Experts

Experts Are Worse Than Non-experts at Forecasting Cases and Deaths, Study Finds

‘Experts’ haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory during the pandemic. Their pronouncements concerning things like lockdowns, masks and herd immunity seem to be more correlated with swings in Twitter sentiment than with any fundamental changes in scientific evidence.

We’re used to seeing graphs like this one, which show the actual course of the epidemic deviating rather substantially from what was predicted. And where there is some correspondence between data and forecasts, this is usually because the forecasts included so many different ‘scenarios’ that one of them had to be right.

Famously, Neil Ferguson said it was “almost inevitable” that cases would reach 100,000 per day after some restrictions were removed on 19th July. What cases actually did over the next 10 days was fall by nearly 50%.

(If Ferguson tells you it’s “almost inevitable” that he’ll meet you on time, it’s probably best to bring a book, or delay your own arrival by half an hour.)

Okay, so the ‘experts’ aren’t very good at predicting where cases or deaths will be a few weeks hence. But they’re surely better than the rest of us. And since some information is better than no information, we shouldn’t dismiss them entirely – right?

A study published earlier this year did find that experts (defined as “epidemiologists, statisticians, mathematical modelers, virologists, and clinicians”) were more accurate at forecasting the UK’s death toll in 2020 than were random members of the public.

In April of 2020, Gabriel Recchia and colleagues asked 140 experts, as well as 2,000 members of the public, to guess how many people in the UK would die of COVID by 31st December. Each participant was asked to give a ‘75% confidence interval’ for their guess.

The correct answer (which can be debated, of course) fell within the 75% confidence interval for 10% of non-experts and 36% of experts. So the experts did better, but less than half of them were even close.

A more recent study reached slightly different conclusions. Earlier this year, the epiforecast group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine hosted a forecasting competition in which they invited members of the public to predict weekly case and death numbers in the U.K.

The competition ran from 24th May to 16th August. Both experts and non-experts were eligible to compete, experts being those who declared themselves as such when they signed up (so we’re presumably talking about epidemiologists and people with a background in forecasting).

What did the researchers find? In this case, the self-declared experts performed slightly worse than the non-experts, although neither group did especially well.

Why did the two studies reach different conclusions? I suspect the answer lies in the composition of each study’s non-expert group. In the first study, the non-experts were random members of the public, whereas in the second, they were laymen who chose to take part in a forecasting tournament.

The psychologist Philip Tetlock has gathered a large amount of evidence that, when it comes to quantitative forecasting, experts aren’t any better than well-informed laymen (even if they do have an edge over the man on the street).

I suspect the non-experts who took part in the Covid forecasting tournament were the kind of well-informed laymen that Tetlock identified in his research. After all, you’d have to be pretty geeky to find out about such a tournament in the first place.

Overall, the evidence suggests that no one’s particularly good at forecasting the epidemic. Where the ‘experts’ do have an advantage is in making their predictions appear scientific. 

Justifications for Lockdown Have Implications That Most People Would Not Accept, Say Philosophers

Although nationwide lockdowns are unprecedented in modern history, there’s been remarkably little public debate about whether they are justified ethically. Vague appeals to ‘protecting the NHS’ will not do, especially since the U.K. Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011 says that halting the spread of pandemic influenza virus would be “a waste of public health resources”.  

In a paper due to appear in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Samuel Director and Christopher Freiman examine the two main justifications that have been given for lockdown. And they find both of these justifications wanting. In particular, they argue that each one has implications that most people would not accept.

The first major justification for lockdowns is that we have to minimise lives lost (or perhaps life years lost). In other words: we should adopt whichever policy minimises the total number of deaths, and since lockdown is the policy that achieves that, we should implement lockdowns.

As an example of this justification, the authors quote the former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said, “We’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period. Whatever it costs.”

Yet upon reflection, this justification makes very little sense. For example, it would imply that governments should drastically reduce speed limits to prevent all road deaths – at the cost of time, convenience and economic efficiency. (Or perhaps they’d have to ban cars altogether.)

