Sometimes you need to look out of the window
I worked at a data company for 30 years. I was a software developer, not a data scientist, but I implemented other people’s models in code, and I wrote a couple of utterly trivial models of my own.
I’ve seen data models produce breathtaking results, analysing (or rather “sampling”) vast volumes of data in an unbelievably short space of time. But I’ve also seen over complex models outperformed by someone with a simple spreadsheet and a better grasp of the problem being modelled.
Models exist to help you understand what’s happening in the world, and to predict what’s going to happen. But when you’re working intensively on a model it’s easy to let the model become the end in itself. If you’re trying to model the weather, sometimes you need to look out of the window.
I’m sure that the modelling work that has been produced for the UK government has been excellent, but based on the government’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak it doesn’t feel as if anyone took the time to look up from the model and take a glance out of the window. Every public health decision we have taken seems to have been behind the curve. That would be excusable if we were the first, or one of the first, countries affected, but given that you only have to turn on the TV to see what’s happening in Italy and Spain and China, I am left shaking my head.
I was a scientist as well as an IT person, and I’m delighted that the government is at last listening to experts rather than deriding them. But, as usual with politicians, the change has a double edge. The government’s insistence that it is “following the science” is beginning to sound more like an attempt to slough the blame, of which Machiavelli would have been proud, than the sign of a deep respect for “the science”.
The COVD-19 pandemic is a huge, multifactorial problem that affects not just health, but every aspect of daily life— including the economy, the provision of utilities, logistics, public order, social cohesion, and the future of those currently in education—amongst many others. It cannot be solved by science alone. In some cases science can predict, with great accuracy, what will happen if you do X, Y, or Z, but no more. And it can’t address all the issues or the problem as a whole.
To fix this problem you need leadership from someone capable of absorbing the input from many different kinds of experts and synthesising it into a plan that they can sell to the people who need to carry it out, and the public who have to support it.
In his press conferences Boris Johnson looks like an infantryman waiting to go over the top, simultaneously bored and terrified. He has the haunted face of a man who fell asleep on a sunny hillside in the Cotswolds and woke up in hell.
I spoke to my 92 year old father about the current situation. He remembers WWII and said “we were doing rubbish until Montgomery came along, and then he turned it all around.”
For a behind the scenes account, read this article on Buzzfeed.