Private Eye, May 3, 2003
FOLLOWING the outbreak of Sars, one thing was certain: Professor Roy Anderson of Imperial College would soon be hitting the headlines.
And so it came to pass. While the World Health Organisation was being severely criticised by the Canadian government and others for "overreacting", it found welcome backing last weekend from a report by Anderson which claimed that Sars was twice as deadly as previously thought. "We have not seen the report so we could not comment," a WHO spokesman said, "except to say that this is a top-class professional and any figure he commits himself to is likely to be as close as possible to accurate."
Tony Blair would undoubtedly agree. Two years ago it was Roy Anderson who created the computer model used by the government to claim that the number of foot-and-mouth cases would fall to zero by 7 June 2001. As the Eye noted at the time, a certain amount of statistical jiggery-pokery was required to achieve this desirable if implausible result, but it allowed the Dear Leader to call an election for that very date and boast that he had the crisis licked.
Back in 1987 Anderson's mathematical talents again proved useful to a politician's election prospects. He was invited by Norway's prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to help produce an "independent assessment" of how many minke whales Norwegians could sustainably kill each year. The International Whaling Commission had introduced a moratorium on commercial minke whaling, which Brundtland feared would lose her support in the northern whaling constituencies. She hoped that a report by a four-man committee of experts, including Anderson, would persuade the IWC to ease the ban.
Lo and behold, the committee came up with exactly the same figure - 200 whales - which the whalers thought they needed to make a profit. But then a mathematical biologist on the IWC's scientific committee went through the algebra and found "fundamental flaws in the methodology": Anderson and his chums had achieved the result Brundtland wanted only by creating unreal (indeed "impossible") parameters.
The report was duly rubbished by the experts, just as Anderson's foot-and-mouth model was two years ago. But politicians continue to admire him, including of course the former Norwegian PM. And where is Gro Harlem Brundtland now? By happy coincidence, she is director-general of the World Health Organisation.