Gordon Hughes

Testing – Muddle and Myth

by Gordon Hughes In BBC Radio 4’s More or Less programme broadcast on September 23rd Sir David Spiegelhalter tried to row back from some of his previous explanations of the potential scale of false positives in testing for COVID-19. At the same time, the Huffington Post published an article making essentially the same arguments, though in a somewhat muddled fashion. In both cases, the logic is what I would term accurate nonsense – i.e., an argument that is formally correct but which misses the point of the debate by focusing on a small part of a much broader issue. In doing this, the presentations illustrate the dangers of attempting to communicate complicated issues by breaking them into small portions judged suitable for journalistic discourse. Spiegelhalter’s reasoning was that: (a) the false positive rate for PCR tests was much lower than 1% because ONS tests found much lower rates of infection during the summer; and(b) the current infection rate in those being tested now was much higher than the prevalence of virus infection in the general population because many of those being tested had COVID-19 symptoms – i.e., the population being tested is not a random sample of the whole population. He produced no evidence to support either assertion and there are strong reasons to believe that both are wrong. In...

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