As I’ve previously noted: “Society has functions other than simply extending people’s lives for as long as possible. If it did not, we’d spend a much higher fraction of GDP on healthcare, and we’d ban alcohol, smoking and extreme sports.”

The second major justification for lockdowns is that we must defer to experts. In other words: we should adopt whichever policy the experts advocate, and since the experts advocate lockdown, that is what we should do.

Aside from the fact that many experts were against lockdown – not to mention the difficulty of even defining ‘expertise’ in this area – insisting that we must defer to experts has implications that many people would reject.

For example, it would imply that we should adopt free trade, open immigration, legalisation of some drugs, and perhaps even markets in human organs – since these policies all receive support from academic economists. Note: I’m not saying these are all necessarily bad policies; but they can’t be justified purely on the basis of what ‘the experts’ believe. 

According to the authors, the only justification that actually makes sense is that lockdowns have large “net welfare benefits”, i.e., their benefits in terms of lives saved outweigh all the costs they impose on society. However, as a matter of empirical fact, the authors doubt that lockdowns do have large “net welfare benefits”.  

For example, they entertain economist Bryan Caplan’s argument that the reduction in quality of life alone may have offset any lives saved by lockdowns. (Though of course, there’s not much evidence that lockdowns have saved lives in most of the countries where they’ve been tried.)

Director and Freiman’s paper provides a good overview of the debate over the ethics of lockdown, and is worth reading in full.

Pro-Lockdown SAGE Advisor Stephen Reicher Thinks Caring about Freedom is Selfish and Wants Us to Surrender to the Supreme Authority of the State For Ever in the Name of Compassion

We’re publishing a guest post today by Professor David McGrogan, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law and Business at Northumbria University, about the recent twitter rant of Stephen Reicher, a lockdown zealot who sits on SAGE. Reicher was absolutely horrified by Sajid Javid’s suggestion that we have to learn to live with the virus and that means taking personal responsibility for managing our own behaviour. He is one of many so-called experts who are ranting and raving about the lifting of restrictions on July 19th – out in force on the airwaves today –  believing its a terrible dereliction of duty on the Government’s part.

Stephen Reicher, a psychologist who sits on SAGE, recently made headlines with a twitter rant against Sajid Javid. It is full of bluster, bombast and keyboard-warrior aggression like twitter rants always are, but also contains one tweet that is highly revealing about the pro-lockdown mindset.

“Above all,” Reicher tells us, “it is frightening to have a ‘Health’ [sic] Secretary who wants to make all protections a matter of personal choice when the message of the pandemic is ‘this isn’t an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing. Your behaviour affects my health. Get your head around the ‘we’ concept.’”

We’ve heard this kind of thing a lot, of course: one of the chief rhetorical devices of the pro-lockdown movement is the depiction of anybody who dissents as selfish. Those of us who are sceptical can only possibly be that way because we just want to go to the pub and everybody’s grannies can simply go hang. But it is worth dwelling on certain assumptions underlying the tweet, because they help us to understand a little bit more about the worldview upon which people like Stephen Reicher base their views and advice.

The first is the elision between ‘we’ and the state, which has characterised support for lockdown since the very beginning, and which suggests both a disregard for the distinction between the public and private spheres and a lack of concern for, or appreciation of, the existence of a society as a thing independent from the realm of politics. No sceptic I am aware of has ever taken the position that life should have continued completely as normal during the pandemic period. Our position has been that it is up to us (or the ‘”we” concept’ as Reicher might put it) to make those decisions for ourselves in consideration of those around us, rather than to have the State impose them on us from above. It is not about anarchic libertarianism sticking two fingers up to authority. It is about taking responsibility for our own actions, like adults.

