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.
- “Anarchy in the UK? Vaccine Immorality or Scientific Sense?” Des Hewitt
- “Resilience,” Des Hewitt
- “The Emergence of Civil Libertarian Science in Pandemic Times,” Steve Fuller
- “Behavioural Insights from the Pandemic: Experiencing the State’s Pseudo/Quasi Sociological Approach to Social Control and COVID-19,” Des Hewitt
- “‘We’re Flying the Plane While We’re Building It’: Epistemic Humility and Non-Knowledge in Political Decision-Making on COVID-19,” Jaana Parviainen
- “’New Infrastructure Investment'(新基建) in China: A Proactionary Measure After the COVID-19 Crisis,” Cong Wang
- “The Elective Affinities Between Jair Bolsonaro’s Ideological Wing and Edir Macedo’s Theology: The Case of COVID-19,” Leonardo Vasconcelos de Castro Moreira
- “One Nation Under Lockdown,” Kathryn Johnson, Taylor Loy, David Dansereau, Maria Gomez, George Atalla, Nataliya Brantly, and Sonja D. Schmid
- “A Quiet Life: An Essay Inspired by Steve Fuller’s ‘When A Virus Goes Viral—Life With COVID-19’,” Des Hewitt
- “Corona-Party at the Ruins of an Earthquake,” Petar Jandrić
- “Learning from the Pandemic: Catastrophic Epistemology,” Francis A. Beer and Robert Hariman
- “Are the Experts Responsible for Bad Disaster Response? A Few Lessons for the Coronavirus Outbreak From L’Aquila,” Federico Brandmayr
- “Thomas Hobbes in the Time of Coronavirus,” M. John Lamola
- “Fourth Order Thinking About the Pandemic: A Transhumanist Challenge,” Steve Fuller
- “Quo Vadis European Union?” Regina Queiroz
- “Design, Evolution and Extension: Facing the Challenge of COVID-19 Together,” Gregory Sandstrom
- “The Academy Under Siege,” Denise L. Davis and Raphael Sassower
Hewitt, Des. 2021. “Anarchy in the UK? Vaccine Immorality or Scientific Sense?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (3): 1-5. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.
The UK government has recently been involved in a row with the EU and indeed criticised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for refusing to manufacture and distribute its vaccines to the more needy in the poorest nations; it was designed here in the UK and manufactured here, and in Belgium, along with Swedish company Astro-Zeneca and Oxford, and along with the Pfizer/Biontec version, the UK along with the US, lead the way in vaccine development: Israel has vaccinated a big percentage of its population and India produces its own version of the Oxford/AstaZneca vaccine developed there along with another.
My previous essays for this special COVID-19 section for SERRC have been deeply critical and indeed, scathing about the government but it will not be the case here, although it will contain a conclusion written about my personal experience of the vaccine rollout which is not so positive: all my writing for SERRC has been based on the principle of individual as well as collective knowledge to continue the project of social epistemology. A list of UK and US developed vaccines is directly below: the article from Sky news shows how complex the vaccine development and negotiation process was and how Matt Hancock the Health Secretary steered a tricky course so successfully.
The reason the UK has been effectively quarantined by the EU and many other countries, is that new variants were discovered, notably the Kent variant which led at one stage, along with the mistake by the government not to lockdown quickly enough, to at one stage 1 in 10 of the UK population being infected with COVID-19. Thus the purpose of this essay is to argue that it would have been utter madness to distribute the vaccine ordered and made by the UK to Europe or anywhere else before our own population has received at least the first jab (to my mind the government’s decision to change the trial success of the vaccine: 3 weeks in-between jabs to 3 months is to my mind highly contentious, despite some scientific backing). I am Watching the ITV just news now a journalist claims that increasing the gap seems to improve the vaccines efficacy. How prescient of him when we have not got anywhere near 3 months into the vaccine program.
But hey! I hear you cry, they did trial it and 3 months separation, and even though I have been deeply critical of the State’s handling of the pandemic to date, at last a political decision has married up with the science; I am deeply sceptical whether the government was aware of this when they decided that vaccinating more people with the first jab would give quicker and further reaching protection. After all the manufacturers trialled it and released it for approval on the basis of 3 weeks between jabs, not 3 months.
