Britain's Covid experts are under attack, but they are just doing their jobs

Right now, Professor Neil Ferguson feels like it is open season. Many columnists and sections of the media love to criticize Professor Lockdown, the epidemiologist. He is a doomster in Chief, always predicting disaster and then backpeddling when it doesn't happen.Opponents of Covid restrictions blame Ferguson, his team at Imperial College London and for convincing Boris Johnson to abandon his libertarian instincts and put us in lockdown. One presenter of GB News said Ferguson was a numpty and that he attracts groans from some people just by the mention of his name.However, Ferguson's attacks often reveal a fundamental misinterpretation of scientific modelling and the way science works.It is not an insult to lambasting epidemiologists for changing minds. Modelers love to say that all models are wrong, but some can be useful. However, it does not mean that a modelers guesses are better than any other. They don't look into a crystal ball, they look at numbers and use them to create possible scenarios.There is only one way to see the relative effects of a three-week lockdown versus a five week lockdown over a period of months. It is impossible to do an experiment. You can only model. Policymakers would be foolish to make that decision without the most accurate scientific estimates of which option will result in more deaths.Real life is more complicated than what can be represented in models. The biggest challenge is trying to predict how people will behave. While chance will always be a major factor, studies such as this can help highlight potential threats and assist government and health system officials in developing risk-mitigation strategies.It is dangerous to demand a single message from these models. Experts are asking for certainty.Modeling critics often make a comparison between the model's results and the actual-world outcomes. When these numbers are different, critics of modelling often declare that the models are wrong. However, if you look at the many models that have informed your response, you will see that scientists have always highlighted the uncertainty and cited a broad range of possible outcomes.It is dangerous to expect one message from these models. Experts are not allowed to assume they know everything. It is crucial to include the uncertainty and the potential outcomes. Models that show 40 to 4,000 deaths per day will likely be true, but it is better to show the entire range, rather than just 2,320, or to highlight only the 4,000 as the media does. This was the range of numbers that members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies provided in November. In line with Sage modelling, we witnessed almost 2,000 deaths per day as early as January 2021.We should not underestimate the ability of the public to understand this level of complexity as demonstrated by the Covid pandemic. Spi-M was the modeling sub-group of Sage. Its first meeting took place at the end January 2020. These scientists were required to provide advice to policymakers on what could happen, at a time when no one had ever died from Covid in the UK. The consensus of the scientists in March 2020 was that SarsCoV-2, which was widely distributed in the UK, could cause significant hospitalisations and deaths, and without drastic social distancing, the healthcare system might quickly become overwhelmed. This is similar to what happened in northern Italy. Despite new data and studies, the consensus is not changing.Critics remind us often that some early models had suggested that there could have been up to 500,000 deaths in the worst-case scenario. These numbers were acceptable without vaccines or lockdown. The final number of deaths was not due to the fact that the modellers were trying to wing it or the virus being less virulent than originally thought. It was because the public accepted the need for restrictions which allowed them to develop vaccines.These critics are less likely than others to recall numbers like the one quoted by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific advisor, prior to the lockdown. This suggests that there may have been 20,000 deaths. It turned out that this was a gross underestimation.People who don't like Ferguson also believe that Ferguson was the lockdown architect. Although he is a respected scientist who is loved by BBC Radio 4's Today program, the truth of science's influence on decision-making is very different. Every piece of scientific advice given to the government by the government, even the one before the lockdown was implemented, was the result of hundreds working together across the UK to continuously reassess data and refine methodologies, challenge assumptions and compare and discuss results in order to reach a scientifically sound consensus.Sage and the Spi-M-O advisory groups are not based on any particular models or views, but rather develop a consensus about what science is telling us that can be helpful to policymakers.Scientists and evidence should be scrutinised. Science is built on self-correction and testing new ideas. External challenges are what make science better. However, calling scientists rude names or encouraging the public to not trust experts who correct their data is anti-science.Fiona Fox is the Science Media Centre's chief executive officer