loudest by fielding the most lurid predictions.

Exaggerated forecasts about epidemics go back a long way. In 1987, the Thatcher government sent a leaflet to 23million households in the country, proclaiming that ‘any man or woman can get the AIDS virus depending on their behaviour’. About a third of the leaflets went to homes with one or more householders aged over 60.

It wasn’t just disease that prompted official catastrophism. In 1988, Thatcher expressed her fear ‘that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability’.

The CIA continued to issue new alarms about Soviet power and intentions ‘almost until the very moment the Berlin Wall came down’. Intelligence forecasting was again found deficient in relation to the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. Later, very few economic forecasters saw the crash of 2008 coming.

Forecasts that the advent of the year 2000 would upset the world’s computers turned out to be ridiculously overstated – whatever revisionist ‘I saved the world’ accounts may now say. The greatest problem with ‘Y2K’, said a 1998 special report in The Economist, was ‘the extra uncertainty it will create just at the moment when the world economy is already becoming increasingly fragile’ (emphasis mine).

The threat of epidemics has long been magnified. In 1994, US journalist Laurie Garrett published an extremely influential 750-page tome called The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance. By the new millennium, the EU’s scientific steering committee announced that millions could catch Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the fatal human version of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In 2003, New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, talking about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), said that some World Health Organisation officials feared it could be as deadly as the flu of 1918, in which 20million people died.

Even that bid was soon trumped. In 2004, a United Nations official said that bird flu could pose ‘a far worse threat to humans than SARS’. Then, in America, in 2006, a top Wall Street expert in ‘business continuity’ warned a House of Representatives committee not of the growing loans bubble but of the financial sector’s need to prepare against bird flu.

In the late 2000s, with Lord Stern’s report on climate change (2006) and the IPCC’s fourth assessment (2007), the apocalyptic narrative briefly shifted to CO2.

But health returned to the centre stage soon after that. The Government Office for Science predicted that 60 per cent of British men would, by 2050, not just be overweight, but obese. It repeatedly referred to obesity as an ‘epidemic’ – something the World Health Organisation still does. Meanwhile, Labour health minister Alan Johnson warned that obesity was a potential crisis ‘on the scale of climate change’. His successor Andy Burnham warned in 2009 that Britain could have ‘over 100,000 cases a day’ of swine flu.

This is the forgotten, historical – and hysterical – context for the controversy around the modelling of Covid-19. Consistently, forecasts of epidemics have taken a walk on the wild side of pessimism. And, just as consistently, they have not been vindicated. No wonder the practical implications of Exercise Cygnus were never acted upon. Repeated cries of ‘wolf’ had for years only increased uncertainty in high places.

We can now see why first Theresa May, then Boris Johnson failed to make proper preparations for something like Covid-19. Was the reason complacency, incompetence, groupthink, bureaucratic sloth, general amateurishness or austerity? No doubt all of these things played a role.

Yet a much more powerful thread runs through every previous pandemic panic. Vision-free politicians defer to forecasters whose models are opaque, whose assumptions are often left unstated, and whose conclusions provide their makers and newspapers with a definitive-sounding, headline-grabbing pessimism to sell. Politicians pay lip service to these forecasts because they don’t know what to believe in anymore.

Both the failure to make preparations for and the yo-yo forecasts about Covid-19 reveal a ruling class uncertain of which way is up. That is why Britain is in such a deep hole.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University. He is also editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Picture by: Getty.

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18th April 2020 at 9:23 pm

“The CIA continued to issue new alarms about Soviet power and intentions ‘almost until the very moment the Berlin Wall came down’.”

And rightly so! It was only because the US and other governments paid enough attention to the warnings by the CIA and many others that the Berlin Wall DID finally come down, after a long and bitter struggle.

Dave Jones

15th April 2020 at 9:13 am

Very insightful article. We live in a world where information overload is all to easy to achieve.
We need better information, especially where it matters (that which is considered knowledge/expertise/used by politicians), dispassionate and sceptical criticism of all ideas. And not to incentivise so much those arguing from echo chambers/tribal identity group-think/corrupted activism, or scare mongering. Take a look at the state of our knowledge creating institutions, and peer review – the basis point for knowledge in our societies, and the culture that filters through to every part of civilisation.
(e.g. Bret Weinstein and Heather Haying’s critisisms on the topic )
They’ve almost become religious again. Except this time, (as a non-religious person) it’s no 2000 year old religion that has, for better or worse, stood the test of time, it’s the marxist-like religion of woke/grievance studies/identity politics, with just as much dogma, heresy, sacred truths, original sin groups etc.. and little in the way of redeeming features. Chapters of Mein Kampf re-written as intersectional feminism, accepted as “exceptional scholarship”.

