Is Neil Ferguson honest? This matters—he caused the lockdowns.
Professor Neil Ferguson got the entire world to go on lockdown.
His catastrophic COVID model was completely wrong.
But did he believe it?
The COVID lockdowns—which stopped the world economy cold—seem to have done massively more harm than good—far deadlier than COVID. That was entirely to be expected, and in fact many predicted it. So why did the lockdowns happen?
Technically, because the World Health Organization (WHO), whose authority and influence are vast, described reality as a catastrophic crisis. That was after Neil Ferguson, then director of the WHO’s Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling, produced a computer model with astronomical projections of immediate deaths.
Wielding those numbers in his simultaneous capacity as an advisor to the UK government, Ferguson recommended lockdowns and the UK government imposed them. That moved the Overton window fast. The UK lockdowns were swiftly copied in the United States, also based on Ferguson’s numbers. And then they were copied almost everywhere.
Ferguson’s projections of COVID deaths were soon embarrassed by the evidence. As the four months projected in his model rolled by, the official death toll, though probably grossly inflated, still could not surpass 7%-8% of what Ferguson had predicted.
Yet Western governments did not revise the lockdown policies. They doubled down on Ferguson’s lockdown recommendations.
Why did they?
This question is sharpened by the history. Well before COVID, Ferguson had established a record of spectacularly failed catastrophic predictions, with recommended ‘fixes’ as nonsensical as his forecasts, achieving epically disastrous results with economic costs in the billions, to say nothing of the harms inflicted on humans and other species. So this… mania of Western authorities to follow this supremely dangerous man—Neil Ferguson—yet again in the COVID context is at least remarkable.
What explains it?
One possible explanation might go as follows:
Incompetence Hypothesis: Everybody involved here—Ferguson, his immediate bosses, government authorities elsewhere, and pretty much anybody in a top bureaucratic position of responsibility—is pathologically incompetent. Ferguson can neither properly model an epidemic nor make reasonable recommendations for public health policy (nor, possibly, tie his shoes). And his bosses are not smart enough to hire someone who can, or to process rationally Ferguson’s claims and recommendations, or to understand the actual data they themselves collect. Neither can anyone in positions of responsibility learn from experience. So they keep following Ferguson off a cliff and influencing others to do the same.
Is that a reasonable hypothesis?
At the top of modern bureaucracies, as elsewhere, incompetent fools do exist. We sometimes imagine (perhaps to make ourselves feel better) that they are superabundant there. But I think you’ll agree with me that some limit must exist to the incompetence of top government bureaucrats. If so you will perhaps recoil with me from the above hypothesis, as it requires us to suppose—to the contrary—that such incompetence is literally limitless: no matter what the experience, they cannot learn from it. In which case you may wish to consider, as an alternative, a hypothesis of the kind usually favored by conspiracy theorists. It may be stated as follows:
Machiavellian Hypothesis: Emergency powers are an amazing tool. They allow top Western bureaucrats hungry for totalitarian control to suspend citizen rights and liberties, and, properly invoked, such powers can be imposed with the cooperation of the citizens. But such powers really must be properly invoked. There is a grammar to this, and one trifles with it as with revolution. The first step in this grammar is to describe reality—convincingly—as a catastrophic emergency. Then, in the second step, you promise to protect the citizens. Only then can you try to seize emergency powers. But—again keeping to proper form—top Western bureaucrats cannot be the ones describing reality as an alleged catastrophe. That needs to come from ‘outside’: the WHO, via Neil Ferguson. It was all prearranged: these powerful people are all working together. Top Western bureaucrats followed Ferguson over and over again not because they’re stupid, but because they’re smart. They’ve been conditioning us to accept draconian State responses to the announcement of supposedly very dangerous new viruses.