There is something deeply Hobbesian about the view to which Reicher subscribes: the idea that the leviathan must take responsibility for every aspect of our lives, since left to our own devices we’re simply incapable of making sensible decisions. The difficulty that somebody in his position faces, of course, is that once that logical leap has been made, everything is up for grabs – the state might as well make all significant decisions for everybody for ever, since it alone possesses the advice of the ‘experts’, and since we’re so damned untrustworthy and stupid. Perhaps he finds that idea appealing, but if he does, he is in a tiny minority.

The second is the unstated rejection of individual rights. As Ronald Dworkin, probably the most important legal philosopher of the latter part of the 20th century, was wont to emphasise, individual rights have no meaning unless they trump considerations of the general welfare. If individual rights (to free expression, conscience, assembly, liberty, etc.) have to give way if it is for the good of the ‘general welfare’, then that means individual rights do not exist. Whenever politicians deem it important to override them, then they can, because it will always be possible to declare a policy to be in the ‘general welfare’. Civil liberties are only worth more than the paper they are written on if they protect individual freedom even though it is not in the general welfare. There may be circumstances in which a serious public emergency will trump even that consideration (and one individual’s rights can be limited by another individual’s competing rights, of course). But that situation has to be extremely rare. And we are certainly not in such a situation now that all of the vulnerable have been double-jabbed and almost all other adults at least partially vaccinated. Stephen Reicher may not deem it important to live in a rights-respecting democracy, but he should say so if that is his opinion.

The third, and in my view most troubling, is the implication that freedom itself is selfish. Public health may be a “we” thing, but that does not mean that freedom is an “I” thing. No sensible liberal thinker has ever argued anything other than that individual freedom comes with, and is contingent upon, responsibility, self-control, discipline, restraint, and community-mindedness. To live as a free individual means to live in a dense network of mutual respect, protection, cooperation and compassion, because otherwise one cannot live at all. To be free means to live with the consequences of one’s actions – and that means to act at every turn in the awareness that there are other people around oneself, whose needs and desires are to be respected and mutually bolstered with one’s own. Freedom is a “we” thing – it is probably the most important “we” thing of all. This is to be contrasted with the alienating, atomised, individualised world of the lockdown advocates: no socialising, schooling, community activities or even sex except where mediated by the authority and permission of the state. No society, no family, no friends – unless the state lets you.

I know who needs to get his head around the “we” concept – and it isn’t Sajid Javid.

The Rise of the Expertocracy

At the beginning of the first lockdown, some vapid newspaper columnists welcomed it as an opportunity to spend more “quality time” with our families. But as Dr Sinéad Murphy points out in an original essay for Lockdown Sceptics, families had long been eroded by the expertise of institutions of care and education. So much so that many were unable to function when those institutions closed and the experts withdrew. Many families, particularly those living cheek by jowl in social housing, found it very difficult to cope. Here’s an extract from Sinéad’s piece:

If we have marvelled this year at the indifference of expert advisers to the Government towards the conditions they have consigned the UK population to, conditions in which the only options are to cope or not to cope, we may now cease to marvel. Experts in any field of human interest inevitably lose sight of the subjects of their enterprise, for the sake of faster results, latest methods and higher, or lower, numbers.

Experts have staged something of a political coup this year. We are addressed by them with pomp and ceremony, and we live by their guidelines as though they were carved into stone. But if this coup has been spectacular, it has long been prepared for behind the scenes, where even very intimate aspects of our personal lives have been gradually and quietly taken over by expertise.

Well before their armies took to our streets, the experts had already won our hearts that care and our minds that educate.

Dr Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University and her essays are always worth reading in full.

The Rise of the Expertocracy

by Sinéad Murphy

An article published in the British Medical Journal in July 2020 reported that the first month of the Covid lockdown had seen a 1493% rise in cases of abusive head trauma in young children in the UK.

To every expected case of abuse of a young child leading to head injury, the UK Government’s lockdown immediately added almost 15 others.

The statistic is monstrous. Are those who contributed to it monstrous too?

It is easy to dismiss them as so. But those of them who had been violent to children before Covid must have been supplemented by those who had never done such a thing before in their lives. They are not monsters. They just couldn’t cope.

