In and Beyond the Era of COVID-19

In this forum, members and associates of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective examine significant issues and contestations arising in and beyond the era of COVID-19. A focal point arises as we consider whether or not to think of this time as a global “social experiment.” If we view the era of COVID-19 as an experiment, what might we question or determine about our understanding of what it means to be human? How might we then pursue the human endeavor that consists, in part, of myriad activities surrounding our desire to know and reimagine ourselves and the world in which we live? As I write this preface on 8 April 2020, President Trump tweeted: “… the horror of the Invisible Enemy […] must be quickly forgotten.” And so, the dialectical challenge we confront in this forum.

Image credit: Trinity Care Foundation via Flickr / Creative Commons


Contents


“‘We’re Flying the Plane While We’re Building It’: Epistemic Humility and Non-Knowledge in Political Decision-Making on COVID-19,”
Jaana Parviainen

Article Citation:

Parviainen, Jaana. 2020. “ ‘We’re Flying the Plane While We’re Building It’: Epistemic Humility and Non-Knowledge in Political Decision-Making on COVID-19.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (7): 6-10. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Abstract

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians and public authorities have struggled with how to manage widespread ignorance and insecurity regarding the virus. Non-knowing has been frequently recognized as a negative condition in politics but it can lead to a new kind of epistemic attitude in decision-making which is called here ‘epistemic humility’.

When COVID-19 pandemic threatened people’s health and security, most world politicians and policy-makers looked for support for their decisions in conversations with scientific advisors to receive relevant knowledge and assessments of the situation. Paradoxically, instead of knowledge, experts can only provide information on risks, probabilities and uncertainties on COVID-19. Whereas some experts point to ‘unknown unknowns’ and to the enduring ‘unknowability’ of complex causal interconnections, others assume that the relevant gaps in knowledge are specifiable and can be overcome within manageable time scales.

Policy-makers face difficult choices, including whose advice they should follow when experts have opposing views on the virus. The pluralization of knowledge implies a weakening of its ability to command. This is why political decisions about actions required to save lives do not only depend on scientific knowledge but on justified, rational, democratic and legitimate handling of ignorance.

A growing number of political scientists, sociologists and economists have criticised rational theories and suggested that the nexus of non-knowledge and power should be seen as constitutive for political decision-making (e.g. Innerarity 2013). Non-knowledge cannot be reduced to some lack of knowledge that could be solved by looking harder at the facts or processes of conjecture and refutation. Particularly amidst natural disasters, accidents and pandemics, making decisions under ignorance requires new forms of justification, rationality, legitimation and observation of consequences so that society can function effectively.

Under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians have been in the position to make fast but prudent decisions to protect public health without knowing whether or not their security measures are oversized or insufficient. How much non-knowledge can decision-makers afford to have in assessing security without unleashing uncontrollable threats? How does the government take responsibility for decisions that have to be made in a state of uncertainty and that can have fatal consequences?

Political decision-makers fall easily into inaction when pressures boil over due to lack of (and inaccurate) knowledge, personal stress, administrative chaos, and controversies from parliamentary opposition and the media. Depending on the duration of the crisis, the situation creates opportunities for challenging and changing the status quo. Both knowledge and non-knowledge are used not only in implementing political decisions and justifying them in public, but also for creating room for national and international manoeuvres needed to take or stay in power.

Certainly, attempts to govern by non-knowing are always in danger when undermining the role of knowledge as the foundation of political decisions. Recent studies on epistemologies of ignorance have moved beyond the realm of the traditional epistemic approaches, addressing that ignorance could be understood as a positive social enactment. The notion of non-knowledge does not refer to mere absence of knowledge but a transition phase or a liminal space in which one has to re-evaluate one’s own perceptions.

By breaking the normal rhythm and generating a dense presence, the COVID-19 pandemic has formed a special kind of time matrix in politics that is leveraged by a flood of news and intensified social media activity. In this view, speed and temporal thickness breed a ‘a regime of futurity’ that makes all policy decisions urgent within the incessant production of events. The relationship between temporality/futurity, non-knowledge and power is something that has been given relatively little attention in social epistemology.

The Temporality of Non-Knowing in Decision-Making

The temporality of non-knowing affects substantially the rhythms in which political decisions have been made in managing the spread of COVID-19. By following Beck and Wehling’s (2012) formulation, the fundamental dimensions of non-knowledge and the potentials of knowing can include epistemic states, such as, ‘not-yet-known’ (but very likely to be known later), ‘inability-to-know’ (due to known obstacles, it is not possible to know now but maybe later) or ‘inability-ever-to-know’ (due to known obstacles, it cannot be known). In the first case, health authorities and scientists can estimate what is not-yet-known about the virus but very likely to be known later. In the second case, experts can show reasons why they are unable to know (inability-to-know) some aspects that can possibly become known later. In the third case, due to the complexity of its social, political and economic consequences, the fundamental societal changes the virus will cause can remain largely unknown.

Politicians’ decision-making follows the rhythm of knowledge production in which phases of ‘known’, ‘partly-known’, ‘not-yet-known’, ‘will-be-known’, ‘unable-to-know’ and ‘unable-ever-to-know’ vary in the manner that assessments of risks and uncertainties change all the time. This implies that sometimes decisions must precede what is not-yet-known, but if the assumptions prove to be wrong, the decisions must be reversed or corrected afterwards. Due to the slow pace of legislative and administrative work, there are difficulties in coordinating political decisions with the daily updated information produced by the pandemic, so the epistemic constellation forms a complex system that needs constant reassessment of previous perceptions and reconsideration of decisions.
Flying and Building the Plane

This continuous re-evaluation and decision-making can be captured by a well-known educational metaphor that ‘the plane must be built and flied at the same time’. This refers to the classical idea of ‘learning from mistakes’, in which learning about what does not function may hasten understanding of why the correct procedures are appropriate. Of course, this can also lead to a fatal mistake that causes the whole plane crashes.

In politics, events that are considered as mistakes or errors attract far more attention than does governance without doubts. Errors tend to dominate political conversation as ‘scandals’ and ‘fiascos’, with searches for people who are blamed for the disastrous outcomes. However, in a crisis, urgent decisions cannot be left unmade despite the possibility of errors.

It is inevitable that, after the crisis is over, many controversial and divergent interpretations will be made concerning what politicians and policymakers in the given situation could or should have known. Could the massive consequences of the pandemic have been avoided by testing people for the virus and putting them in personal quarantine earlier? Could a better resourced public health care sector have been more prepared for the pandemic?

The virus includes plenty of unpredictable dimensions, however, the appearance of a new pandemic has been predicted for years by WHO and virologists over the world. The degrees of the intentionality of non-knowing regarding the virus become relevant when the actions of policymakers in different countries will be evaluated more carefully in the future. Intentional or wilful non-knowing refers to the situation when ignorance is one’s own result, for instance, due to a lack of interest or denying or concealing the situation. If information about the virus has been intentionally concealed in some countries, inability to manage with the crisis can be caused by wilful non-knowledge.

Epistemic Humility

Crisis, political leadership and non-knowledge are closely intertwined, particularly during crisis episodes when the circle of decision-makers tightens, and leaders are expected to take the initiative. It is important to remember that part of the legitimacy of political decision-making stems from policymakers’ promises to act rationally despite limited information.

Applying here Sheila Jasanoff’s (2007) notion of ‘technologies of humility’, politicians need to acknowledge the partiality of scientific knowledge: knowledge does not provide definitive solutions to value-driven politics, thus, policymakers always act under irredeemable uncertainty. The idea of epistemic humility denotes that policy makers acknowledge the limits of human knowledge in the manner that unknown, uncertain, ambiguous and uncontrollable dimensions are accepted as relevant parts of consideration (see Parviainen and Lahikainen 2019). This implies that relying too much on scientific facts can lead to the requirement of overconfidence with the consequence that decision-making becomes paralysed. Overconfidence is considered to be a form of cognitive bias in the sense that it can obstruct people from recognizing intuition, identifying dangers or seeing their own weaknesses and mistakes.

On the other hand, with the opposite of overconfidence—ignoring scientific knowledge and experts’ advice in decision making—politicians can be in a similarly dangerous trap where they make overreactions and risky decisions. This is frequently called the ‘Dunning-Kruger Effect’, meaning that politicians are unaware of what they do not know and could make highly risky decisions as a result. The Dunning-Kruger effect happens when someone is ignorant of their own ignorance, but furthermore, is overconfident in their knowledge or abilities.

The interpretation of epistemic humility is characterised as the capacity to lead people through intellectual confusion and uncertainty so as to develop their resilience in terms of handling insecurity and avoiding overconfidence. Shared small-group leadership with low hierarchy and the ability to think in groups are found to be more functional in crisis management decision-making than are strong hierarchies and autocratic leadership. Epistemic humility as a decision-making strategy stresses that decisions are multi-spherical and multi-directional with several possible consequences. Policy actors recognise that they are not only confronted with diverging interpretations of a policy problem, but also uncertain about the consequences of decisions. When decision-making in crisis situations is characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity and urgency, it also requires the ability to be sensitive to the nonlinearity of the consequences.

There is not necessarily a direct cause-and-effect relationship between variables; instead, there could be many different causes that might bring up unexpected situations. Since epistemic agents cannot be sure of the outcome of a decision, the complexity of the context as well as the cognitive limits of the actors themselves prevent them from calculating the associated risks and probabilities. Though policy-makers have limited information, limited available time for decision-making and the whole process is hastened, timely consideration can develop proper actions and activities to respond to the problem. It is, therefore, of extreme importance not to overlook what is not-yet-known and disregard or underestimate inability-to-know, although we would not have solutions for the crisis.

In this epistemic framework, rather than looking for objective, ‘hard’ facts and pushing back ignorance, policymakers need to consider their non-knowledge as an essential part of political decisions. Instead of considering uncertain knowledge here as the merely plausible, non-scientific forms of knowledge, non-knowing as an imperfect phenomenon should be seen as a relevant resource in political decision-making.

This implies that non-knowing cannot be eliminated by acquiring knowledge; rather, politicians and authorities need to learn to manage their non-knowledge in handling the crisis. Instead of focusing on controversies over ignorance and knowledge, I argue that conjecture and speculation are acceptable in admitting certain degrees of uncertainty and are, therefore, relegated to the realm of non-knowledge. Policymakers need to be increasingly aware of their non-knowledge by learning to manage its various forms: doubt, probability, risk and uncertainty. Non-knowing should not be denied but seen as a resource in political decision-making.

Contact details: Jaana Parviainen, Tampere University, Faculty of Social Sciences, jaana.parviainen@tuni.fi

References

Beck, Ulrich and Peter Wehling. 2012. “Politics of Non-Knowing: An Emerging Area of Social and Political Conflict in Reflexive Modernity.” In The Politics of Knowledge edited by Fernando Dominguez Rubio and Patrick Baert, 33–57. London: Routledge.

Innerarity, Daniel. 2013. The Democracy of Knowledge. Translated by Sandra Kingery. New York: Continuum/Bloomsbury.

Jasanaff, Sheila. 2007. “Technologies of Humility.” Nature 450 (1): 33.

Parviainen, Jaana and Lauri Lahikainen 2019. ”Negative Expertise in the Conditions of Manufactured Ignorance: Epistemic Strategies, Virtues, and Skills.” Synthese 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02315-5.


“’New Infrastructure Investment'(新基建) in China: A Proactionary Measure After the COVID-19 Crisis,”
Cong Wang

Article Citation:

Wang, Cong. 2020.“‘New Infrastructure Investment’ (新基建) in China: A Proactionary Measure After the COVID-19 Crisis.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (6): 77-82. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

After the COVID-19 Crisis: A Chance to Go Green

COVID-19 has caused damage to the Chinese economy. On 17 April 2020, China’s National Bureau of Statistics of China (国家统计局) released China’s economic data for the first quarter of 2020. The data showed that China’s GDP fell 6.8% in the first quarter. International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that China’s annual GDP growth rate will fall to 1.2% in 2020—the lowest since the “Reform and Opening-Up” (1978). And the Chinese government has not set a GDP growth target for 2020. Thus, in early March, after China had initially contained the COVID-19 and started to reopen the country, the Chinese government proposed an investment plan called “New Infrastructure Construction” (新型基础设施建设,“新基建”) to deal with the economic downturn. The Chinese government’s “New Infrastructure” plan refers to information technology infrastructure, transport infrastructure, and power infrastructure.

In the “New Infrastructure” plan, environment-related infrastructure has become a new focus. On 28 March, according to Ministry of Transport, 25 of China’s 31 provinces released their investment plans for major projects in 2020. The plan features keywords such as “5G,” “big data centers,” and “new energy vehicle charging piles” (新能源充电桩). “New Energy Vehicles” (新能源汽车) in China refer to pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and fuel cell electric vehicles(FCEVs). The “new energy vehicle charging piles” are the essentials for electric vehicles.

At the national level, new energy vehicles are also a focus. On 31 March, the State Council (国务院) announced three measures to boost new energy vehicle industry:[1]

1) Extend subsidies and duty-free policy of new energy vehicles for two years;

2) The central finance will adopt incentives instead of subsidies to eliminate diesel trucks with National three or lower emission standards in key areas such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei Province;

3) A reduction of 0.5% of the VAT on sales of used cars to enterprises from 1 May 2020 to 2023.

Following in the footsteps of the State Council, the government departments also came up with their plans. On 16 April, the State Grid Corporation of China (国家电网) announced that 78,000 new energy vehicle charging piles will be built by 2020. On 22 April the Ministry of Finance (财政部), the General Administration of Taxation (税务总局), and the Ministry

of Industry and Information Technology (工业和信息化部) announced a duty-free policy on new energy vehicles from 1 January 2021 to 3 December 2022.[2]

The local governments also promote new energy vehicles. For example on 31 April, Shenzhen (深圳), in Guangdong Province, announced two measures:[3]

1) Easing restrictions on the purchase of new energy vehicles by individuals. Both foreigners and non-Shenzhen citizens can buy new energy vehicles without the restriction of paying for local medical insurance for 24 months or more.

2) 20,000 Yuan/car subsidy for newly purchased new energy vehicles.

The Chinese government’s policy for new energy vehicles can be seen as a proactionary technology policy as there are still many problems and challenges faced by new energy vehicles. For example, in May 2020, there were three accidents of new energy vehicles in one week.[4] The safety of new energy vehicles is in doubt. Still, new energy vehicles will have a positive impact on China’s carbon emissions and environmental protection. In 2009, China’s transport sector accounted for 48% of oil consumption (China Automotive Energy Research Center, Tsinghua 2012). Zhou, Ou, and Zhang (2013) once predicted that the proportion of oil consumption in the transport sector in China would be more than half by 2030. The promotion of new energy vehicles will effectively reduce oil consumption in the transport sector. With new energy vehicles, China is taking a step toward environmental protection.

Economy or Environment: “Old Infrastructure” vs “New Infrastructure” 

When it comes to “New Infrastructure,” one might recall that during the Global Financial Crisis (2007-2009) the Chinese government released a plan to deal with the economic downturn—an investment of 4 trillion Yuan to build the infrastructure. The Chinese government refers to the 2020 investment plan as “New Infrastructure” to distinguish it from the “Old Infrastructure” plan in 2008. The “Old Infrastructure” plan mainly invested in traditional infrastructure—railroads, highways, airports, water conservancy construction, and upgrading power grids (Shi and Huang 2014). The “New Infrastructure” plan focuses more on information and environmental infrastructure.

The most significant difference between the two plans is the attitude towards environmental protection. In the “Old Infrastructure” plan, in the game of economic and environmental protection, China chose the economy and, so, chose to adjust its industrial structure at the expense of the environment. The economic results were significant. The imbalance in the industrial structure of the Chinese economy was compensated (Wang and Lu 2009). China moved up in the global value chain and exports, since 2005, moved towards higher value-added products instead of cheap ones (Mi and Meng 2017). The development gap between the Eastern Region and the Western Region narrowed. According to Shi and Huang (2014), the Western Region is better positioned than the Eastern Region in infrastructure after the implementation of the “Old Infrastructure” plan.

However, the cost to the environment is great. At the end of 2008, the Chinese government proposed an infrastructure investment plan with 4 trillion Yuan, but this plan was revised at the National People’s Congress and the National Committee (两会) in March 2009. The investment in energy-saving and emission reduction was reduced from 350 billion Yuan to 210 billion Yuan, and its share was reduced from 8.75% to 5.25% (Yan and Xu 2009). The proportion of environmental improvement investment in total urban infrastructure investment dropped from 25.4% in 2000 to 21.3% in 2009 (Wu and Deng 2013). The cut in environmental protection investment caused serious consequences. China’s carbon emissions have increased significantly since 2010 (Mi and Meng 2017). The Western Region in China, which was poorer than the Eastern Region and used to have fewer carbon emissions, started to exceed carbon emissions of the Eastern Region (Mi and Meng 2017).

The “New Infrastructure” plan focuses on new energy vehicles and associated facilities, which will be an effective environmental measure for the transport sector. For example, Hawkins and Singh (2013) found that electric vehicles would offer a 10% to 24% decrease in global warming potential (GWP) in Europe. The same situation also happened in China. Li and Davis (2016) showed that the electric vehicles would reduce NOX emission in all the regions in China and SO2 emission in the region south of the Yangtze River. They predicted that the future potential for emission reduction would from southern provinces. The study of Hao and Qiao (2017) also indicates that the adoption of electric vehicles would significantly reduce the reliance on fossil fuel in the long term in China. Therefore, the deployment of electric vehicles will contribute to energy-saving and greenhouse gas emission reduction in China’s transport sector.

However, we should also note that the adoption of electric vehicles is just the first step to environmental protection in China. At present, China’s power system still relies heavily on coal. A coal-based power system dominates the Northeast and North China with a proportion of 95% – 98% (Huo and Zhang 2010). Li and Davis (2016) point out that electric vehicles are shifting the use of gasoline to coal-fired power generation in China and it might be more carbon emission from the power system. Therefore, the next step for environmental protection in China might need to change its power system and use cleaner and renewable energy sources. Moreover, the recycling of electric vehicles would also be beneficial in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The recycling of steel, aluminum, and the cathode material of traction battery in electric vehicles accounted for 61%, 13%, and 20% of the total emission reduction, respectively (Hao and Qiao 2017).

Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the Chinese government prefers new energy vehicles in the transport sector. This preference might yield two benefits. First, new energy vehicles could serve as a new hot spot of consumption. Second, new energy vehicles could reduce air pollution in the transport sector. The idea is embodied in the 2020 Government Work Report (政府工作报告2020) at the National People’s Congress and the National Committee (两会) in May 2020. In the report, Li Keqiang (李克强) suggested that China’s investment in 2020 would focus on “New Infrastructure,” “New Urbanization,” and key projects in transportation and water conservancy (两新一重). Among the “New Infrastructure” initiatives, Li highlighted the construction of new energy vehicle charging piles and the promotion of new energy vehicles to “stimulate new consumer demand and facilitate industrial upgrading.”[5] New energy vehicles are seen as an important part of industrial upgrading and energy-saving and environmental protection industry.

Yet, after the COVID-19 crisis, China could make few changes in its energy mix and remain coal-based. According to the report, for the power system, the main goal for 2020 is to guarantee energy security. The main measure to achieve environmental protection in the power system is to improve the clean and efficient use of coal.[6] Clean energy will serve as a supplement.

Thus, after the COVID-19 crisis, we might see China’s environmental achievements mainly in the transport sector thanks to the use of new energy vehicles. While the power system still has a long way to go in terms of environmental protection

Proactionary Approaches to the Crisis

Although the attitude of the “Old Infrastructure” and “New Infrastructure” plans toward environmental protection is very different, they remain proactionary principles that the Chinese government adopted in response to the crisis. In the game of environment and economy, the Chinese government has chosen to pollute first and then regulate. This process is similar to what More calls “learn by acting” (Holbrook and Briggle 2013). The Chinese government focused on solving economic difficulties after the Global Financial Crisis but caused a serious problem of environmental pollution. Therefore, the Chinese government is concerned about environmental protection after the COVID-19 crisis.

Both the precautionary principle and the proactionary principle is about weighing the pros and cons before making a decision (Holbrook and Briggle 2013). One who adopts the proactionary principle is usually more willing to face uncertainty because they will view the uncertainty as a Gestalt switch (Fuller 2020). In this way, the uncertainty can be seen as turning from a potential threat into an opportunity (Fuller and Lipinska 2014).

The proactionary principle is the policy choice of the Chinese government in response to the crisis. This option is also suited to China’s situation. China’s centralized system can shift between the two extremes. Therefore, by comparing the “Old Infrastructure” plan with the “New Infrastructure” plan, China can easily switch from economy-centric to environment-centric. Moreover, because China’s centralized system can easily move from one extreme to the other, it is able to withstand the risks posed by the choice and can compensate for the adverse consequences caused by the previous policy. However, China’s science and technology policy is easily leading to extreme consequences. For example, the large amount of carbon emissions generated in the implementation of the “Old Infrastructure” plan requires greater efforts to address. China’s “learn by acting” strategy can also lead to a lack of long-term goals and fall in the trap that only focuses on solving the problems left before. After the COVID-19 crisis, China will address the environmental issues that resulted from the last proactionary measure in 2008. For China, the crisis might be an opportunity to achieve environmental protection.

COVID-19 has caused great damage to the economy not only in China but also worldwide. Still, there are new opportunities for human beings to protect the environment. During the lockdown we also saw some rare scenes; for example, we saw a clear river in Venice, a blue sky in India, and the potential environmental benefits brought by the “New Infrastructure” plan in China. As Fuller (2012) says, we can take a proactionary attitude towards the crisis and “never let a good crisis go to waste” (chapter 4). If we are prepared, we can also turn the COVID-19 crisis into a successful environmental protection opportunity. As Lao Tzu said: “Difficult and easy interdepend in completion” (难易相成) (Wisdom of Laotse, Yutang Lin translation).

Contact details: Cong Wang, University of Warwick, victoriawangcong@163.com

References

[1] http://www.189tv.com/xinwen/2020-04/01/content_5497748.htm.

[2] http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/zhengceku/2020-04/22/content_5505188.htm.

[3] http://auto.people.com.cn/n1/2020/0501/c1005-31695508.html.

[4] https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1666310637037673257&wfr=spider&for=pc.

[5] http://www.gov.cn/zhuanti/2020lhzfgzbg/index.htm.

[6] Zhou, Guanghui, Xunmin Ou, Xiliang Zhang. 2013. “Development of Electric Vehicle Use in China: A Study From the Perspective of Life-Cycle Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Energy Policy 59, 875-884.

[7] Shi, Hao, Shaoqing Huang. 2014. How Much Infrastructure is too Much? A New Approach And Evidence From China. World Development 56(C), 272-286.

[8] 王曦, & 陆荣. (2009). 危机下四万亿资计划的短期作用与期影响 (Doctoral dissertation).

[9] Mi, Zhifu, Jing Meng, Dabo Guan, Yuli Shan, Malin Song, Yi-Ming Wei, Zhu Liu, Klaus Hubacek. 2017. “Chinese CO 2 Emission Flows Have Reversed Since The Global Financial Crisis.” Nature Communications 8 (1): 1-10.

[10] 严昀镝, 徐延萌, & 段海英. (2009). 浅议经济低迷时期政府投资的着力方向-基于四万亿元政府投资计划的分析. 軟科學, 23 (8): 58-60.

[11] Wu, Jing, Yongheng Deng, Jun Huang, Randall Morck, Bernard Yeung. 2013. “Incentives and outcomes: China’s Environmental Policy.” No 18754, NBER Working Papers from National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/nbrnberwo/18754.htm.

[12] Hawkins, Troy R., Bhawna Singh, Guillaume Majeau‐Bettez, Anders Hammer Strømman. 2013. “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 17 (1): 53-64.

[13] Huo Hong, Qiang Zhang, Michael Q Wang, David G Streets, Kebin He. 2010. “Environmental Implication of Electric Vehicles in China.” Environmental Science and Technology 1;44 (13): 4856-61.

[14] Holbrook, J. Britt, Adam Briggle. 2013. “Knowing and Acting: The Precautionary and Proactionary Principles in Relation to Policy Making. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (5): 15-37.

[15] Fuller, Steve. 2020. “A Post-Truth Proactionary Look at the Pandemic.” Postdigital Science and Education 1-5. doi: 10.1007/s42438-020-00124-5.

