Science and journalism

The Wall Street Journal:

Give Neil Ferguson a break. Nearly two weeks ago Mr. Ferguson, an epidemiologist with Imperial College London, issued a report on Covid-19. Much of the public attention focused on his worst-case projection that there might as many as 2.2 million American and 510,000 British deaths. Fewer paid attention to the caveat that this was “unlikely,” and based on the assumption that nothing was done to control it.The report was one reason that led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to change policy and lock Britain down. Under the Imperial College model, the projection was that the steps Mr. Johnson had been taking would cut the number of projected deaths in half but still leave about a quarter million British dead.
Now Mr. Ferguson has clarified his estimates. He told Parliament this week that he now reckons the number of deaths in the U.K. “would be unlikely to exceed 20,000”—and that many would be older people who would have died from other maladies this year. With the measures now in place, he believes Britain’s health service won’t be overwhelmed.

Critics are bashing him for the revisions, but not so fast. Mr. Ferguson didn’t change his model so much as adjust for new circumstances. In particular he believes that Covid-19 is more transmissible than he previously had thought—but because strong measures had been implemented, deaths would be far lower than his worst-case scenario.

There’s a warning here about science and journalism. Surely if we hope to neutralize a pandemic we don’t fully understand, we need to encourage a culture in which scientists feel able to adapt and clarify with new evidence. Scientists would also help themselves if, in explaining their findings, they would be more candid about the assumptions and variables.

This goes double for the press. It’s no secret that the press’s reputation has taken a credibility hit in this crisis. Nor is it any secret why: Instead of a presentation of what we know and don’t, too often the focus has been political scapegoating or sensationalizing.

[Last] week on “CBS This Morning,” U.S. Surgeon-General Jerome Adams complained about a press that runs with projections “based on worst-case scenarios.” He was talking about ventilators, but his point applies across the board. Deborah Birx, coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, said the same regarding apocalyptic forecasts not backed by data about hospitals having to issue Do Not Resuscitate orders.

In the battle to save lives and address the scourge of Covid-19, good information is paramount. Credit to Neil Ferguson for clarifying his projections when the situation changed.

It’s as if the media is rooting for the worst that could happen, or something.

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