We will need time to adjust to the information age. The free market can distinguish quickly between good and bad ideas, but those in the academic/charitable/governmental/political realm take years if not decades to filter good ideas from bad, how good/bad and why. Here is where the corruption of knowledge is most rife.

Maybe we could use additional/different structures to filter this knowledge for quality, that can now exist in the information age, like those that exist in the free market. Afterall, we only give one piece of information, a choice of ~4 options, to the government every 4 years to quantify everything about life which cannot be quantified economically through money, which is the information the economy needs to function, and it uses lots of this information very effectively. Yet we all hold in our hands devices that can communicate all knowledge in existence, at all times. Maybe the governments/universities could get more knowledge about what is important to the public than they do outside of elections through focus groups/petitions/twitter feeds/letters to politicians alone. Certainly not throwing out everything we have, but e.g. some way to have many smaller e.g. non-binding referenda. Or some way of handling the results of these many more referenda/pollings that didn’t clash with the current system. Even Reddit AMAs..

David Watford

14th April 2020 at 2:50 am

Had we responded to SARS as badly as we have to Coronavirus 19, and allowed it to become a pandemic, 6m people would have died in the first wave within 6 months. The worst case scenarios are if you do nothing, and exist to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Then 60-80% of the population will get infected and 10% of confirmed case will die in a country with an elderly population with a lot of metabolic syndrome. The 1919 Flu killed around 100m in three waves and SARS-CoV-2 is much more infectious and deadly for people over middle age.

And if we can’t develop and effective vaccine and treatment then the overweight and obesity epidemic will have been a leading contributor to severe and fatal cases of Coronavirus, and one of the first things we will have to prevent or cure if we have to live with the virus as a seasonal disease.

We didn’t do nothing about SARS, we were able to confine it to a small area and then after 2 years of constant action eradicate it with only 10,000 infections and less than 800 dead. In 3 months we have already reached 2m confirmed infectious oc SARS-CoV-2 and over 100,000 deaths and many who recover from severe cases will have life long health problems. This is despite banning travel, imposing quarantine, screening, testing, contract tracing, shutting down schools, universities, churches, restaurants, pubs, non-essential services and total lock-downs in areas with lots of infections.

And if we had made better preparation, and taken strong actions earlier we would be better off and have a much stronger economic recovery when it happens. This was the lesson from the 1919 Flu pandemic which we didn’t heed.

Stressing that HIV was a virus that could infect anyone was essential to informing the public and ensuring the support for measure like condom use, the supply of clean needles and dealing with infected pregnant women, that lead to rapid, severe falls in infection in countries like the UK and Australia who did that. In countries that didn’t do this you do see those higher rates of infection with 5% of Sub-Saharan Africa infected. Even the US has had nearly 700,000 AIDS deaths and 20% of the infected don’t know they have disease are are spreading it and not getting treatment. Why on earth would anyone advocate going done those paths?

Ronda Roman

14th April 2020 at 12:48 am

Thousand Of the Peoples are Died From Corona Virus…On The Other Hand Thousand Peoples Are Died By Poorness Its Means Poorness is More Dangerous As Compare to Corona Virus……Help Poors

Dave Gosse

13th April 2020 at 11:48 pm

“Once the world is seen as beyond comprehension, forecasting The End becomes an easy position to default to.”
I think this is the most perceptive statement in the whole article, but I would ask, “Why has the world seen as beyond comprehension?” The entirety of western civilization is built upon the belief that the world *is* comprehensible and that the human mind is the instrument with which it is comprehended. Have we committed intellectual suicide?

mister wallace

13th April 2020 at 10:42 pm

“Vision-free politicians defer to forecasters whose models are opaque,…” Wow, talk about describing ongoing global cooling warming pollie bear koala bush-fire ice melting end of life climate change.

mister wallace

13th April 2020 at 10:40 pm

Fuck off. Hey spiked! why are you allowing free advertising, for what is more than likely a scam, in your comments section?

