Surprise: Models Slip and Fall Yet Again

Tom Finnerty11 Jun, 2021 2 Min Read
Down goes Covid!

Near the beginning of the pandemic I wrote a feature about the problem with predictive models, which were at the time being continuously cited to justify unprecedented restrictions on normal life. Time has shown the models that were in operation at the time to have been, in some respects, too gloomy, and in others, too optimistic. Which is really to say that they ended up being just as unreliable as I argued at the time, and should not, therefore, have been the north star we used to navigate through the choppy WuFlu waters.

Well, for a more recent demonstration of this phenomenon, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight rightly points out that actual Covid case numbers have fallen well below what all twenty-two CDC approved models predicted back in early May. Most (though not all) held that Covid cases would continue to decline in the U.S., pushed down by the combined forces of vaccine reception and warm weather, with the average model suggesting that we'd end up at about 28,000 cases per day. In real life that decline did indeed occur, but we've ended up with roughly half of the projected number of cases, and this with states opening much faster than the CDC was recommending at the time the models were released.

Wrong about Covid, wrong about climate change.

As I discussed in the initial post, the numerous failures of predictive models  are well known to close watchers of the climate debate. We've watched a familiar cycle -- where a new model which anticipates calamity is released, inspires ominous headlines and hand wringing from professional activists and politicians, and is eventually revised when reality fails to conform to it. Of course by then the damage is done, and the headlines are burnt into the brains of regular people who don't have the time or capacity to debunk every bit of misinformation thrown their way.

Dare we hope that the failures of the pandemic are enough to open peoples' eyes? Well, if this Gallup poll is correct that 71 percent of Democrats and more than 40 percent of independents think the case number decline is a mirage, and we should continue to stay home for the foreseeable future, the answer to that is probably 'No.'

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.

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