When I gave birth to my first child, I received an NHS starter pack. Included in it was a leaflet, with advice on what to do if you felt like shaking your baby.

It seemed to me an unlikely prospect. But there is really no knowing what tiredness, isolation and the demands of care can do to a person. I came quickly to appreciate why the NHS distributes that leaflet.

We do not always judge physical abuse of children to be monstrous. We acknowledge that it can be the effect of adverse conditions in which anyone might struggle to cope.

So, what were the adverse conditions in which the many people who had never before been violent with their children were all of a sudden driven to it?

The rise in financial insecurity and fear over the possibility of infection and illness were surely significant factors. But so too was something that we might not like to acknowledge as an adverse condition: our children were at home.

Children were returned to their families in March, by the institutions that care for and educate them. Almost at once, glossy magazines and television adverts told us what a boon this really was: at last, some family time.

But families had long been eroded by the expertise of institutions of care and education. So much so that many were unable to function when these institutions closed and the experts withdrew.

We have had good reason this year to regret the invasion of our lives by the recommendations of experts.

But we are wrong if we think that this invasion is something new. It is no more than a swaggering last mile of the long march of expertise that has, over the course of many decades, transferred capacity in the conduct even of our family relations to the impersonal ministrations of professionals in institutions.

Well before the Covid crisis, we had already surrendered so much of our personal lives to expertise that even our ability to care for and educate our own children was more or less beyond us. When our children were sent home to us in March, the shock was immense. Some coped. Some did not. But almost nobody thrived.


For many years now, and often at a very early age, our children are sent from their home to an institutional setting that is expert in their care and education.

This has had the effect of subordinating the relations between parents and their children to the highest standards of care and education of children as identified and assessed by specialists in the field. Measured against these highest standards, native modes of family interaction are rendered as less expert and therefore less effective.

The retention of a child within the less expert and therefore less effective family is reframed implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, as disadvantageous.

The result is that all but very few of our children are subject to expert care and education such that the role of the family in their care and education has contracted and rusted from underuse.

But institutions, as we now know, can shut our children out. The care and education of our children, which ought of all things to be reliable, can be suspended without warning and indefinitely.

Families would not have done this to children. Families would have continued to care for and to educate them.

As it was, by the time children were sent home in the early months of 2020, families had lost the knack of caring and of educating. Children and parents stared across at one another, bereft of practices of interaction that ought to have been unassailable but that had been quietly ebbing away for many years.

These practices of family interaction were in many cases hurriedly resurrected, of course – but only as a panicked version of the expertise that had corroded them: education via SeeSaw, exercise via Joe Wicks, entertainment via Netflix. Expertise in the care and education of children flooded the family that it had long defrauded of its rightful resources.

And that was the best-case scenario. That was the families that coped. The worst-case scenario was described in the British Medical Journal and hardly bears thinking about.

We are bombarded by assertions of the special bond between parents and their children, of the sanctity of the family unit – is there any idea that is sold to us so persistently and so garishly? This year has shown it to be a lie.

Once families are made subject to the high standards of expertise, we cannot simply return to them and expect them to be just as we left them. They are out of the habits of care. They have lost the ways to educate. They can do little more than cope. Or not.


My little boy with autism is still at home from school, though most children have now returned. He requires one-to-one support throughout the day, and his school is at present insisting that the person who provides this support will wear a mask. Joseph’s understanding of language is very limited. His attention is difficult to obtain and to sustain. That anyone in support of him at school would cover their face with a mask is out of the question.

Joseph has an ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’ – the city council is legally obliged to provide for him under these headings. During a recent phone conversation, the council’s Special Educational Needs coordinator suggested to me that a clear face mask might be the solution. She asked whether I might consider trialling a clear face mask at home for a few minutes, to see whether Joseph could cope with it.

Which is when I realised that the high standard against which the best recommendations of experts in the care and education of our children are measured is not the extent to which our children are thriving, but whether or not our children are coping.