Eliza beth

13th April 2020 at 4:11 pm

Thousand Of the Peoples are Died From Corona Virus…On The Other Hand Thousand Proples Are Died By Poorness Its Means Poornees is More Dangerous As Compare to Corona Virus…. Help Poor

Paul Donaldson

13th April 2020 at 2:02 pm

What is missing for me are the stats on total fatalities UK wide 2020 v 2019 along with the COVID-19 registered fatalities. Why? We might see if the COVID-19 fatalities are encroaching into other fatal categories or indeed whether they have introduced a spike compared to 2019.

Molly Jhony

13th April 2020 at 12:45 pm

Stay at home and be safe and Help the Health Care Foundation, Click to Help Poors

Steve Roberts

13th April 2020 at 10:29 am

A short but important article, it rightly places the present created crisis -this did not need to happen there were others paths to take – within the broader social, political and cultural climate we have lived in for decades.
Woudhuysen points to Furedi and the politics of fear which takes many guises and in a myriad of ways, many completely unpredictable and irrational. The POF also contains a defining feature, the precautionary principle, a risk aversion that affects all aspects of our lives from wrapping kids in cotton wool to the activities of the financial markets, it is everywhere.
Many are confused as to why a government, a Tory one,with a huge majority, recently installed with the majority of the nation behind it to “get brexit done” without any serious politcal opposition, have embarked upon this irrational path, repeating its three mantra’s daily while the social fabric is been torn apart and the economy crashing, and so much more that requires almost unprecedented state intervention with extremely serious economic and other implications.
There is much debate about this entire crisis but the reality is that a nasty virus, causing large numbers of deaths could have been managed , as viral attacks are every year, in a completely different way as many experts are saying.
So a virus, has resulted in the global elites, almost all of them, panicking in this extreme manner, the international implication across the entire geo political world will change, there is a very real possibility in each nation of a serious re ordering of society , that is not doom mongering but the reality.
That for me is the most worrying aspect in all this, that the response to a virus, not the black death, has caused the intellectual collapse of the elites, for which ordinary folk will pay the price eventually unless society takes a more positive progressive step forward.
It is difficult to see how , and this crisis is a big wake up call, how the present established order is fit for purpose, steeped in managerialism, no vision, defends the status quo and clearly incapable of dealing with an existential situation.
When all things are reflected upon after all this blows over,it could be considered that we have ruling elites who have become close in this crisis to being dangerous in their pursuit “to save lives” Incapable of breaking free from the POF, the PP, they adopted the worst case scenario of a mathematician of a “possible” 500K deaths. We are now witnessing the beginning of the results of that ill judgement, and as the article i think suggests was likely the decision they would make all things considered. This didn’t have to happen, we must remember that.
The ruling elites dug this hole, closing large parts of the world down, how will they extricate themselves from that hole ?

Philip Humphrey

13th April 2020 at 8:09 am

In my experience it’s usually what Donald Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknown” that gets you. All the things that we are made to worry about usually don’t happen. And all the doom mongers were not worrying about Covid-19 back in December/January when it might have been stopped or at least seriously slowed down. We now know that the Chinese authorities were lying and covering up and the WHO that should have seen the danger and raised the alarm utterly and dismally failed to do so. Most of the doom mongers in this country were still predicting doom as a result of Brexit.

James Knight

13th April 2020 at 3:21 pm

The unknown unknowns are what Nassim Taleb and others call “Black Swan”. If you have never seen a black swan and it seems very unlikely they exist. But they exist in large numbers.

The problem is covid19 is not a Black Swan, i.e. an unknown unknown. It was a white or maybe a grey swan. I.e. predictable from previous experiences. You only have to look how some countries have done a far better job than the UK.

mister wallace

13th April 2020 at 3:09 am

Now that ALL deaths are being attributed to the Wuhan Virus Flu (way to go with lying stats hey politicians?) then when a “cure” is found we will all live forever. In fact, those who have survived the worst catastrophe facing the world are probably now immortal.


13th April 2020 at 1:02 am

Yes but the entire human race has to die out at some point.

James Knight

13th April 2020 at 3:22 pm

Life is hard, then you die.

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