The Ferguson effect

Ex-newspaperman Bill Steigerwald is the author of 30 Days a Black Man, which retells the amazing, forgotten and true story of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette star reporter Ray Sprigle’s undercover mission through the Jim Crow South in 1948. Bill also wrote Dogging Steinbeck, which exposed the truth about the fictions and fibs in Travels With Charley and celebrated Flyover America and its people. Blogs, photos, a definitive 1960 Steinbeck/Charley trip timeline and more are at The Truth About Travels With Charley.

Earlier this week Bill forwarded the link to the 2005 Guardian article “Bird flu pandemic ‘could kill 150m.'” Bill commented on it in a Facebook post that he also forwarded to us and that I draw on here.

We have now met the Imperial College London epidemiologist and professor of mathematical biology Neil Ferguson — the “gold standard” of disease modeling, according to the New York Times and Washington Post. Ferguson is of course the expert whose projections of huge death tolls from COVID-19 in the United States and the United Kingdom have supported the ongoing shutdowns. Ferguson projected as many as 2,200,000 deaths in the United States and 500,000 deaths in the United Kingdom.

Looking back at that Guardian article, Bill observes that Ferguson has a record of making stupid worst-case predictions about the threat of new viruses. Bill cites “what Prof. Gold Standard said in 2005 about the projected Bird Flu death toll to the Guardian”:

Last month Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, told Guardian Unlimited that up to 200 million people could be killed.

“Around 40 million people died in 1918 Spanish flu outbreak,” said Prof Ferguson. “There are six times more people on the planet now so you could scale it up to around 200 million people probably.”

A Department of Health contingency plan states anywhere that there could be between 21,500 and 709,000 deaths in Britain.”

The Bird Flu’s death toll from 2003 to 2020 is 455.

Dr. Ferguson was equally off with his death projections for mad cow disease. He made big headlines in the United Kingdom by predicting that mad cow disease could kill between 50 and 50,000. Bill writes: “Millions of cows were slaughtered. But to be fair, his scientific ‘model’ was right. The death toll [is 178 to date].”

In 2000, according to the New York Times, Dr. Ferguson published estimates predicting that the number of variant C.J.D. cases might reach 136,000 “in coming decades.” Twenty years later, it probably isn’t too early to conclude that Dr. Ferguson’s model erred on the high side of what “might” happen in subsequent decades.

Among the British publications that have recently drawn attention to Dr. Ferguson’s record are The Sun and The Telegraph.

The Washington Post reported on the Ferguson effect in the current crisis in “A chilling scientific paper helped upend U.S. and U.K. coronavirus strategies.” The New York Times reported on the Ferguson effect in the story “Behind the Virus Report That Jarred the U.S. and the U.K. to Action.” Subhead: “It wasn’t so much the numbers themselves, frightening though they were, as who reported them: Imperial College London.” Given Dr. Ferguson’s record, however, the numbers should probably have been questioned if not discounted precisely because of the source.

NOTE: Bill also drew my attention to this interesting interview with Michael Fumento.

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