The EU and Futile Postures and Vaccinations
This is most certainly not a nationalistic let alone, a xenophobic essay: if after vaccinating the most elderly and vulnerable and frontline workers we were to halt the program we would be back at square one; many of the elderly do not go out into the community and go to work. To stop our vaccination program on the basis that the EU and third world countries need it more urgently, would render our efforts here futile, as those who do go to work, and shop during the lockdown would continue to spread the virus, hastening the development of new variants and causing many more deaths in the UK: we already have 100,000 dead from this epidemic, the highest per capita in the world.
So this is why I argue here that we need to gain control of our own situation and then help supply the rest of the world. I also ponder why the EU vaccination program did not encompass the well known capability of big pharma in Germany, the now defunct IG Farben jumps immediately to mind, (for very unsavoury reasons), and other European countries to develop and deliver their own vaccine. I am a staunch remainer but the incompetence and malevolence of certain EU leaders has been disgraceful. From Germany announcing to its over 65’s that the vaccine would be ineffective for them, to President Macron’s assertion that the vaccine was useless while demanding our supplies. Indeed, now in line with Germany, he has said that the over 65’s will not get the vaccine. The trial included this age group and that evidence along with the evidence of our vaccination of the most elderly supports the science: the virus has reduced its transmission rate.
Of course the most shocking aspect of the row with the EU was the implementation of the emergency clause in the Brexit deal effectively creating a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to block our deliveries of vaccine from Belgium. In fact, we also produce the vaccine in the UK, most notably, Wrexham which was targeted by a hoax bomber—nothing to do with the Germans and the EMA European Medicines Authority of course!
So the central argument of this essay is that the vaccination program to date would have been pointless, had we been forced to distribute our vaccines to the EU and elsewhere after vaccinating many of the population least likely to spread it. Indeed, the discovery that the South African variant is spreading like wildfire in areas of the North and South West of the country in particular, that is Liverpool and Bristol, sharply illustrates the need for us to press on. Moreover, had the EU had the foresight to wait they would have heard Matt Hancock the Health Secretary announce plans to produce as much as possible for the rest of the world: I believe he said ‘it is a truly global effort; thus, we are not the selfish, self-serving anarchists that some have depicted us to be. However, I would also like to engage with a counterfactual in which the UK had voted to remain and invented the vaccine. What would we have done under the rules of the European Union, and would we in fact have been in the position of supplying the EU as well as ourselves. Would indeed we have been the hero and saviour of Europe? The position from just cursory research—see hyperlinks—is that we would have worked in tandem with the EU and EMA—European Medicines regulator and that Brexit has not made a difference to our roll out as the Channel 4 fact checker, news site demonstrates:
… UK government press release from 23 November 2020 states: “if a suitable COVID-19 vaccine candidate, […] becomes available before the end of the transition period, EU legislation which we have implemented via Regulation 174 of the Human Medicines Regulations allows the MHRA to temporarily authorise the supply of a medicine or vaccine, based on public health need.
So even if we were still a member of the EU, the UK regulator would have been able to take this decision on its own because EU law already allows it. Incidentally, that legislation took effect in the UK in 2012, long before Brexit was on the cards.
Futility at its Most Obvious
So from this it is possible to suggest that we might well as a member of the EU been able to be ‘the strong ‘man’ of Europe, designing and producing the vaccine for the UK population and, Europe. Given this, it is also therefore to argue that whether in the current scenario of Brexit or having remained, the outcome would have been the same. The real mystery is why, when we are so successful with the vaccine program, we still have not properly (at the time of writing) introduced properly secure quarantine for oversea arrivals into our airports, but instead simply take on trust that people will self-isolate at home or in accommodation of some sort. It seems self-defeating to vaccinate so many so quickly while still risking further unvaccinated people who are potentially carrying yet another new variant of COVID-19.
PersonalExperience and Dissolutionment
As stated in my introduction this essay is also written from personal experience, it is not simply a piece of easy journalism written using and praising the government vaccine program. My own mother is 90 with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s dementia. She is housebound and I was promised, despite her being in group B 3 weeks ago, and each subsequent week that the phone call would come announcing the imminent arrival of a medic to give her the jab. My mother is especially vulnerable as I and my partner and a private respite carer all look after her and we have not had the vaccine jab. Despite pleading, writing to my MP and repeatedly phoning the surgery who are in charge here of the vaccine lists, I have not been able to get it done. On the contrary I have been led a merry dance, being told a month ago it was nothing to do with them but the NHS hub only to discover from my local pharmacist that in fact the practice was vaccinating people at a site 5 miles away or so.
