Prophecy (which today we call scientific modelling) rides on the back of history. Indeed, it has no meaning or relevance without history. So, I want to start with that. It’s central to the Covid Inquiry which as far as I can see has descended into an extraordinary but inevitable party game in which the contestants have lined up to be the person who can claim they wanted lockdowns the earliest of all.
At the rate things are going, I suspect the winner will be the punter who claims they thought lockdowns ought to have been brought in about 20 years ago.
It’s an unfair game because it’s all down to having to play their cards clockwise from the dealer. It means each player has the chance to up the stakes by insisting that back in those heady days of February and March 2020 they were uniquely able to see before anyone else when lockdown – now being wheeled out as the Silver Bullet that would have killed Covid – should have been wheeled out, but were only thwarted by the motley collection of orcs, cretins, and demons who surrounded them.
I had an A-level student once who went for a university interview to study History. He was asked: ”When does History begin?” and was flummoxed, having never considered that before. He returned to school and asked me. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about that either but after a moment or two I suggested that History begins when people start disagreeing about what happened, which is immediately.
I spend my every waking moment immersed in history. But I have spent my life tantalised by the impossibility of ever quite being able to grasp the true sense of the moment in the past. The truth, if there is one, is that at any given moment there are countless parallel narratives that are blurred and conflicted with, and oblivious to, one another. There is no single story which is why consensus about ‘what happened’ is impossible to achieve.
The historian Robin Lane Fox summed the problem up brilliantly in his Alexander the Great. “The past,” he said, “like the present, is made up of seasons and faces, feelings, disappointments, and things seen… It is a naïve belief that the distant past can be recovered from written texts.”
All historical narratives are therefore constructs, artefacts of historians’ minds and of those recounting their experiences. They form an essential ingredient of every culture, creating meaning and a framework to contextualise the present, and provide a foundation for the future. This does not mean they set out maliciously to deceive. They all create their own pastiches of the past blurred with the concerns and obsessions of the present day, which of course include covering one’s own tracks, saving face for the sake of professional reputations, and being wise after the event.
Let’s not be too quick though to turn this into Us and Them because we all do it. It’s in our nature.
Several years ago, I met the former state prosecutor of the state of Pennsylvania while hiking in the U.S. One of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered, and I have kept up with her. I asked her once what her most important experience had been in her years in the law. She said that she had learned that the most unreliable evidence of all is eyewitness testimony and never more than when it was proved to her that her own memory of an event was in error. And of course, we all know that eyewitness testimony plays a dominant part in miscarriages of justice.
The falsification of the past is therefore all around us, whether by deliberate intent or simply because we all distort or even change it. It matters not what the cause is because the effect is the same. Our mirage of the past takes on an identity of its own and becomes the metaphysical foundation of our individual and collective beliefs, prejudices, grievances, and fantasies. This is a gift to political and religious leaders, or politicised movements, who can manufacture foundation and destiny myths based on these inclinations and drive forward their own agendas.
Two of the most egregious claims of recent years have been that both Cleopatra VII of Egypt and the Roman emperor Septimius Severus were of black African heritage. The evidence that exists is that she was of Syrian and Macedonian origin. He was from Leptis Magna in North Africa, born to a Punic family whose origins were in Phoenicia (roughly modern Lebanon). It’s a rum example of modern right-on racism to steal their origins and substitute fantasy versions of the past. And from what we know, Cleopatra was a lot more Syrio-Macedonian than she might have been: she was the product of a succession of consanguineous and even outright incestuous unions.
The Roman statesman Cicero had discovered that certain jokes were being attributed to him that he knew he had never cracked. This is a phenomenon which might be coined as prestige attribution, a process by which an action, comment, or saying is given false authority by attributing it to someone whose reputation enhances its credibility and significance.
Prestige attribution also means that an opinion expressed by, or attributed to, a person with an esteemed academic or professional title is automatically imbued with authority and treated as such. ‘Scientists believe’ is, in fact, as absurd and meaningless as saying ‘the dog thinks that’ or ‘they say that’ but always carries more authority.
We find ourselves, as all ages do, trapped between the past and the future. Every instant starts as the abstract future and before a moment has occurred it has become the fleeting present and then forever the past. All societies have sought to anticipate, control, and define the future which they see tumbling towards them. Once that future is behind them there is an unholy rush to set the past in stone in multifarious different ways that suit whoever’s version it is.
Our age is no different, but we have a new way of taming the future, or so at least some of us choose to believe. Instead of omens, and reading entrails, ours is an age of modelling, or perhaps better, prophecy. The future is contained within the data and the maths. Or so we are told.
“Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous,” said George Eliot. She also said: “Probabilities – the surest screen a wise man can place between himself and the truth.”
I blame eclipses. Alone almost among natural phenomena, they can be predicted down to the last second because, uniquely, all the factors involved are known. It’s certainly an impressive human accomplishment. I stood in a back country dirt road in Nebraska on August 21st 2017, where I’d planned to be for over a decade, and watched the Moon begin its slow crawl across the solar disk exactly on cue. The sun duly disappeared and two minutes or so later, it reappeared. The irrefutable science of eclipses, the product of the extraordinary chance of our Moon’s orbit and its relative size in the sky, has given mankind the illusion that we can count our way into the future in any other way we want.
Modelling might seem to have nothing to do with history, but it does. Modelling is about trying to construct the history of the future before it happens.
Appropriately enough, it has all the shortcomings of the history of the past, and even more of its own, largely because not all the factors are known or ever can be known.