[16] Li, Ying, Chris Davis, Zofia Lukszo, Margot Weijnen. 2016. “Electric Vehicle Charging in China’s Power System: Energy, Economic and Environmental Trade-Offs and Policy Implications.” Applied Energy 173 (1): 535-554.

[17] Hao, Han, Qinyu Qiao, Zongwei Liu, Fuquan Zhao. 2017. “Impact of Recycling on Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electric Vehicle Production: The China 2025 Case.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 122, 114-125.

[18] Fuller, Steve and Veronika Lipińska. 2014. The Proactionary Imperative. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[19] Fuller, Steve. 2012. Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


[1] http://www.189tv.com/xinwen/2020-04/01/content_5497748.htm

[2] http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/zhengceku/2020-04/22/content_5505188.htm

[3] http://auto.people.com.cn/n1/2020/0501/c1005-31695508.html

[4] https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1666310637037673257&wfr=spider&for=pc

[5] http://www.gov.cn/zhuanti/2020lhzfgzbg/index.htm

[6] http://www.gov.cn/zhuanti/2020lhzfgzbg/index.htm


“The Elective Affinities Between Jair Bolsonaro’s Ideological Wing and Edir Macedo’s Theology: The Case of COVID-19,”
Leonardo Vasconcelos de Castro Moreira

Article Citation:

de Castro Moreira, Leonardo Vasconcelos. 2020. “The Elective Affinities Between Jair Bolsonaro’s Ideological Wing and Edir Macedo’s Theology: The Case of COVID-19.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (6): 34-39. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Max Weber—In Memoriam

In the same year as the 100-year anniversary of Max Weber’s death, which was caused by complications due to contamination with the Spanish Flu, the COVID-19 virus becomes a pandemic, generating a world crisis without any foreseeable end. In order to remember the anniversary of the German sociologist’s death and seize the opportunity to write about COVID-19 as a current topic, I will use the concept of elective affinities (Wahlverwandtschaft) to explain the ideological affinities between the ideological wing of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the theology of Edir Macedo, the leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a Neo-Pentecostal church from Brazil.

As previously observed (McKinnon 2010, Löwy 2011), Weber’s concept of elective affinities does not concern a relation of cause and effect, but rather an attraction of ideas and/or practices. He used the concept, which he borrowed from Goethe, to indicate how the inner-worldly asceticism from a few Protestant strands could merge with an incipient Modern capitalism, in a specific historical context. The term elective affinities was used a few times by the German author in the book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, especially in the more rigorous translations into English (Weber 2002), since a few authors, such as Talcott Parsons, have used the terms “certain correlations” and “those relationships” to translate Wahlverwandtschaft, which nowadays are not considered correct by scholars (Löwy 2011, 132).

Moreover, I will analyze Bolsonaro’s ideological wing and Edir Macedo’s Neo-Pentecostal theology in terms not of cause and effect, but of convergence in relation to their interpretation about COVID-19 and, in a broader sense, to their support for Bolsonaro’s government. While the ideological wing treats the virus as a Sino-communist conspiracy to conquer the world, the UCKG’s theology believes in demonic ubiquity with the aim of causing panic. However, both agree that the Brazilian media have created the hysteria, mostly because it attacks Bolsonaro’s incompetent handling of the virus. Thus, both the ideological wing and the Neo-Pentecostal leader believe that there are economic and political agendas behind these attacks.

COVID-19 According to Bolsonaro’s Ideological Wing: Olavo de Carvalho and the Communist Conspiracy

On March 10, 2020, Jair Bolsonaro said, while on a trip to Miami, that COVID-19 “was not all that the big media propagates throughout the world,” in a clear demonstration of his discredit of the media and of the virus, despite the fact that the World Health Organization had declared a worldwide pandemic. Over the next few days, Bolsonaro underwent exams, since his chief communications secretary, Fabio Wajngarten, tested positive for COVID-19. On March 15, supporters of the Brazilian president scheduled a protest against political institutions, more specifically the National Congress—the Chamber of Deputies and Senate—and the Supreme Federal Court. Bolsonaro’s engagement with the protest was substantial, which included direct greetings and physical contacts with protesters in Brasilia, the federal capital. In his appearance, Bolsonaro not only contradicted himself, since a week earlier he had said that he had not taken any part in the call for protests, but he also contradicted his own Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had asked Brazilian citizens to avoid crowds. On March 17, with Brazil already facing extreme cases and several deaths due to COVID-19, Bolsonaro re-affirmed that the virus outbreak was only “a sort of hysteria.” On March 20, he called COVID-19 a “little flu,” still minimizing its destructive effects.[1] On April 16, Bolsonaro fired Mandetta, after more than a month of political struggle; his Health Minister advocated for social isolation against the coronavirus, while Bolsonaro wanted the re-opening of several services to save the economy.

Since the beginning of his administration, Bolsonaro has followed the ideological guidelines of Olavo de Carvalho, a self-proclaimed philosopher who does not have a single official diploma. Notwithstanding the lack of academic capital, Carvalho has touted followers over the past few years, especially with his online classes on philosophy, during the time of the decline of the Workers’ Party (PT), which was at the head of the Brazilian Executive Branch for thirteen years during the presidencies of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. In spite of his bibliography in philosophy—which is controversial and ignored in formal institutions of higher education due to its lack of academic rigor –, he became an important figure in the impeachment process of Rousseff, in which protesters against the PT’s government often went to the streets with the saying “Olavo is right” on handmade posters.

Olavo’s success strategy, which consequently allowed him to become the ideological guru of the president, was something sui generis; he imported a good amount of conspiracy theories from the U.S., mostly from Alex Jones, the infamous American journalist who has received kind comments from Donald Trump. The conspiracies imported by de Carvalho went from aborted fetuses used to flavor Pepsi colas to doubting the nationality of former president Barack Obama. However, the Brazilian self-styled guru does not limit himself to American conspiracy theories; he once said that the former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso only got elected because he had entered the Freemasons (de Carvalho 2015, 304), and that Prince Charles, the heir of the British crown, was a member of a Tariqa that aimed to implement Islam worldwide.

Unlike Jones, de Carvalho was able to refine his conspiracy theories with his knowledge of philosophy and self-proclaimed fame of a good debater. However, the leitmotiv in de Carvalho’s thinking is a kind of McCarthyism adapted to the Brazilian context, in which not only people from the Left are communists, but also liberals and almost any kind of dissenting ideological branch. He interprets the world through a “cultural warfare” in which Antonio Gramsci and The Frankfurt School removed Marxism from a mere preoccupation with economic infrastructure; the war is happening now in the ideological field, and he therefore baptizes most of the ideological branches that differ from his conservatism as “cultural Marxism” (de Carvalho 2002). The Brazilian media is an example of a den full of communists who wish to spread what he calls “gender ideology” (which is related to gender studies) and “gayzism”; the latter would be the attempt to create a homosexual identity and, through education, teach it to children, who would then internalize this behavior seen as repulsive by Bolsonaro’s guru. Hence, the communist plot would have its basis in the dismantling of the Christian/Catholic family and, through ideological aspects, the imposing of a revolution against the traditionalism preached by Olavo.

It is no wonder that, when Bolsonaro took over the government, he had problems with China, since Olavo de Carvalho believes the country is engaged in a plot to install communism throughout the world. However, the communism is not restricted to China; universities all over the world, parts of the Catholic Church, and even billionaires such as the Rockefeller Family and George Soros are all responsible for the attempt to install Karl Marx’s political system. With a premise that communism is everywhere, de Carvalho is perhaps the most important negationist of mainstream science in Brazil, although he lives in the U.S. The ideologue has already asserted that cigarettes do not cause harm and are good against Alzheimer’s disease, he has defended geocentrism (de Carvalho 2015, 186), and more recently, he has seen good points in the Flat Earth “theory.”[2] The situation becomes more aggravated when COVID-19 comes into play. Just after the substantial dissemination of the virus, de Carvalho shared a conspiracy video on his social media; according to the author of the video, the billionaire Bill Gates patented COVID-19, spreading it throughout the world in order to contain worldwide population numbers.

Despite the exacerbated conspiracy tone, de Carvalho’s power is notable inside the Brazilian government. Bolsonaro himself said he followed his guru’s recommendation in the nomination of Ricardo Velez as Minister of Education, just after he took over the presidency. Concerning COVID-19, Olavo seems to have dictated, at least in the early moments of the crisis in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s tone with regard to the pandemic. The attacks against the “media hysteria” have seemed more important than containing the virus, at least in the discourses aimed at their common followers. Additionally, although Bolsonaro and de Carvalho are conservative Catholics, their discourses against TV Globo, the biggest television broadcaster in Brazil, have impacted another group that has grown exponentially in the country over the past few decades, the Pentecostals, whose most famous leader is Edir Macedo.

Edir Macedo, COVID-19, and Demonic Omnipresence

Edir Macedo, the UCKG’s leader and founder, also published a video about COVID-19 on March 15. In the first part of the video, Macedo said that there were no big problems with the virus. He accused the media of propagating terror to all nations with regard to COVID-19, and said that there were economic interests behind the generalized fear, without specifying what these interests would be. In the second part of the video, Macedo shows the analysis of a doctor—Dr. Beny Schmidt, from the Federal University of São Paulo—who, among other assertions, affirms that the virus “does not cause even flu-like symptoms” and that “it does not harm anyone.” In the third and final part, Macedo returns to say that Satan works through doubt and fear, and that the religious leader sees no reason for his followers to be worried.[3] The church’s official discourse changed over the next few days, as other church leaders said that Macedo only wanted to avoid panic. However, attacks continued against the media that had distorted Macedo’s message, according to the church’s website. Nonetheless, on March 18, the UCKG published a video calling its members to attend religious services at the Temple of Solomon—the most important church building, located in São Paulo—with a headline that considered COVID-19 as a sign that the biblical Apocalypse was near.[4] The severity of the situation seemed to be better understood, taking into consideration that the church also published guidelines for preventing the virus, such as decreasing the number of people at religious encounters by opening the temple all day long, and changing regular practices like the placing of hands on members’ heads during prayers.

The UCKG has, in the political sphere, its own strategy to gain power (Macedo and Oliveira 2008), as evident by its extra-official political party, the Republicanos. Following a similar line as the ideological wing of de Carvalho, Macedo’s own plans converged to support the candidature and government of Jair Bolsonaro.

It is worth recalling that Macedo has supported every single elected president in Brazil after the military dictatorship. In spite of the ideological plurality of the presidents, Macedo has always been able to adapt himself to the political establishment with respect to the Brazilian Executive Branch. However, there have been disagreements; the most important example occurred during the Workers’ Party government in the controversy surrounding the sex education handbook for children made by the Minister of Education at the time, Fernando Haddad, who would lose the presidential elections to Bolsonaro in 2018. The attacks against “gender ideology,” or more broadly, against gender-related themes (e.g. feminism and LGBTQ movements, especially) by the more conservative sectors of Brazilian society are also a banner for Macedo.

In in 2016, the UCKG was able to elect the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcello Crivella, who is also a church bishop—the highest position in the UCKG hierarchy. Crivella has a very unpopular government, and he has recently begun to praise Bolsonaro more vehemently in public, probably to earn support in this year’s elections, when the mayor will try to re-elect himself. Bolsonaro’s popularity is extremely high among Brazilian evangelicals—which include UCKG members and Pentecostals in general—mostly because of the close alignment of religious leaders with his government, especially in relation to moral values. The Minister of Women and Human Rights, Damares Alves, is an evangelical pastor, for example. Another point of mutual benefit between the current government and Macedo is with regard to publicity money. Macedo is the owner of TV Record, which already in Bolsonaro’s first year as president has surpassed TV Globo in relation to the amount of money received from the federal government for propaganda.[5] TV Globo is an ideological enemy of Bolsonaro in terms of moral values and an economic enemy of Macedo. The alignment against a common enemy is, therefore, a strategic move on the part of both leaders.

Notwithstanding the huge adaptability of Macedo with regard to politics, the demonization of adversaries has always been present in his modus operandi. Obviously, this does not concern just politics; Macedo demonizes other religions (Afro-Brazilian traditions, Spiritism, the Catholic Church, etc.) and even other Pentecostal churches. The Brazilian sociologist Ricardo Mariano, who has researched Brazilian Pentecostalism for decades, understands the exacerbated demonization in UCKG services as a characteristic of the “devil as a protagonist” (Mariano 2003). This characteristic could be extended to outside the services as well; the devil is a protagonist in almost every church discourse, since even the media broadcasting about COVID-19 has become the work of the devil.

In Bolsonaro’s live broadcast via Facebook on March 17 with a few supporters, one of the participants asked everyone, in the form of a prayer, to “prophesy” the end of the virus in Brazil—something promptly done by Bolsonaro. The act of prophesying, very common in Brazilian Pentecostal churches, indicates the alignment of the president with the quasi-Manichean Pentecostal worldview that understands the spiritual world as a battle between good and evil. Bolsonaro also called for a fast against COVID-19 on April 5, which was followed by prominent Pentecostal leaders such as R.R. Soares, Silas Malafaia, Marco Feliciano, and of course, Edir Macedo. In the political sphere, the president’s son, the Federal Deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, accused China of spreading COVID-19 around the world, which was in tune with Olavo de Carvalho’s interpretations and worldviews. Not so coincidentally, Eduardo is a follower of de Carvalho. Thus, in Brazilian politics today, there is Manichaeism in politics—the communist “other”– and Manichaeism in the spiritual realm—the Satanist “other”–, which thereby reflects two of the most important ideological foundations of the government.

Conclusion: The Elective Affinities in Bolsonaro’s Government

The negation of the severity of COVID-19 is part of an agenda of discrediting the regular media by both the ideological wing of Bolsonaro’s government and the theological (or political and economic) interests of Macedo and company. While the former’s aim is more aligned with the ascension of conservative values and the retraction of the communist threat (whether real or not), the latter benefits from political and economic deals with the government, while sharing similar conservative values as well. It is easy to observe the alignment between the two branches, which thus demonstrates their elective affinities in the form of a revulsion against the media and science, as evident in the government of Jair Bolsonaro. This process has much to do with the huge growth, over the past few decades, of Pentecostals in Brazil who have a Manichean interpretation of the world in which good and evil are at war in all possible spheres.

The polarization of Brazilian society, which is similar to what has happened in the U.S., has put Macedo’s theology and de Carvalho’s ideology on the same side. The elective affinities between the two are apparent as they, in Goethe’s words, “seek one another out, attract, seize, destroy, devour, consume one another, and then emerge again from this most intimate union in renewed, novel and unexpected shape” (Goethe 2005, 66). The struggle between the two had previously occurred in the religious sphere—when de Carvalho recently said that all bad things come from Evangelical churches for example— but their mutual attraction has materialized into a full support for the government. [6]  Could one say, recalling Weber once again, that in Brazil there is an elective affinity between the Pentecostal ethic and the “spirit” of Bolsonarism? One would think so, but if all that is solid melts into air, the tendency is that the “spirit” will soon be gone; the ethic, on the other hand, has undoubtedly come to stay.

Contact details: Leonardo Vasconcelos de Castro Moreira, Independent Scholar, Brazil, isbreginthehole@hotmail.com

References

de Carvalho, Olavo. 2015. O Jardim das Aflições: De Epicuro à Ressurreição de César: Ensaio Sobre o Materialismo e a Religião Civil. Campinas: Vide Editorial.

de Carvalho, Olavo. 2002. “Do Marxismo Cultural.” Olavo de Carvalho Official Website June 8. Accessed on 17 April. http://olavodecarvalho.org/do-marxismo-cultural/.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. 2005. Elective Affinities. London: Penguin Books.

Löwy, Michael. 2011. “Sobre o Conceito de Afinidade Eletiva em Max Weber.” Plural 17 (2): 129-142.

Macedo, Edir and Carlos Oliveira. 2008. Plano de Poder: Deus, os Cristãos e a Política. Rio de Janeiro: Thomas Nelson Brasil.

Mariano, Ricardo. 2003. “Guerra Espiritual: o Protagonismo do Diabo nos Cultos Neopentecostais.” Debates do NER 4 (4): 21-34.

McKinnon, Andrew. 2010. “Elective Affinities of the Protestant Ethic: Weber and the Chemistry of Capitalism”. Sociological Theory, 28 (1): 108-126.

Weber, Max. 2002. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit of Capitalism”—and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books.


[1] https://congressoemfoco.uol.com.br/governo/gripezinha-e-histeria-cinco-vezes-em-que-bolsonaro-minimizou-o-coronavirus/. Accessed on 17/04/2020.

[2] In: https://ultimosegundo.ig.com.br/politica/2019-05-30/internet-nao-perdoa-flerte-de-olavo-de-carvalho-com-terraplanismo-veja-memes.html. Accessed on 17/04/2020.

[3] In: https://www.poder360.com.br/midia/edir-macedo-diz-que-coronavirus-e-inofensivo-e-tatica-de-satanas/. Accessed on 17/04/2020.

[4] In: https://www.universal.org/noticias/post/o-coronavirus-e-o-fim-dos-tempos/. Accessed on 17/04/2020.

[5] In: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2019/04/gasto-do-governo-federal-com-publicidade-cresce-e-record-supera-globo.shtml. Accessed on 17/04/2020.

[6] In: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/colunas/monicabergamo/2020/03/olavo-de-carvalho-diz-que-igrejas-evangelicas-sao-responsaveis-por-tudo-o-que-acontece-de-mau-no-brasil.shtml. Accessed on 17/04/2020.


“One Nation Under Lockdown,” [1]
Kathryn Johnson, Taylor Loy, David Dansereau, Maria Gomez, George Atalla, Nataliya Brantly, and Sonja D. Schmid

Article Citation:

Johnson, Kathryn, Taylor Loy, David Dansereau, Maria Gomez, George Atalla, Nataliya Brantly, and Sonja D. Schmid “One Nation Under Lockdown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (6): 25-29. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

In “Pandemic Science and Politics,” Daniel Sarewitz addresses the role of science in guiding policy and decision-making in the United States during the first two weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.[2] The facts on the ground and the pattern of daily life when this article was published on March 25 starkly contrast with our current state of affairs, only a few weeks later. The WHO situation report from the same day showed a United States with an official count of 51,914 confirmed cases (9,750 new) and  673 deaths (202 new). “Slow the Spread: President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America” (dated March 16, 2020) had already been delivered to mailboxes across the country. Journalists attending White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings had only just begun socially distancing in earnest.[3] In the space of a few weeks, the data, science, policies, and values surrounding COVID-19 have evolved dramatically. While Sarewitz avoids the tempting prognostications that often accompany pandemic response analysis and commentary, his article raises a number of concepts and questions that deserve addressing.

Over the first two months of the pandemic, the complexities have become increasingly apparent. Even factoring in the diachronic differences of Sarewitz’s analysis in the moment, he appears to sidestep the already emergent global complexity.[4] He argues that the hesitancy and resistance normally accompanying scientific uncertainty have been overcome by the irrefutable visibility of the pandemic’s effects and readily evidenced by near real-time hypothesis testing. While admitting some persistent partisanship in the context of the then ongoing congressional debates for the initial economic relief package, he suggests that these political differences were in the process of collapsing from the simpatico relationship between scientists and the lay-public, tethered together by “common values.” This final claim appeared to hold true as the $2 trillion dollar CARES Act was signed into law two days later, following what may have been Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s vaguest gestures toward brinkmanship when the Senate performatively took the weekend off as the House was busy on a Saturday finalizing an early draft of the bill.

While this sort of essay—short and provocative, tentative and synchronic, crystallizing and general—requires a reductive approach, Sarewitz’s gestures to a broader public with a “shared sense of our commonality as humans” comes across as overly romantic. Consider how the most vulnerable among us might already interpret bleary-eyed appeals to a “common good.” [5] His insights are much more cogent and nuanced with respect to the elite domain of experts, scientists, and policy-makers. There is certainly no fault in his core message of hope and solidarity. However, full consideration of broader public solidarity—the very basis for this hope—receives short shrift.

In terms of Steve Fuller’s “Fourth Order Thinking About the Pandemic: A Transhumanist Challenge,” Sarewitz effectively superimposes first and second order thinking into a global (but not totalizing) conception of “shared values.” [6] In other words, “winning the fight over the virus” and “winning the fight over what ‘winning the fight’ means,” are not separate conversations. Given the relatively high degree of international cooperation and alignment with the WHO recommendations during the second half of March, such convergence seems entirely justified. He concludes with a passionate third order argument (with fourth order implications), that we are learning through experience that the nexus of science and politics serves humanity best when it is guided by “common values, not expert assertions of facts.” In this, at least, Sarewitz is prescient because our commonalities have been fracturing at every level of socio-political organization and the four orders of thinking have begun diverging along mutually incompatible paths.

Sidestepping Complexity

“COVID-19 is a hard problem, but not a complex one … It’s that a shared sense of our commonality as humans is the essential condition of a society that has the tools to deal with its problems.” Sarewitz appears to be arguing that because of the united common values surrounding the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis is not complicated. But over the past few months, the complexities of the problem have become increasingly apparent.

The challenge with COVID-19 begins with where to draw the boundary. Such thinking is oriented in and between first and second order discourses. To win the fight with COVID-19 do we need to simply understand the virus from a medical perspective and explain what it is doing to the body? Even that is more difficult than it may first appear. The retrospective analysis of patients from autopsies continues to show bizarre patterns – among them, the blood-clotting complications referenced in the headline here.[7] It also appears possible that there are multiple strains and that there is considerable variation in symptoms based on geography. Based on that information, location and region suddenly play a critical role in understanding the virus. And so the boundary grows. It is now recognized that the virus is a global risk, agnostic of country borders and local regions. From there, the complexity increases as COVID-19, the ambivalence of its presence/absence, influences all spaces in our lives: schools, hospitals, workplaces, shopping centers, and traveling through the liminal spaces between are all reconfigured, remapped, and redefined by our understanding of this virus.

The virus also disrupts our constructions of temporality. The complexity continues to expand as scientists, policy makers, and the public look toward the future. Underlying the unanswered questions regarding the virus itself are the challenges surrounding the re-opening of the economy. When is it acceptable to reopen the economy, with minimal risk to public health, and most importantly who gets to decide? Much of the decision-making surrounding the re-opening businesses and government is based on liability.  As the Reuters article notes, some businesses are looking for ways to avoid or limit their liability for related coronavirus decisions to re-open.[8] The argument would go that if they operate in compliance with the “official” guidance from the government, they ought to be somehow protected. This is just one example of the challenges of liability and responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to protect the public from the virus—is it the government’s, companies’ or the public’s? While COVID-19 is already a difficult problem, its complexity continues to expand and change seemingly every day. Again, the real question regarding complexity is where the boundary is drawn. Do we simply circumscribe the virus itself? Should we include all primary, secondary, and tertiary dimensions of pandemic response?[9]

Uncertainty / Visibility

Along with the challenges of complexity, Sarewitz raises some intriguing questions regarding the roles of uncertainty and visibility. “Indeed, scientists and policy-makers are for the most part being open about the significant uncertainties surrounding the disease and its future course.” This rings true, especially compared to other scientific framings for “evidence-based” policymaking. Sarewitz goes on to note that “with COVID-19, convergent values about what we want to accomplish means that uncertainty (about the science and about the decisions that are being be [sic] taken) does not block action—everyone agrees both on the need to act and on the desired goal.” This bears out in the construction of pandemic rhetoric on timelines and national contexts. We see Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society fulfilled where “the center of risk consciousness lies not in the present, but in the future,” when for weeks U.S. facing media has reverberated with the refrain: Italy’s today is our tomorrow.[10] A case most surprisingly made by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in his March 13 plea from on the ground in Italy that “America Must Act Now—and Act Big.” [11]

Again, this has changed significantly since late March, but the challenges regarding uncertainty remain. Many think that uncertainty can be reduced or even eradicated with additional information, research, or even more time to understand the problem. But Asselt and Vos and others argue more knowledge does not mean that there will be less uncertainty.[12] Science in turn is often seen as that objective tool that can be used to reduce situations of uncertainty or risk. But again science too has its limitations. What happens when more science fails to reduce uncertainty? What happens when people or countries are faced with continuous uncertainty surrounding an issue? Even if we trust each other to do the right thing, as Sarewitz suggests we were doing, what if scientific experts and policy-makers no longer offer reliable assurances of what that right thing is?

