Covid-19 Vs the Computer Models

Chesterton once said something along the lines that with all the people making prophecies (in his day), every once in a while one of them was bound to get something right. Well, dire predictions have been made. Those who don’t look into these things may be thinking that the end of the world has come upon us. And maybe it has, but we really don’t know that. All we have is a computer model. And as it turns out, the model we were using yesterday is already as outdated as the Blackberry.

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In a great update yesterday, Dr Birx of the coronavirus task force tried to explain how the model that most countries have been using as a basis for responding to Covid-19 has been…changed. Is that a strong enough word when you go from predicting 500,000 deaths in the UK to 20,000 deaths in the UK? It’s certainly a welcome change for the 480,000 people who – as it turns out – might be going to live.

Because of the hyperactive sense of trust we have in science (ie ourselves), we are often led astray into thinking that these are prophecies of biblical certitude, when in reality they are just a little less certain than the weatherman’s predictions if you gave him 3 guesses. If computer models were even close to accurate, there would be no polar ice caps today and Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States. Immediately upon hearing this, there is a rush to stand and explain in sincere self-righteousness why we missed it that time but don’t worry, we have fixed the model and now we are SURE that the ice caps have only 500 days of survival left if we don’t spend a lot of money now, and some of it needs to go to the Public Library!

“Models are models” said Dr. Birx, and such a self-evident statement of truth need only be said in a society that had forgotten that. They can no more see the future than you or I. They are not omniscient, so they will never have all the data. They cannot see the curves in the road, so they can only make statistical assumptions. They have no opinions of their own, so they absorb the biases of their creators. Yet they are frequently cited by the media, relied upon by governments, and trusted by the masses. Maybe we should rethink that.

So let’s start with a few axiomatic principles we should all live by. First, we cannot predict what will happen tomorrow with a high degree of certainty, so we should not waste our lives on anxiety (Matt 6:34). That doesn’t mean we live for the pleasure of today (Prov 10:5), but it means we allow the daily waves of providence to bring us the good God is giving us in His time (for more on this, you should read CS Lewis’ Perelandra). Our world is more stable than it has every been, but we ought to know that it can change in a moment. Storms come suddenly without warning, and break just as quickly without warning.

Second, only God can tell us the end from the beginning (Is 46:10). We want people in charge to know stuff. But they don’t and they can’t. Honesty would compel a lot of people behind the podium to say “I don’t know”, which would send the media off in a huff looking for a candidate who knows something so another inaccurate headline can be splashed as click-bait across the internet.

Third, we need to quit allowing ourselves to be played by those who use these models to generate fear. Notice that I am not laying this problem at the feet of those creating the model, because they are just plugging available information into self-created algorithms that spit out a number. You get out of a computer model what you put into it. That can be a morally neutral process as well as a beneficial exercise. The problem is that, like a self fulfilling prophecy, the models become part of the story-line. And once responses are made based on those models, there is a personal, political, and economic cost to backing down. Which is why, when the models turn out to be wrong, those who kindly point it out are called deniers, conspiracy theorists, and overall big meanie-heads. When you have no defense for your error, you must attack the intelligence of your opponent.

All of this to say…let’s see through the headlines and remember the sage counsel of Dr. Birx: Models are just models.

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