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The Department of Mathematics is hosting a series of colloquia, open for all to attend. On 20 February 2024, Jane Hutton from the University of Warwick will give a talk on 'Epidemics, ethics and uncertainty: the roles of statistics versus mathematics'. The talk will be held in person and streamed via Microsoft Teams. The location for the in-person event is Room S-1.06, Strand Building, Strand Campus, King's College London.

A drinks reception in Room S0.13 will take place after the talk.

Abstract from the speaker: A few mathematicians had considerable influence during the covid-19 epidemic. Some mathematicians have focussed on designing and implementing mathematical models which only consider a single illness. Applied statisticians know that it is critical to first decide what the question is: "Minimise deaths from Covid-19?" or "Minimise deaths due to Covid-19 and our decisions this year?" or "Minimise the impact of Covid-19 on well-being over ten years?" The ethical status of an expert who gives a simple answer to the first question, without uncertainty or alternatives, will be examined.

Mathematical predictions were used to justify lockdowns even in countries where people would starve as a consequence. Some publications by influential mathematics groups were directly misleading or disparaging of African scientists. Some statisticians have tried to estimate the damage to children's education and wellbeing, and illness and deaths due lockdown.

I argue that such mathematical modelling cannot be justified within virtue, deontological, utilitarian or care ethics, though Zoroaster or Nietzsche might be invoked. It is always necessary to consider the wider context, and the probable consequences of actions, as explained in the International Statistics Institute Code of Professional Ethics. Assessment of the validity of model assumptions, data quality, adequacy of the fit of models and accuracy of predictions is essential, and essentially statistical.

About the speaker: Professor Jane Hutton is Professor at the Department of Statistics of the University of Warwick. She has received several prestigious international awards. She works in medical statistics, with special interests in survival analysis, meta-analysis and non-random data. Her methodological research largely focuses on developing models to answer questions raised by health care colleagues, and patients. In addition, she has written extensively on ethics and philosophy of statistics.

Event details

Strand Building
Strand Campus, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS