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How well did experts and laypeople forecast the size of the COVID-19 pandemic?

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Freeman, Alexandra LJ  ORCID logo
Spiegelhalter, David 


Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, social and traditional media have disseminated predictions from experts and nonexperts about its expected magnitude. How accurate were the predictions of 'experts'-individuals holding occupations or roles in subject-relevant fields, such as epidemiologists and statisticians-compared with those of the public? We conducted a survey in April 2020 of 140 UK experts and 2,086 UK laypersons; all were asked to make four quantitative predictions about the impact of COVID-19 by 31 Dec 2020. In addition to soliciting point estimates, we asked participants for lower and higher bounds of a range that they felt had a 75% chance of containing the true answer. Experts exhibited greater accuracy and calibration than laypersons, even when restricting the comparison to a subset of laypersons who scored in the top quartile on a numeracy test. Even so, experts substantially underestimated the ultimate extent of the pandemic, and the mean number of predictions for which the expert intervals contained the actual outcome was only 1.8 (out of 4), suggesting that experts should consider broadening the range of scenarios they consider plausible. Predictions of the public were even more inaccurate and poorly calibrated, suggesting that an important role remains for expert predictions as long as experts acknowledge their uncertainty.



Adult, COVID-19, Female, Forecasting, Humans, Male, Mass Media, Pandemics, SARS-CoV-2, Surveys and Questionnaires, Uncertainty, United Kingdom

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PLoS One

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Public Library of Science (PLoS)
David And Claudia Harding Foundation (unknown)