Pandemics and Forecasting: Seeing the Way Forward via the Taleb/Ioannidis Debate

Boston, Mass., July 7, 2020 — The impact of COVID-19 clearly has serious implications for humanity, and the measures needed to fight the pandemic present a profound challenge to policy makers. The choices are grim. Lockdowns slow the spread of the virus and reduce the pandemic’s death toll, but they come at the cost of severe economic consequences. Proceeding with “business as usual” keeps the economy rolling, but forces us to endure human suffering and loss of life on a scale that many feel is totally unacceptable. In a time where data is in abundance—though possibly not always fully representative or to be trusted—many have focused on analyzing this data to infer the characteristics of the pandemic, creating models aimed at forecasting its development while arguing about how such data and forecasts should be used as inputs to decision making.
In this context, it is important to debate and to make sure that points of discussion (and disagreement) eventually bring constructive outcomes that help steer us in a fruitful direction. Nassim Taleb and John Ioannidis, two renowned thinkers and academics, have provided opposing views on how to deal with the pandemic. Over the last few months they have been highly visible in the media, conveying messages that to many have appeared to be in conflict. At the core of the argument lies the very question of forecasting for crisis management in the case of a pandemic, based on the quality and value of the forecasts produced.

This question is of utmost importance with respect to how the current pandemic should be dealt with, as well as health crises that surely are lurking in the future. Whatever course we take will profoundly affect our societies and economies for years—and possibly decades—to come. We at the International Institute of Forecasting (IIF) and the International Journal of Forecasting (IJF) believe that a well-organized scientific debate between John Ioannidis and Nassim Taleb is the right approach to alert and inform relevant stakeholders, who can then better appraise their vision and recommendations about what needs to be done. We are fortunate that Taleb and Ioannidis have accepted our offer to debate, first by posting a blog post and then writing a paper addressing each other’s views, to be peer-reviewed and then published by the IJF. A number of coauthors joined them in that scientific debate.

After having carefully studied their blogs and initial papers, we can confirm that there is a lot to learn from their views, which are not always as far apart as they at first may seem. Unsurprisingly, each advocates using a rigorous scientific approach to inform decision making, based on an understanding of data and of the characteristics of the uncertainties involved. There are major differences, too. On the one hand, Nassim Taleb has clearly expressed that measures to stop the spread of the pandemic must be taken as soon as possible: instead of looking at data, it is the nature of a pandemic with a possibility of devastating human impact that should drive our decisions. On the other hand, John Ioannidis acknowledges the difficulty in having good data and of producing accurate forecasts, while believing that eventually any information that can be extracted from such data and forecasts should still be useful, e.g. to having targeted lockdowns (in space, time, and considering the varying risk for different segments of the population).

One certainty is that COVID-19 caught humanity off guard, and forced many decision makers to act rapidly and take strong measures under very high levels of uncertainty. As the pandemic continues to spread, two important actions must now occur. First, as more reliable information is becoming available, we need to stop the blame game and join forces on how to proceed. Second, we must bring together what we have learned from the current pandemic to help future generations face new and potentially more severe ones that epidemiologists believe are waiting in the wings. We hope that this initiative with Nassim Taleb and John Ioannidis will contribute toward guiding us to positive outcomes. Other efforts are underway, e.g. a complete special issue of the IJF and an open scientific debate at the IIF’s annual International Symposium on Forecasting.

Pam Stroud, Business Director
International Institute of Forecasters

Share Post!

Subscribe to Blog