If we are confused now at the new and grisly measures being taken by schools in pursuit of the Covid security standards outlined by experts – the swabbing, the masking, the distancing. If we find ourselves wondering how it is these measures can be compatible with the care and education of children, then we should realise that expert care and expert education require only that children cope with them, not that they benefit from them or flourish.

And if we wonder why we managed to do little more than cope when schools were closed and our children were at home, then we should realise that the application at home of expert solutions to the care and education of children – SeeSaw, Joe Wicks, Netflix, and the rest – inevitably means that coping and not-coping are the only available options.

And if we ask how it can possibly be that the number of cases of young children who sustained head injuries from abuse in the home increased during lockdowns by a factor of almost 15, then we should realise that, once expertise has eroded families’ capacity to care and to educate, there is a high chance that families will not cope when the experts retreat and only their solutions remain.

Expertise in any domain is eventually purchased at a price. Though often seeded in genuine commitment to better understanding and practices, once past a certain threshold it becomes counterproductive. It loses sight of the bigger picture that lies beyond its field and excludes contingent factors that fall outside its frame.

But when expertise is plied in directly human domains – of care and education, for instance – the threshold beyond which it becomes counterproductive is very low and the price that is paid is very high. For, what makes us human is the bigger picture of our background and circumstances. What makes us human are the contingencies of our character and abilities.

Expertise, even when it is aimed at noble human causes like those of care and education, is an inherently impersonal enterprise. Though it may begin in human sympathy, its pursuit of finer and finer distinctions and of bigger and bigger efficiencies leads it to end in inhuman indifference.

What this indifference means is that the human subjects of expertise are expected at last not to benefit from expertise but to endure it, not to be made healthier by expertise but to survive it, not to thrive on expertise but to cope with it.

If we have marvelled this year at the indifference of expert advisers to the Government towards the conditions they have consigned the UK population to, conditions in which the only options are to cope or not to cope, we may now cease to marvel. Experts in any field of human interest inevitably lose sight of the subjects of their enterprise, for the sake of faster results, latest methods and higher, or lower, numbers.

Experts have staged something of a political coup this year. We are addressed by them with pomp and ceremony, and we live by their guidelines as though they were carved into stone. But if this coup has been spectacular, it has long been prepared for behind the scenes, where even very intimate aspects of our personal lives have been gradually and quietly taken over by expertise.

Well before their armies took to our streets, the experts had already won our hearts that care and our minds that educate.


The new head teacher at Joseph’s school addresses us all as his ‘family.’ Given that he has this year banished his 630 children from his school and, having readmitted them, now treats them as biological hazards; given that parents are refused entry to his school building, even to his school grounds, and have never so much as set eyes on him: his bandying of the word declares how cheapened the family is by its subjection to the measures determined upon and implemented by professionals.

As families have this year aped the solutions of experts, experts have ever more boldly assumed the posture of family. In the middle of which flip-flop between expertise and family, real care and real education are lost without a trace.

Even real coping at last comes under threat. Which is why it is now advertised so aggressively, rebranded to sound more inviting – not coping, but ‘resilience’.

In the latest newsletter from Joseph’s school, a jolly picture accompanied its advertisement of the ‘resilience’ of the children, of Spring bunnies ‘bouncing back with vigour’.

But our children are not bouncing bunnies and braying about their ‘resilience’ does not make them so.

Urgent referrals for eating disorders among children in the UK are reported to have doubled during the course of 2020. The BBC published an article in February on the rise in self-harm seen in a hospital in Bradford among children as young as eight. A caller to Julia Hartley-Brewer’s Talk Radio show told of her young girl with autism, who is literally tearing out her hair.

Does this look like coping – sorry, ‘resilience’? Or are experts in the field as indifferent to the human subjects of their coping strategies as they are to the human subjects of their care solutions and their education policies?

Be not soothed by the calm indifference of the experts. Our children require real care and real education, and without them they really cannot cope.

Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

The Failure of the Political Class

We’re publishing a fantastic original essay today by James Moreton Wakeley, a former Parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford. For him, the Government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis is an indictment of the entire political class and, in particularly, its prioritising of rhetoric, grand narratives and media management over coming up with evidence-based solutions to practical problems. Here’s an extract:

The uniformity of the new ruling class, and the games that one must play to enter it, explains the consensus on lockdown. The political class is naturally drawn to power, meaning that its members are often keen to signal how ‘on board’ they are with elite projects. This distorts the line between those responsible for policy and those who should critique it. It is evident in the tendency of mainstream journalists to discuss the pandemic within the framework set by lockdown rather than to think outside of the box, or in their total failure to ask probing questions of ministers and state scientists. They can further tell one another that they are being ‘responsible’ by refusing to question a Government policy designed, of course, to ‘save lives,’ but this means that they partake in the state’s management of society rather than in holding power to account. Many journalists will also avoid criticising lockdown because a lot of those who do are political class undesirables, notably Donald Trump, with whom they do not want to appear associated. It often appears to be a political class article of faith that frequently unreasonable people cannot, in fact, say reasonable things.

It is, moreover, hardly irrelevant to note that lockdown is also more congenial to the political class than to most people in the country. They have secure, well-paid, often interesting and usually public-sector jobs that generally just require a computer and an internet connection. They are also less likely to know personally the kind of people working in private sector service or physical jobs who have suffered the most from the societal shutdown. Home-schooling is similarly less of a problem for those with the financial means or educational attainments to tutor effectively. Lockdown can mean leisurely late breakfasts and bicycle rides.

This one is very definitely worth reading in full.

The Failure of the Political Class

by James Moreton Wakeley

One of the most striking things about the past year has been the uniform and all but unquestioning embrace of the novel policy of lockdown by Government, opposition parties, and the mainstream media. Even as the number of fatalities, hospitalisations, and cases collapse, the Government remains religiously wedded to the sclerotic pace of its easing strategy and news bulletins continue to duckspeak calls to comply with the most illiberal restrictions ever imposed on British society, refusing to interrogate these restrictions’ costs. Those who question lockdown orthodoxy, be they distinguished scientists, civil liberties campaigners, or journalists beyond the print and televisual oligopolies, are denounced as ‘deniers’ and shut down.

Let us remind ourselves what lockdown means: it is the state-mandated end of normal social, economic, and political life. It involves everything from the forced-separation of families, to the capricious police over-enforcement of pettifogging, poorly written guidelines of dubious actual legality, to the total marginalisation of normal democratic and parliamentary procedures in what the admirable Lord Sumption has termed ‘government by decree’. It is an unprecedented policy taken from a totalitarian state and adopted by Britain and other Western nations at the cost of ignoring decades of research and established pandemic management strategies. It was the policy of panic. It has been sustained through the deliberate stoking of fear using outright lies. It fatally questions the claims our governmental system formerly had to an intrinsic moral high ground against the grim tyrannies of less happier lands. The economic cost is unfathomable. Yet it now seems to have become an established tool in the State inventory: Chris Whitty hinted as early as January that future lockdowns may be necessary – despite the vaccine – and New Zealand and Australia are showing how ready anglophone democracies now are to shut down their societies at the mere whiff of a handful of new infections.

Nothing, it seems, establishes itself so readily in the political culture of the twenty-first century than a revolutionary new orthodoxy that reverses every natural assumption on how things are and ought to be. It is perhaps telling that such an Establishment consensus exists around lockdown in an age when calling women who give birth ‘mothers’ is an issue of agonised controversy, and in which we are ordered to believe that some of the wealthiest and most socially privileged are, in fact, helpless victims of vast societal conspiracies of persecution. The madness of the age may be plain to many, but it is almost unsurprising to read from one well-informed source that even suggesting lockdown has costs and negative consequences is ‘heresy’ in a Whitehall that cannot even bring itself to brief the Cabinet on such issues.

