Why I wonder what exactly Dominic Cummings said about pandemics
Mammal-transmissible bird flu research poses a real danger of a worldwide pandemic that could kill human beings on a vast scale.
That was Dominic Cummings writing just over a year ago on his blog. That post was all about the chance of a research lab unleashing a pandemic through human error. Cummings' solution was a familiar one to his readers: 'New institutions are needed that incentivise hard thinking about avoiding disasters…'
Error correction is a running theme of Cummings' thinking. He is deeply sceptical of Westminster's institutional ability to deal with complex problems in the way that science and market institutions can. Part of the reason for this is the inherent difficulty of prediction.
most of the most interesting systems in the world – such as brains, cultures, and conflicts – are nonlinear. That is, a small change in input has an arbitrarily large affect on output. Have you ever driven through a controlled skid then lost it? A nonlinear system is one in which you can shift from ‘it feels great on the edge’ to ‘I’m steering into the skid but I’ve lost it and might die in a few seconds’ because of one tiny input change, like your tyre catches a cat’s eye in the wet. This causes further problems for prediction.
So, Cummings is worried that the inherent uncertainty about future events, which he sometimes talks about as branching possibilities or branching histories, that can lead us to make colossal mistakes. 'Complex systems are hard to understand, predict and control.'
He has written extensively about the fact that most people in Whitehall are unsuited to these conditions. Their 'education and training is such that almost nobody has the skills needed to cope with the complexity they face.'
So he's live to the risks of a pandemic breaking out and of the fact that political systems and cultures might not be up to the task of controlling such an event.
He is also well known for candidly stating that many of the Tory MPs he has worked with (he worked with lots of Tory MPs on Vote Leave and has been scathing about many of them) 'don't care about the NHS or poor people.' He clearly finds this repugnant.
All of this makes it dubious to me that he said that pensioners would have to die to protect the economy. That sounds wrong in this context. Why run a campaign promising £350 million a week to the NHS only to watch it let old people die in a pandemic? That is not the response of a State Capacity Libertarian.
Bear in mind he is among the most disliked people in professional politics. There are plenty of people who cannot listen to him because they despise him. What Tyler Cowen calls their mood affiliation means they cannot see anything in him other than venom. (Remember his mammoth essay about Odyssean education that was widely reported as a eugenics tract? The genetics section was a three-page appendix, not a eugenics proposal, informed by Robert Plomin's work.)
At a time like this, if you believed that getting rid of Cummings was essential, you might brief the papers wrongly or exaggeratedly. Your mood affiliation might make that seem necessary. Heck, you might be right.
I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the article. Tim Shipman is an excellent journalist with good connections, and it is a great piece of reporting on its face. It may well be that Cummings' focus on error correction is the reason why the strategy has changed, or seemed to, after his initial error.
But I don't really believe the quotes from the private event and I don't think Cummings would be callous about people's lives. That fits one sort of Tory stereotype. But that's exactly the sort of thing Cummings has been trying to get rid of for years.
At this point the best thing is to be a sceptical agnostic. We will probably never get a definitive recording one way or the other of that event. But we also have plenty of circumstantial evidence to make us wary of taking the quote at face value, especially at a time when political opportunism is likely to be higher than usual.