Today uncertainty continues to grow around a number of issues, including the mixed messaging on national testing efforts. Testing was identified as a critical need three months ago and seemingly ought to be very straight-forward. While it is encouraging to see additional countries (Germany as the latest) able to roll out nationwide antibody testing, it raises the question why things have been so slow here, so political. It appears now that as more time goes by, integrity and credibility of information are being lost. Fact-based press briefings have turned instead into extended sessions with odd, often misleading talking points, wasting the time of many key CDC officials, who might otherwise be focused on problem-solving.

Sarewitz goes on to argue that this situation is different from “more conventional interactions between science and politics, where competing sides enlist their own experts who then have a strong incentive to speak with more than warranted certainty.” There is definitely value in scientists admitting the uncertainty that surrounds COVID-19, but is there a problem with too much uncertainty? Is scientific uncertainty in some ways contributing to the different reactions that people across the US are having to this pandemic? We see each state interpreting (or ignoring) science around COVID-19 and making their own determinations about what are relevant facts (and what are common values). On March 24, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey made these state-to-state differences emphatic, stating “we’re not California, we’re not New York, we aren’t even Louisiana” in defense of not issuing a stay-at-home order. Even when the national response seemed most unified, cracks in first order thinking were already beginning to form.

What Role do Common Values Have in Science?

“Above all, we are learning that science’s place in politics is determined not by the logic of facts, but by the fundamental influence of human values.” In the case of COVID-19, “[c]ommon values, not expert assertions about facts, are what make science good enough to act on.” Sarewitz appears to be writing this in a more idealistic sense. He posits common values shared by all, which are: stay home and keep everyone safe. But since March, these common values don’t seem quite so common after all. Instead, we are seeing a divergence of human value paradigms. As the country and world look toward the future, the definition of ‘common’ becomes muddied. So if common values are out, then where does that leave science? If neither facts nor values are the primary aspect driving decisions, one needs to determine what new value to use. Are we coming back to Starr’s 1969 bar, where death is the only measure we’ll accept as “risk”?

The final challenge with understanding and defining common values (and what their role will be) resides in the larger question of who gets to decide. Sarewitz’s article focuses primarily on the interactions between policy-makers and scientists, with limited attention spent on the public. The public’s role in this crisis must be highlighted more. Values perhaps more common among the general public influence the choices of elite decisionmakers. The public understanding of scientific facts and their interpretation of the COVID-19 risks plays a critical role in the future of this situation.  

United in Discovering a New Normal?

On the surface of the article, one sees the limitations of a seemingly romanticized idea that politics were being set aside to fight COVID-19. As addressed above, common values, uncertainty, and a common understanding of science is not as simple as Sarewitz originally argued. It has become increasingly apparent that the COVID-19 situation is not just another difficult problem but rather a very complex one that extends beyond the boundaries of just science or policies. Despite these drawbacks, Sarewitz’s article offers an uplifting message. He states that “for this crisis, the things that unite us are outranking those that divide us.”

While we certainly see that many people are not united on all aspects of this pandemic, there are certain things that do unite us. We are all counting the days, whether it is the days since schools have closed or perhaps the days since seeing family or friends. Everyone is navigating uncertain terrain. It may be the shifting logistics of going into work, the learning curve of telework, or facing unemployment. For many it is suddenly having to homeschool children. For all of us, it is trying to maintain some sense of whatever ‘normalcy’ is now. Everyone is missing something: graduations, family vacations, birthdays, time with friends and family. Perhaps that is what Sarawitz meant when he stated “we know what COVID-19 is because we see it around us.” We all can see it in the news reports, but more saliently, we see it in all of these missed events and modified schedules; we see the days we’ve counted. In that sense, we are all inevitably united in defining a new ‘normal.’

Contact details: Kathryn Johnson, Virginia Tech, johnskat@vt.edu


[1] This response is a collaboration between colleagues in a spring 2020 graduate seminar on “Risk in Contemporary Culture” at Virginia Tech. As the COVID-19 pandemic derailed and overshadowed the course syllabus, we began engaging with risk literature in more visceral and fragmented ways. This essay is one attempt to reassemble and contextualize those fragments.

[2] The WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020 and officially declared the novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

[3] The Coronavirus Task Force press briefing as late as March 21 had journalists occupying only every other seat. On March 25, there were 2-3 seats between each journalist, an arrangement so novel that, while waiting for the President, Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin commented to Ambassador Dr. Deborah Birx on “how good” the social distancing was. Dr. Birx then hopes out loud that the photographers are capturing the scene from their perspective to send “a great message to the American people.”

[4] The United Kingdom’s dalliance with “herd immunity” had only shifted several days prior, following the March 16, 2020 Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team “Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand”  that projected 510,000 dead in Great Britain and 2.2 million dead in United States by August without any control measures.

[5] For further consideration of the disability community in the context of COVID-19 see Ashley Shew’s “Let COVID-19 Expand Awareness of Disability Tech” May 5, 2020. Nature 581, 9.

[6] First published on April 17, 2020 at Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

[7]  A Mysterious Blood-Clotting Complication is Killing Coronavirus Patients” (Washington Post, April 4, 2020).

[8]Corporate America Seeks Legal Protection for When Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift” (Reuters, April 21, 2020).

[9] But of course the challenge then becomes, what does the COVID-19 problem not include? Defining the boundary of any risk or issues continues to be difficult. Similar to the challenge that is faced with some of Perrow’s arguments—what is included (or not included) in a system?

[10] Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Translated by Mark Ritter. SAGE publications, 34.

[11] Though, Gingrich appears to have walked back some of his previous Newsweek earnestness on the “Therefore, What?” podcast on May 6, 2020, stating “I would argue we’ve overreacted”.

[12] van Asselt, Marjolein B. A. and Ellen Vos. 2006. “The Precautionary Principle and the Uncertainty Paradox.” Journal of Risk Research 9 (4): 313-336.


“A Quiet Life: An Essay Inspired by Steve Fuller’s ‘When A Virus Goes Viral—Life With COVID-19′,” Des Hewitt

Article Citation:

Hewitt, Des. 2020 “A Quiet Life: An Essay Inspired by Steve Fuller’s ‘When A Virus Goes Viral—Life With COVID-19’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (5): 40-45. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Druids and Freedom

Living in Wiltshire close to Avebury and not too far from Stonehenge during the COVID-19 ‘crisis’ has made me really quite pensive about the past. That is to say, I have been wondering how these small communities (although the historical evidence suggests movement across Europe to what were once well inhabited places as centres of healing, indeed, perhaps, to escape the plague) dealt with disease, and viruses that must not have been dissimilar to the coronavirus we are exposed to now. Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests travel from Spain to Orkney (said to once have been the centre of Neolithic and Bronze Age European civilisation), possibly via Stonehenge was common. But here, now in 2020, the chalk and flint fields and Downlands of Wiltshire present an ethereal landscape, evoking the druids of the past and, of more recent years, when free festivals were still permitted. The Stonehenge Free Festival for example; music and videos of these free events therefore—unsurprisingly perhaps—play an important part of my writing in this essay and is used to convey the essay’s central subtext: our civilisation is but a blip in time and our existential concerns are too easily exacerbated and manipulated by the media.

Viral Communications

Indeed, what really made me think deeply about this was Steve Fuller’s article, primarily written for his students, on how the current pandemic has gone ‘viral’ due to the existence of social media, and the scrutiny that governments and our over stretched health services face because of this; due to the past few decades of ideological under financing as Fuller points out.[1] Of course we must not forget the mainstream, wall-to-wall, 24/7 television coverage, and the often obtuse criticism, and indeed, the over the top and completely unnecessary scrutiny that programmes such as Good Morning Britain (GMB) have indulged in, particularly under the influence of Piers Morgan: did for example Mr Morgan ever consider that the Prime Minister might become ill as he crassly lambasted his failure to appear in front of his personal ‘Star Chamber’ (ironically, since the prime minister’s illness, Mr Morgan has turned his vitriol towards those who tweeted against Boris Johnson etc., while the PM was in hospital): it’s equally unlikely that Mr Morgan would have been buried (cremated) with all his earthly possessions had he been alive in Neolithic to Bronze age times, unless of course this rite was preserved for establishment critical soothsayers such as he.

After all, we know what happened to Socrates although his criticism had a much more profound point, as did his pupil’s Plato, (particularly about the value of writing) unlike the easy and sometimes ego boosting point scoring of the present critics in a situation in which we are pretty much impotent; we don’t as yet know, as Fuller points out, know everything, if indeed much, about COVID-19 and how it works yet; recent evidence from South Korea suggests at least, that it may be possible to become re-infected with the virus, so the much vaunted panaceas of testing, and ultimately the development of a vaccine may yet turn out to be little more than wishful thinking. Mr Morgan may have to accept we are not in a wartime situation similar to post-Dunkirk, that is the blitz, with a dithering Fuhrer and Luftwaffe outwitted by a radar system which they failed to keep targeting, and so the hyperbolic notion of being ‘British’ will have little to do with it when we are confronted with a virus that has literally gone global; and so although we know its genetic construction we cannot shoot it down with missiles, and certainly not the febrile and over emotive conversations witnessed on social media and in the mainstream media.

The Centrality of Plague to Civilisation

So in the face of this impotence, what I want to concentrate on in this essay in a more serious way, (thus not simply an anti-media rant but an attempt at philosophical discourse) which I describe as a historical counterfactual argument against the way the current pandemic is managed, is how people, moreover their societies, would have dealt with this pandemic, without the constant white noise of the assorted media; and the lessons and implications for us now: would for example, our lives be quieter, if perhaps less insecure in many other ways; indeed, a Quiet Life not many miles from here but ones that are actively critical of the status quo without the endless Twitter and Facebook wars.[2] To attempt to achieve this, I want to travel briefly (and I certainly do not claim to be a historical expert on this area) through different historical eras from the Neolithic Bronze Age periods, to the Black Death and Bubonic plague of the 1300s and 1600s.

The evidence shows a mass migration from the Russian Steppes in about 5,000 BC. The original wooden henge is thought to have been constructed around then. Interestingly, the migration away from the plague in the east is argued to have changed the European gene pool; it is also argued that later (with some irony intended one feels) that the great civilizations of ancient Rome and China (AD165) collapsed for the same ostensibly the same reason but crucially, also because of the same sort of global interconnectedness and inequality that has allowed the coronavirus to spread.[3]

Boris Johnson will be well aware of these plagues of antiquity, as his hero Pericles, the great statesman of Athens, died from plague (typhoid) in 430 BC, although there were many positive as well as negative outcomes for the ancient Greeks then; and so just as it is often said that the history world is the history of migration then we might say that plague, that is pandemics, are the driving force of that history—we can certainly say as a famous philosopher once did, that history at present is moving from East to West—let us hope that this latest pandemic is not a case of the ‘End of History and indeed, the Last Man [Standing’]! (Fukuyama, 1992).[4] So anyhow, the imaginary about what life was like before the media, social or otherwise, was life cruel and short; was it common place to be murderer for a carrot as one of my former lecturers suggested, and thus life in the 21st century is so much better—or is it?

From the Frankfurt School to the analogous writings of Foucault, we all know about the oppression, regulation, restriction and rule of law the Enlightenment allegedly brought about. But it also—as well as creating the myth that science could save us from a natural world we are often impotent against as we are now—created the blame game. Not simply the anti-Semitism of fascism—and more recently ‘cultural Marxism’—but the constant critique of each other, (especially through social media despite the many charitable and other laudable projects launched through this) as we look to blame each other one way or another for our imprisonment in global capitalism—a global capitalism which I argued with Steve Fuller in a review of his book, Nietzschean Meditations, had finally, through its evolutionary motor and creative destruction has set us free, but only if we accept that our time, at least our civilisation, like so many before is at an end, and we may need to free ourselves from our earthly bonds, in mind and spirit to be truly and finally free of our chains. Alternatively, we can resume our lives as they were, populations depleted, healthcare systems bolstered for future pandemics or, we can indulge in the perverse relativism and moral equivalence of comparing the current death rate with past pandemics.

For example, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 which is said to have infected up to 50 million people and killed anywhere between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. Of course, we can argue the world survived and continued pretty much as before except it was followed by the Great Depression, fascism, national socialism, the division of Europe by the Iron Curtain, and the US and the Soviet Union fighting each other by proxy for decades. How many people died in these wars and the holocaust? How many people died in the Great Smog in London in 1952—12,000, maybe more? How many people die every year during the Flu season? Or perhaps as is the raison d’être of this article, the imaginary of an Arcadia in Neolithic history would serve us better. And understanding why civilisations end and how life continues would serve us better than the constant, nay, incessant critique by media, underpinned as Fuller argues the panic over whether the health system can cope, and the professionals who work within the system have been let down by an incompetent government-not an astonishing revelation to many.

The Message of Plague and Stonehenge for Our Own Lives

It is argued that Stonehenge by 2,500 BC was a hive of activity in southern England and that people travelled far and wide during its final stage of construction.[5] Stonehenge was a settled agrarian community living far beyond the realms of a simple subsistence type society where people partied as they built and indeed, people such as the Amesbury Archer travelled from the Swiss Alps; archaeologists discovered he was missing a knee cap and had a dental abscess that had travelled deep into his jaw. It is believed he made his last fateful and painful journey as a pilgrimage and as a last hope of healing his broken body. So conversely perhaps after all, Stonehenge, Avebury weren’t the quiet places I’ve conveniently imagined and news was carried far and wide across Western Europe,  and so was cosmopolitan in character, but at least the present day druids of the media and social media didn’t exist, for whatever the failings of our government and there are many, what we can be sure of is that civilisations rise and fall, and just as the Romans adopted many ancient British traditions, including some of those belonging to the tribes of Stonehenge.[6]

So, what of social life during plagues, how can we get a picture of how people behaved, if differently from now? In a recent piece Simon Schama for the Financial Times tells us that from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War to The Diary of Samuel Pepys that during times of plague people, even when at the risk of their own lives, continued to be the social animals. [7] Aristotle argued we are ‘acts of friendship were and are the most painful of casualties’ and conversely, as Thucydides reported, a dejection of mind and fracturing of friendship for those who did not receive the social support they needed; those who had no visitors ‘died forlorn’.

Interestingly, given our times and in argument to this essay, Schama states that:

Our generation is more fortunate. For once, the grotesque debasement of what it means to be befriended on social media has something going for it. Facetime, Instagram and Zoom allow comforting visits to the sick and distressed in ways denied to Thucydides’ stricken Athenians and Pepys’ Londoners walled in, as they were, behind a red cross daubed on their doors.

Despite the ability to digitally connect now, I would suggest that social media has us walled in behind our own ostensibly ‘locked’ doors. Leaving aside the laudable fund raising efforts for the NHS (which we have all already paid for through our tax system, but which the bailed-out banks really benefited from), the epidemic of fitness gurus, the endless foodie live cook-ins, hairdressing and very painful celeb and non-celeb mass sing alongs, following either GMB or the cardboard alternative of BBC Breakfast News on the red sofas represents a new form of torture the henchmen of the medieval world would have been proud of.

And given that on these particularly sunny Wednesday mornings of late April my local Tesco’s looked as busy as at Christmas; the endless government warning, ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ seems to have as much power as their dramatic Orwellian style public service announcements and daily briefings; terminal boredom. It seems we’re just prisoners of someone else’s making, or perhaps our own. The mainstream media, at the high and low end of the journalism spectrum endlessly critique the lack of personal protection equipment (PPE), and along with incessant critique of the failure of the testing programme seems to leave little choice: alcohol consumption at home is said to have increased significantly since the lockdown.

It seems dejection and petrification of mind is the overriding state of affairs, not the fracturing of friendships. Thus it seems as though the weekly applauding of the NHS (after our self-distancing, self- isolation parole trip to Tesco’s) is our salvation. Perhaps as the main subtext of Fuller’s article suggests, what’s turned this pandemic into a panic, is the mass scrutiny of our healthcare system from outside and within via the media and social media. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s first speech on resuming the reins of government—on the steps of Number 10—acknowledged the centrality of the NHS’s survival. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/04/27/boris-johnsons-coronavirus-speech-full/

And despite slightly contradicting what I argued above, the most significant recent development has been the announcement of simultaneous clinical trials of vaccines that may be approved by September, if they work. Quiet science and not social media (although doubtless they now collaborate via Zoom or one its variants) may in the end save us, as they have been attempting to with specific regard to pandemics for decades, but in the meantime we should remember how ephemeral our lives and civilisations are: the project to build Stonehenge lasted for up to 2,000 years, and eventually it was abandoned. It also seems, just as Schama argues Pepys did in 1665, they partied with abandon through the building of the great monument. How many of us, given the opportunity now could honestly say we wouldn’t, if allowed (and despite our virtue signalling on FB and elsewhere) be in that pub garden? Better still at a free festival (not anything like ‘Glasto’, I hasten to add). Ever get the feeling the quiet life isn’t working and it all just feels the same?

Knowledge for Today Only

A quiet life at the moment would be the heaven of a tepee or painted wagon at Stonehenge away from the numbers and the vociferous media (leaving earth for space doesn’t always require a rocket and silicone gel to suspend our brains in); eventually the pandemic will end, unfortunately, whether we will all meet again isn’t as certain. Perhaps the best thing that will come out of it is a renewed belief in scientists and experts as it seems to me that everyone and their aunty expects the solution from them. However, in a final thought, it might be wise to take a leaf out of one of Popper’s many writings and remember what we know today changes tomorrow, and so we should always be ready to accept changing and contradictory knowledge; moreover, accept that we will never know everything and the society we live in is but a bridge over a swamp, a bridge that needs its supports constantly shoring up—as society, the world and knowledge of how to make it work changes all the time. As Hegel (who Popper (1945) might have understood and agreed with on this point) said, the Owl of Minerva beats its wings at [each and every] dusk. The salutary lesson of this pandemic may be the realization that we are not masters of the universe.[8]

Contact details: Des Hewitt, University of Warwick, deshewitt100@gmail.com

References

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin.

Fuller, Steve 2020. “When a Virus Goes Viral — Life with COVID-19.” Lifeboat Foundation 17 March. https://lifeboat.com/blog/2020/03/when-a-virus-goes-viral-life-with-covid-19

Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath, Vol. 2. London: Routledge


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/12/revealed-value-of-uk-pandemic-stockpile-fell-by-40-in-six-

[2] https://green-history.uk/articles/events/peace-events/counter-cruise-cosmic-carnival-july-1982

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/12/inequality-pandemic-lockdown

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52236388

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/stonehenge_stoneage.shtml

[6] https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history-and-stories/history/

[7] https://www.ft.com/content/279dee4a-740b-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

[8] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/preface.htm


“Corona-Party at the Ruins of an Earthquake”
Petar Jandrić

Article Citation:

Jandrić, Petar. 2020 “Corona-Party at the Ruins of an Earthquake.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (5): 34-39. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Now We’re Waiting for Locusts

On 13 March 2020 Croatian government introduced harsh lockdown measures against the rising pandemic of the coronavirus (Government of the Republic of Croatia 2020). While the whole population was confined to their homes, at 6:24 am on the Sunday morning of 22 March 2020, Croatia’s capital Zagreb (population ca 1 million) was hit by a 5.5 Richter earthquake (BBC News 2020). Within seconds, my partner and I ran from our flat at the third floor of a 100-year old Austro-Hungarian building and found ourselves in the street. Barefoot and in our pyjamas, we found ourselves talking to neighbours known and unknown, while more than 30 aftershocks shook the city for the rest of the day. Less than five minutes after the first shock it began to snow, and we all chuckled at a bitter viral Facebook message saying: ‘And now we’re waiting for locusts’.

In the midst of unprecedented lockdown measures, Zagreb was hit by the strongest earthquake in 140 years—and its citizens were equally unprepared for both. To add insult to injury, recommended responses to these disasters are directly opposed—the virus is avoided by staying at home, while (consequences of) the earthquake are avoided by going out. Faced with the invisible threat of the virus and the visible threat of being buried alive, no-one has returned to their flats. Someone made a quick beer run to the nearby gas station, and we had a nice little corona-party at the ruins of our beloved city. Few days later, doctors and patients had another nice little corona-party in their emergency rooms… But who could blame terrified people for risking a possibility to contract the virus in the face of failing walls and ceilings?

How Many Deaths is ‘Enough’?

Most of us intuitively know that natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, are distributed throughout the world unequally. It is perhaps less intuitive, but hugely important, that disasters of similar magnitude can cause radically different consequences. For instance, the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, rated 6.3 on the Richter magnitude scale, “killed 309 people, left 70,000 homeless and devastated around 56 villages in Italy’s mountainous heart”. Images of destruction and suffering have become viral, and decade later, Italy still has not completely recovered from the event (Giuffrida 20199). In contrast, the Osaka 2018 earthquake rated 6.1 Richter incurred 3 fatalities, 200 injuries, and no material damage to speak of, hardly causing a whisper in global mediascape (McCurry 2018). So what is the difference between these two earthquakes? Living within a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japanese people experience many earthquakes and have a century-old tradition of earthquake-resistant building. Residents of L’Aquila are not that used to deadly earthquakes, so they don’t earthquake-proof their buildings.

While it is still too early to make any decisive conclusions about the coronavirus, its spread seems to exhibit similar patterns. According to Bloomberg’s Justin Fox, “[t]he governments that seem to have been most ready for COVID-19 have something in common: a recent coronavirus scare”. Fox elaborates:

[T]he Asian countries that had experienced SARS and MERS not only took pandemic scenarios seriously, but also seem to have had the right pandemic scenarios for this particular disease — ones that envisioned some possibility of halting rather than just slowing its spread. They could also count on much of the population remembering the previous outbreak, knowing what they were supposed to do and having stashes of surgical masks in their apartments (Fox 2020).</p?

Despite these similarities, the coronavirus pandemic is very different from an earthquake. First, earthquakes are local; the pandemic is global. Second, science knows at least something about earthquakes; our understanding of the novel coronavirus is still very limited. Third, waking up in a shaking bed into a deafening roar of the earthquake is easily perceived as an immediate threat to one’s life; viruses are invisible, so anti-viral measures require a lot of belief in science and provide fertile ground for all kinds of post-truth, fake news, and bullshit (Peters, Jandrić and McLaren 2020). These and other differences contribute to development of very different responses to earthquakes and viruses. A 5.5 Richter earthquake has catapulted population of Zagreb into collective trance; how many Richters would be needed to push citizens of Tokyo or Osaka into a corona-party?

The humankind does not have other choice but to defeat the coronavirus—at this stage, we can only hope that our victory won’t be a Pyrrhic one. So how many people need to die of COVID-19 before the world decides to develop collective anti-viral measures analogous to Japanese earthquake-proof building standards? While it is commonplace to claim that every human life is equally important, comparison between earthquakes in L’Aquila and Osaka sends a different message: this perverse body count does exist. Earthquakes did not kill ‘enough’ Italians to make them earthquake-proof their buildings; earthquakes killed ‘enough’ Japanese to make earthquake-proofing a norm. Each community determines its own ‘sufficiently large number of earthquake-related deaths’ before it decides to introduce costly earthquake-proofing regulations, and this number depends on many factors such as proximity of earthquakes (frequency, magnitude, etc.), economy, cultural norms, and others. Translated to, for instance, an arbitrary number such as percentage of victims per capita within 100 years, ‘enough’ could mean various things to the Italians and the Japanese, to Catholics and Buddhists, to capitalists and communists, and so on.

A similar line of argument can be applied to the coronavirus—this time, with an important global twist. How many deaths are required before the likes of Donald Trump realize that there is no such thing as a ‘Chinese’ (or, for that matter, ‘American’ or ‘Croatian’) virus; before the pharmaceutical industry decides to invest in (pecuniary) non-profitable antivirus vaccines; before the world decides to take lessons from localized events (such as SARS and MERS) to develop protective measures from global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic? Will COVID-19 kill ‘enough’ people to make the world develop global measures against similar pandemics in the future?

