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An Epidemic Of Doomsday Forecasts

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James Woudhuysen, Spiked

Worst-case scenario thinking has clouded political judgement for decades

Forecasts about the impact of Covid-19 have caused considerable controversy. For 30 years, I have been a professional forecaster, specialising in the social, economic and political dimensions of tomorrow’s technologies. And for years I have joked that, because of the 21st century’s acute uncertainty about the future, forecasters have never been in greater demand – and have never been less credible.

Some charge that good forecasts about Covid-19 should have been acted upon much sooner. For instance, the Daily Telegraph reports that in October 2016, government departments, NHS trusts, the military, the British Medical Association and more than 1,000 other organisations performed a three-day simulation of how NHS hospitals and other services would likely respond to a viral pandemic not dissimilar to today’s Covid-19. The operation – codenamed Exercise Cygnus – led experts to issue eerie warnings about lack of critical care beds and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). However, Theresa May’s government suppressed its results.

Others say that bad forecasts have been criminally complacent. The Times reports that, as late as 21 February this year, the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) declared the risk from Covid-19 to be merely ‘moderate’.

The critics are now rushing in. They indict politicians for ignoring the ‘good’ forecasts and thus failing to prepare beds, PPE, tests and ventilators. And they blame ‘bad’ forecasters for understating the threat from Covid-19.

But for decades, Britain has endured doom-laden forecasts about everything from health to IT and CO2. Science writer Matt Ridley is right to upbraid the authorities for having cried wolf about past epidemics, leaving them ill-prepared for this one. 

As Frank Furedi explains in How Fear Works, since the 1970s the fading of society’s traditional motivations, ideologies and meanings, plus its growing confusion about values and morals, have made elites lack confidence about dealing with risk and uncertainty. Worst-case scenarios dominate their thought and their forecasting, especially when it comes to health. This state of panic and confusion also accounts for the failure to accept the more prescient kinds of forecasts which could have helped prepare for the right healthcare strategy.

Once the world is seen as beyond comprehension, forecasting The End becomes an easy position to default to. And when the claims of experts have to compete for attention, forecasters will often try to shout the loudest by fielding the most lurid predictions.

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