Now, I understand there exists a bias—indeed a taboo—against conspiracy theory of any kind, and this taboo imposes an onerous burden of proof on defenders of Machiavellian hypotheses. Not only must the incompetence hypothesis be shown to be wholly unreasonable and spectacularly implausible, but defenders of a Machiavellian hypothesis must also—assuming it is even granted a hearing—produce stunning and abundant positive evidence of its explanatory power.
My claim is that I can meet this standard.
In a separate piece I have labored to show that the incompetence hypothesis for this case is wholly unreasonable and spectacularly implausible. Even so, I will give the incompetence hypothesis a second opportunity here.
I will consider elsewhere (here and here) the question of Ferguson’s bosses; my quarry in this piece is Ferguson himself. If we assume he is honest—not Machiavellian, just spectacularly incompetent—does that force us into any paradoxes? Because, if it does, then incompetence/honesty is not a good hypothesis.
Only after considering this will I begin making a positive case for a Machiavellian Ferguson.
The incompetence/honesty hypothesis
Let us first consider: What would an honest—yet fabulously incompetent—Neil Ferguson look like? Well, let us paint the picture.
First, Ferguson is an academic. This is not determinative of anything, of course, but it is highly predictive. Speaking as a member of this ‘professor’ species, I can vouch for the justice of the following generalization: we are, for the most part, physically soft. We are not jocks. We don’t go to bars to pick fights. We don’t pull ninja moves with cat reflexes. We are geeks. We avoid danger.
Conjure in your mind a picture of your stereotypical über geek, the one most likely to get bullied and beat up as a budding adolescent. And now imagine a boy, a thinly-framed, bespectacled child, son of a psychologist and a librarian, who is in love with quantum physics. Close to yours? That’s Neil Ferguson. He would later transition from quantum physics to modeling statistical phenomena.1 Total geek.
(I am hardly criticizing, mind you. I tend to like my fellow geeks. I am just describing.)
Now, I won’t dispute that adult Neil Ferguson is “a fitness fanatic,” as claimed by one newspaper.2 But doing a lot of exercise doesn’t turn Ferguson into a jock—just look at him. So there may have been some bullying. It’s a common thing—lots of geeks must endure it.
Many of us transcend it, as we grow older. But others don’t, and such people end up as fearful geeks for the rest of their lives. Did that happen to Ferguson? It is impossible for me to know. I don’t even know if he did get bullied. I am just speculating, now. Why? Because I am ‘steel-manning’ the honesty hypothesis, trying to build a hypothetical model of Ferguson’s background that—assuming he is honest—might help explain his behavior.
Some such model of Ferguson is definitely needed under the honesty hypothesis—a special context must be invoked. Because, if Ferguson is not an unscrupulous liar, then he is most definitely a pathologically fearful person on a level that would seem to require medical attention. For he is always—and always without any good evidence—predicting Apocalypse. He is Chicken Little, fretting about the end of the world. And he cannot learn: he always makes a new prediction of world catastrophe even though his every previous forecast was wrong.
Okay, so what does the model of an honest Ferguson predict?
How should honest Ferguson feel? His vast incompetence incapacitates him for learning, so the failure of his previous forecasts cannot make him suspect any problems in his COVID forecast—he honestly believes it is right. Ergo, Ferguson is deathly afraid.
After convincing the UK government that lockdowns are the only way to stop this impending Apocalypse, what does the honesty hypothesis predict that Ferguson will do? Why, that Ferguson will follow his own recommendations to the letter and cloister himself in his home, effortlessly setting a good example for others—because he is (truly, honestly) so very afraid.
What happened? Ferguson broke curfew to get laid. Repeatedly.
The draconian lockdown rules—Ferguson’s rules—stipulated that couples who did not cohabit should stay in their respective homes and not meet up. When he was discovered flouting this, the scandal forced Ferguson to resign.
Right away, this is difficult to fit into the ‘Ferguson is incompetent but honest’ hypothesis because a man who secretly violates the very rules he imposes on everyone else is by definition dishonest. Perhaps this is not quite a paradox, but it’s an anomaly.