The Establishment consensus on lockdown is nothing short of the omertà of national self-destruction. To try to understand why it exists, a first step to trying to combat it, we cannot apotheosise – placing politics on a plane above people – but should look to those in power who’ve been driving the policy and to their cheerleaders. The sheer absence of political leadership, as well as the dubious evidential and methodological basis on which the Government has based its decisions, has been noted before. Commentators on the left, moreover, have noticed how the Labour Party’s abject failure to oppose the Government, or even to speak up for sections of society hit hardest by lockdown, owes much to the social distance that now exists between working class communities and the metropolitan liberals who presume to be these communities’ tribunes.

I would argue that this lack of leadership, and the fragmentation of the Left, are but two symptoms of the same condition. Social and intellectual distance from society is a charge that cannot just be levelled at the Left, but at what we could call ‘the political class’ in general. The uniformity of this caste, which shares certain rarefied cultural and social assumptions and which is trained to play at politics in the same way, explains the lack of divergent thinking and the consequent gulf of principled, daring leadership.

By the ‘political class,’ I follow the definition given in Peter Oborne’s insightful 2007 book, The Triumph of the Political Class. His definition encompasses not only those whom Sir Roger Scruton described as career politicians and officials who have never worked in an ordinary workplace, but also the London-based media. Their academic training – all but invariably an arts degree like the politico’s crash course of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) – conditions them to approach politics as a game of rhetoric, grand narratives, and media management rather than as a discipline designed to solve practical problems.  Aspirant members of the political class then tend to move from this training into metropolitan jobs that place a priority on wordcraft, presentation, and persuasion – journalism, lobbying, and other occupations adjacent to Westminster politics – working with people who have a common lifestyle and who share the cultural tendencies they adopted at university. This limited exposure to life as it is lived beyond a narrow sliver of London’s knowledge economy and the imbibing of often niche, fashionable causes – the righteousness of which is reiterated in environments where there is a career premium on signalling virtuous credentials – is a recipe for groupthink. 

Indeed, so much of this world is about the formation of social groups and social identity. Individuals from relatively non-elite backgrounds can establish themselves by signalling elite membership through what they do or say, and declaring an interest in certain fashionable – but narrow – interests demonstrates an elevated separation from the unenlightened. This elite identity crosses party lines and the lines that one would imagine would divide lobbyists and parliamentary staff, or journalists and politicians. It is, for instance, why Westminster and the media were so unified on the issue of Remain, and why I, visiting friends still working in parliament during the opening stages of the referendum campaign, was mocked from all sides for supporting Brexit over cosy, cross-party drinks between MPs’ staff.  

The uniformity of the new ruling class, and the games that one must play to enter it, explains the consensus on lockdown. The political class is naturally drawn to power, meaning that its members are often keen to signal how ‘on board’ they are with elite projects. This distorts the line between those responsible for policy and those who should critique it. It is evident in the tendency of mainstream journalists to discuss the pandemic within the framework set by lockdown rather than to think outside of the box, or in their total failure to ask probing questions of ministers and state scientists. They can further tell one another that they are being ‘responsible’ by refusing to question a Government policy designed, of course, to ‘save lives,’ but this means that they partake in the state’s management of society rather than in holding power to account. Many journalists will also avoid criticising lockdown because a lot of those who do are political class undesirables, notably Donald Trump, with whom they do not want to appear associated. It often appears to be a political class article of faith that frequently unreasonable people cannot, in fact, say reasonable things.

It is, moreover, hardly irrelevant to note that lockdown is also more congenial to the political class than to most people in the country. They have secure, well-paid, often interesting and usually public-sector jobs that generally just require a computer and an internet connection. They are also less likely to know personally the kind of people working in private sector service or physical jobs who have suffered the most from the societal shutdown. Home-schooling is similarly less of a problem for those with the financial means or educational attainments to tutor effectively. Lockdown can mean leisurely late breakfasts and bicycle rides.  

