To call this a “discovery,” though, is to empty the word of meaning.
It’s called “Targeted Social Distancing Designs for Pandemic Influenza.”
The abstract summarizing the paper explains, “For influenza as infectious as 1957–1958 Asian flu (≈50 percent infected), closing schools and keeping children and teenagers at home reduced the attack rate by >90%.” Notice the tone. It suggests that closing schools works.
But the paper’s authors weren't describing real school closures. Schools were closed only in a simulation. In reality, the authors told the model to say the attack rate would be lower and, behold, it was.
The eager authors of this paper sent their simulation to a Dr. D.A. Henderson, who was, as the NY Times explains, “the leader of the international effort to eradicate smallpox and had been named by [President] Bush to help oversee the nation’s biodefense efforts after the 2001 terrorist attacks.”
Henderson pushed back, saying that “it made no sense to force schools to close or public gatherings to stop.” Indeed, if authorities adopted such policies, he rightly discerned, the result would be “significant disruption of the social functioning of communities” and “possibly serious economic problems.”
Henderson had vast scientific expertise and broad and pertinent experience dealing with such crises. His advice? We should “tough it out: Let the pandemic spread, treat people who get sick, and work quickly to develop a vaccine to prevent it from coming back.”
This time, in group sessions, the citizens came around to agreeing. The proposed measures would require sick people—and people who knew the sick people—to stay home. The proposed lockdown would mean “canceling large public gatherings and altering work patterns to keep people apart.” It would also mean “closing schools and large day care facilities for an extended period.”
As it happens, the Bush “administration ultimately sided with the proponents of social distancing and shutdowns,” the NY Times explained, “though their victory was little noticed outside of public health circles. Their policy would become the basis for government planning and would be used extensively in simulations used to prepare for pandemics.”
So, a survey steered by people with a vested interest in political control led the government to set aside Henderson’s tried-and-true scientific expertise and experience.
That’s how, a decade before anyone had heard of the novel coronavirus, our public health bureaucracy committed itself and the American public to a radical experiment. They knew—because their own research had told them—that it could cripple the economy, severely harm disadvantaged Americans, and subject millions of people to health risks from the response itself.
In 2020, officials finally got to run the test. All because a high school kid had told a computer what to say.