The satirist Ambrose Bierce once defined prophecy as the “art and practice of selling one’s credibility for future delivery.” Covid-19 has produced no shortage of doomsaying prophets whose prognostications completely failed at future delivery, and yet in the eyes of the scientific community their credibility remains peculiarly intact.
No greater example exists than the epidemiology modeling team at Imperial College-London (ICL), led by the physicist Neil Ferguson. As I’ve documented at length, the ICL modelers played a direct and primary role in selling the concept of lockdowns to the world. The governments of the United States and United Kingdom explicitly credited Ferguson’s forecasts on March 16, 2020 with the decision to embrace the once-unthinkable response of ordering their populations to shelter in place.
Ferguson openly boasted of his team’s role in these decisions in a December 2020 interview, and continues to implausibly claim credit for saving millions of lives despite the deficit of empirical evidence that his policies delivered on their promises. Quite the opposite – the worst outcomes in terms of Covid deaths per capita are almost entirely in countries that leaned heavily on lockdowns and related nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in their unsuccessful bid to turn the pandemic’s tide.
Assessed looking backward from the one-year mark, ICL’s modeling exercises performed disastrously. They not only failed to accurately forecast the course of the pandemic in the US and UK – they also failed to anticipate Covid-19’s course in almost every country in the world, irrespective of the policy responses taken.
Time and time again, the Ferguson team’s models dramatically overstated the death toll of the disease, posting the worst performance record of any major epidemiology model. After a year, some of the ICL predictions reach farcical territory. Their forecast of 179,000 deaths in Taiwan, which never locked down, was off by 1,798,000% (as of this writing, Taiwan has just 12 Covid-19 deaths). A similar story played out in other countries that eschewed the lockdown approach for the first year of the pandemic. Imperial overstated the predicted mortality of Sweden (392%), South Korea (17,461%), and Japan (11,670%) in the absence of heavier-handed NPIs than any of these countries actually imposed.
But what about the rest of the world?