When the affair of the London Whale became public in 2012, it sent shock waves through the global financial system. Senior traders at JP Morgan Chase, scrambling to mitigate existing losses, had made a series of complex financial bets so big that they had visibly shaken the market.
In the end, the bank lost more than $6bn (£4.6bn) and paid almost $1bn in fines. It was, as Jamie Dimon, its long-serving chief executive, said later, "the stupidest and most embarrassing situation I have ever been a part of ". And it might not have happened if not for a badly written Excel spreadsheet.
As it turned out, JP Morgan’s financial wizards had built their whole financial risk assessment system as a series of Excel spreadsheets, with crucial data being copied and pasted manually between them. Some of the formulas had errors, leading the system to dangerously underestimate the level of risk.
Today, Britain’s health services appear to have suffered an Excel error even more consequential. We do not yet know how much suffering, or even death, the temporary loss of 16,000 coronavirus case records by Public Health England (PHE) - and the resulting distortion of England’s Covid-19 statistics - may have caused.
It was not so much his words that stung - he is quite publicly not a fan of the Conservative Party - as his expertise: he is head of the European Spreadsheet Risks Group (EuSprig), an academic body that has been attempting to warn business leaders about the dangers of spreadsheets for more than a decade.
On its website, EuSprig has compiled a long list of “horror stories” at banks, airlines, police forces and the London 2012 Olympics committee where duff spreadsheets caused total financial discrepancies of almost £8.7bn.
One of the most consequential was a 2010 research paper by the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, whose finding that too much national debt leads economies to suddenly stutter was cited by numerous hawkish politicians attempting to trim back government budgets in the wake of the 2008 crash.
In fact, Reinhart and Rogoff omitted five countries out of 20 from their Excel spreadsheet, meaning that their original average GDP drop of 0.1pc was really an average increase of 2.2pc.
Slapdash use of Excel has also been blamed for a plague of errors in studies of genetics, potentially clouding our understanding of our Genes such as septin 2 (abbreviated to “SEPT2”) and membrane-associated ring-CH-type finger 1 (abbreviated to “MARCH1”) had been automatically converted into dates by the helpful software.
Rather than try to change the way Excel worked, the geneticists decided to simply rename 27 human genes. One top scientist despaired that Excel should only be used for “lightweight scientific analysis”, and never “clinical trials”.
Nor is this a new problem. The first known spreadsheet error appears to have occurred around 1800BC, in a Babylonian accounting tablet now known as Plimpton 322. Scholars generally agree that the tablet contains six mathematical errors, although it is not known what risk those errors caused.
Unfortunately, it may be impossible to wean the world off using Excel for such serious purposes. Some software specialists argued that in many situations, where patchily trained employees in budget-strained institutions must bodge together whatever solutions they can, Excel is impossible to avoid in practice.
One source told British cyber-tabloid The Register that Excel was the "default for all tech in all of the NHS and related quangos and other bodies … to bridge all the gaps that the `proper’ tech hasn’t been designed to cope with?” A pseudonymous cybersecurity blogger claimed to know of nuclear power plants and airports that depended on Excel spreadsheets, or something as basic.