Social Epistemology in the Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic in human history. Compared to pandemics such as the Black Death, Spanish Flu, and others, the COVID-19 pandemic is reasonably ‘mild’—both because of relatively small incidence of death amongst the infected, and because of high-tech medical responses available in the 21st century (Newman 2020). Pandemics which killed millions such as Black Death and Spanish Flu happened much before our lifetimes, so it could be argued that impersonal collective memory hidden in historical books and photographs has not provided strong enough motivation for development of measures that would protect the contemporary world against COVID-19 and similar threats. Yet the world continually experiences lesser and quite deadly epidemics: only between 2018 and 2019, we had the epidemic of the Nipah virus infection in India, the Ebola epidemic in Congo and Uganda, the measles epidemic in Congo and Samoa, and the dengue fever epidemic in Asia-Pacific and Latin America (Wikipedia 2020). In 2009-2010, we also experienced the global swine flu pandemic. The world has been warned—so why did we not take these warnings seriously enough? And, more importantly—are we ready to learn our lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Answers to this theoretical question, which could bear very practical consequences for the future of our world, require approaches which cut across science, technology, and society. In relation to development of global responses to COVID-19, and similar pandemics in the future, Steve Fuller’s social epistemology offers three important inputs: its normative agenda (cf. Fuller 1988/2002), its globalist conception of science (Fuller and Jandrić 2019), and its ‘naturalistic approach to epistemology, aimed at discovering empirically how material constraints and organizational parameters influence the process of producing scientific results’ (Collin 2010: 167). Acknowledging that social epistemology (and Fuller’s work in particular) have much more to offer to the debate than these somewhat arbitrarily chosen points, I will now briefly examine their relevance for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much can be said about normative aspects of social epistemology, yet in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following line written by Steve Fuller in our recent interview is of particular relevance: “When I say ‘normative’ I simply mean a concern with how things ought to be done—‘performance standards’, if you will: What makes something better or worse at what it does, and what contributes to its improvement or decline.” (Fuller and Jandrić 2019: 192) Furthermore, says Fuller,

from the standpoint of the growth of knowledge as something we wish to promote (i.e. the normative question), it is more important to learn how a particular solution to a problem became the solution to the problem than how the particular solution itself was reached. After all, that ‘locked in’ solution may have inhibited the development of more efficient solutions, which in turn may have resulted in other benefits (Fuller and Jandrić 2019, 201).

In capitalism, this collective ‘we’ (referring to Fuller’s “something we wish to promote”) (my emphasis), is led by the marketplace. Thus, the question ‘How many people need to die of COVID-19 before the world changes the course of action?’ unfortunately yet smoothly translates into the question ‘How many people need to die before their deaths become financially unsustainable?’

Implementing lockdown measures against the coronavirus, the world is facing the “a moral and political dilemma” (Hu 2020) between market-centred normativity (act to minimize damage to the market) and human-centred normativity (act to minimize damage to human beings). While it could be argued that these two normativities converge at a certain meta-level (minimizing human damages seems intuitively linked to minimizing market damages), in practice their relationship is one of competition and struggle. For instance, looking at huge financial damages suffered by Chinese micro-, small-, and medium-size private enterprises (MSMEs) during the lockdown, Hu (2020) asks: “should potential risk-takers (MSMEs owners) be permitted to exercise their voluntary, risk-laden behavior (resumption of work during the pandemic), when side-effects of such behavior (becoming an infection source) will likely undermine the interest of risk-evaders (survive at a bare-minimum level for as long as necessary)?

Speaking of various approaches to negotiating such dilemmas, social epistemology is clearly against standard universalist and transcendentalist conceptions of science and philosophy. At the same time, social epistemology retains “a place for a globalist conception of science in which the latter is assessed from the point of view of the interests of all of mankind, not only local constituencies” (Collin 2010, 167). But what is the interest of all of humankind? While it seems generally accepted that lockdown measures save lives in developed economies such as Europe and the US, developing countries are voicing concerns that economic slowdown caused by the lockdown may kill more people by hunger than the coronavirus:

“We haven’t eaten for two days,” Devi said, noting that the little money they had saved quickly ran out. “We are scared of this disease but I think hunger will kill us. We will stay hungry, but how can we watch our children starve?” (Rekha Devi, India) (Sanjai and Naqvi 2020).

“What is happening in Zimbabwe is very scary,” said Tinashe Moyo at the supermarket. “It’s like we are playing cards. It’s either you win coronavirus or you win starvation. I am very scared.” (Tinashe Moyo, Zimbabwe) (Associated Press 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic mixes ‘pure’ ethical questions (how many deaths is ‘enough’?) with postcolonial legacy of global geopolitical order (whose deaths count?). With its decidedly non-universalist approaches, social epistemology is well-equipped to deal with those difficult challenges.

Fuller’s third point, naturalistic approach to epistemology, returns this discussion to science and “simply means that I take historical and empirical research as setting prima facie constraints on the norms of organised inquiry” (Fuller and Jandrić 2019, 193) (emphasis original). The naturalistic approach is about improving the instrumental efficacy of science, not just in relation to what is (current state of the art of virus research) but also in relation to what might be (what kind of response to future pandemic might be developed if we take messages from the COVID-19 pandemic seriously to invest more, and invest differently, in virus research). The naturalistic approach feeds back to continuous reassessment of the normative goals of science, including but not limited to the question how many people need to die, and whose deaths count, before the world decides to act. In this way, normativity, global focus, and naturalistic approach to inquiry permanently circle between ethical questions, policy responses, and scientific research, switching its focus from present to future and then back to present again, but always keeping the whole image in sight.

There is No Bad Pandemic, Only Bad Science

Written one month after our little corona-party at the ruins of an earthquake, this article cannot avoid strong emotions and inevitable exaggerations that accompany these emotions. Only a psychopath would be emotionally unaffected by such events, and only a lousy philosopher would fail to admit their own emotional engagement. Within this rush of emotions, it is comforting to realize that familiar insights from social epistemology can provide conceptual tools for answering some pressing questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and providing guidelines for reacting to similar future events. Furthermore, as I argued elsewhere (Jandrić 2020), this heightened state of mind could provide a fruitful impetus for making a difference: by removing some of our usual rationality, it could help humankind move from entrenched paths of business as usual and consider some real change.

Outdoor lovers often say that there is no bad weather, only bad gear—and social epistemologists might add that there is no bad pandemic, only bad science. At the expense of many human lives, the COVID-19 pandemic will be defeated even with our lousy instrumentalist scientific gear. However terrible, this struggle offers valuable insights in many deficiencies of our present approaches to global contemporary challenges to our philosophies, sciences, and politics. With its naturalistic approach to organised inquiry, its global focus, its active understanding of normativity, and other features which did not find their way into this article, social epistemology offers a lot of guidance for improving these deficiencies. So let’s use social epistemology to gear up for the current COVID-19 pandemic and develop philosophies, sciences, and politics more suited for global challenges of the 21st century.

Contact details: Petar Jandrić, Zagreb University of Applied Sciences, Croatia; University of Wolverhampton, UK, pjandric@tvz.hr

References

Associated Press. 2020. “In Zimbabwe, Starving People are Willing to Risk Coronavirus to Get Food, Water on the Table.” https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-30/in-zimbabwe-you-win-coronavirus-or-you-win-starvation. Accessed 28 April 2020.

BBC News. 2020. “Earthquake Rocks Croatia’s Capital Zagreb.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51995861. Accessed 28 April 2020.

Collin, Finn. 2011. Science Studies as Naturalized Philosophy. Springer Science+Business Media.

Fox, Justin. 2020. “What Prepares a Country for a Pandemic? An Epidemic Helps.” Bloomberg Opinion 18 March. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-03-18/COVID-19-response-better-in-countries-with-sars-mers-coronavirus. Accessed 28 April 2020.

Fuller, Steve. 1988/2002. Social Epistemology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Fuller, Steve and Petar Jandrić. 2019. “The Postdigital Human: Making the History of the Future.” Postdigital Science and Education, 1 (1): 190–217.

Giuffrida, Angela. 2019. “Ten Years After the Quake, Italy’s Ravaged Heart is Still Struggling to Recover.” The Guardian 7 April. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/07/george-clooney-laquila-italy-earthquake-restoration. Accessed 28 April 2020.

Government of the Republic of Croatia. 2020. “Coronavirus Protection Measures.” https://vlada.gov.hr/coronavirus-protection-measures/28950. Accessed 28 April.

Hu, Zhengdong. 2020. “China’s Blacklist System under the COVID-19 Precautionary Lockdown Regime.” Postdigital Science and Education.” doi: 10.1007/s42438-020-00127-2.

Jandrić, Petar. 2020. “Postdigital Research in the Time of COVID-19.” Postdigital Science and Education. doi: 10.1007/s42438-020-00113-8.

McCurry, Justin. 2018. “Osaka Earthquake: Three People Dead After 6.1-Magnitude Tremor.” The Guardian 18 June. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/18/osaka-earthquake-japan-61-magnitude-tremor. Accessed 28 April 2020.

Newman, Tim. 2020. “Comparing COVID-19 with Previous Pandemics.” Medical News Today 19 April. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/comparing-covid-19-with-previous-pandemics. Accessed 28 April 2020.

Peters, Michael A., Petar Jandrić, and Peter McLaren. 2020. “Viral Modernity? Epidemics, Infodemics, and the ‘Bioinformational’ Paradigm.” Educational Philosophy and Theory. doi: 10.1080/00131857.2020.1744226.

Sanjai, P.R. and Muneeza Naqvi. 2020. “‘We will Starve Here’: Why Coronavirus has India’s Poor Fleeing the Cities.” The Independent 3 April. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/coronavirus-india-poor-fleeing-cities-starvation-a9438401.html. Accessed 28 April 2020.

Wikipedia. 2020. “List of Epidemics.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics. Accessed 28 April 2020.


“Learning from the Pandemic: Catastrophic Epistemology”
Francis A. Beer and Robert Hariman

Article Citation:

Beer, Francis A. and Robert Hariman. 2020. “Learning from the Pandemic: Catastrophic Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (5): 19-28. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we mourn our dead, fear for ourselves and our loved ones, miss our friends and families, and compulsively wash our hands as we shelter in place, waiting for the bio-storm to moderate so that we can once more return to the world we knew. The old normal, however, is passing into history, and its successor—21st century version 2.0—struggles to be born. On the one hand, there is widespread yearning to return to the simple pleasures of ordinary life, coupled with powerful interests in resisting change. On the other hand, there is growing awareness that there is no going back. The current order is becoming increasingly precarious. Reality intrudes; resilience and sustainability require a reordering (cf. Adler 2019; Bourbeau 2018; Joseph 2018).

The pandemic has produced a torrent of talk, attempting to make sense of the disaster itself, and more significantly, the changes it implies. Our major institutions for making sense of the world have ramped up. One is the media system. Not surprisingly, many of the initial responses reflect familiar standpoints: for example, reportage features broad field coverage across a daily (or hourly) news cycle, and conservatives reaffirm the value of organic institutions and economic growth while liberals highlight the need for government to secure public goods and human welfare. Another institution for sense-making is science. STEM disciplines are being mobilized to solve the biomedical problems, while social scientists address the dynamics of collective behavior and information use necessary to suppress contagion (Van Bavel et al. 2020). These near-term responses are vitally important, but they also depend on standard assumptions and current practices.

If the response to the pandemic is limited to managing the medical and economic problems, it could eventually become a success story, but one embedded in a much larger tragedy. Like any other catastrophe, the COVID-19 pandemic can provide an opportunity for deep learning on behalf of systemic change. That opportunity, however, is fleeting. As Walter Benjamin observed: “Catastrophe—to have missed the opportunity. Critical moment—the status quo threatens to be preserved” (Benjamin 1999, [N10,2] 474). Thus, we face two catastrophes: an event that ruptures the status quo, and restoration of that status quo. Nor is Benjamin’s alternative possible: his belief that progress depended on political revolution is not credible—even now, or especially now, when both revolution and progress pale before a horizon dimmed by political dysfunction, socio-economic inequity, and climate change.

Like others writing about the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, we believe that the pandemic exposes deep problems in the dominant economic and political systems. Unlike many of these discussions, we also believe that the pandemic is not just an epidemiological disruption but also an epistemological crisis: a crisis involving defective epistemes that limit knowledge of what is real and that constrain the imagination necessary for effective structural change. This paper will outline basic elements of a “catastrophic epistemology,” that is, an approach to learning from a disaster in which knowledge itself is one of the casualties.

The Epidemiological/Epistemological Crisis

COVID-19 is of course an epidemiological crisis, as the deaths and sudden destruction of wealth daily remind us. The non-human world has intervened to unsettle what was thought to be an intensively modern, technology-intensive society based on the successful control of nature.

Thus, one surprise of COVID-19 is that it is producing an epistemological crisis. It is true that established scientific expertise is showing its value and educating the public about testing, contact tracing, treatment, vaccine development, and so forth. Even as such expertise is appreciated, however, the larger apparatus is revealed to be problematic. As pathogens, markets, and regimes become intertwined, assumptions about what is real, stable, uniform, predictable, or intelligible have been shaken. Worse, the disaster reveals how deficits of knowledge in the system are a byproduct of the system. For example, controlling nature becomes a fool’s game with dangerous externalities when unmonitored and lucrative human practices are exacerbating viral mutations. Likewise, as the gap between expert knowledge and common knowledge accelerates, and as it follows the tracks of related disparities in wealth, education, and health, the relationship between knowledge production and governance becomes both more essential and more tenuous. Disasters reveal what always was true: there are severe limits of human knowledge, limits that typically are occluded by the arrogance of the powerful.

We consider here the epistemological crisis in terms of four aspects of knowledge—description, explanation, prediction, and control. A first epistemological casualty of the pandemic is description. Of course, we have vivid accounts of individual suffering and mass statistics of cases and deaths. Yet the stories are local while the numbers are incomplete and misleading. We do not have accurate aggregate information about even the grossest measures. In some cases, like China, governments hide the truth; in other cases like deaths in homes or nursing facilities, or from pre-existing conditions, the numbers are simply not included in the totals. Beyond such narrow biomass data lie massive downstream phenomenal cascades—political, economic, social, and cultural avalanches of disruption, anxiety, and noise. These currents are so immense and far-reaching that they defy even macroscopic description. The waters are uncharted and perhaps unchartable.

More seriously, the surrounding context for description is dissolving. The writer Anne Enright, when asked to document the coronavirus outbreak, remarked that the recent past “now seems to belong not just to another time but to another model of the world—one in which, among other things, people thought their opinions mattered. I deal in words for a living, but I have had difficulty forming them . . . whether to describe or analyze. I don’t really understand them anymore.” She adds, “I had considered numbers, as though they were real and meant something—I forgot you have to collect them first. . . . I don’t even have the wherewithal to feel stupid about all this. I cannot find a tone” (Enright 2020).

Enright speaks for many who reflect on the problem of writing about the unknown. It’s not that the words themselves are no longer available. Nor is it a psychological blockage: discourse is gushing through the media system. The difference is that the rupture in routine exposes the abyss underlying language and the social order itself. As unknown reality rears up with unexpected and mortal force, words lose their meaning and numbers ring hollow (White 1984). For meaning to be readily available, a great deal has to be in place; disruption leaves us disoriented, grasping for context when context is what has collapsed.

A second epistemological casualty is explanation. To be sure, a host of epidemiological models, operating from different assumptions, have attempted to describe the pandemic in terms of source vectors and target vulnerability. Yet they are deeply non-operational; we do not have the resources to confirm or falsify their assumptions and precise dynamics in global mass society. For example, there has been much popular discussion of “herd immunity.” Once a certain proportion of the population has had the disease, the whole population supposedly becomes immune. Yet a closer examination of the literature reveals a much more complex and problematic picture. Even when large segments of the population have had the disease, those not previously exposed can remain at significant risk (Fine, Eames, and Heymann 2011).

From a broader perspective, there are at least two developments that confound standard approaches to explanation. As mathematical catastrophe theory suggests, one is non-linearity. Amitav Ghosh suggests that in the Anthropocene era it is becoming clear that “natural” phenomena do not conform to modernist assumptions of uniformity and gradual, incremental, progressive change (Ghosh 2016). What some scientists have known for a century is only now penetrating public consciousness: nature does take leaps, and it cascades, accelerates wildly, and otherwise disrupts attempts at systematic control. The nature/culture distinction blurs: is a virus only natural as it propagates so effectively through human societies? Long held and now intuitive commitments to a blinkered realism that focuses on continuity can impede the paradigm shifts that are needed.

The other obstacle to explanation is that the phenomena that need to be explained have gone paradoxical. Although modernity increasingly has had to contain the “normal accidents” of a “risk society,” this class of problems could be explained as external shocks and be limited within a technocratic system of governance; disasters could be dismissed as the result of political or other outside interference (Beck 1992; Perrow 1999; Davis 1999; Larabee 2000; Posner 2004; Sarat and Lezaun 2009; Wright 2004). What happens, however, when normal system operation is becoming indistinguishable from system breakdown, or when the shadow in the system overwhelms the dream (Hariman, 2015, 13; Beer 2013)?

One of the remarkable spots in the response to the current crisis is that writers are assuming it can happen again in the relatively near term; there is no talk akin to a “100 year flood,” even though the last major pandemic was a century ago. Not to make light of the suffering, but COVID-19 is providing something like a simulation for the next bug. Even so, that is not enough: what is needed to deal with a vastly more lethal virus is being ignored. Stockpiling face masks isn’t going to do much to prevent supply chains from collapsing if you have a death rate of 40 percent. A response equal to that scale would require that structural changes are taken seriously and on the basis of reconfigured approaches to explanation. Those approaches would break through the illusion that catastrophe comes from outside the system, to consider how it is produced by the system itself.

Beyond description and explanation lies a third epistemological casualty: prediction. In spite of Yogi Berra’s opinion that the future is one of the hardest things to predict, and the skepticism of philosophers from Cicero to Hume, one might have thought that modern sciences could pretty well project the shape of things to come. One of the major purposes of knowledge has always been to help foretell the future, and many subsystems or domains of activity have become increasingly routinized. What happened last was supposed to be an empirical guide for what would happen next. Yet no one has adequate data or theoretical models for most relevant predictions. What is needed, of course, is not fewer models, but even better models would not be enough.

Prediction has to be rethought in respect to other modes of knowing. The explanation/prediction distinction in twentieth century philosophy of science provides one example, but one that now is inadequate. That relation operated entirely within the context of standard, settled scientific knowledge; what is needed now is understanding how prediction might work in conjunction with other modalities of understanding, how it needs to be altered better to incorporate social learning (beyond correlation and regression, dynamic Bayesian probabilities and AI learning). Above all, one must remain attentive to how routine prediction can inhibit the political imagination, which is a resource that already had been seriously eroded in the 21st century and could be the most important modality for articulating a more just and sustainable modernity.

And finally, a fourth epistemological casualty of the pandemic is a myth of control. The masters of the universe who gathered each year at the Davos branch of Olympus thought that they were managing the world pretty well. Isn’t that why they were there? They were the leaders of the political and epistemic communities, their massive pride and power based on claims to superior knowledge. What could possibly go wrong?

The limits of control follow directly from the deficits of description, explanation, and prediction. They show clearly in the chaotic medical and public health after responses to the pandemic. In place of Davos managers, the new normal is Do It Yourself. As one online newsletter put it, there have been

… insufficient tests, slow results, scarcity of protective gear, the shortage of breathing machines for seriously ill patients and burned-out staffs anxious for their own safety … Many hospitals are responding by improvising their own solutions. Some explored buying face masks from nail salons due to the shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Others have been trying to make their own hand sanitizer by blending ultrasound gel with alcohol from local distilleries” (Politico PlaybookPM, 6 April 2020).

Sheltering at home has been the major strategy to buy time to correct these deficiencies, at vast political, economic, social, and cultural cost. At the end of the day, all of this will have to do until the emergence of mass testing, contact tracing, and a vaccine for the entire global population. The eradication, though incomplete, of smallpox and polio show the possibilities and also the limits such efforts. But neither the organisms nor the anti-vaxers ever completely disappear. Indeed, control feeds its opposite: the tighter the system, the less predictable its outliers and the more efficient its collapse.

The Pedagogical Moment

We have been surprised, but should we have been? Our knowledge of global history and the longue durée should have prepared us. Human history is replete with pestilence and plague (Harper 2019; Graeme 2018; Campbell 2016; Diamond 1999; McNeill 1976; Zinsser 1935). Yet there are powerful reasons for our lack of foresight and preparation. Studies of risk aversion suggest a cognitive tendency to favor recent events and also direct experience, rather than longer and larger scale conditions. Likewise, standards for knowledge certification go up as the stakes are raised, a condition that can actually impede effective response (as the tobacco and energy companies have demonstrated repeatedly). Further, ideologies and practices of denial lower standards. For example, one scientist’s dissent can be represented as a minority scientific consensus, or a conspiracy theory can appear equivalent to complex modeling. One temptation on all sides is to recur to “modernity’s gamble”: the pervasive belief that the problems created by modern technologies can be solved through additional technological innovation (Hariman and Lucaites 2007, 244). For such reasons, unless a special effort and timely provocations are made, the default will be to merely tactical changes in preparedness and minimal improvement in system resilience.

At this point one also might raise an objection against our argument for a catastrophic epistemology. How can we say both that the catastrophe reveals deep problems and that it disables description and other modes of understanding? Doesn’t identifying the deep problems require familiar, workable means of description and explanation? The question leads directly to a core observation, and then to an important qualification. The basic insight is that the problems being revealed are problems that already were known but partially denied; the knowledge was there but interdicted. Note how this awareness is embedded in a statement by Eliza Blue, a writer and shepherd in South Dakota:

Even before the pandemic laid bare the instability of the industrialized food supply chain, ranchers knew that chain wasn’t working. At its core, our work will always be based around the rhythms of nature rather than technically derived calculations. Instead, sun and rain, dormancy and renewal determine our obligations. At the height of a pandemic that is exposing nearly every systemic flaw in society, our work on the ranch remains virtually unchanged (Blue 2020).

The passage documents specific knowledge and an inability to use it to alter the chain of production. More important yet is the matter-of-fact tone about “a pandemic that is exposing nearly every systemic flaw in society.” That summary of the last few months of public discourse is as accurate as it is succinct. Of course this society knew about its problems, but only now is this knowledge becoming evident, immediate, significant, and perhaps terrifying. The knowledge of structural flaws had not been completely suppressed, but it had been displaced well enough by financial power, practices of buffering production from consumption, and more: note how Blue is contrasting two different relationships with nature. What the catastrophe does, at least in the near term, is tear the context of justification for the status quo. Once problems can be seen without the standard filters, they are seen anew.

Which leads to the qualification: the problems are only seen, exposed, revealed. They are not reframed, re-examined, reconfigured with other parts of the whole, or otherwise prepared for new understandings, policies, or practices. Material impediments due to the disaster and much more get in the way. Not least, the loss of context that allows the problems to be exposed also interferes with a society’s ability to think and communicate about them. That’s the difference between a catastrophe and an accident: the former disrupts both a situation and the means of response or recovery. Catastrophe exposes deep problems by shredding their contexts of denial, but it also damages contexts of communication needed for analysis and collective action.

The result need not be futility. Catastrophe also opens an opportunity for new concepts and renewed modes of inquiry. In this context, we ask, how we could use this temporary shock to advance an evolutionary and emancipatory epistemology? How can we capture the insights, learning, and adaptations that are emerging during the crisis but likely to be lost thereafter? If a catastrophe exposes debilitating tendencies in global capitalism, modern society, and national politics, can that knowledge be marshalled on behalf of the common good?

We have two assumptions about the temporal window for learning. One is that the moment of truth is brief. Quick closure may be due to human psychology or the forces that profit from not changing or the sheer onrush of events in a dynamic and complex world, but it will happen. Our second assumption is that there will be, at least metaphorically, blood. The moment for reflection and redirection is messy: oversaturated with information, highly contested within a political system struggling with high levels of dysfunction, exposing problems that by definition exceed standard protocols for solution, and involving a future that is now palpably inchoate.

Ideally, catastrophic epistemology would be defined through a proof of systemic incapacity exposed by the pandemic, that would lead to carefully reconfiguration of the conditions and criteria for knowledge, and then to articulation of new research protocols. Ideally. We will not abandon that dream, as it remains a good program for the reconstructed logic that, we hope, eventually will become intelligible and useful. In the moment of crisis, however, it is important to realize that some ideals are part of the old system. More to the point, catastrophic learning has to proceed amid disruption. One has to be thrown forward and to go down overgrown paths. To bound over the rubble and to try something new.