On discovery of this I called my GP who knows my mother is housebound. She called a few days later to say if I could get my mother into the car and get to the site she could have the jab. I repeated it was not possible to get her into the car even if I had had a wheelchair. Since then there has been promise after promise, a return to the falsehood that the hub was responsible, an assertion reversed in an email from the practice that gave many contradictory reasons why my mother has to wait. Including bizarrely, that one GP needed specialist training before giving the jab. The BMA document below suggests this is nonsense. They also incorrectly said I lived in the neighbouring town and they were concentrating their efforts more locally. As I pointed out to my MP, Google maps show we are 5 minute drive away.
The reply to my email was uncivil about my persistence and impatience and was simply littered with contradictory excuses. As I explained to my MP in a final email my worry comes from my partner’s daughter and son-in-law receiving positive COVID-19 tests on Xmas night, followed by the death of her son in law’s father in hospital who died with COVID-19 and other underlying problems. Fortunately my partner’s daughter and son-in-law recovered, but then had to attend the funeral as I also did. So it is all very well for Piers Morgan to praise the government’s role out of the vaccine which myriad other news broadcasters also do, but the reality on the ground does not coincide with the back slapping of the government’s program. I of course understand that there are logistical problems but being mislead, an MP being mislead and having gatekeepers blocking the process is simply unacceptable.
There are also doubts about the lateral flow test used when we left Europe at the end of last year and which as the clamour to end the lockdown grows louder to restart the economy. The ‘gold standard’ PCR test can also give false negatives as the article and others show:, and indeed mass testing has been questioned by the department of the health itself.
Given the above criticisms, I would again suggest that the near euphoria over the vaccine program along with known refusals of to have the jab is premature to say the least, especially now that it has been discovered that the Oxford vaccine gives only limited protection from the South African variant. Just as the flu vaccine has to be changed every year in the UK based on predictions of the dominant strain in other parts of the world, COVID-19 seems to be even more difficult to predict as it mutates. Thus despite the government acknowledging the success of the vaccine program is only the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end, to quote a former prime minister, this is perhaps, just the beginning of an uncontrollable pandemic. In sum, and to cite Hegel and Popper (1945) again in an essay here on SERRC,  ‘the owl of Minerva beats its wings each and [every] dusk: our scientific knowledge changes from day to day. As Fuller suggested so presciently before the pandemic even struck, this well may be the end for human beings, at least on planet earth.
Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath, Vol. 2. London: Routledge.
 https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-rejected-contracts-and-a-hollywood-movie-how-uk-struck-deal-to-guarantee-vaccine-supply-12204044. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/02/vaccine-rows-spats-eu-uk-competitor.
Hewitt, Des. 2021. “Resilience.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (1): 37-40. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.
In my previous articles for the SERRC, (particularly ‘Behavioural Insights’), I’ve discussed and critically analysed the UK’s approach to handling of the pandemic; in particular, the way it’s framed its messages to the public—quoting the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) guidance/critique of governments’ approach to messaging to the public, along with the World Health Association (WHO), who present a similar critique. (It’s all too late, by the way.) I’ve argued that the State has made a considerable mess of its messaging to the public.
In my last article, ‘Behavioural Insights’, I argued that the State was caught between incompetence and cock-up, and the understandable desire to kick start the economy; however, the signs from many parts of the country demonstrated that we were witnessing a spectre similar to that of Dickens’s Christmas Carol’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come across significant parts of the country. The virus was getting out of control again: this seems to be exactly what has happened across many parts of the country now, although of course I hate to boast (or god forbid, indulge in an obtuse episode of Schadenfreude), about how I was correct in this assertion; the World Health Organisation (WHO), said that irresponsibility and, specifically, pubs and alcohol were COVID-19’s playground, and this has proved to be exactly the case. How exactly is alcohol supposed to make any of us act responsibly?
