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Forget the coronavirus mudslinging and focus on the facts

Paul Finch

The messages that statistics are giving us are of profound importance in the fevered debate around the pandemic, says Paul Finch

The RIBA was not the only distinguished professional body to be founded in 1834. Another was the Statistical Society of London, later the Royal Statistical Society, created by luminaries including Charles Babbage and Thomas Malthus.

In his book The Art of Statistics: Learning From Data (Pelican), David Spiegelhalter notes that the society’s first and most essential rule was ‘to exclude carefully all opinions from its transaction and publications – to confine its attention rigorously to facts – and, as far as it may be found possible, to facts which can be stated numerically and arranged in tables’.

This noble ambition was more honoured in the breach than the observance. As Spiegelhalter comments: ‘From the very start they took no notice whatsoever of this stricture, and immediately started inserting their opinions about what their data on crime, health and the economy meant and what should be done in response to it.’

He then suggests that for statisticians, ‘Perhaps the best we can do now is recognise this temptation and do our best to keep our opinions to ourselves. The first rule of communication is shut up and listen, so that you can get to know the audience for your communication, whether it might be politicians, professionals or the general public …’

The audience is all of us currently, and the messages that statistics are giving us are of profound importance, especially as sensationalism and blame culture rear their unpleasant heads. The UVW Section of Architectural Workers has helpfully condemned anyone daring to employ an architect in an inane coronavirus message which can best be summarised as ‘All bosses are bastards’, which is about as useful as saying that all employees are skivers.

Sensationalism arises from the 24-hour media coverage of the coronavirus phenomenon, depending on conflict and allegations of incompetence to keep the viewers hooked. I simply ask myself about the motives, when they appear on TV, of the ‘experts’ who hold different views to the government’s own experts. Professional jealousy? Publicity-seeking for themselves or their institution? Defeated politicians like Jeremy Hunt, the former secretary of state for rhyming slang? Headbangers who see the crisis as a way of beating up Boris Johnson?

The process the government is going through can be described as a PPADC structure, the initials standing for, in the world of data science, Problem, Plan, Analysis, Data, Conclusion – which then feeds back to the problem, usually setting off a second cycle of inquiry. This is a rational approach but is, of course, susceptible to all sorts of criticisms, most notably the accusation that, if we are doing anything differently to others, it must be wrong.

Architects, at least, should recognise that when faced with a similar problem, there may be more than one way to approach it, and that it is not terribly helpful to assume that the people who have issued the brief are moronic, incompetent, or only interested in failed outcomes. The design of the anti-virus programme, like the design of a building, is a complex matter, where quickest is not necessarily best.

Can we have rational debate about this without mudslinging?

Women architects have succeeded

Last week I came across an editorial I wrote in 1993, which puts in perspective the continuing campaign for gender equality in the world of architecture. The RIBA had published a study produced by a group chaired by Eva Jiricna, looking at ways to improve the status of women in the profession, not least the banning of the word ‘love’ as an acceptable form of address. Just so. What struck me were the statistics at that time: just 9 per cent of architects were women.

However, 30 per cent of students in architecture schools were female. Some of those present at the ‘W’ Awards lunch last Friday will have had vivid memories of 1993; they can take comfort from how far we (and, more importantly, they) have since progressed.


Readers' comments (11)

  • Fair comment on the art of statistics - though the firebrand elements in the UVW Section of Architectural Workers surely have some employers in mind who really do seem to be living in Dickensian times.
    And might the current prime minister - together with a fair few of his associates - be inclined to apply PPADC in a less than public spirited way, if they're not held to account?

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  • AJ is always keeping crystal clear what's its side - this not a surprise.

    However, saying that the claims of safety and welfare are irrational are utterly irresponsible from a public opinion platform as this. PPADC might be an useful response depending on the different situations, but why not instead look at real data of how the virus has spread in other countries and compare to how their current situation is? Doing so it seems quite obvious that we are not doing enough and that the crisis could potentially be catastrophic.

    It is true that is unfair pointing this as an architects' problem. Rather, it is a country problem, where economy is always before people. Johnson will make Thatcher look mild.

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  • Looking at data from other countries and acting on it seems to be exactly what has emerged from Imperial College and government.

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  • It’s difficult to have a rational debate when one is told that the strategy being pursued is ‘herd immunity’ and millions of us will die in pursuit of this flawed goal. Herd immunity requires a vaccine, the immune part of the herd is vaccinated. We have no vaccine for Chinese Flu, and it seems a long way off.

    The general population, rather than the small sample of sons-of-bitches in the present executive (as we are talking statistics here) seem to have decided against herd immunity and forced a U-turn on that one. Trump is proclaiming that a miracle will save the the US population and Bolsonaro contends that Covid-19 is a fantasy (while wearing a mask). Faced with all of this statistical evidence, it is difficult not to conclude that all of the ‘bosses’ trying to continue with business as usual are not, indeed, bastards.

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  • Delighted to hear your support for employers -- unless your double negative was unintentional, or a strange figure of speech confined to members of the creepy anonymity brigade.
    Incidentally, herd immunity preceded vaccines by thousands of years, which is why we are all here.

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  • I think I can be excused the odd typo, but your scientific ignorance is shocking and irresponsible under the present circumstances. And I have noticed this before with your reckless and inaccurate utterances on anything to do with climate change or global warming. We have not developed ‘herd immunity’ to the common cold or influenza, so there is absolutely no reason to assume that we will for Chinese Flu.

    In fact, the opinion of most epidemiologists is that we won’t develop herd immunity to Chinese Flu, so it is most likely that only a successful vaccine will provide this. As for employers, they are of little consequence when compared to a government that is actively trying to murder millions of its citizens, as usual. And your irresponsible journalism is not helping matters, as usual. For God’s sake, man, take the hint from the many readers here, and retire!

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  • 'A government that is actively trying to murder millions of its citizens, as usual'. You need to take some Paracetemol and have a little lie-down. Do tell us who you are, by the way, so we can know the font of all a wisdom which equates the common cold with the current virus.

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  • I have not equated the common cold with the current virus. I stated that we have not developed ‘herd immunity’ to the common cold or influenza, which is why flu vaccinations are recommended for those over 60. You stated that herd immunity preceded the discovery of vaccination, which suggests that you do not understand that the medical concept of herd immunity relies on vaccination.

    If you want to equate something with Covid-19, then I suggest that you start with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed 50-100 million. Recent research suggests that it emerged from Northern China, and as the present virus emerged from Wuhan, it suggests that Donald Trump has got something right for a change by calling it Chinese Flu.

    You appear to have post-rationalised the UK government’s policy towards the pandemic in your article, conveniently forgetting that their initial strategy was to ‘do nothing’ and rely on herd immunity. They were forced into a U-turn within days, due to research and modelling from Imperial College, which suggested that draconian strategies of suppression were necessary to reduce fatalities below millions.

    Consequently, I think that my statement that the UK government’s original strategy was tantamount to murdering millions of their citizens remains valid. It was also the diametric opposite of every other country in the world attempting to cope with Chinese Flu. The approach was regarded as satire, possibly akin to a Monty Python sketch, by one leading USA epidemiologist.

    We still have no idea how well any strategy will work, and even successful suppression is likely to result in at least 250,000 UK fatalities, over a period of 12-18 months. Herd immunity might occur over this period, eventually, if a successful vaccination is developed. I am not the font of all wisdom, but base my opinions on scientific evidence, which is from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis in this case.

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  • Silly people with simplistic views like the cloak of anonymity. Over and out.

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  • Veracity usually closes down extreme right wing views such as yours. QED.

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