Catastrophic learning, at a minimum has to strive to speak and act in a manner that does more than reproduce the conditions that produced the disaster. It does have to be conservative in that it strives to rebuild whatever nurtured a good life for all, but it also has to have the courage to be radical in that it strives to change the arc of history.

In this spirit, perhaps we can hazard a few protocols, if only in the interest of prompting further discussion to develop the perspective outlined above. A catastrophic epistemology could begin with these steps:

❧ Admit to the structural defects the crisis has revealed. Face the catastrophe that was always there. Modernity as we know it depends on urban density and high-volume global travel, conditions that guarantee pandemics. Global supply chains and just-in-time inventories also are problems, in themselves and as examples of how supposedly logistical practices are political regimes with hidden moral costs. Current practices of resource distribution are unjust. Current practices of resource consumption are suicidal.

❧ Reconfigure the epistemic conditions that produced the disaster. Do not pursue wholly technological solutions or a wholly partisan agenda. Redesign information and action systems, standard operating procedures, best practices, and skill sets to be more robust and multi-dimensional. Instead of being trapped in standoffs between enclaved expertise and weaponized ignorance, build templates of practical reasoning (phronêsis) in both science and politics.

❧ Recover lost knowledge resources. This is the post-modern impulse: to draw on those dispositions for thought and collective living that modernity disregarded. Indigenous cultures have been living with precarity for millennia. Premodern art and literature preserve different conceptions of nature, community, and time. Modern modes of writing may be suppressing imaginative resources for recognizing and contending with catastrophe: techniques that were curated and transmitted across millennia but are incompatible with literary naturalism (Ghosh 2016). Modernity doesn’t even know itself, nor will it until able to recognize other standpoints for knowledge.

❧ Connect multiple ways of knowing. We are reminded by James C. Scott (1998, 340) (quoting Oakeshott quoting Pascal) that rationalism’s mistake is not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other. Science and the arts may share more than is recognized—for both good and ill. Expertise, public opinion, common sense, and folklore have stark differences, but they also may contain complementary affordances for dealing with problems that no one can manage alone. Many sidebars in the academy—medical humanities, systems theory, posthumanism, social epistemology, etc.—could be reviewed or reconfigured to rethink disasters and their aftermath.

❧ Identify alternate futures. The future is now; the present contains many paths that could be taken. They still lack causal momentum, and we lack sufficient information, but the signs are there. Somewhere large-scale democratic governments are securing public goods through best practices based on expertise and global collaboration; somewhere bioenergy technologies are supporting small egalitarian communities linked through networks of conflict resolution. Somewhere, but not yet here except in hints and fragments.

❧ Do something different. Speculate instead of using weak data shored up with caveats. Develop an ideal type instead of calling for further research. If in the humanities, form a lab; if in the sciences, write a book.

Finally, we should recognize that a robust epistemic community should include very different knowledge registers. Two polar opposites might be information and wisdom (cf. P. M. Haas 2016; E.B. Haas 1990; Gray 1972; Jaeger 1945). That is a tall order, and one that requires wide reading and contemporary insight. Fortunately, both the information and the wisdom that are needed to learn from a pandemic begin at the same point: self-knowledge of our limits, that is, humility. For all their civilizational achievement, modern societies have made a huge mess. Now that citizens have been confined to their caves like the ancient Anasazi, the skies have become cleaner. Modern leaders knew a great deal, but apparently not what was needed to avoid the most ancient of civilization’s dangers, a plague.

In spite of the terrible human cost, the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opening to learn and change that was not available before the disaster. The opening occurs because the illusion of a known world was torn and the precarity of knowledge itself exposed. Catastrophic epistemology is the autopoietic attempt to adapt and thrive amid disruption, to move an epistemic community forward from the shock of crisis, in an evolutionary, emancipatory way, and build bridges toward a better world.

Contact details: Francis A. Beer, University of Colorado, Boulder, beerf@comcast.net; Robert Hariman, Northwestern University, robert.hariman@comcast.net

References

Adler, Emanuel. 2019. World Ordering: A Social Theory of Cognitive Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Trans. Mark Ritter. London: Sage.

Beer, Francis. A. 2013. “Mythic America in a Globalizing Mythworld: Political Dreams and Shadows.” E-International Relations: April 20.

Beer, Francis A. 1993. “Validities: A Political Science Perspective.” Social Epistemology 7 (1): 85-105.

Beer, Francis A. and Robert Hariman, eds. 1996. Post-Realism: The Rhetorical Turn in International Relations. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Blue, Eliza. 2020. “A Shortage of Steak? Yes, and Ranchers Knew It Was Coming.” New York Times May 1. https://nyti.ms/3d4PRvV.

Bourbeau, Philippe. 2018. On Resilience: Genealogy, Logics, and World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, Bruce M. S. 2016. The Great Transition: Climate, Disease, and Society in the Late Medieval World.

Davis, Mike. 1999. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Vintage Books

Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steels: The Fate of Human Societies. New York: Norton.

Enright, Anne. 2020. Entry in “Pandemic Journal.” New York Review of Books, April 23, 2020.

Fine, Paul, Ken Eames, and David L. Heymann. 2011. “’Herd Immunity: A Rough Guide.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 52, 7 (1 April): 911-916.

Ghosh, Amitav. 2016. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Graeme, D. W. 2018. The Pandemic of 2018-2019: How Can We Learn from the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 and Prepare for What’s Coming.

Gray, J. Glenn. 1972. The Promise of Wisdom: A Philosophy of Education. New York: J. P. Lippincott.

Haas, Ernst B. 1990. When Knowledge is Power: Three Models of Change in International Organizations. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Haas, Peter M. 2016. Epistemic Communities, Constructivism, and International Environmental Politics. London: Routledge.

Hariman, Robert. 2015. “Introduction.” Robert Hariman and Ralph Cintron. Culture, Catastrophe, and Rhetoric: The Texture of Political Action. New York: Berghahn.

Hariman, Robert, and John Louis Lucaites. 2007. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harper, Kyle. 2017. The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of An Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jaeger, Werner. 1945 Paidea: The Ideals of Greek Culture. (3 volumes). Oxford University Press.

Joseph, Jonathan. 2018. Varieties of Resilience: Studies in Governmentality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larabee, Ann. 2000. Decade of Disaster. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

McNeill, William H. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City NY.

Perrow, Charles. 1999. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Posner, Richard A. 2004. Catastrophe: Risk and Response. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sarat, Austin, and Javier Lezaun, eds. 2009. Catastrophe: Law, Politics, and the Humanitarian Impulse. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M. J., Crum, A. J., Douglas, K. M., Druckman, J. N. Drury, J., Dube, O., Ellemers, N., Finkel, E. J., Fowler, J. H., Gelfand, M., Han, S., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., Kitayama, S., Mobbs, D., Napper, L. E., Packer, D. J., Pennycook, G., Peters, E., Petty, R. E., Rand, D. G., Reicher, S. D., Schnall, S., Shariff, A., Skitka, L. J., Smith, S. S., Sunstein, C. R., Tabri, N., Tucker, J. A., van der Linden, S., Van Lange, P. A. M., Weeden, K. A., Wohl, M. J. A., Zaki, J., Zion, S. and Willer, R. 2020 (in press). “Using Social and Behavioural Science to Support COVID-19 Pandemic Response.” Nature Human Behavior. (PsyArXiv. March 24. doi:10.31234/osf.io/y38m9.)

White, James Boyd. 1984. When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wright, Ronald. 2004. A Short History of Progress. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Zinsser, Hans. 1935. Rats, Lice, and History. Boston: Little, Brown.


“Are the Experts Responsible for Bad Disaster Response? A Few Lessons for the Coronavirus Outbreak From L’Aquila”
Federico Brandmayr

Article Citation:

Brandmayr, Federico. 2020. “Are the Experts Responsible for Bad Disaster Response? A Few Lessons for the Coronavirus Outbreak From L’Aquila.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (5): 1-8. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

A few weeks ago, a Facebook group called 3e32 and based in the Italian city of L’Aquila posted a message stating: “whether it is a virus or lack of prevention, science should always protect its independence from the power of those who guarantee the interests of the few at the expense of the many”. The statement was followed by a picture of a rally, showing people marching and carrying a banner which read: “POWER DICTATES, ‘SCIENCE’ OBEYS, JUSTICE ABSOLVES”.

What was that all about? “3e32” refers to the moment in which a deadly earthquake struck L’Aquila on April 6th 2009 (at 3:32 in the Morning). It is now the name of a collective founded shortly after the disaster. The picture was taken on November 13th 2014: a few days earlier, a court of appeals had acquitted six earth scientists of charges of negligence and manslaughter, for which they had previously been sentenced to six years in prison.

Even today, many people believe that scientists were prosecuted and convicted in L’Aquila for “for failing to predict an earthquake”, as a commentator put it in 2012. If this were the case, it would be shocking indeed: earthquake prediction is seen by most seismologists as a hopeless endeavour (to the point that there is a stigma associated to it in the community), and the probabilistic concept of forecast is preferred instead. But, in fact, things are more complicated, as I and others have shown. What prosecutors and plaintiffs claimed was that in a city that had been rattled for months by tremors, where cracks had started to appear on many buildings, where people were frightened and some had started to sleep in their cars, a group of scientists had come to L’Aquila to say that there was no danger and that a strong earthquake was highly unlikely.

Prosecutors attributed to the group of experts, some of whom were part of an official body called National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (CMR), a negative prediction, or, in other terms, they claimed that hat they had inferred “evidence of absence” from “absence of evidence”. This gross mistake was considered a result of the experts submitting to the injunctions of the chief of the civil protection service, Guido Bertolaso, who wanted Aquilani to keep calm and carry on, instead of following the best scientific evidence available. Less than a week after the highly publicised expert meeting, a 6.3 magnitude quake struck the city, killing more than 300 people.

Linking L’Aquila and COVID-19

The Facebook post, published at the end of March, suggests a link between the management of disaster in L’Aquila and the response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The reminiscence was made all the starker by the fact that, just a couple of weeks before the post, Bertolaso had come once again to the forefront of Italian public life, this time not as chief of the civil protection service but as special advisor to the president of the Lombardy region to fight COVID-19. But the analogies are deeper than the simple reappearance of the same characters. As during and after all disasters, attributions of blame are today ubiquitous. Scientists and experts are under the spotlight as they were in L’Aquila. Policymakers and the public expect highly accurate predictions and want them quickly. Depending on how a country is doing in containing the virus, experts will be praised or blamed, sometimes as much as elected representatives.

In Italy, for example, many now ask why the province of Bergamo was not declared “red zone”, meaning that unessential companies were not closed down, in late February, despite clear evidence of uncontrolled outbreaks in several towns in the area (various other towns in Italy had been declared “red zones” since February 23rd). Only on March 8th the national government decided to lock down the whole region of Lombardy, and the rest of the country two days later.

The UK government has been similarly accused of complacency in delaying school closures and bans on mass gatherings. Public accusations voiced by journalists, researchers, and members of the public provoked blame games between state agencies, levels of governments, elected representatives, and expert advisors. In Italy, following extensive media coverage of public officials’ omissions and commissions in the crucial weeks between February 21st and March 8th, regional authorities and the national government now blame each other for the delay. In a similar way, the UK government and the Mayor of London have pointed fingers at each other after photos taken during the lockdown showed overcrowded Tube trains in London.

It would be easy to argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that more should have been done, and more promptly, to stop the virus, and not only in terms of long-term prevention or preparedness, but also in terms of immediate response. Immediate response to disaster includes such decisions as country-wide lockdowns to block the spread of a virus (like we are witnessing now), the evacuation of populations from unsafe areas (such as the 1976 Guadeloupe evacuation), the stop of the operation of an industrial facility or transport system (such as the airspace closure in Northern Europe after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2011), or the confinement of hazardous materials (such as the removal of radioactive debris during the Chernobyl disaster). Focusing on this kind of immediate responses, I offer three insights from L’Aquila that seem relevant to understand the pressures expert advisors dealing with the COVID-19 are facing today in Britain.

Experts Go Back to Being Scientists When Things Get Messy

When decisions informed by scientific experts turn out to be mistaken, experts tend to defend themselves by drawing a thick boundary between science and policy, the same boundary that they eagerly cross in times of plenty to seize the opportunities of being in the situation room. Falling back into the role of scientists, they emphasise the uncertainties and controversies that inevitably affect scientific research.

Although most of the CMR experts in L’Aquila denied that they had made reassuring statements or that they had made a “negative prediction”, after the earthquake, they still had to explain why they were not responsible for what had happened. This was done in several ways.

First, the draft minutes of the meeting were revised after the earthquake so as to make the statements less categorical and more probabilistic. Second, they emphasised the highly uncertain and tentative nature of seismological knowledge, arguing for example that “at the present stage of our knowledge,” nothing allows us to consider seismic swarms (like the one that was ongoing in L’Aquila before April 6th 2009) as precursors of strong earthquakes, a claim which is disputed within seismology. Third, the defendants argued that the meeting was not addressed to the population and local authorities of L’Aquila (as several announcements of the civil protection service suggested), but rather to the civil protection service only, who then had to take the opportune measures autonomously. They claimed that scientists only provide advice, and that it is public officials and elected representatives who bear responsibility for any decision taken. This was part of a broader strategy to frame the meeting as a meeting of scientists, while the prosecution tried to frame it as a meeting of civil servants.

In Britain, the main expert body that has provided advice to the government is SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), formed by various subcommittees, such as NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group). These groups, along with the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, have been under intense scrutiny over the past weeks. Questioned by Reuters about why the COVID-19 threat level was not increased from “moderate” to “high” at the end of February, when the virus was spreading rapidly and deadly in Italy, a SAGE spokesperson responded that “SAGE and advisers provide advice, while Ministers and the Government make decisions”. When challenged

about their advice, British experts also emphasized the uncertainty they faced. They depicted their meetings not as ceremonies in which the scientific solution to the COVID-19 problem was revealed to the government, but rather as heated deliberations in which fresh and conflicting information about the virus was constantly being discussed: what Bruno Latour calls “science in the making”, and not what he calls “ready-made science”. For example, on March 17th Vallance stated before the Health and Social Care Select Committee that “If you think SAGE is a cosy consensus of agreeing, you’re very wrong indeed”.

Italian sociologist Luigi Pellizzoni has similarly pointed out an oscillation between the role of the expert demanding full trust from the public and the role of the scientist who, when things go wrong, blames citizens for their pretence of certainty. The result is confusion and suspicion among the public, and a reinforcement of conspiratorial beliefs according to which scientists are hired guns of powerful interests and that science is merely a continuation of politics by other means. In this way, the gulf between those who decry a populist aversion to science, and those who denounce its technocratic perversion cannot but widen, as I suggested in a recent paper.

Epidemiological (Like Geophysical) Expert Advice Contains Sociological and Normative Assumptions

Expert advice about how to respond to a natural phenomenon, like intense seismic activity or a rapidly spreading virus, will inevitably contain sociological assumptions, i.e. assumptions about how people will behave in relation to the natural phenomenon itself and in relation to what public authorities (and their law enforcers) will do. They also contain normative (or moral) assumptions, about what is the legitimate course of action in response to a disaster. In most cases, these assumptions remain implicit, which can create various problems: certain options that might be valuable are not even considered and the whole process is less transparent, potentially fostering distrust.

In the L’Aquila case, the idea of evacuating the town or of advising the inhabitants to temporarily leave their homes if these had not been retrofitted was simply out of the question. The mayor closed the schools for two days in late March, but most of the experts and decisionmakers involved, especially those who worked at the national level and were not residing in L’Aquila, believed that doing anything more radical would have been utterly excessive at the time. A newspaper condensed the opinion of US seismologist Richard Allen the day after the quake by writing that “it is not possible to evacuate whole cities without precise data” about where and when an earthquake is going to hit. The interview suggested that this impossibility stems from our lack of seismological predictive power, but in fact it is either a normative judgment based on the idea that too much time, money, and wellbeing would be dissipated without clear benefits, or a sociological judgment based on the idea that people would resist evacuation.

The important issue here is not whether a certain form of disaster response is a good or a bad idea, but that judgments of the sort “it is impossible to respond in this way” very often neglect to acknowledge the standards and information on which these are based. And there are good reasons to believe that this rhetorical loop-hole is especially true of judgments that, by decrying certain measures as impossible, simply ratify the status quo and “business as usual”. Our societies rest on a deep grained assumption that “the show must go on”, so that reassuring people is much less problematic than alarming them that something terrible is going to happen. Antonello Ciccozzi, an anthropologist who testified as an expert witness in the L’Aquila trial, expressed this idea by arguing that while the concepts of alarmism and false alarm are well established in ordinary language (and also have a distinctive legal existence, as in the article number 658 of Italian criminal law, which expressly proscribes and punishes false alarm [procurato allarme]), their opposites have no real semantic existence, occupying instead a “symbolic void”. This is why he coined a new term, “reassurism” (rassicurazionismo), to mean a disastrous and negligent reassurance, which he used to interpret the rhetoric of earth scientists and public authorities in 2009 and which he has applied to the current management of the COVID-19 crisis.

Pushing the earthquake-virus analogy further, several clues suggest that the scientists that provided advice on COVID-19 in Britain limited the range of possible options by a great deal because they were making sociological and normative assumptions. According to Reuters, “the scientific committees that advised Johnson didn’t study, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China”, on the grounds that Britons would not accept such restrictions. This of course contained all sorts of sociological and moral assumptions about Britain, China, about democracies and autocracies, about political legitimacy and institutional trust.

It is hard to establish whether the government explicitly delimited the range of possible policies on which expert advice was required, whether experts shared these assumptions anyway, or whether experts actually influenced the government by excluding certain options from the start. But by and large, these assumptions remained implicit. They were properly questioned only after several European countries started to adopt stringent counter-measures to stop the virus and new studies predicted up to half a million deaths in Britain, forcing the government to reconsider what had previously been deemed a sociological or normative impossibility.

It is true that, in stark contrast to the CMR in L’Aquila, where social science was not represented at all, SAGE has activated its subsection of behavioural science, called SPI-B (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee – Behaviour). Several commentators have argued that this section, by advancing ideas that resonated with broader libertarian paternalistic sensibilities among elite advisors and policymakers, had a significant influence in the early stage of the UK response to COVID-19. There is certainly some truth to that, but my bets are that the implicit assumptions of policy-makers and epidemiologists were much more decisive.

Briefs of SPI-B meetings in March and February reveal concerns about unintended consequences of and social resistance to measures such as school closures and the isolation of the elderly, but they are far from containing a full-fledged defence of a “laissez faire” approach. The statements reported in the minutes strike for their prudence, emphasising the uncertainties and even disagreements among members of the section. This leads us to consider a third point, i.e. the degree to which experts, along with their implicit or explicit assumptions, managed to exert an influence over policymakers and where able to confront them when they had reasons to do so.

Speaking Truth to Power or Speaking Power to Truth?

Scientists gain much from being appointed to expert committees: prestige; the prospect of influencing policy; better working conditions; less frequently they might also have financial incentives. Politicians also gain something: better, more rational decisions that boost their legitimacy; the possibility of justifying predetermined policies on a-political, objective grounds; a scapegoat that they can use in case things go wrong; an easy way to make allies and expand one’s network by distributing benefits. But although both sides gain, they are far from being on an equal footing: expert commissions and groups are established by ministers, not the other way around. This platitude testifies to the deep asymmetry between experts and policymakers.

We have good reasons to think that, under certain circumstances, such an asymmetric relation prevents scientific experts to fully voice their opinions on the one hand, and emboldens policymakers into thinking that they should not be given lessons by their subordinates on the other. Thanks to the high popularity of the 2019 television series Chernobyl, many now find the best exemplification of such arrogance and lack of criticism in how the Ukrainian nuclear disaster was managed by both engineers and public officials.

There is little doubt that something of the sort occurred in L’Aquila. Several pieces of evidence show that Bertolaso did not summon the CMR meeting to get a better picture of the earthquake swarm that was occurring in the region. In his own words, the meeting was meant as a “media ploy” to reassure the Aquilani. But how could he be so sure that the situation in L’Aquila did not require his attention? It seems that one of the main reasons is that he had his own seismological theory to make sense of what was going on.

Bertolaso believed that seismic swarms do not increase the odds of a strong earthquake, but on the contrary that they decrease such odds because small shocks discharge the total amount of energy contained in the earth. Most seismologists would disagree with this claim: low-intensity tremors technically release energy, but this does not amount to a favourable discharge of energy that decreases the odds of a big quake because magnitudes are based on a logarithmic scale, and a magnitude 4 earthquake releases a negligible quantity of energy compared to that released by a magnitude 6 earthquake (and, more generally, to the energy stored in an active fault zone). But scientists appear to have been much too cautious in confronting him and criticising his flawed theory. Bertolaso testified in court that in the course of a decade he had mentioned the theory of the favourable discharge of energy “dozens of times” to various earth scientists (including some of the defendants) and that “nobody ever raised any objection about that”.

Moreover, both Bertolaso’s deputy and a volcanologist who was the most senior member of the CMR alluded to the theory during the meeting and in interviews given to local media in L’Aquila. A seismologist testified that he did not feel like contradicting another member of the commission (and a more senior one at that) in front of an unqualified public and so decided to change the topic instead. Such missed objections created the conditions under which the “discharge of energy” as a “positive phenomenon” became a comforting refrain that circulated first among civil protection officials and policymakers, and then among the Aquilani as well.

Has something similar occurred in the management of the COVID-19 crisis in Britain? As no judicial inquiry has taken place there, there is only limited evidence that does not authorize anything other than speculative conjectures. However, there are two main candidate theories that, although lacking proper scientific support, might have guided the actions of the government thanks to their allure of scientificity: “behavioural fatigue” and “herd immunity”.

Many think that behavioural fatigue, according to which people would not comply with lockdown restrictions after a certain period of time so that strict measures could be useless or even detrimental, has been the sociological justification of a laissez faire (if not social Darwinist) attitude to the virus. But this account seems to give too much leverage to behavioural scientists who, for the most part, were cautious and divided on the social consequences of a lockdown. This also finds support in the fact that no public official to my knowledge referred to “behavioural fatigue” but rather simply to “fatigue”, without explicit reference to an expert report or an authoritative study (as a matter of fact, none of the SPI-B documents ever mentions “fatigue”).

I’d like to propose a different interpretation: instead of being a scientific theory approved by behavioural experts, it was rather a storytelling device with a common-sense allure that allowed it to get a life of its own among policy circles, ending up in official speeches and interviews. The vague notion of “fatigue”, which reassuringly suggested that the country and the economy could go on as usual, might have ended up being accepted with little suspicion by many experts as well, especially those of the non-behavioural kind. The concept could have served both as a reassuring belief for public officials and as an argument that could be used to justify delaying (or avoiding) a lockdown.

The circulation of “herd immunity” might have followed a similar pattern. Although a scientifically legitimate concept, there is evidence that, along with similar formulations such as “building some immunity”, it was never a core strategy of the government, but rather part of a communicative repertoire that could be invoked to justify a delay of the lockdown as well as measures directed only at certain sections of the population, such as the elderly. Only on 23 March the government changed track and abandoned these concepts altogether, taking measures similar to other European countries.

A Strained Comparison

The analogy between how Italian civil protection authorities managed an earthquake swarm in L’Aquila and how the British government responded to COVID-19 cannot be pushed too far. Earthquakes and epidemics have different temporalities (a disruptive event limited in space and time on the one hand, a long-lasting process with no strict geographical limits on the other), are subject to different predictive techniques, and demand highly different responses. While a large proportion of Aquilani blamed civil protection authorities immediately after the earthquake, Boris Johnson’s approval rating has improved from March to April 2020. However, what happened in L’Aquila remains, to paraphrase Charles Perrow, a textbook case of a “normal accident” of expertise, i.e. a situation in which expert advice ended up being catastrophically bad for systemic reasons, and notably for how the science-policy interface had developed in the Italian civil protection service. As such, there is much that expert advisors and policymakers can learn from it, whether they are giving advice and responding to earthquakes, nuclear accidents, terrorism, or a global pandemic.

