Professor Ferguson's transgression of the "lockdown" he did much to initiate is interesting because it affirms that he didn't really, in his heart, believe the interpretation the government put on his "science", argues Sean Walsh

A group of "leading scientists" has come out in support of Professor Neil Ferguson. In an open letter they argue that (what I will call)  his "personal idiosyncrasies" in no way detract from the credibility of his mathematical modelling. In a way they have a point: it is the record of his mathematical modelling that should make us sceptical about his mathematical modelling.  Is there a way of mathematically modelling the mathematical modelling of Professor Ferguson? Such a model would at least have the virtue of being based on a plausible variable: that he is always wrong. If his modelling can't be modelled, then what is the point of models?

I joke of course. Actually, I'm not sure. Maybe a "scientist" can tell me?

I don't know about you, but the tone of the letter strikes me as being a bit irascible. That's to be welcomed. Much like the "error of judgment" of Professor Ferguson, that tetchiness reminds us that scientists are human too. And their humanity is relevant to their work. It always becomes embedded in it. That's the way it should be. If you care about your work, then the end-product should bear something of the care you've put into it.

It's tempting to think of science as describing a trajectory from ignorance to truth. But like most temptations that's to be resisted. The graph of "scientific progress" is about as believable as something unveiled by the daily Chris Whitty/Patrick Vallance show. It's a useful way of thinking about something that you are naturally suspicious of.

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"Progress", in terms of scientific orthodoxy, implies that we know that we are progressing. How can we know that? On the basis of something we call "proof"?  Maybe, in the areas of mathematics and mathematical physics that's an available conceit. In the other "sciences" it's not that clear.

Science is an activity, not a discipline. Inevitably the human character of the scientist infects the research. And the history of science shows us that disputes between scientists were forms of the greatest human activity of all: the personal feud. The arguments between Einstein and Niels Bohr ? the two greatest scientists of the 20th Century -were neither scientific nor personal, but an admixture of the two. Einstein's genius was born of a certain way of reconceptualising the world in a way that Bohr didn't. The human characteristics of both geniuses were essential to their very distinctive worldviews. And the debate was a worldview one.  If there is such a thing as "the science" in this case, then it is inextricably contained in some way in the minds of two quite different people, thinking about the same issue in incommensurably different ways.

The human character is a fortiori  present in mathematical modelling.  It isn't just a case of "garbage in, garbage out", but a case of an initial assumption (which belongs to human choice) catastrophically deviating from the reality the model is purporting to describe and, hubristically, to predict. You could call it the "R" number: the way in which an initial programming error might ramify through the system in a way that collects mistakes on the way. The false model plays host to the initial error.

Professor Ferguson's transgression of the "lockdown" he did much to initiate is interesting because it affirms that he didn't really, in his heart, believe the interpretation the government put on his "science".  There is no way that a single mathematical model can exclude the vagaries of human behaviour. The human soul does not assert itself in accordance with an algorithm and therefore any model that is required to mathematise it will be flawed. There are unquantifiable harms being inflicted by this lockdown which are being visited on people every minute of the day.

That includes people losing their jobs. Undeservedly. It is deeply ironic that the person who did the most to lock us up is now an object of national humiliation. Ferguson has become one of the "invisible harms" and the fact that it is a sort of self-harm should not make us unsympathetic.

What Ferguson's very human transgressions have shown is that, contrary to the Downing Street carnival of fake statistics, there are real versions of harm being imposed by the government. Some of these are trivial in the scheme of things, but it's those we need to be reminded of. Ferguson's "bad week" (although it seems it was better than mine, if you get my drift) might mean he showed the country a version of misfortune that cannot be fed through the sausage factory of "modelling".

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