We now have a whole industry of people from scientists to educationalists bent on convincing us that their measurements of the past, as selective and as biased as any written history, contain the secrets of the future which they map out with breezy hubris and expect us all to modify our behaviour in the light of their sacred revelations.
Yet time after time we see that the future they have predicted without being there never quite happens which of course leads to the circular argument of claiming that the only reason the predicted outcomes didn’t happen is because we did as we were told. On the rare occasions someone does predict the future they rarely concede that it might have been a lucky strike.
Look at the ludicrous efforts to predict election results. If you think about it, the practice is almost beyond laughable, but even worse it creates a sense of expectation that might in practice through media coverage actually help the outcome approximate to the prediction: how many people don’t bother to vote because of the polls?
Covid’s Usual Suspects have been lining up at the Inquiry, bent on manufacturing a revisionist version of the pandemic in which they were all on lockdown message, only handicapped by Government ministers who were variously ‘bamboozled’ by their wisdom or other obstructive agents. We’ve already seen how Patrick Vallance found a way to explain how the words that came out of his mouth about herd immunity actually meant he was a lockdown hawk.
Meanwhile, various ex-Government ministers are now starting to appear. The redoubtable Matt Hancock is the most prominent so far, and needless to say, it now turns out he was even further ahead on the lockdown curve than everyone else around him. Fancy that! Handicapped by the people around him, he was thwarted in his attempt to bring in lockdown three weeks sooner. Had he been able to, then “many lives would have been saved”. Of course they would.
Not might have but would have. An implicit certainty.
Here we have his version of another future that would have happened, had he been given a chance to preside over it. Since that isn’t what happened, he has resorted to the refuge of all such people – he has created the retrospective myth of an alternate reality that he owns but which only exists in a parallel universe of his own imagination. It’s predicated on his own version of the history of the past in which he was the bastion of wisdom and foresight. Only the “toxic culture” of Whitehall obstructed him, with Dominic Cummings wheeled out as the Evil Genius.
Call me a cynic, but had the first lockdown been brought in three weeks earlier than it was, I fancy we’d now be subjected to all the Inquiry’s red carpet guest stars telling us that they knew back then it should have been brought in three weeks before that. Or three months. Or three years.
Of course, they all thought lockdowns should have been harder and faster. I have an uncomfortable feeling that this is a hypothesis they are all champing at the bit to test at the earliest opportunity. When it comes, I hope there’ll be enough time for me to catch a plane to Mexico City and join my youngest son.
It’s a desperate attempt to separate themselves from the effects of Covid because if only we’d locked down three weeks earlier it would all have been so much better. Of course, one possibility is that it would have been a lot worse in ways we cannot now imagine. Or maybe without lockdowns it might have been no worse or even better. The empirical evidence of Sweden is being swept conveniently under the carpet.
Yet “it was both politicians and scientists making mistakes” said the BBC’s Nick Triggle, in my opinion the only journalist in that organisation who has emerged from Covid with any credibility. In that piece he focuses on a consummate failure to consider the wider consequences of an unprecedented lockdown policy, among them “rising rates of mental health problems in the young, record-high hospital waiting lists and continued attendance problems at school”:
A consequence of this was that SAGE came to define the debate. Its meeting papers were pored over by the media and commentators when they were published and used to suggest scientists were calling for action when in reality SAGE was only providing information for ministers to make decisions.
But because they focused solely on the consequences of doing something or not, there was no counter narrative of what those options would mean for the economy, education or wider wellbeing.
And based on what we heard at the Inquiry last and this week, those considerations seem to have been virtually eliminated from the rush to be the person who wanted lockdown before everyone else.
This is how it happens. Our modelling or political geniuses tell us what the future is going to be, their own forward version of future history. Then the real future, every part of it, one by one, becomes the present but never as we were told it would be. In another instant it has tumbled into the past, in theory now immutable and inevitable except that of course it is now manipulated, redrawn, and rebranded so that what was a false account of the future is now a false account of the past.
We are watching that happening in real time at the Covid Inquiry. The past is being reconstructed by the witnesses and participants. In that mythologised past, hindsight can be reimagined as a new alternate reality.
As Dan Hodges amply explained in the Mail, the problem was that politicians were confronted with scientists who in reality didn’t have a clue what to do, were floundering around, giving conflicting advice, and generally causing mayhem. As usual, real events didn’t pan out according to the plans and predictions.
To be fair, what else would one have expected? Who would or could have known what to do? But in an age of Experts no-one wants to admit that being an expert doesn’t usually mean being very expert at all. It exposes the unpalatable fact that most of what goes on around us on this planet is far bigger than us and doesn’t operate automatically according to the rules we have invented to understand all these phenomena. It also exposes the fact that none of them gave any serious consideration to the consequences of lockdown, negligence on an epic scale currently being obliterated at the Inquiry.
Everyone is entitled to change their minds, to admit they got it wrong, to come to the realisation that their expertise and experience wasn’t equal to the occasion, that we are very small pieces of a vast edifice of circumstances that rearrange themselves in spectacularly unpredictable ways.
“A little humility would become you Mozart,” says a court official in the movie Amadeus. It would also do well for all those at the Covid Inquiry and perhaps all of us who think we would have known better.
But, hey, what do I know? Fancies of history and predictions of the future are part of who and what we are. We have to believe we know the past and can control the future, while at the same time blaming others for their fake versions of the past and the future. Or else we’d all go mad. Or madder than we already are.
There is a history in all men’s lives,Shakespeare, Henry IV Pt II
Figuring the natures of the times deceas’d;
The which observ’d, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, who in their seeds
And weak beginning lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time.