Contact details: Federico Brandmayr, Cambridge University, Humanities and Social Change International Foundation, fb446@cam.ac.uk


“Thomas Hobbes in the Time of Coronavirus”
M. John Lamola

Article Citation:

Lamola, M. John. 2020. “Thomas Hobbes in the Time of Coronavirus.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (4): 72-75. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

The pattern of the response of governments all over the world to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has unleashed the institution of the State as the citizens’ accepted and trusted protector and saviour of their lives. The imputation of this role is accompanied by an implicit arrogation to the State of a right to deploy all of the political-administrative-legislative, technological and even police-military powers at its disposal in the name of the welfare of society.

In a deviance from the prevailing neo-liberal ideology of the minimalist State that modern societies have been schooled to tolerate, we have unwittingly acquiesced into an experience of the State as conceptualised by the political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). The Leviathan is arraigned against this most credible threat in living memory to life as known by the human species.[1]

It is remarkable how since the outbreak and global spread of COVID-19, the medical scientific community, journalists and civil society in general, have happily bestowed the duty to lead, design, control, micromanage and communicate all responses to this pandemic to the institutions of the State, and symbols of State power.

The prerogative to even define the treatment for this coronavirus now appear to rest, in the first and ultimate instance, with the State. This new normalcy was ominously exhibited by President Trump’s pontifical prescription of Hydorxychloroquine as a possible therapy against the effects of COVID-19, right in the face of his head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the eminent immunologist, Professor Anthony Fauci, who at the time voiced a contradictory scholarly scepticism at the efficacy of this remedy. The State and its mechanisations have usurped the paramountcy of Science.

Statistics on the rates of the spread and devastation wrought by this virus can only be pronounced as official government statements. Daily, we await official tallies on infections as well as latest health instructions and commands with fear-filled glee from politicians who in the ordinary course of our civil lives we never really trust.

We are in the age of Hobbes—under the spell of a messianic, monarchic and omniscient State.

Hobbesian Times

Ominously poignant of this zeitgeist of Hobbes, a seventeenth century iconic English anti-revolutionary royalist, was the rare emergence of  Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom on international television on 5th April 2020 to assuage not only her British subjects but, as Her Majesty mentioned in her Sovereign address, also ‘the Commonwealth’, on the dangers and implications of this coronavirus crisis.[2]

Indicative of the times, is also the currency of Hobbesian parlance in public discourse. Arising from the undisputed Wuhan genealogical roots of this virus, we have come to not only contend with the sobering plausibility of an animal-to-human transmission of a biological agent even in the twenty-first century, but have been reminded of the vulnerability of the much-vaunted speciest (speciesm) human life, that it is ‘nasty, brutish and short’ in Hobbes words.[3] ‘Nasty’ is the expression we very often hear used to characterise the experience of this SARS-COV-2 by those infected by it, and by the media.[4] This virus has a character similar to the socio-existential nature of human life as monumentally defined by Hobbes.

Hobbes’ observations of his sea-fearing English countrymen had led him to a well-defended theory of how humans, ‘in their state of nature’, are primordially fear-filled power-seekers, selfish and self-centred, and therefore are predisposed to enter into some mutual consent of the need of the Sovereign to regulate their behaviour for the sake of their happiness and self-restraint against injuring one another. Seminally, he didactically declared: ‘This is more than consent . . . the multitude so united in one person, is called the commonwealth’. And the central authority to which all submit their wills and judgments ‘to the end that he may use their strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defence.  . . is called SOVEREIGN, and said to have sovereign power, and everyone besides his, SUBJECT.”[5]

Accordingly, the Hobbesian post-coronavirus State we are witnessing has emerged as the vicarious and omnipotent protector of citizens against their own self-destructive proclivity of not caring for their individual health, and against a propensity to wantonly endanger that of their fellow citizens.

Through lockdowns and similar measures, we are policed to think not only of our individual survival, but also of the consequences of our behaviour on the health of others. In South Africa, the emergency regulations went as far as to prohibit the sale of tobacco products for five weeks.[6] Individual freedoms and agency, including rights to privacy, are surrendered as the State is being re-embraced as the legitimate saviour of both lives and livelihoods; the supreme guarantor of the health of nations and the persistence of the financial and economic system that will ensure the preservation of our jobs and pensions. True to Hobbes’ thesis, this surrendered personal agency in a covenant with others to defer power to the dictates of the Sovereign cannot be sustained by a culture of individual voluntarism, the Sovereign, the State has to possess an element of terror as ‘covenants without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.’ [7]

As demands for the shutting down of businesses is enforced by decrees from traditionally neo-liberal States, even hallowed profits are suddenly rendered expendable holy cows at the altar of the Leviathan.

As can be expected, green shoots of a backlash against this new positionality of the State, here generically conceived, are emerging, especially, or rather naturally in the United States. In a recent wave of protest against the stay-at-home decrees of a number of States, emblematically, according to an CNN news report, one Republican candidate for the State of Utah’s 2nd congressional district declared in a protest news statement ‘the government, at all levels,  has overstepped its authority in their request to “protect” Americans from the virus . . . The American citizen is perfectly capable of deciding how to best protect themselves’.[8] A growing global consciousness along this vein is easily predictable.

State-Sponsored Solidarity

Thanks to COVID-19, even individualistic consciences of Westerners in so-named advanced societies, who have been politicised (think “austerity”) and cultured to not give much thought about the elderly in their midst, are now being mobilised by the State to protect themselves against infection in the name of protecting the vulnerable elderly among them. In its self-assertive and newfound licence for authoritarian behaviour, the post-coronavirus State is paradoxically, or rather deceptively, successfully posing as the bulwark against human self-interest.

In South Africa, the government is urging the well-to-do to contribute to a Coronavirus Solidarity Response Fund which is targeted specifically at mitigating the consequences of decades of racism, corruption and neglect at providing requisite basic infrastructure such as clean running water, that is now needed for the anti-coronavirus prescribed protocol of washing of hands.[9] At last, the rich and related corporate interests are successfully sensitised by the State to the fact that the living conditions of the poor are a threat to their own survival.

The global one-percent and the upper middle classes who had hitherto opted for private healthcare and medical insurance have at some point of the evolution of democratic capitalistic society withdrawn the responsibility for their health away from the State to their own personal agency and means.[10] In the pandemic being declared, variously, a national disaster and national emergency in some countries, COVID-19 has thrust the health self-managements of these middle classes of the world back under the command and control of the public health Czars. As if this was not enough, in almost the majority of countries, as the pandemic worsens, their exclusive private hospitals and other health facilities are being ‘nationalised’ by stealth in the course of the collective salvation of the commonwealth. At the beckon of the State, in the wake of COVID-19, exclusive privileges are suddenly contingent.

The worldwide spread of COVID-19 has shown how the fate of the privileged and powerful is symbiotically tied to those of the masses of the damned of the earth—not only the abjectly poor, but also the hardened convicts in the crowded prisons of the world. We all, are ‘the commonwealth’. The indiscriminate and dramatic spread of COVID-19 has proven that we are all of one kind, humankind. We are all equally vulnerable, kings and commoners, and seemingly, only the omnipotent and ostensibly caring State, or some global authority, can protect us from ourselves and from each other.

Assuming, the Leviathan will conqueror against the possible revolts against its reach, will a post-coronavirus world be characterised by a new moral consciousness of interdependence and human solidarity that is fostered by the State? What will be the exact quality of this state-sponsored humanism? Can the State, a creature subject to the naturalistic devices and proclivities of the politicians fashioning it, sustain this role of a ‘caring and protecting State’ without corrupting it for its own ends?

What more will we be duped to inculcate into our psyche by the ongoing stream of anti-coronavirus socio-legal injunctions and bondages to technology to save our lives and those of our fellow human beings?  Which individual rights and liberties are we being hypnotised into sacrificing without even whingeing at the altar of the Leviathan?

Contact details: M. John Lamola, University of Pretoria, jlamola@mweb.co.za


[1] Leviathan—an allegorised sea monster variously referred to in the Old Testament of the Bible as a sublime creature with foreboding powers, used by Hobbes in his problematique of his description of the archeology of sovereign power. Thomas Hobbes Leviathan in Vincent P. Pecora, editor, Nations and Identities. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001, 42-49. [Original,  Hobbes, Thomas. 1651, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, Andrew Crooke, London.]

[2] https://www.bbc.com/pidgin/tori-52177000.

[3] Hobbes, in Pecora, Nations and Identities, 45.

[4] https://www.businesslive.co.za/fm/fm-fox/trending/2020-02-27-coronavirus-a-nasty-virus-for-sure-but-most-survive-it/; https://qz.com/68715/hong-kong-scarred-by-sars-plays-it-safe-with-a-nasty-new-coronavirus/.

[5] Hobbes, in Pecora, Nations and Identities, 48, emphasis in original.

[6] https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-09-covid-19-smoking-ban-the-good-the-bad-and-the-very-ugly/.

[7] Hobbes, in Pecora, Nations and Identities, 46.

[8] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/16/us/protests-coronavirus-stay-home-orders/index.html.

[9] https://www.businessinsider.co.za/how-to-donate-to-south-africas-covid-19-solidarity-fund-banking-details-2020-3.

[10] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-04/a-global-guide-to-what-it-means-to-be-part-of-the-1.


“Fourth Order Thinking About the Pandemic: A Transhumanist Challenge”
Steve Fuller

Thinking in Four Orders

One can imagine four orders of thinking about the COVID-19 crisis, or indeed, any pandemic:

First order: Winning the fight over the virus. This is defined nation by nation, and mainly for domestic consumption. Here one should expect considerable variation.

Second order: Winning the fight over what ‘winning the fight’ means. This is defined at an international level, probably by the World Health Organization. It may end up invalidating some of the first-order claims.

Third order: Winning the fight over the lessons to learn from winning the fight. This is defined by whether people want to go back to ‘business as usual’ with minimal disruption or take the crisis as an opportunity for ‘no more business as usual’.

Fourth order: Winning the fight over what the lessons learned mean more broadly. This is how the crisis comes to define who we are—and in that sense, we come to ‘own’ the crisis as having made us stronger by not killing us.

These four strands of thought are ‘ordered’ logically, in the sense that the later ones presuppose some sort of closure on the earlier ones. But of course, temporally speaking, all four orders are discussed simultaneously, though over time the different orders are gradually disaggregated to become associated with discussions about the ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ of the pandemic. What Hegel and others have called the ‘logic of history’ begins from this awareness. Thus, ‘fourth order’ talk about the pandemic effectively refers to its long term legacy. This is the frame of mind in which a movement called ‘transhumanist’ should adopt when thinking about the pandemic’s events as they unfold.

Arguably the last crisis to have substantial fourth order effects was the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Based on the records of the time, seismologists estimate that it registered 8-9 on the Richter scale, which is unprecedented in living memory. (The California earthquakes of the past fifty years have registered 6-7 and the even the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake registered only 7.) Moreover, Lisbon was still a major city in the mid-eighteenth century. Nevertheless it lost at least a quarter of its population and Portugal nearly halved its GDP. The earthquake’s shock waves were felt as far away as Finland, North Africa and possibly the Caribbean. The major philosophers of the time—including Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant—wrote extensively about it. Generally speaking, it shook up not only faith in God’s benevolence—if not his very existence—but also faith in humanity’s own ability to tame the forces of nature through ‘civilization’. These doubts about God and humans capture Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s respective contributions. Voltaire left the greater literary legacy, the satirical Candide, while Rousseau cast the longer shadow on the entire Enlightenment mindset that they originally shared. As for Kant, his essays on the earthquake introduced the metaphor of ‘firm/shaky foundations’ for knowledge claims, which have become a staple of philosophical and even popular discourse in the modern period. Kant’s contribution proved to be the ultimate fourth order effect of the crisis.

Thinking in the Fourth Order: The Role of Metalepsis

For the current pandemic to have similar impact on our postmodern psyche, it would need to be lifted out of the realm of metaphor. In more precise rhetorical terms, the pandemic would need to become metaleptic. To see what I mean, recall that metaphors are usually intended to be quite limited in scope, which is typically what makes them appear striking yet also ‘merely’ figurative. ‘The early bird catches the worm’ works as a piece of wisdom just as long as one doesn’t dwell for too long on how the connection between, on the one hand, birds and worms and, on the other, humans and their goals is supposed to work. The ‘magic’ of the aphorism lies in its constructive ambiguity: The listener has considerable discretion in how s/he completes the meaning of what has been said. To be sure, some—especially evolutionary psychologists—may believe that the underlying causal process in both the avian and human cases is substantially the same. In that case, the metaphor acquires the status of an analogy, which is then pursued scientifically in terms of more detailed possible correspondences between avian and human behavior, genetics, etc. The fate of that exercise is normally an empirical matter, with the expectation that the analogy will prove true in some respects but not in others. However, sometimes in the course of inquiry the two sides of the analogy effectively reverse roles. Thus, instead of asking whether birds can explain what humans do, whereby humans set the standard that needs to be met, we simply presume that birds explain what humans do, in which case the burden of proof is placed on the humans to explain why they deviate from avian expectations when they do. At that point, the metaphorical is rendered literal, and we enter the intellectual wormhole that is metalepsis.

Deep conceptual revolutions are metaleptic. The world literally comes to be seen from an entirely different point of view. We know that it is ‘an entirely different point of view’ because something that had previously been an object of our knowledge is now constitutive of how we know the world. We don’t see the sun; rather we see as the sun. We have come to inhabit ‘the other’ to make it part of our lifeworld. Thomas Kuhn (1962) famously caught glimpse of this insight when he likened revolutions in science to Gestalt switches. Recall that Kuhn’s main historical example was the Copernican Revolution, which involved learning to make sense of the heavenly motions as if one were not planted on Earth here and now but rather located anywhere (everywhere?) in space-time. In Christian theological terms, the revolution was about humanity abandoning its animal identity (i.e. Aristotle) in favor of its divine identity (i.e. Newton). This point had been explicitly raised a few years earlier by the crypto-Cosmist French historian and philosopher of science, Alexandre Koyré in From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1959). The Harvard historian of physics Gerald Holton later added more detail to this insight in The Thematic Origins of Modern Science (1973), in which he revived a late nineteenth century German conception of scientific theories as Weltbilder, or ‘world constructions’.

The basic intuition, once again, is metaleptic: If we say that the ‘world is a machine’, then the machine is not simply a metaphor or even an analogy that generates testable hypotheses. It is more than that: It is a normative standard to which we hold the world accountable. That which does not behave mechanically is deemed deviant and potentially problematic because it violates the terms of what is possible—or more to the point, permissible—in this Weltbild. When we speak of the ‘hegemony’ enjoyed by something called the ‘Newtonian world-view’ from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, this is what we mean. Of course, no Weltbild lasts forever—at least as a continuous entity. What Kuhn called a ‘scientific revolution’ occurs through the systematic reversal of metalepsis. In practice, this means that a ‘paradigm’ (Kuhn’s proxy for Weltbild) has accumulated so many unsolved problems over a long period that the paradigm is thrown into what Kuhn himself called ‘crisis’, whereby what had previously functioned as a norm is rolled back to an analogy whose hypothetical status then renders it vulnerable to still more attacks. This in turn invites candidates for the paradigm’s replacement, one of which metaleptically emerges as the ‘new normal’ for the world that will have been constructed. In effect, we wake up from one dream, only to be captured by another. And so Newton came to replace Aristotle, and Einstein Newton. Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers may have been right, after all.

Now the idea of Weltbild is itself inherently ambiguous with regard to the relevant sense ‘construction’—or ‘building’, etymologically speaking. When this term first circulated among physicists, it was in the spirit of a ‘world picture’, a kind of systematic image of the world, a term associated with Weltanschauung (‘world-view’), the modern idea of ‘aesthetic perception’, which Kant adapted for his own purposes in the Critique of Judgement shortly after its coinage in the late eighteenth century. However, the unprecedented carnage of the First World War resulted in much literal ‘building’ of European infrastructure and institutions—often from the ground up. In this context, Rudolf Carnap and his fellow logical positivists began to interpret Weltbild more concretely as Aufbau, a term that Niels Bohr had recently brought into scientific usage to describe how matter was built up from atoms, but which also had currency in the ongoing ‘modernist’ (Bauhaus) revolution in architecture. The positivists spun the meaning of Aufbau to comport with Kant’s earlier metaphorical innovation of ‘foundations’ from the Lisbon earthquake. Twentieth century philosophy’s signature preoccupation with establishing ‘firm’ foundations for knowledge, morals, etc., is a consequence of this particular feat of metalepsis. Earlier philosophers—even ones like Descartes who sought certainty in all things—did not envisage the task in such concrete terms. Nevertheless, in the spirit of a Gestalt switch, Descartes and most of the same historical figures continued to be discussed after this revolution in philosophy—except that their respective strengths and weaknesses as thinkers looked somewhat different, sometimes radically so.

Thinking about the Pandemic Metaleptically

If the crisis surrounding COVID-19 holds the same metaleptic potential, what might that be? To be sure, the idea that fatal illness might have an alien airborne source is far from new. The etymological kinship of ‘influenza’ and ‘influence’ in the early modern period provides a natural start to this story. However, originally the discussion was not metaphorical at all. People actually thought that the motion of the heavenly bodies (somehow) caused people to become ill, depending on their birthdays. Moreover, this ‘illness’ was conceived in psychosomatic terms—that is, not confined to either the mind or the body. Such were the ways of astrology. As astrology faded as an acceptable Weltanschauung, ‘influenza’ and ‘influence’ came to be associated with different causal streams, effectively reduced to ‘mere’ metaphor. Psychoanalysis has been arguably the strongest ‘scientific’ standard bearer of the old astrological line over the past five hundred years. (Here Carl Jung deserves ‘full marks’.) Otherwise the default tendency has been for a greater disaggregation of ‘influence’ and ‘influenza’, periodically punctuated by controversy whenever someone seemed to  allege a closer connection, as when Richard Dawkins modelled ‘meme’ on ‘gene’ in The Selfish Gene (1976). However, a close reading of Dawkins reveals that the real model for the meme was the virus—that is, free-floating strands of DNA that require a host to replicate and potentially alter the host’s genetic makeup. And so the move to metalepsis might begin.

Here it is worth recalling that the ‘virus’ as an entity distinct from ‘genes’ or ‘germs’ dates no earlier than 1898 (due to the Dutch botanist, Martinus Beijerinck), despite various premonitions that such an entity might exist. And even that was a half-century before the DNA revolution in molecular biology could begin the explain viruses properly. But perhaps more to the point, it was long before viruses began to be engineered by biomedical scientists to produce potentially permanent changes in the genetic makeup of organisms. The spirit of the activity is one of simulating what is known in evolutionary theory as ‘horizontal gene transfer’, whereby genes are transmitted between two species that are not directly related in conventional taxonomic terms—such as bat-to-human, in the purportedly original case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. Of course, there is an obvious difference between what genetic engineers in laboratory and clinical settings do and what nature does when mutating viruses spontaneously. The former is deliberate and therapeutic in intent, while the latter is arbitrary and indifferent—at least from a human standpoint. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to draw a clearer line of battle—marked by the virus—between humanity wanting to turn nature for its own purposes and nature having a mind of its own.

Insofar as transhumanists consider genetic engineering as a central feature of their armament, they need to accept that nature can and will use the same weapon against them. To be sure, in the late nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur famously put the entire French nation on a war footing with regard to ‘microbes’ as the ‘invisible enemy’. His metaphor stuck and was extended across biomedicine in the twentieth century, in which many diseases became ‘silent killers’. However, the occurrence of a pandemic at this stage in scientific history potentially carries metaleptic import because we now know enough about viruses to be able to generate them not simply by accident, but on purpose. Little surprise, then, that US President Donald Trump among others have floated the idea that COVID-19 was somehow ‘manufactured’ in Wuhan. In any case, it put long-standing ecological concerns about humanity’s relationship to nature on a much more literal footing, rendering it ‘up close and personal’.

Contact details: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk


Quo Vadis European Union?”
Regina Queiroz

Article Citation:

Queiroz, Regina. 2020. “Quo Vadis European Union?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (4): 59-64. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Part I: The EU, the WHO and COVID-19

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Politicians around the world, and in the European Union (EU) in particular, all knew that

a) COVID-19 would continue to infect millions of people over the OVIDcoming months;

b) the rate at which a population becomes infected is decisive for whether there are enough hospital beds (and doctors and resources) to treat the sick; and

c) slowing the spread of the virus so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given moment, known as ‘flattening the curve’—decreasing the projected number of people who will contract COVID-19 over a period of time, in turn likely extending the duration of the pandemic—requires collective action, namely house confinement and travel bans.

Once they started to feel the impact of the pandemic, countries within the EU such as Italy, France, and Spain have implemented harsh lockdowns. They were not capable of controlling the increase in infected and deaths, however.

Politicians and opinion makers have loudly proclaimed that no state is prepared declaration sees COVID-19 as a purely natural and exceptional, unexpected, catastrophic event, as earthquakes, that exempt them from any political responsibility. Even the supporters of political irresponsibility in the emergence of COVID-19, however, do not refuse political and financial responsibility in dealing with its impacts. For instance, Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra reportedly called for Brussels to investigate why some countries did not have enough financial leeway to weather the economic impact of the crisis, which has claimed thousands of European lives and put the Continent under lockdown.[1] The thousands of citizen deaths from Spain, Italy and France result from those states’ financial irresponsibility. That claim highlights the overreliance of national and European legislative, executive and judicial institutions on the economic market ‘D-L-P-Formula’ (Steger and Ravi 2010):

(1) deregulation (of the economy);

(2) liberalization (of trade and industry); and

(3) privatization (of state-owned enterprises and services such as social security and health care).

Roughly, the ‘D-L-P-Formula’ informs states’ policies towards the well-being of all under the claim of the unlimited individual’s right to the usufruct of their private property obtained also under their exclusively private means (Freeden 2015; Steger and Ravi 2010). For instance, following this ideological formula, European heads of state relegated their responsibility to Finance Ministers gathering in the Eurogroup (the informal meetings of Finance Ministers of the Eurozone countries) to find a European solution to the COVID-19, who eventually decided to support the financing of emergency aid through the provision of grants (EUR 2.7 billion), necessary first and foremost to reinforce the healthcare systems of the Eurozone countries.[2]

The Eurogroup excluded any support for the social effects of COVID-19 (e.g. unemployment), as if  COVID-10 were a purely natural event whose consequences were reduced to health issues, i.e. as if we were just experiencing an exceptional health crisis. At the same time, the European Commission (EC) assessment report on Portugal’s post (2008) crisis adjustment programme, issued this 6th April, identified four major problems, “independently” of the coronavirus pandemic crisis: risks to financial stability, high public sector salaries, pensions and expenditure with health.[3] Following the same the criterion underlying Dutch Finance Minister Hoekstra’s diagnosis of the source of thousands of Italian, Spanish and French deaths—health expenditure  results from state’s financial profligacy (or irresponsibility),  and complicates the reduction of the public debt ratio— the EC recommends that Portugal should downsize its investment in health.

Nevertheless, against the understanding of COVID-19 as a purely natural and exceptional, unexpected event, science has already related the rise of the coronavirus to our way of life, and pandemics in general to social inequality and discord.[4],[5] Also, against the assumption that the thousands of deaths result from states’ financial profligacy (or irresponsibility), under the ‘D-L-P-Formula’ European countries, such as Italy, France and Spain (not to mention the US) downsized investment in national healthcare systems (Giovanella and Stegmüller 2014) and relocated industries outside of national territories (Lund and Tyson, 2018), notably the health industry (Busfield 2003; Mohiuddin, et al. 2017)—90% of medication consumed in Europe is produced in China and India.

The downsizing investment in national healthcare systems, embedded in the above mentioned EC recommendation, and relocation of industries have contributed to a weaker capacity for treating patients in the peak of such a crisis. Italy, France and Spain (and the US) are struggling to overcome the lack of material (masks, tests, ventilators, gloves) and human means (doctors, nurses and assistants) in sufficient numbers to tackle the steep peak of COVID-19. One thing is the impossibility of preventing the numerous fatalities resulting from the COVID-19; another completely different is the impact in the number of those fatalities, for now unmeasurable, due to deficient production capacities of basic medical supplies inside the EU—as illustrated by member states’ race to buy them e.g. from China.

