MUNGO MACCALLUM. Science and modelling.

Apr 13, 2020

In the modelling for COVID-19, the real world evidence is too immediate, too stark to be wished away by nitpicking.

Last week Scott Morrison finally released the government’s modelling of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, while assuring us in tones of unshakeable conviction that it was irrelevant and out of date to the current situation in Australia.

He went on to add that the government would proceed with other modelling, and presumably when that too is irrelevant and out if date, it will also be released to the public.

This was not quite what the public, which had been demanding the release, had in mind. If that was what it was all about, it looked like a waste of time and money, completely useless; they were seeking explanations, transparency, an insight into the deliberations underlying Morrison’s somewhat confusing strategy.

But in fact it was the public which missed the point. The modelling was never intended as a public relations exercise, a guide to the masses. it was devised to give the government context and options.

Thus it was based not on the very early Australian experience, but on the reactions in Asia, where the infection had begun and taken hold. And some of the options had horrendous consequences, obviously unacceptable in Australia.

But that did not mean they should be ignored; they could provide guidelines not only to what should be done, but also to what should not be done. And as it has turned out even the best options proved to be overly pessimistic.

It is still early days, but Australia seems to be getting through better than almost anyone dared hope. The modelling should not deserve all the credit and perhaps not even very much of it, but at the very least it has offered some encouragement. And this is what modelling is: not making firm predictions (although it is nice if it does) but canvassing possibilities, suggesting a range of proposals and a range of outcomes resulting from them.

It has been overhyped as some sort of crystal ball through which the future can be seen with precision and clarity and is thus easily dismissed when it fails to deliver the certainty it never claims to offer.

The prime example is the various models on which scientists labour over the fiendishly complex issue of climate change. They do not and cannot produce real time outcomes – the exact date on which global temperatures will increase and by precisely how much, how far sea levels will rise, the rate at which the ice shelves will melt or the many more questions we would like answered.

But they, like all serious scientists, know that all these things are happening. And if some (but not all) of the modelling does not eventuate to the last centimetre, the last degree, the last year, well, they never said it would. But of course the denialists seize on the slightest discrepancy to insist that it demonstrates beyond doubt that the whole scientific consensus is a hoax, a conspiracy to implement a totalitarian socialist government.

Fortunately this is not happening over the modelling for COVID-19; the real world evidence is too immediate, too stark to be wished away by nitpicking. But it may be one reason why Morrison has, until now, been reluctant to make it public and then say that it doesn’t really matter anyway. There is enough confusion already without an argument about modelling.

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