It is sheer hubris to think you can ‘defeat’ a virus

by Sean Walsh

So, the introduction of the new test and trace app went as well as expected. Which is to say, not very well at all. There seem to be two main problems with the latest “world beater”: one third of those who will be contacted as a result of downloading it will be the victim of a false alert; and probably at least a third of us will be unable to download it anyway, as our smart phones cannot run it.

This government’s forlorn, and hubristic, attempt to “defeat” a virus via the introduction of technology is starting to remind me of an episode of Last of the Summer Wine, in which our heroes build a contraption out of an old bathtub and a second hand set of roller skates, and then stress test it by crashing it down a hill. You know the episode I mean: every episode. Rarely did the optimism which gave birth to the Heath Robinson contraption survive the brutal interventions of physics.

Step forward Matt Hancock, the Foggy Dewhurst of the government’s repeatedly embarrassing corona strategy.

Given Mr Hancock’s recent explanations of (cough) “the science”, I’m surprised he’s allowed out by himself (perhaps he isn’t). Nowhere is his ignorance – whether wilful or confected – more obvious and more damaging than when it comes to the embryonic scandal of “false positives”. And this really should be a scandal.

According to the government’s own statistics, when it comes to corona testing there is a likelihood that 0.8 per cent of corona tests return a false positive. Not simply that they identify a person who used to be infectious but now no longer is (there are plenty of those); but that the test itself is intrinsically flawed.

This is how consequential that statistic is: when the objective prevalence of this disease is lower than the false positive metric, then it can mean a massively redundant inflation in the “case” statistics. If, for example, out of a sample of 10,000 tests 100 people test positive then only 20 (100 minus 80) will really have the infection.

Mr Hancock has publicly and serially got the maths wrong, having insisted that the 0.8 per cent figure applies to positive tests and not to tests as a whole. And having been corrected, he has treated these epistemic inconveniences in much the same way that Comical Ali denied the presence of the tanks which appeared over his shoulder during the ultimately ill-fated (but well intentioned) set of “interventions” which we inflicted on Baghdad in 2003..

I’m not a particularly vindictive person so I’m prepared to concede that Mr Hancock is more stupid than he is malignant. The alternative would be to conclude some version of a conspiracy theory in which he is distorting the maths in service of the distillation of fear. I think it’s more likely that the equally pernicious virus known as “confirmation bias”, having been incubated in the dimly lit Cabinet Office rooms which host the groupthink-echo-chamber known as “SAGE”, has managed to get a grip on his thought processes .

The alternative – that he knows what he says is misleading but says it anyway- seems to me to be deeply terrifying (as an aside, on this point do take a look at philosopher Quassim Cassam’s Conspiracy Theories – I read it under house arrest in April and I recommend it as a stocking filler for all those relatives Mr Hancock will ban you from seeing at Christmas).

But Mr Hancock’s mathematical illiteracy is as nothing compared to the curious nature of the Whitty-Vallance show last week. In fact, I’m tempted to borrow from the Prime Minister himself and say that in terms of general idiocy there was an “iron law of geometrical progression”.

Anybody can put up a graph saying anything. But the Burke and Hare of contemporary viral strategy did so in a context within which people take them seriously. As advocates of the scientific method, they bear a responsibility to represent the science responsibly. They did no such thing. Instead they presented selective versions of the data which seemed to confirm only that they have been robbed of the ability to think for themselves – Stockholm Syndrome by PowerPoint. To present a graph which maps a geometrical progression onto the fag end of a set of real-time data is to do violence against the idea of genuine scientific methodology.

Yes, Mr Whitty, it’s possible that this might happen – that there might be 50,000 new infections a day by mid-October, but to impose a set of mathematical assumptions on to real data is to get things the wrong way around. The “laws” of maths have, in themselves, no causal powers. They are reflections – summaries – of a world they describe; not a world they determine.

This government has become in thrall to “science” without really understanding the inconstant and capricious character of its suitor. It’s not just that there is no such thing as “the science” – the more basic involves a failure to understand the nature of science itself. “Science” is only possible because the natural order has decided, unaccountably, to be intelligible to us. There will, therefore, be aspects of that order which we might, on grounds of modesty at least, be prepared to concede that will be unknowable to us. The path of a virus, I submit, might be one such case.

And we do really need to discuss death. To make the minimisation of death figures the primary ambition of any medical strategy is spiritually and religiously questionable. For any conservative with a religious sensibility the attitude towards death is straightforward and yet paradoxical: death is inevitable, and yet has been conquered. But I guess that’s a discussion for another piece.

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