Part II: The D-L-P-Formula

Although the sanitary dimension of the coronavirus crisis is undoubtedly important, along with its relationship to healthcare systems’ robustness after their dismantling under the ‘D-L-P-Formula’, the excessive focus on that dimension by both supporters and detractors of the ‘D-L-P-Formula’ dismisses the responsibility of countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and even the UK (which no longer belongs to the EU), in the untimely imposition of collective measures to control the rate of infected population within their respective countries, preventing the need for at-risk populations to seek treatment in hospitals (or at home). In other words, the unilateral focus on the crippled healthcare system (e.g. lack of tests, beds, ventilators, doctors, nurses, etc.) further dismisses politicians responsibility in the degree of slowing, maintaining or accelerating the spread of the virus so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given moment, and hides the real extent of the impact of the national and European legislative, executive and judicial institutions’ overreliance on the economic market ‘D-L-P-Formula’ in states’ inability to control the tragic effects of the coronavirus.

The number of Coronavirus deaths in the EU is not only the result of insufficiencies of downsized healthcare systems to tackle an extraordinary natural event, but is also a consequence of the EU’s bet on tourism as one of the main means of economic and social development under the ‘D-L-P-Formula’. As the visitors’ unlimited right of travelling to a destination outside of their usual environment, for less than a year, for any purpose including business, leisure or personal purpose other than employment, under the ‘D-L-P-Formula’, tourism evolves beyond any ecological, national, cultural, or urban-planning limits.

Moreover, deeply related to commerce and construction, tourism is one of the most profitable economic industries in the EU (the third largest socio-economic activity after the trade and distribution and the construction sectors)—in 2018, tourism generated 26.5 million jobs within the EU and visitor spending reached €375.1 billion.[6] More than just launching various projects and initiatives to provide support (mostly financial) for tourism in the EU, the EC has aimed to transform the EU into the world’s number 1 tourist destination.[7] Coinciding with the strong trend for the relocation of strategic industries to outside of Europe (to Asia, Latin America, Turkey and Morocco), states’ and EU institutions have legislated to foster tourism. For example, in 2011, besides providing support to banks, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (BCE), and the EC together known as Troika’s intervention in Portugal aimed to create a special procedure for the rapid reconfiguration of houses in the housing market.

While forcing troubled states to repeal the protective laws of employed residents in the tourist destination (e.g. fixed term leases), in 2014, under the ‘D-L-P-Formula’, the Troika favoured short term contracts to provide temporary accommodation services to tourists (so called Local Accommodation (LA). Whereas in 2015 the number of registered LA units in Portugal stood at 9,878, in 2016 it rose past the barrier of 10,000, with a very significant increase in 2017 to over 18,000 and again in 2018, totalling 25,145 registered LA units.[8] This rapid transformation in the urban housing tissue has caused a wave of gentrification in the two main cities, Lisbon and Porto.[9] However, the new law mandated by the Troika did contribute to transform Portugal into one of the most successful touristic countries. According to the Portuguese Agency for Foreign Trade and Investment, AICEP, in 2018 tourism to Portugal grew at the highest rate of any country in the EU—8.1%, significantly above the EU average of 3.1%.[10] More specifically, the sector contributed over one in five (21.8%) of all jobs in the country—employing 1.05 million people.

In view of the considerable weight of tourism in the EU, the confinement of people at home to reduce the impact of the Coronavirus appeared as a stronger menace than the COVID-19 for the EU member states, namely for France, Italy, Spain and Germany. These are the most visited countries in Europe and in the top ten outbound market locations in the World.[11] Not surprisingly, when predicting the colossal economic and social losses resulting from the withdrawal of tourism and almost full interruption of transport politicians in these countries adopted the same tardive answer strategy. [12], [13]

For example, on March 20th, a British tourist visiting Portugal to play golf was interviewed at Algarve airport saying that he had arrived five days prior because someone had told him that Portugal was a safe European country, with few COVID-19 cases. Indeed, if on that day Portugal reported only 112 new cases of infection, Italy’s 4,032 total deaths surpassed China’s (3,249). Until then, the UK was following the herd immunity strategy, while Portugal had opted for a state of emergency throughout the country, putting civil protection and security forces on standby, ensuring the readiness of the National Health Service in terms of human resources.[14]

Despite the differences in the response time of European countries to the COVID-19 crisis, and the different sanitary strategies adopted, health officials of both countries postponed measures that would have allowed a greater degree of flattening the curve and imposing less stress on healthcare systems.[15]  Thus, the combination of tardive imposition of confinement measures with downsizing healthcare systems and relocation of industries to outside of their national territories, namely the health industry, was a lethal mixture leading to thousands of deaths of European citizens.

Part III: Matters of Urgency

Though loss to human lives is irreparable, there is now economic, social and political urgency in protecting economic and financial agents and organizations from the huge economic and social losses caused by the COVID-19 crisis, namely in the transport and tourism sectors.[16] Nevertheless, on the one hand, COVID-19 has exposed that the hollowing out of some of the core functions of the state (e.g. protecting healthcare systems) deprives citizens from adequate defence of their health and life. On the other hand, COVID-19 has exposed that the European Commission’s transformation of the EU into the world’s number 1 tourist destination not only postponed measures that would have allowed imposing less stress on healthcare systems, and decreasing the total of deaths, but ultimately increases the duration of the travel ban since the later the imposition of confinement measures, the greater the need for such a ban. Finally, the European public debate on the political, economic, and social consequences of the COVID-19 seems to be taking place almost uncritically under the ‘D-L-P-Formula’, both in communication media and in formal and informal institutions—as can be seen in the arguments underlying the debate on the measures, and the scope of the adopted measures themselves, to tackle the COVID-19 in the Eurozone and the emphasis in the EC’s report on Portugal’s excessive expenditure with health.[17], [18]

Therefore, to prevent European citizens’ deprivation from adequate protection of their health, life and liberties or the chaotic and tragic consequences of the foreseeable pandemics, in the (still) democratic European Union, citizens of the 27 member states should have the opportunity to debate in the civil and political space (e.g. communication media and national and European Parliaments), and beyond Manichean and fallacious oppositions (e.g. globalization vs. protectionism, cosmopolitanism vs. nationalism, market vs. state), namely on:

a) the nature and scope of the institutional design of their common institutions (e.g. the political weight of informal institutions such as the Eurogroup, or the minimal influence of the European Parliament);

b) the overreliance of national and European legislative, executive and judicial institutions both on the economic market ‘D-L-P-Formula’ and on its underlying political, legal and ethical principles (e.g. unrestrained individual liberty, laissez aller state policies).

Otherwise, if the coronavirus is exclusively seen either as an exceptional natural event— scientists are now predicting and warning politicians on the increasing frequency of foreseeable pandemics, along with their chaotic and tragic consequences—or an exceptional event that only discloses weaknesses of our healthcare systems that are beyond the ethical, political and juridical framework of our societies, the infernal experience of lockdown of our nations, imprisonment in our houses, large economic and financial losses and thousands of deaths in all countries of the EU may yet come to seem like the calm before the storm.[19] When comparing the 2008 financial crisis with the current COVID-19 crisis, it has been said that the former seems like child’s play.

Contact details: Regina Queiroz, Universidade Lusófona, queiroz.regina@gmail.com

References

Busfield, Joan. 2003. “Globalization and the Pharmaceutical Industry Revisited.” International Journal of Health Services 33 (3): 581-605.

Freeden, Michael. 2015.  Liberalism. A Very Short of Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giovanella, Lígia, Stegmüller. Klaus. 2014. “The Financial Crisis and Health Care Systems in Europe: Universal Care Under Threat? Trends in Health Sector Reforms in Germany, The United Kingdom, and Spain” Cadernos de Saúde Pública 30 (11): 2263-2281.

Lund, Susan, Tyson, Laura. 2018. “Globalization is not in Retreat: Digital Technology and the Future of Trade.” Foreign Affairs 97 (3): 50-55.

Mohiuddin, Muhammad, Mohammad Mazumder, Elie Chrysostome and Zhan Su. 2017. “Relocating High-Tech Industries to Emerging Markets: Case of Pharmaceutical Industry Outsourcing to India.” Transnational Corporations Review 9 (3): 201-217.

Steger, Manfred, and Ravi, Roy. 2010. Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] https://www.politico.eu/article/netherlands-try-to-calm-storm-over-repugnant-finance-ministers-comments/, accessed 11 April 2020.

[2] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/04/09/report-on-the-comprehensive-economic-policy-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/, accessed 11 April 2020.

[3] https://www.time24.news/t24/2020/04/brussels-points-to-four-major-problems-in-the-country-in-addition-to-the-virus.html, accessed 10 April 2020.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsirble-for-covid-19-aoe, accessed 9 April, 2020.

[5] http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/coronavirus-and-our-age-of-discord/, accessed 11 April 2020.

[6] https://www.wttc.org/about/media-centre/press-releases/press-releases/2019/wttc-and-european-tourism-manifesto-for-growth-and-jobs-meet-with-european-parliament-president-antonio-tajani-to-present-tourism-legacy-paper/), accessed 8 April 2020.

[7] https://ec.europa.eu/growth/content/commission-communication-2010-europe-worlds-no-1-tourist-destination-new-political-0_en, accessed 8 April 2020.

[8] https://eco.sapo.pt/2019/08/09/quantas-unidades-de-alojamento-local-existem-em-portugal/, accessed 9 April 2020.

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/world/europe/lisbon-portugal-revival.html), accessed 8 April 2020.

[10] http://www.portugalglobal.pt/PT/PortugalNews/Paginas/NewDetail.aspx?newId=%7B092F52A7-25C6-4A64-A4AA-38BDF8D836BC%7D, accessed 9 April 2020.

[11] https://www.condorferries.co.uk/tourism-in-europe-statistics, accessed 8th April 2020.

[12] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication-coordinated-economic-response-covid19-march-2020_en.pdf, accessed 9 April 2020. April;https://www.euronews.com/2020/03/04/covid-19-sparks-fears-of-massive-aviation-slump-and-tourism-losses, accessed 8 April 2020.

[13] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-03-23/italy-s-covid-19-trial-and-error-and-lessons-for-france-and-u-k, accessed 8 April 2020.

[14] https://www.portugal.gov.pt/pt/gc22/comunicacao/noticia?i=governo-toma-medidas-extraordinarias-para-responder-a-epidemia-de-covid-19, accessed 9 April 2020.

[15] https://www.politico.eu/article/europes-coronavirus-lockdown-measures-compared/ accessed 11 April 2020.

[16] https://www.euronews.com/2020/03/04/covid-19-sparks-fears-of-massive-aviation-slump-and-tourism-losses (accessed 8th April 2020.

[17] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/09/eu-risks-break-up-over-coronabonds-row-warns-italian-pm#img-1, accessed 10 April 2020.

[18] https://www.time24.news/t24/2020/04/brussels-points-to-four-major-problems-in-the-country-in-addition-to-the-virus.html, accessed 10th April 2020.

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsirble-for-covid-19-aoe, accessed 9 April 2020.


“Design, Evolution and Extension: Facing the Challenge of COVID-19 Together”
Gregory Sandstrom

Article Citation:

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2020 “Design, Evolution and Extension: Facing the Challenge of COVID-19 Together.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (4): 26-38.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

While the terms “evolution” and “design” are both now well-established in several branches of science, business, and folk knowledge, the concept “extension” has yet to be generally adopted in a coherent way as helpful to distinguish from the others. The arrival of COVID-19, however, may assist people to better identify and distinguish what each of these terms means in the context of how we make sense of the social impact of this global pandemic. This paper provides commentary on what these three terms signify and outlines how we can turn to “extension” and its cognates as a way of interpreting current events and meeting the challenges of the day.

In its broad use of the term “design,” the Intelligent Design (ID) movement is caught on the horns of its own dilemma. Based in the Discovery Institute in Seattle (U.S.), the ID movement has been promoting ID theory for almost 25 years out of its Center for (formerly, the Renewal of) Science and Culture.[1] This has led them to embrace an ideology of “design universalism” (more below), in which people who promote ID theory have taken upon themselves the mantle of “expelled” prophets and academic martyrs, speaking as if they have the intellectual power to offer a comprehensive “bridge between science and theology” (Dembski 1999) in the notion of “Intelligent Design.” What they have created is a political-educational movement that is weaponizing largely evangelical religious apologetics using the philosophy of “occasionalism” for God’s divine action in the world.[2]

The meaning of ID theory, however, is now quite clearly being pushed too far in the Discovery Institute’s response to the COVID-19 (aka SARS-CoV-2) pandemic. The Discovery Institute (DI), through its leading proponent Michael Behe, have taken a theologically contrarian position that deserves a warning for Abrahamic monotheists, non-theists and agnostics. As a result, I believe the DI may emerge from the global fight against the current pandemic looking much the worse as a “movement,” something that might impact their future viability. If this should occur, it would be relevant for Steve Fuller. He has allied himself loosely with the ID movement, having authored a book about ID theory and written multiple Forewords for DI-promoted and published books.

Two simple questions set the stage for this paper:

1. What would it look like if the DI went too far with their “design” metaphor?

2. Has ID theory gone too far promoting “design,” especially when there are other, more appropriate and accurate terms that should be used?

Based on 15+ years studying the DI and IDists (people who subscribe to and promote ID theory) from a sociological perspective, it sadly does not appear that it’s even “possible” for them or their theory ever to “go too far.” It is precisely this attitude that makes their view appear fanatical. As a result, Abrahamic monotheists who have seriously considered ID theory on its own terms must now reluctantly realise they cannot accept it or support the DI in good faith. IDists inextricably intertwine their so-called “strictly scientific theory” with their religious worldview. As a result, they are unable to see alternatives to what comes across to everyone else as “theistic science.” Ironically, those alternatives may actually hold more insight, coherence, and practical usefulness than ID theory.

In short, while IDists preach an “edge of evolution” (Behe 2007) and push an anti-Darwinian (and sometimes anti-science) agenda in their attempt to reveal that “edge,” to this point they have not likewise addressed whether an “edge of ID theory” exists. What then is the edge of ID theory?

This paper aims to do three things:

1. Identify an “edge of ID theory,” which IDists do not yet acknowledge;

2. Address the “origin story” of COVID-19 as either a “design” or “evolutionary” phenomenon, and;

3. Propose an alternative vocabulary for the current pandemic that makes much more sense to people than “design” or “evolution.”

The notion of “extension” holds the key; “design” and “evolution” don’t apply to the currently developing tragedy of COVID-19. It has already resulted in more than 93,000 deaths globally (according to official statistics as of 09-04-2020) and has led to more hospitalizations than many nations’ medical systems can handle. The current pandemic makes understanding the origins and spread of the virus existentially important for everyone who reads this.

Did (Intelligent) Design via “the Designer” Create this Pandemic?

When Lehigh biochemist Michael Behe, the so-called “father of the ID movement,” was recently asked by the DI to write about COVID-19, I was curious what he would say. [3] He, along with Biola University molecular biologist Douglas Axe, are probably the most vocal practising natural scientists who promote ID theory, particularly in the biological sciences. [4] Would he actually suggest that a deadly pathogen is also “designed” by an “Intelligent Designer,” or not?

I was more curious than usual to hear from him, as I had just met Behe a few months ago in Ottawa, Canada, and it was evident from our two brief discussions that he doesn’t just promote ID theory, but “design universalism”—the ideology that everything is “designed” and nothing is “not designed,” or that nothing that is “not designed” can be openly and directly spoken about by an IDist. He explicitly denied he held such an ideological position by reverting to what has apparently become his common escape route refrain, “I’m a simple biochemist,” when issues beyond biochemistry are indeed involved. Thus, I wasn’t surprised by what he wrote on the DI’s closed-comments EvolutionNews site, which Media Bias/Fact Check rates as “strong” for “pseudo-science” and “moderate” for “conspiracy level.” Nonetheless, his take on COVID-19 was highly problematic.

Figure 1. The author asks Michael Behe about “design theory” as distinct from “ID theory” and receives perplexity along with evasion in response (11-01-2019).

Behe wrote on “viral design” (March 10):

Do I think viruses were designed? Yes, I most certainly do! The viruses of which we are aware—including the coronaviruses, Ebola, and HIV—are exquisitely, purposively arranged, which is the clear signature of intelligent design [sic]. Well, then does that mean the designer [sic] is evil and wants people to suffer? No, not necessarily. I’m a biochemist, not a philosopher. Nonetheless, I see no reason why a designer [sic] even of such things as viruses should be classified as bad on that basis alone.[5]

Behe concluded the article stating that he has “no reason to think either that viruses weren’t designed or that the designer [sic] of viruses isn’t good.”

Here, “the (good) designer” is codename for God. Although DI policy is not to capitalize “Designer” or “Intelligent Design,” both should properly be capitalized—the former as a substitute for the Divine Name, and the latter since this signature is not “strictly natural,” as Phillip Johnson clarified with his ideological supernaturalism. Behe was not in any way suggesting that COVID-19 is “human-made,” which is important to note because the DI’s language policy requires them not to identify “the designer” in ID theory. He did not raise the issue of COVID-19 possibly being a bioweapon, i.e. whether or not COVID-19 arose or was manipulated by people in a laboratory (more below). For Behe, God [the Designer] designed and created COVID-19, just like everything else in God’s creation, i.e. design universalism and occasionalism. In short, as both an apologetic and “theistic sciency” claim, there is a Divine Mind behind the universe that the DI believe can be studied and inferred (cf. “the Design inference”) in a “strictly scientific” way. For that reason, ID theory is often referred to either as a “neo-creationist” theory—disguised apologetics—or as “theistic science,” both of which have led most people to take a position against the theory and the DI that relentlessly promote it.

Enter Stony Brook University’s Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon and proselytizing IDist. [6]  Like Behe, Egnor is neither philosophically astute, nor linguistically sensitive enough not to muddy the communicative waters. He similarly defends the notion that ID theory is a “strictly scientific” theory, rather than a philosophy or quasi-theological pseudo-science. Yet at the DI’s main “news” site, he asks: “Where is God in this pandemic?” [7] According to Behe, God “designed” the pandemic! Or to state it another way, Egnor believes that COVID-19 was not the result of a standard “Darwinian” process of mutation and natural selection, and its origin and spread cannot be explained with the help of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Again, this is the claim of a neuroscientist, not a trained biologist. Dismissive of evolutionary science, Dr. Egnor, believes that COVID-19 should best be explained by appealing to “Intelligent Design,” even while most trained natural scientists, philosophers and theologians resolutely disagree.

For many people, views such as Egnor’s pose serious theological issues regarding ID theory and COVID-19. It makes no difference that Behe can retreat into his claim of being a “simple biochemist.” For a self-labelled “revolutionary” who purports to correct the thinking of every other natural scientist, the explanation of a God-designed pandemic makes his promotion of ID theory look heterodox, if not callous, cruel and aloof. [8] Yet, regrettably, this is precisely what the DI must commit itself to in the current situation to maintain its pretense of being “strictly scientific” while at the same time promoting a theological (or “theology friendly”) agenda by means of “inference.” In other words, the DI shows itself a “science and faith” organization at its roots, even sending its leaders to speak at apologetics conferences that don’t appear on the website. The DI intentionally hides that fact while trying to make a “great scientific breakthrough” using “Intelligent Design” as the basis of its “strictly scientific” theory. Thus, the result is an unfortunate and clumsy mish-mash of science and religion, rather than a sophisticated, coherent or helpfully articulated approach that engages science, philosophy and theology in a collaborative conversation.

Responses to the DI’s COVID-19 Claims

Over at the forum Peaceful Science (PS)—a recent project of WUSTL MD, computational biologist, apologist, and former speaker at BioLogos, S. Joshua Swamidass—one of the moderators, Dan Eastwood, an “Agnostic Biostatistician,” notes, “ID [theory] offer[s] no way to distinguish between what can and cannot evolve.” The DI makes no clear distinction between what “evolves” and what doesn’t “evolve,” which is a glaring contradiction in the ID movement. The DI flat-out refuses to acknowledge real “design theory” and “design thinking,” which no one would argue is being persecuted or “expelled” from universities, while acting as if ID theory is on the cutting-edge of “good science.” This merely changes the standard meaning of “science” by inserting a disembodied, quasi-mystical “Intelligence” (which they avoid capitalizing) into natural-physical sciences. By refusing to acknowledge “design theories” and “design thinking” that apart from ID theory, the DI demonstrates its unwillingness to have a serious, open conversation free from ideology and PR campaigns. This is likewise reflected in its approach to COVID-19.

In the thread titled, “Behe says viruses are designed,” Swamidass nevertheless responded positively to Behe, suggesting he was talking about theology, not natural science, when speaking about “design [Design].” [9]  Swamidass wrote:

I think this is a really helpful post [article on ENV] by Behe. I think it is good for him to work out his theology like this. … I think Behe’s position raises important theological questions that deserve exploration. It is good to see him beginning to stake out his theological claims here.” Swamidass expanded this into a longer post on his blog by posing an evangelical “US culture/creation war” dichotomy: “Is COVID-19 Created or Designed? [10]

While Swamidass defends the ideology of methodological naturalism (MNism, which he calls “incorrectly named”), he has not acknowledged the positive, rather than just the negative, proposition of “naturalism” he is putting forward. [11] This is a point that Steve Fuller has made many times.[12] MNism often just means “anti-supernaturalism” and explicitly denies any role for a divine Creator or meaningful discussion of spirituality in natural science from the outset. Outside of natural-physical sciences, more reflexive fields of thought involve human choice, meaning, purpose, and morality, so the restriction of “anti-supernaturalism” makes a big difference where it does not in Swamidass’ lower-level view of science as a form of ideological naturalism. Social epistemology is one of those fields left out by appeals to MNism.

Swamidass reveals himself, like his ID movement opponents, to be philosophically stunted on difficult issues in the philosophy of science.[13] Regarding Behe’s theological view of IDT and COVID-19, Swamidass is left to conclude, “This description of viral innovation does not seem consistent with ID defined as the action of a mind [that is, Divine Mind].” In a masterful turn of contradiction and appeasement, Swamidass openly agrees with Behe that “the virus is designed,” meaning God designed the pandemic, but COVID-19’s “evolution into a disease causing pathogen is not designed.” This is at least a less far-reaching claim than Behe’s view, though it still needs clearer parsing than Swamidass provides.

These long and oftentimes exhausting “neo-creationist” (scientism vs. fideism) discussions aside, as far as I see it as a non-scientist and non-medical expert, the most important issue for almost everyone reading this is the dangerous and rapid spread of COVID-19, rather than the “ontological” question of whether it is “Designed” or “Created” by whom or Whom. Covid-19 threatens theists, atheists and agnostics alike; the virus does not discriminate on the basis of religion or worldview, nor does it care about evangelical appeals for scientific legitimacy. Covid-19 is no respecter of persons, whatever their ideology. If I am wrong, surely the DI and Swamidass will quickly respond here or on their respective apologetic sites to let us know why their “Design vs. Creation or Evolution” view is supposedly important to people who face real health concerns around the world today. For most of us, it is best to leave both Behe’s IDism and Swamidass’s methodological naturalism safely behind and instead focus on more urgent social issues involving containment of COVID-19.

How is the (Biological) Evolution of Covid-19 Now Relevant?

The “design vs. evolution” question that IDists are asking and that Swamidass is trying to turn into a non-mainline “theology” of “Design vs. Creation” come across as semantic red herrings. They are not really as important on the larger social scale of things as IDists and Swamidass suggest them to be. However, one obvious caveat to this general claim is that if COVID-19 was human-made (or manipulated by human beings before it spread to humans) as a bioweapon and released intentionally or accidentally, that information would be quite important. I remain cautious and skeptical about that caveat, as it seems too conspiratorial.

Nevertheless, the warning of a former YECist, David MacMillan (March 18) may provide context for what is happening to fight COVID-19, specifically in the U.S. He writes, “At a time when it is vitally important for [US]Americans to follow CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations and take this pandemic seriously, creationism has taught a broad suspicion of science and public health that weakens officials’ ability to do their jobs.”[14] The lack of ability to “take this pandemic seriously” is revealed by Answers in Genesis (AiG). AiG “is an apologetics ministry” run by Australian-American YECist Ken Ham. The AiG ministry has added little if any value to the conversation involving the design, evolution, or extension of COVID-19. Instead, AiG continues to promote a distorting anti-science ideological agenda among evangelical Protestants, coming up with terms like (March 20) “creation virology.”[15] Indeed, AiG seems to be as “conspiratorial” as any of several non-mainstream approaches to COVID-19 and should thus be treated with caution and skepticism by any thinking Abrahamic monotheist.[16] (Atheists and agnostics already are immune to AiG propaganda.)