It is common, when wishing to save a hypothesis from a glaring anomaly, to whip out an ad hoc assumption. For example, here one might claim that Ferguson is not generally dishonest—he is only so for the purposes of getting laid. In that case, Ferguson, assisted by his vast incompetence, still did honestly believe his COVID model.
Okay, but then we are back to saying that Ferguson was truly, deathly afraid of what might happen if he or his lover stepped outside of their homes. Yet Ferguson braved this presumed monumental risk, entirely unprecedented in our lifetimes (according to Ferguson), for… some sex.
And—mind you—it’s not like Ferguson did this after growing desperate following months of lockdowns. He didn’t last a week.
I think this is more deserving of the label ‘paradox’: someone terrified to the point of psychological collapse disregards the tremendous perceived risks—plus the possible costs to his reputation and employment—because he cannot last one week without sex?
How to save the honesty/incompetence hypothesis? It seems we might have to add another ad hoc assumption: Ferguson is a sex addict.
When a hypothesis proliferates ad hoc assumptions like that, one is advised to reconsider. So perhaps it is time to glance over, at least, at the Machiavellian hypothesis.
The Machiavellian hypothesis states that Neil Ferguson is simply a liar. He never believed his own COVID model: he didn’t think a catastrophic mortal danger—calling for urgent and coercive government measures to suspend citizen rights and liberties—was really threatening his life. He was not afraid at all. So he disregarded his own lockdown rules and got himself some sex.
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Are any important facts consistent with this interpretation? Yes.
The data to show that Ferguson’s catastrophist model was completely wrong were gathered by governments almost immediately. They showed that COVID deaths were only at about 7-8% of Ferguson’s crazy model predictions and that everyone but the old and very sick had a very low risk of dying. Even the most-at-risk category (the ‘over 70’ age bracket) had 97.1% survivability in 2020.3
Ordinary people busy throwing themselves into a Ferguson-induced panic didn’t even know where to look for these data. But anyone privy to them, if young and healthy, would know there was no real risk of death.
Ferguson is relatively young and a “fitness fanatic.” His risk was nil. But did he have early access to the aforementioned data?
Of course he did. He was the powerful UK-government advisor and WHO modeler who got the whole world to go on lockdown. He got these data before anyone else. He knew he was safe.
So he got some.
But Ferguson and his girlfriend, Antonia Staats, wanted you to believe that the sky was falling. Two weeks before her lover imposed the UK lockdowns, Staats joined up with her colleagues in the Avaaz organization to tell everyone to ‘stay at home.’ But that sort of thing was not for her—just for others. She was reportedly in Ferguson’s flat when he announced to the public in March that the lockdown, which at that point had been only a week long, would be extended until June.4
But how to explain that, after Ferguson resigned in disgrace, the UK government rehired him so that he could bully other government advisers into making new recommendations to lock everybody down harder in the winter of 2020-2021?5
Which hypothesis is more consistent with that?
The spotlight is now on Ferguson’s bosses. I examine their role in the following two pieces:
‘10 choses à savoir sur Neil Ferguson, l’épidémiologiste que tout le monde écoute face au Covid-19’; L’Obs; 9 Abril 2020; Par Eric Aeschimann
‘Naked hypocrisy: How Professor Lockdown's mistress was telling the public to stay at home two weeks before the Government only to be caught in secret trysts with her lover’; Daily Mail; 6 May 2020; by Paul Bracchi.
Axfors, C., & Ioannidis, J. P. (2021). Infection fatality rate of COVID-19 in community-dwelling populations with emphasis on the elderly: An overview. medRxiv, 2021-07.
‘Naked hypocrisy…’ (op. cit.)
‘Look who's back! Professor Lockdown Neil Ferguson - who broke the rules to see his lover - had key role in PM's dramatic U-turn on Christmas’; Daily Mail; 20 December 2020; by Jim Norton.