This morning I received an e-mail from the WaPo, an organization that has done more than most to increase the toxic partisanship in the contemporary United States, express complaints on the part of researchers into Coronavirus models that they did not expect that their research would be viewed as a hoax . My response to that is that they should have seen it coming. While the press is at pains to cover their tracks at present, the earliest media narrative of the Coronavirus was that it was overrated and not a big deal and that Trump’s early efforts at setting travel bans from China (and even Europe) were overreaches. Of course, now the media (including the WaPo) is at pains to argue the opposite that they are taking the problem seriously and that Trump is understating things, but we can always count on the WaPo to be contrary to good sense as well as to the actual facts of the matter, so that much simply has to be accepted as part of the way that life goes in the contemporary world.
Why should the modelers for the Coronavirus have expected that their research be viewed as a hoax? The answers are obvious to anyone who has not lived in a cave for the past few decades. For one, the whole aspect of modeling is something that has come under legitimate and fierce criticism for a variety of reasons, not least the way that models are by definition oversimplifications of reality with built-in assumptions that do not always square with reality. The wise modeler is cautious about claiming a correspondence between the conclusions drawn from the model and the reality that is being modeled. Likewise, the wise modeler is always sensitive for information from reality that can be used to make the model more accurate. This level of humility on the part of models would do a long way in making them less controversial, especially because an over-reliance has been to blame for the politicization we have seen regarding models over the past few years in such areas as vaccination policy and climate change, both cases where models have questionable assumptions and potentially draconian and tyrannical results if those conclusions are acted upon. When you add to that fact the problematic nature of public health initiatives over the past few years and its politicization, those who have worked in creating and working with public health models should have expected a high degree of skepticism about their models and the conclusions drawn from them.
To be sure, that does not mean that those engaged in such matters are deliberately creating hoaxes. No doubt the modelers themselves are sincere in desiring to predict the future as accurately as possible and provide information to officials that can be acted upon to avoid the worst possible futures. If their models are incomplete and have inherent biases present and neglect important factors that would mitigate the horrifying scenarios that their models occasionally present, that is a fault that can be corrected with humility and moderation on the part of modelers and a willingness to change and update their models as more information becomes available. It is not the modelers who I view as being the fundamental problem, as they are doing the best that they have with the limited means of predicting the future that we have as human beings, the same sort of gracious consideration I would give to meteorologists I would give to them, as well as to others involved in the forecasting and estimation and prediction game. It is those who view inaccurate and biased and incomplete models as the gospel truth and who view those who have reasonable doubts about such models and their correspondence with reality as being “science deniers” and hoaxers that I view with less respect, as it is they who are responsible for the growing politicization that brings modeling itself under increasing skepticism and creates conflict where there need not be conflict, all because they desire to use models in order to induce a certain state of paternalistic government upon the world as a whole. It is this improper use of models as a means of social coercion that is more problematic than the skepticism that the models themselves receive.
In this light, it is sadly predictable that the Washington Post does not realize that this skepticism should have been obvious. Whether or not there should be a blind trust of fallible humans involved in various technical and scientific tasks, such blind trust does not exist. Moreover, what would be in ordinary circumstances a mild skepticism becomes considerably more severe and hostile when fallible human models serve as the basis for highly political decisions. Where governments and authorities are not trusted to begin with, trust is considerable more difficult to obtain where such authorities seek to increase their power. The hostility to the increase of governmental authority ought to be entirely predictable for a nation whose entire self-identity is based on successful rebellion against such authorities extending for hundreds of years. For the entire span of American history, from its founding, this nation has been peopled by those who have had good reason to be hostile to authorities that wished to dominate and control their behavior, and the use of flawed models to further that prospect in the contemporary era has the most predictable hostility that one could possibly imagine. One would have to be blind and stupid to think that a people whose views of authorities range from skeptical to paranoid would be less skeptical or paranoid when there exists a great deal of uncertainty in the correspondence of models to reality. The only way that trust is going to be found is if those authorities act with restraint and humility, two qualities that do not appear to be in in great display at the Washington Post, it can be readily ascertained.