A helpful, if short, discussion of the topic appears at BioLogos, started by Dr. Francis Collins before he joined the NIH, via forum moderator Matthew Pevarnik.[17] It was disconcerting to read the comments of biologist Steve Schaffner of Harvard’s Broad Institute: “Keep in mind that the Spanish [sic] flu [of 1918] seems to have mutated to become much more virulent … so that’s also a possibility [with COVID-19].” The chance that COVID-19 may mutate/evolve into a deadlier strain is frightening, to say the least.

Does this mean that the “evolution” of COVID-19 is a significant issue for most people to face at the current time, or is it rather something to keep on the “back burner” as a worst case scenario? Collins gives two scenarios regarding the emergence of COVID-19 into the threat it has become:

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.[18]

The second scenario in particular provides reason to question the standard narrative that COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan Seafood Market in China as a kind of “rapid mutation” that jumped from bats to human beings in late 2019. It also leaves opens the possibility that the emergence of COVID-19 as a deadly pathogen may not have happened recently, as mainstream news sources have reported.

We can nevertheless accept, with little reason to be skeptical, the possibility of COVID-19 mutating, which could change the global social challenge of this pandemic. Nevertheless, this is clearly a different dimension of the conversation than the economic, social, cultural, political, and religious dimensions of our response to the virus. COVID-19’s global spread involves international and local travel and trade, national borders and migration, hospital workers, medical supplies and patient capacities, among many other things. To understand this, alternative language beyond the narrow focus of “evolution” or “design” is needed. For that, we turn to another conceptual option—“extension.”

Which (What is) Extension?

The extension (spreading out or stretching out) of COVID-19 is really the main concern on most of our hearts and minds these days. Who or what are the carriers of this virus, and how do we avoid contact with it? This differs significantly from asking about the “design” or “evolution” of COVID-19.

One way to ask specifically about the “origin” and “spread” of the virus is: what does COVID-19 extend from and to? The shortest, simplest answer is: nobody knows for sure its origin story (cue long line of both scientific and conspiracy options). But we are already quite aware of how it is transmitted from human-to-human, i.e. how it extends from person to person. Much work has been done “contact tracking” for patient 0, patient 1, patient 2, etc., in a number of locations that COVID-19 has reached. This combined biological and social reality is what makes “extension” thinking the go-to linguistic terminology for understanding the current pandemic. In short, while design and evolution have their limited place in the conversation, the rapid extension of COVID-19 is what keeps most people up at night.

As someone trained in social sciences, as well as an ordinary concerned citizen, I’m interested in the human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 and the responses by governments and communities to the pandemic. To me, the responsive actions of people to the virus are clear and present examples of “extension,” not of “evolution” nor the apologetics-oriented “theistic science” of ID theory. That is, COVID-19 “extends” by transmission from someone who has it to someone who doesn’t have it, or by a person coming into contact with the virus on some surface where the virus awaits a living host. As a way to fight COVID-19, we need to make more collective and individual efforts of “extension” in the sense meant by the Australia-Pacific Extension Network, which states generally that “extension is the process of enabling change.”

“Contact tracking” doesn’t involve “evolution,” only “extension.” Similarly, government and citizen actions stem from extensions, i.e. choices made to engage in “social distancing,” ban large public gatherings, wash our hands and faces frequently, and generally avoid putting ourselves at risk of contact with the virus. This shouldn’t be an ideological exercise. It is simply adopting the most effective language to describe “social distancing” and “lockdown” as a kind of “social fact,” which is what has led to the situation many of us now face.

The linked image illustrates well the reason for “social distancing” as a means of slowing or stopping the extension of COVID-19. [19] People around the world are now focusing on broad societal attempts to “flatten the curve,” meaning to curb or slow the extension of COVID-19 via human-to-human transmissions. The more contacts people have with others who may themselves have the virus, the harder it becomes to contain its spread. Indeed, while governments may learn from the natural evolution of previous viruses, such as SARS or MERS, the main priority now is to fight the extension of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The logic of “extension” thinking, for newcomers to the term, is both theoretically and practically visible in the global applications and history of agricultural extension (aka cooperative extension, 1914, Smith-Lever Act, U.S.), university extension (Oxbridge 1860s to present time), and educational extension (cf. distance learning, lifelong learning). The “extension services” that have grown out of these “movements” of human effort around the globe are arguably among the most significant systems in human history.

Yet the notion of “extension thinking” often has been downplayed, forgotten, or never learned by most people, largely due to the rise and growth of “evolutionary” biology, which in the 20th century was transferred as a paradigm into the social sciences and humanities through “sociobiology” and then “evolutionary psychology,” which wreaks havoc with the social epistemology of free will and moral decision-making. The recent notion of “viral media,” for example, doesn’t properly “evolve” like a biological unit because such media is artificial, i.e. human-made, and thus only properly understandable in the context of life in the electronic-information era.

This is one area where Richard Dawkins’ ideology of “memetics” reaches its limits; where “human extension” takes over from the merely biological “extended phenotype” and the “long reach of the gene,” which were rather poor attempts to transfer biological categories into cultural fields of study and experience. Since we can track the intentional variations of a viral “meme” (media unit, e.g. video, audio or image), there is no need to accept Dawkins’ playful ruse by applying a reductionistic biological metaphor, except perhaps for those ideologically committed to Dawkins’ anti-religious worldview. Instead, we may turn our attention to a more appropriate, human-oriented sociological or social epistemological metaphor for more fruitful analysis, interpretation, and collective understanding.

Indeed, what the COVID-19 pandemic makes clear is the need for a new understanding of human development through purposeful extension rather than random evolution. Human development is at least as important, and many would argue more important, than human evolution, the latter which operates on time scales beyond single generations or human lifetimes. Human development is inevitably invested with values, meaning, purpose, and morality, whereas simply speaking about human evolution from an “objective, scientific” viewpoint does not and cannot logically or intuitively address those things. This is because the notion of “human evolution” is presented as a “strictly scientific” approach to the natural world, whereas “human development” is a “social science” or “humanistic” approach (religious or secular) to the topic of change-over-time in human activities and existence. To increase the opportunities for human development, we must work together intentionally and with our collective and personal values at the forefront, through social distancing and other counter measures, to halt the extension of COVID-19 as soon as possible.

One practical example of this quickly drives home the message. In Australia, “The Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) is a collaborative multi-state effort by Cooperative Extension Services across the country to improve the delivery of services to citizens affected by disasters.” [20] We need more EDENs rising up around the world today to work collectively against the COVID-19 pandemic. Many more examples of this type of thinking are available and waiting to be found, once the tired old conversation/polemic involving “design vs. evolution” or “design vs. change” are put aside to instead embrace proactive principles of social activation based on purposive, planned thinking. Teleology, in other words. If we extend our efforts on this common goal together, we can reduce and slow the spread of COVID-19. This requires more than chaotic coordination characterized by “random,” “unplanned” or “unguided” decision-making. Even while external circumstances are changing rapidly, by concentrating our common efforts, by collective and individual extensions, we may win the fight against COVID-19.

Conclusions and Lessons

Regarding the virus’ unique “origin story,” we can be both skeptical and watchful at this early stage of research and testing. Let us not jump to conclusions without sound evidence; we must push aside conspiracies and seek rigorous scientific knowledge. I am not a natural scientist, so I’m depending on those with natural scientific training to correct any errors of science that may be found in this paper. Yet the fact of the matter is, only a very small percentage of people who have been tracking the virus to “patient zero” in each country are really knowledgeable about this topic, and the concerns of most people around the world differ from the scientific detective work of a few.

This paper asked two questions at the outset:

1. What would it look like if the DI went too far with their “design” metaphor?

2. Has ID theory gone too far promoting design, especially when there are other, more appropriate and accurate terms that should be used?

The simple answers are:

1. Behe went too far with his claim that God “designed” COVID-19.

2. Yes.

As a result, I predict Behe, Egnor, Axe, and with them the ID movement are going to come out of this looking like broken ideologues promoting “bad theology” by attributing to “the Designer” something awful—a pandemic. Most natural scientists I’ve met who are familiar with ID theory, especially the atheists and agnostics, always have considered Behe, Egnor, Axe, and the DI to be ideologues, so this is not new to them. It is, rather, the religious believers who support the DI and promote ID theory who really need to pause and re-think the “implications” of ID theory, given what IDists have said about COVID-19, within a broader discourse involving science, philosophy, and theology. As an Abrahamic monotheist, I believe there is nothing whatsoever wrong or anti-religious in viewing ID theory as an affront to traditional theology, as well as a distorted socio-philosophical assault on “good science” in the bargain.

There is also, as it turns out, a strong precedent for the anti-science bias similar to what we are seeing with regard to COVID-19. It’s found in what the “grandfather of the ID movement,” Phillip E. Johnson, wrote and believed about HIV and AIDS (see links in Resources below). The evidence doesn’t need to be rehashed here, other than noting the “conspiracy” mindset present among leading figures in the history of the ID movement. Johnson’s claims weren’t a joke then, and nor are Behe’s, Egnor’s and Axe’s now. While a person may still value Johnson’s contribution to “other topics,” he was simply wrong regarding the natural-physical science of HIV and AIDS, and thus his claims regarding supernatural science, which lie at the heart of the IDM should be treated with great caution.[21]

No matter what the origin of the virus, the most important issue for people around the world is still stopping it from spreading, i.e. shrinking its impact, containing it. Stepping up to this challenge requires new language of action and intention that is absent from the “design” or “evolution” paradigms. As much as I wish it weren’t, this particular moment seems the right time for people to take seriously this “method of observation” that I’ve been working on for over 15 years (see Resources below) after “borrowing” it from Marshall McLuhan, and applying it in social sciences. Now is the time for “extension” thinking, as the spread of COVID-19 poses an existential threat to our lives. In sum, “extension” and “stopping the spread” are much more important issues for us now than arguing whether COVID-19 was “designed” or “naturally evolved.”

What is most urgently needed to stop the spread of COVID-19 is coordinated “extension services” that can provide medical, economic, educational, or spiritual support for people in need. The “evolution” of COVID-19 is largely, if not entirely, beyond human control. Likewise, there is little need to speak about the “design” or “Design” of COVID-19, since the proverbial cat is out of the bag. (This is not a criticism of or any attempt to downplay the normal theological language and meanings people may invoke to help them deal with suffering and death.) Collective and individual efforts to curb the spread are of primary importance during this difficult period on planet Earth, to which I hope this paper may add its voice of support.

Instead of accepting ID theory as a tool in the ongoing “culture wars” perpetuated by the DI in the U.S., I stand with my faithful brothers and sisters around the world in the belief that “This pandemic does not come from the Lord.” May we show mercy towards others, work together to reduce the pain and sufferings of people in need. Arguing about “design vs. evolution” or “design vs. chance” makes no improvement in our lives; as if “science and religion” simply must be antagonistic to each other on an existential level. It is time to press pause and say “No” to such uncooperative ideological posturing.

The so-called “Green Patriarch,” Bartholomew of Constantinople, recently stated that “science, by the grace of God, will overcome this virus … We are certain that through our prayers as well, science will indeed prevail.” [22] For those who believe in God, regardless of the design, evolution or extension of COVID-19, there is one best option in response to it: to commit ourselves more deeply to hope and pray for the world, that we may overcome this pestilence as soon as possible … together.

Contact details: Gregory Sandstrom, Independent Scholar, Canada, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com

Resources

Behe, Michael. 2007. The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. Free Press.

Dembski, William. 1999. Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology. InterVarsity Press.

Media Bias/Fact Check. https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/evolution-news-and-views/.

Johnson, Phillip E. on HIV and AIDS:

https://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2004/10/23/phillip-johnson-and-aids.
http://www.arn.org/docs/johnson/le_overestimatingaids.htm.
https://arstechnica.com/science/2012/01/hiv-contrarian-still-publishing-still-wrong/.
http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/index/pjohnson.htm.
https://web.archive.org/web/20140730105830/http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/columnists/story.html?id=b0cb194b-51d3-4140-88f7-e4099445c554.

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2015. “Memetics vs. Human Extension: Round Two.” In The Future of Social Epistemology: A Collective Vision edited by James H. Collier, 77-85. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2014. “Extending Knowledge and the Extended Mind.” (Audio & Text) Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3 (2): 34-37. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1g0.

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2014. Human Extension: An Alternative to Evolutionism, Creationism and Intelligent Design. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2013. “Memetics vs. Human Extension: Round One—A Meme by Any Other Name.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3 (1): 28-37. http://wp.me/P1Bfg0-Y9.

Sandstrom, Gregory 2013. “Human Extension as an Innovative Methodology for Positive Socialisation.” Socialinis Ugdymas 2 (34): 13-24.

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2013. “Peace for Evolution’s Puzzle: The Arrival of Extension.” In Evolution: Development within Big History, Evolutionary and World-System Paradigms edited by Andrey V. Korotayev and Leonid E. Grinin, 267-288. Volgograd: Uchitel.

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2011. “McLuhan, Burawoy, McLuhan: Extending Anthropic Communications: On the Human Equation, the Extended Case Method and Human Extension.E-compós 14 (3): 1-20. (English and Portuguese).

Sandstrom, Gregory. 2005. “The Extension of Evolution.” In Science, Ideology and Religion. St. Petersburg: SRPh Publishing House. 114-127, 231-241 (Russian and English).


[1] https://www.discovery.org/id/.

[2] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/occasionalism/. https://www.johnderbyshire.com/Opinions/Religion/occasionalism.html.

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/02/looking-for-god-in-all-the-wrong-places.

[3] https://www.lehigh.edu/~inbios/Faculty/Behe.html. https://www.lehigh.edu/~inbios/News/evolution.html.

[4] https://www.biola.edu/directory/people/douglas-axe, https://www.discovery.org/p/axe/.

[5] https://evolutionnews.org/2020/03/evolution-design-and-covid-19/.

[6] https://www.stonybrookmedicine.edu/fullbio?pid=208&name=Michael%20Egnor%20MD.

[7] https://evolutionnews.org/2020/03/to-ask-where-is-god-in-this-pandemic-is-to-acknowledge-that-god-exists/.

[8] It does not appear that Behe paid appropriate heed to what Pope Francis warned against: “we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything” (2014 https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/28/359564982/pope-says-god-not-a-magician-with-a-magic-wand).

[9] https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/behe-says-viruses-are-designed/9900

[10] https://peacefulscience.org/covid-19-created-designed/

[11] Says Swamidass: “Mainstream science seeks “our best explanation of the world, without considering God.” This limiting clause,”without considering God,” is the rule of Methodological Naturalism (MN). … science is limited effort to explain the world on its own terms, without invoking God, His action, or intelligent design.” https://peacefulscience.org/methodological-naturalism/

[12] “[The NAS [National Academy of Sciences, U.S.] would have scientists pledge a loyalty oath to a particular philosophical world view before being licensed to practice. This world view goes by the name of ‘methodological naturalism’, a phrase adopted from the wishfully named National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a California-based intellectual vigilante group that supplies pro-evolution propaganda at all levels of sophistication, contributes to the aggressively populist science blog, ‘The Panda’s Thumb’ (nicknamed ‘Darwin’s Brownshirts’ by its detractors) and, most notably, cooperates with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in its campaign to ban the teaching of creationism and ID in science classes. Specifically, the NCSE has on tap a battery of well-rehearsed expert scientific witnesses like Kenneth Miller, co-author of the best-selling US high school biology textbook, willing to testify under oath to the exclusive prerogative of Darwin’s theory of evolution.” … “‘Methodological naturalism’, despite its philosophical sounding name, has no clear meaning outside of attempts to demonstrate that creationism and ID are non-scientific. Professional philosophers, not least those who hold no brief for creationism, have squirmed at the apparent manufacture of a pseudo-doctrine customised to restrict the ranks of scientists. This so-called principle conflates two 20th-century pro-science movements: ‘logical positivism’, which defined science in purely procedural terms as a method for testing theories, and ‘metaphysical naturalism’, which defined science as a world view that admits only causes like the ones already observed in nature.” (Dissent from Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. Icon Books, 2009, 34, 36).

[13] Nevertheless, Swamidass offers IDists this compromise: “ID could make sense as a philosophy or theology of science. This would mean giving up on opposing MN in science, and it would mean giving up on the label ‘science’” https://peacefulscience.org/methodological-naturalism/.

[14] https://medium.com/@davidstarlingm/creating-coronavirus-f0cfbc3429f3.

[15] https://answersingenesis.org/biology/disease/covid19-coronavirus-and-creation-virology/.

[16] https://www.livescience.com/63388-conspiracies-creationism-share-teleological-thinking.html.

[17] https://discourse.biologos.org/t/when-does-the-chinese-coronavirus-become-the-american-coronavirus/42539.

[18] https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2020/03/26/genomic-research-points-to-natural-origin-of-covid-19/.

[19] https://twitter.com/i/status/1241520087418515462.

[20] https://extensiondisaster.net/.

[21] Such as the “free schooling” approach of John Mark Reynolds, one of Johnson’s closest disciples and beneficiaries.

[22] https://youtu.be/1Szz2lGTKR0.


“The Academy Under Siege”
Denise L. Davis and Raphael Sassower

Article Citation:

Davis, Denise L. and Raphael Sassower. 2020. “The Academy Under Siege.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (4): 7-9.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

In a recent article—“Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 12, 2020)—Anna Kornbluh brilliantly reads our current coronavirus crisis in terms of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007), explaining how “disaster capitalism” has a way of exploiting even justified public fears and leveraging temporary crises for long-term economic gains and power advantages. On Kornbluh’s reading, academic institutions that are jumping on the online wagon for temporary relief in order to ensure the safety of their students, faculty, and staff may stay on that wagon longer than necessary. Kornbluh’s article warns about the opening of four problematic fissures that faculty should be wary of:

First, faculty are asked to transform their pedagogy to produce online courses under duress and without extra compensation;

Second, those transitions are dictated from above rather than decisions being made under the best practices of shared governance (see AAUP Handbook);

Third, universities could cull course content for later use under the rubric of institutional ownership of intellectual property;

And fourth, some courses cannot and should not “migrate” to the online sphere for pedagogical reasons.

As a preliminary comment, we should recall that the critique of ideology promises insights during times of crises, whether in the capitalist framework or that of totalitarian regimes; in short, crisis is accompanied by belief—that we can do better. Sometime in the second part of the previous century, crises became opportunities for the consolidation of power and the transformation of life as we know it; in short, crisis became a playground for cynics and opportunists (as even Rahm Immanuel declared when he was President Obama’s chief of staff). The Age of Trump has brought previously unimaginable cynicism, with its evisceration of government regulations and public protections and the administration’s benighted refusal to heed science. The outbreak of COVID-19 has illustrated how Mutual Aid Networks, individual and community outreach, and the mobilization of local efforts might counteract or offset the failures on the part of the Federal government.

We agree with the spirit and the letter of Kornbluh’s critical comments and would like to emphasize four other related issues.

“Remote Learning”

First, in recognizing the trap of “remote learning,” we must also recognize the radical, though often overlooked, differences across academic institutions, which remain unmentioned in the neoliberal universalizing guise that one (critical) size fits all. According to Josh Moody, “Of the 4,298 institutions listed by NCES [National Center for Education Statistics], there were 1,626 public colleges, 1,687 private nonprofit schools and 985 for-profit schools in fall 2017. The data divide the institutions into categories such as four-year colleges and universities and two-year schools, often known as community colleges” (US News, February 15, 2019). And, as Matt Brim’s recently published Poor Queer Studies (2020) emphasizes, where one works and studies within the academy has strong predictive powers in terms of how faculty conduct research, what is taught and studied, and for undergraduates, whether or not they will complete their education. Obviously, private elite colleges have more financial resources to weather crises than state universities have. In the neoliberal state, money matters so much that starved state universities receive less than 10% of their funding from the state. Cost-saving measures on many such campuses have for some time tended toward the elimination of all possible in-class courses so as to curtail the need for classrooms, labs, offices, and parking. As Kornbluh notes, when faculty are asked to move to online instruction, it amounts to an experiment for a new normal: we fear that “successful” transition will be used as evidence against faculty who wish to return to face-to-face instruction. If dorms are not cost-effective, they will not be reopened; if cafeterias are losing money, why continue operations? In short, the pandemic offers many opportunities to cut campus costs in the name of public health safety and the neoliberal focus on the individual.

Precarious Faculty

A second concern has to do with precarious faculty. Given that most public universities offer more than 70% of their instruction by non-tenure-track faculty (full- and part-time instructors and lecturers), and given that online instruction can be handled more easily by few faculty in large and multiple-section courses, where lectures are taped, Power-Point presentations are uploaded to Canvas, and grading is automated with AI (even for essays), why not consolidate positions by moving courses online? Why not pay an extra thousand or two to monitor courses rather than actually teach them? Even better, why not outsource them altogether? No personal contact or health insurance needed, and no long-term contracts either. Unlike the fate of MOOCs, whose completion rate was abysmal, regular degree courses are coveted, especially from reasonable state universities rather than for-profit scams. Even the Ivy Plus are relying more on precarious faculty employment because it saves money and they have the advantage of a reserve army of (underemployed academic) labor ready to conform to whatever conditions of employment prestigious institutions demand.

Budgetary Smokescreens

A third cause for alarm has to do with budgetary smokescreens. We know little about the budgets of our academic institutions, public and private alike, except where faculty unions are savvy negotiators. Justification for the disproportion of expenses at the top administrative levels are never offered, while faculty are asked to ensure that they carry the weight of their salaries. Have you taught enough students to pay for your salary and benefits? Brought in enough grant money? Small seminars are increasingly rare and low-enrollment courses routinely cancelled; new shiny objects are introduced in the name of innovation or because external funding has initiated them; consulting firms are engaged in the name of expertise, while the know-how of those who teach is ignored. One wonders why faculty must go through annual reporting if administrators do not recognize their work. None of this is new. What is new is that under the “Shock Doctrine,” we must be wary of permanent budgetary consolidation.

Graduate Students and Programs

The fourth point of vulnerability concerns graduate students and graduate programs. As recent strikes and picketing have shown on various campuses, the status of graduate students remains confused and confusing. Are they scholars-in-the-making or are they cheap, exploitable labor? How the academy answers this question will determine, first, if these two issues can be separated and, second, if they can, how the academy might handle the difference. As it stands, this muddled reality exacerbates the vulnerability experienced by graduate students. On the material register, graduate students need the financial wherewithal to survive the decimated social safety nets of the neoliberal state, given that they cannot count on health care, food security, or adequate shelter, and are constantly made to prove they are not lazy or incompetent. The heavy reliance on graduate students to teach lower-level courses turns apprentices into employees whose labor deserves respect for its intellectual and economic values. Yet, because neither universities nor their students are fully subsidized by the state (regardless of their value to the state), precarious faculty and graduate students are financially squeezed and often pitted against one another. As this pandemic demands adaptation in conditions already sorely strained in the Trumpian age, one wonders in what form the academy will survive.

Academic Freedom and Negotiation

We ought to worry about academic freedom and freedom of expression. However, freedoms without sustainable material conditions are freedoms in name only; when meaningful at all, they remain at the disposal of the privileged few. The structural damage to already starved institutions of higher education will continue to marginalize some and discriminate more brazenly against those already suffering. What can be done, then, in this crisis? Since the Reagan years, young Americans have been told not to trust government, as it is the “problem.” And indeed, successive administrations have given us every reason to mistrust the state. Distrust of leadership has sunk even deeper into the collective psyche since the inauguration of Trump, so it stands to reason that faculty and students do not trust their academic administrators.

It’s time that faculty and students together seize the moment and negotiate fair work conditions across the board and establish new criteria for measuring academic “success,” such as contributions to the intellectual public commons rather than grades and salaries. The heyday of American capitalism (as Thomas Piketty demonstrates) happened between the 1940s and 1970s, when marginal tax rates were more than twice as high as today, income inequality was half of what it is today, and social safety nets, however unevenly distributed and extended, were the law of the land. We’re in a different age now, and our public institutions don’t seem up to the task. Have we given up on evidence-based arguments? Have we lost hope in the life of the mind?

Author and contact details:

Denise L. Davis, Denise_Davis@brown.edu, is a senior lecturer of gender and sexuality studies at the Pembroke Center, Brown University, and the managing editor of differences.

Raphael Sassower, rsassowe@uccs.edu, is a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.