The background and associated cultural biases of the political class likewise helps to explain their doctrinaire faith in ‘experts’ and why they so unquestioningly embrace the kind of abstruse modelling peddled by SAGE. Above all, the political class is unfamiliar with the scientific method. They understand ‘the science’ as a term of power they can deploy to shut down debates and win arguments, which has one ‘correct’ answer. They fail to recognise it as a process of investigation, determined by assumptions and inputs, which will often produce outlying results and whose purveyors can unintentionally mislead the uninitiated by the words they use to describe phenomena like percentage correlations. 

Who the actual ‘expert’ is or the nature of their track record is not entirely relevant (and the influential Professor Neil Ferguson’s past performance at predicting pandemic lethality is indeed abysmal). What is important is the rhetorical role that citing the expert plays: it is the argumentum ad verecundiam, designed to intimidate and embarrass opponents, which also abrogates the need to play the ball rather than the man and therefore to grapple with the issue at stake in a truly critical manner. It is the helpful quote in the rushed, weekly essay that allows you to stop thinking about one aspect of the subject and to move on. It is the PPE-ist’s answer.

Political class education, furthermore, all too often prioritises seductive theory over hard-won knowledge. Their social milieu similarly fetishises trendy ideas like innovation, technology, or big data. They therefore seem to have no problem with SAGE’s total eschewal of empirical evidence – be that ignoring seasonality or failing to acknowledge comparative evidence from Sweden or America – as they have been conditioned to see computer-driven, theoretical models as superior, not least because pretending to understand such models functions as a signal of intellectual and therefore of social superiority.

This theoretical bias, which has more than a little of the tendency to proselytise dogma over empirically-driven debate, combined with the political class’s preference for consensus and faith in experts, helps to explain the lazy and limited thinking that has defined the Government’s response to the pandemic. There seems to have been no debate on different courses of action – after Italy showed that the state could ‘get away’ with lockdown – or red-teaming on the policy proposed, with the shutting down of Parliament and the marginalisation of Cabinet contributing to the total absence of the kind of antagonistic debate that identifies problems and tests policies. Once the simple narrative of Covid being the only problem and lockdown the only solution established itself amidst media hyperbole and panic, the parameters of acceptable thought were set. Wider ethical discussions or the identification of adverse effects have remained completely absent.

This narrow-minded groupthink is an indictment of those who presume to be this country’s rulers. It is ultimately a product of a pattern of social and political evolution that has seen the British elite become far more uniform, metropolitan, and hostile to those who break the mould than was the case in the final decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is unsurprising that the most significant political event for generations – Brexit – had to be driven by those ‘fruitcakes and loonies’ to be found beyond the political class.

This class’s failure in the age of Covid is twofold. They have failed to represent those they apparently serve, whose reality is foreign to them, and they have failed to think with the degree of rigour, humility, and imagination that a crisis requires. They have been trained to look for easy media wins achieved through citing experts, doubling-down on simple and specious narratives, and attacking their opponents as individuals rather than engaging with their arguments. Herds do not by definition lead. The myopic perspective means that the political class is blind to the costs of lockdown.

Significantly, now that the professional credibility of swathes of the Establishment is tied to lockdown, they cannot refute or question it.  Whatever the objections lockdown sceptics can muster, the logic of the political class will also always be able to combat them to their own satisfaction: lockdown superficially makes sense on a theoretical level, even if increasing amounts of evidence shows that reality does not conform to theory; the opponents of lockdown are ‘bad people’ because the policy was all about ‘saving lives’, and the favoured experts will always be able to be cited in its support. We are told that the current lockdown will be the last, but the structural inability of the political class to question it means that the risk of future societal shutdowns has not, even cannot, go away.

In March 2020, Covid was the crisis. As crises often do, however, it has revealed the far deeper problems already afflicting society and the State, problems more deep-rooted, more damaging, and perhaps far more difficult to address than the disease itself.

Dr James Moreton Wakeley is a former parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford.