Lockdown and the Pretence of Knowledge

Friedrich August von Hayek, the Austrian-born British economist, titled his 1974 Nobel Prize acceptance speech ‘The Pretence of Knowledge’. A stalwart liberal (in the classical sense), Hayek’s speech criticised the notion that economists have sufficient knowledge to plan the economy.

Those who believed in this notion, he argued, were guilty of “scientism” – of assuming that economics is like the physical sciences, where complex phenomena can be described by simple mathematical laws. 

For Hayek, however, economic planners did not have the same knowledge as physical scientists, but merely the pretence of knowledge. Their theories were superficially similar – mathematically complex, couched in symbols and equations. Yet they lacked something vital: the ability to make accurate predictions.

Re-reading Hayek’s speech, I noticed that it could apply just as well to ‘The Science’ of lockdown as it did to the science of economics in the 1970s. For example, if we substitute just a few words in this sentence, it captures the hubris of epidemiological modelling almost perfectly:

… this failure of the [epidemiologists] to guide policy more successfully is closely connected with their propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences – an attempt which in [their] field may lead to outright error.

As I noted recently, self-described experts appear to be no better at forecasting cases and deaths than well-informed laymen. And when it came to the crucial test-case of Sweden (the only major country in Europe that didn’t lock down last spring), the modellers erred spectacularly.

Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden predicted 96,000 deaths for Sweden during the first wave. And as Phil Magness has shown, based on some clever detective work, Neil Ferguson’s team forecast almost the same number. As of today, however, Sweden’s official death toll stands at just 15,000.

Contrary to grand claims that lockdowns would allow us to ‘control’ the virus, it’s difficult to discern any effect of lockdowns on the epidemic’s trajectory – except in those few countries that managed to stem the tide of new infections using border controls.

Returning to Hayek’s speech, the bespectacled economist warned of the great harm that “scientism” could end up causing. The following sentence (again altered) sounds particularly prescient:

In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the over-confident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights. But in [epidemiology] the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority.

In this regard, it may be no accident that Neil Ferguson, whose report of 16th March 2020 has been described as the “catalyst for policy reversal”, was trained in physics – the most precise, yet abstract, of all the sciences.

Looking at the damage wrought by lockdown, it would now seem appropriate for Ferguson and his colleagues to accept – quoting Hayek once again – that “as a profession we have made a mess of things”.

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