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Coronavirus chaos has undermined the credibility of science itself, and everything else besides

Markets may be more rational than anywhere else at the moment

Markets may be more rational than anywhere else at the moment

It’s the oldest sell signal in the book: many an experienced market punter has headed for the exit when his or her cab driver has started recommending stocks.

The most recent example is bitcoin, which has never looked close to regaining the US$18,600-plus price it reached in December 2017, at which point all sorts of articles were appearing in the popular press about how other forms of currency were doomed.

And while it’s true that coins and cash have - by virtue of a virus event that was then impossible to predict - entered into a major bear market, nevertheless cash itself, albeit the electronic version, remains as ubiquitous as ever.

The cabbies were wrong.

Or at the very least, if they were right, they are going to be right so far into the future as to render their prognostications irrelevant.

So much for folk wisdom.

What about science?

In recent months, this has actually become a far trickier question to address than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of the year. Across the English-speaking world all sorts of non-scientists have been exhorting all sorts of other non-scientists to “follow the science.”

At no point though has it ever been clear what that phrase actually meant.

After all, science, like any other human endeavour, rarely operates on the basis of 100% consensus. In the case of the science around the coronavirus, the consensus was by no means evident, although you wouldn’t have known it from the media narrative.

Absolute truth is stock in trade for the popular press, at least until it’s tomorrow’s chip wrappers, so nuance and subtlety has been perhaps predictably lacking in the media narrative about coronavirus. People don’t want doubt and uncertainty compounding their fear. They want action and strategy, and if government’s won’t provide it then they’ll inculcate it into the cultural context for themselves.

In that sense, coronavirus was always going to end up being a political issue, especially in the USA, where there is no pretence at all of media impartiality.

However, the pretence or otherwise of media impartiality is itself becoming less relevant than ever, as information arrives directly onto devices, filtered by prearranged preference settings, but not sifted for truth in any way. It’s an interesting aspect of the US media landscape that the audiences of Fox News and CNN both know they are being given a distorted version of the truth, but are happy to buy into it anyway.

What does that say about the wider information environment?

It’s confused, to say the least.

In a world where the World Health Organisation can unashamedly reverse its medical stance on the efficacy of so simple a piece of technology as a mask, where the opinions of practising doctors are notoriously censored by Youtube, and where senior government ministers and advisers around the world have repeatedly been caught breaking their own rules and guidance, the idea that there is a science to be followed starts to look a little thin

After all, any sophisticated investor in any of the world’s financial hubs knows that modelling is as much of an art as a science, and that although models can be extremely sophisticated, they are also only as good as the assumptions they are based on and the input data they feed off.

Was the Imperial College model any good? The jury’s still out on that, but plenty of intelligent commentary would suggest not, whether it be the efficacy of the code, the simple assumptions about R, or the actual death rate.

However, who is prepared to step up and say so, given that the disjointed media continues to double down on death rates amid a general air of doom and apocalypse. Apart from the straightforward risk of being wrong in any case, there’s also the added risk that an online hate mob will come after you and try to get you fired. It’s a discouraging environment for those wishing to take a dispassionate and objective view of the data, especially given that the current employment market is also in turmoil.

It all adds up to a cultural environment in which groupthink is encouraged, and the idea that “following the science” involves a straightforward onward path to redemption.

But that in turn makes for a poor outlook for scientific method itself. To date the scientific method has underpinned the progress that has created the most prosperous and wealthy era humanity has ever seen.

It would be an irony indeed if it were to be overthrown by cultural forces masquerading as that very method.

But it could just be that those enjoining us to “follow the science” are coronavirus cabbies sending us sell signals on science itself.

The real question is: what will come next?

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