by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In retrospect, and despite their air of authority, the experts never had enough knowledge about this virus to make reliable calculations about the future.
But the real problem with the models weren’t that they proved to be false, but rather that they were promoted with false certitude.
“I confess that I prefer true but imperfect knowledge,” economist Friedrich Hayek once said, “to a pretense of exact knowledge that is likely to be false.”
Hayek’s remark, given as he was accepting the Nobel Prize in 1974, was that thinking of economics as a “science” might lead to “a pretense of knowledge,” the idea that any one person might know enough to engineer society successfully, unmindful of unintended consequences.
But Hayek went on to note that his reasoning applied to the physical sciences as well:
“There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, ‘dizzy with success’… to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society–a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.”
These observations, made over 40 years ago, look prescient today.
How might we have acted if the models didn’t exist? Most likely, we would have chosen a more traditional approach to fighting the pandemic: quarantine and protect the sick and vulnerable, institute some sensible mitigation policies, and otherwise get on with life.
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