Our interlocutors in the comment thread to Leading Scientist Walks Back Doomsday Claim suggest that the doomsday scientist (Neil Ferguson) who panicked the world did not walk back his claims. They say his new statement is the same as his old statement, so “there is nothing to see here; move along.”
Let’s test that claim. In the original report* Ferguson said “we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2 million in the US” if there is no mitigation effort. That is what grabbed headlines and motivated politicians.
Ferguson then discusses some intervention strategies, and on page 8 he writes that the “most optimal” combination of strategies “is predicted to reduce peak critical care demand by two-thirds and halve the number of deaths.” Read that again. He is saying that even if the most optimal combination of mitigation strategies were implemented, deaths would still be 255,000 in GB and 1.1 million in the US.
Ferguson then goes on to discuss “suppression” as opposed to “mitigation” strategies. Nowhere in the narrative does he mention that 20,000 deaths is a reasonable estimate if these strategies are implemented. Instead, on page 16 he repeats his 255,000 and 1.1 million claim.
Now it is true that if one expends the effort to really dig into the granular details of the report, a cell in a huge chart on page 13, suggests that if the “PC,CI and SD” strategies are implemented, instead of 550,000 deaths there would be 20,000.
Now, here is the bombshell. On page 10 of the paper, Ferguson says that his numbers are based on the assumption that suppression strategies are in place for FIVE MONTHS. Why is that important? Because on Wednesday — a few days into the implementation of strategies that absolutely no one is predicting will continue uninterrupted through August — Ferguson said, he is reasonably confident total deaths will be less than 20,000.
Summary, it is true, as our interlocutors have said, that buried deep in the report the number 20,000 appears. To suggest, however, that any reasonable reader could come away from the report understanding that this was the least bit likely is absurd. Indeed, the number appears nowhere in the narrative. Instead, the 2.2 million and “best case 1.1 million” numbers were thrown out repeatedly. If Ferguson intended to say that 20,000 was a remotely reasonable estimate of the total deaths that could be expected, the absolute best thing that can be said of his original report was captured by Kairosfocus: “That points to lack of balance in the original promotion.”
I say, however, that Ferguson really has walked his original predictions back. Yes, 20,000 is buried in that table. But that misses the point. That table is based on suppression efforts that last five months. To say mere days into efforts that will certainly last a small fraction of five months that 20,000 (and probably less) is his new number is most certainly radically different from what he said two weeks ago.
All of which leads me to conclude that our interlocutors are wrong. Ferguson really did walk back his claims.
A few hours after I posted this article, I was on the phone with another lawyer planning distancing protocols for a meeting next week. He said there will likely be a million cases in the US by next week. I thought he was kidding at first and replied, “You think it will jump from about 80,000 to one million in one week?” just to make sure I understood him. He said, “yes, that is what the logarithmic growth curve indicates.”
If Ferguson intended to provoke this sort of wildly panicked response, he succeeded brilliantly.
*BTW, Bob O’H, what shape would you call the curves in Ferguson’s report. I call them “bell shaped.”