The Great British Mistake and Loss of Insight
I argued the restrictions on the lifting of the lockdown were far too previous; it was bound to end in disaster, and the signs were all around, and now the chickens have come home to roost. Now we find ourselves on the verge of a second wave of COVID-19. This article, however, focuses on ‘Resilience’. The 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain has just passed and the Queen’s direct comparison with the spirit of the nation at war (again suggesting nationalism, patriotism and sacrifice plays a central role in defeating the virus, just like a world war) made me think of that spirit that sent millions of men ‘over the top’ in 1914-18 to their deaths in the Great War. We were resilient yet again between 1939 and 1945 (unless you read the Mass Observation Reports and watch the documentary which tell a very different story, MOO) during that second time around during a global conflict; despite the spivs and black marketeers who preyed upon the needy during that time, mirroring the hoarding of medicines by foreign powers now.
Can we overcome this unprecedented pandemic then, which we still don’t understand, and still have no vaccine yet to combat it with? Moreover, this country’s appalling failure to develop an effective track and trace system (just in time now though—allegedly—like other nations, for example South Korea who were there at the start in every sense), instead of leaving it to local authorities to sort out for themselves in many cases. So now that the government’s strategy of making sickness and death as widespread and accepted as it was in medieval times—as I argued in ‘Behavioural Insights’; now the State seemingly panics while introducing the ‘rule of six’—or should we call it six degrees of separation (given the many contradictions and continuing its tendency toward an irrational strategy of suicidal like policies), bars and restaurants will close at 10 pm, and we’ll take off our facemasks whilst eating and drinking; great plan.
‘Resilience’ and its Meanings
But what does resilience actually mean? I actually loath essays that resort to dictionary definitions but in this case it is relevant. This definition is particularly apt: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness e.g. “the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions” [straight from the Queen’s lips, perhaps] (We’ll see about that, or at least the ministers involved).
No doubt the government will soon be presenting this second attribute as its central marketing tool.
Now consider seven skills of resilience, taken from Psychology Today. Do read the entire article—I assure you, it’s not meant to be ironic; we will need to develop survivors’ skills!
Principle 1: Cultivate a Belief in Your Ability to Cope.
Principle 2: Stay Connected With Sources of Support.
Principle 3: Talk About What You’re Going Through.
Principle 4: Be Helpful to Others.
Principle 5: Activate Positive Emotion.
Principle 6: Cultivate an Attitude of Survivorship [you’ll definitely need that one]
Principle 7: Seek Meaning.
But of course, the Queen meant something quintessentially British, like the laudable ‘resilience’ of Sir Captain Tom throughout his long and distinguished military career, (and now he’s written a book)—a war (career) which he survived—my relatives weren’t so lucky and were never seen again after the invasion of Singapore by the Japanese, despite our family’s resilience. Like so many who remained stoical during the two world wars resilience wasn’t enough: British, German, French, Russian and the historically the most resilient of all, the Jews—even the Resilience word wasn’t enough for them, and just in case we’ve lost the narrative again, this isn’t a war but an invisible virus, mutating all the time, and using the 21st century’s many modes of travel to find new hosts, and of course, governments’ incompetence.
Resilience Wasted: A Campus Crisis
Once, UK Health Secretary Matthew Hancock’s suggested that university students might have to stay in residence halls during the Christmas break. Head of the BBC Children in Need charity, journalist Rosie Millard (herself ill with COVID, as it turns out), was interviewed to defend her child’s right after three years to come home—this is the resilience the WHO and BIT suggested we would all need to show—perhaps the Queen was correct—a bit of that resilience shown during WWII would serve us all well now: I repeat again: Simply put, our behaviour today, will set the course for the pandemic.
However, because of the failure of the State to follow this advice, backed by Millard’s lack of resilience (snowflake-like mum on behalf of her daughter), it lifted restrictions, rendering the people the main actors. It is an individual as well as a collective responsibility. Follow the recommendations of your national authorities, limit social interactions, keep washing your hands, maintain physical distancing and reduce risk to the most vulnerable in our society, the elderly and those with chronic underlying health conditions. They rely on the choices you make.
So, my three messages as restrictions are regularly lifted (after temporarily being imposed):
One—Communities: Remain vigilant and protect the gains. Our complacency is COVID-19’s playground. [e.g. the pub and restaurants without masks].
Two—Policy-makers: Keep attuned to what people are doing—listen, learn and adjust measures accordingly.
Three—To us all: we all have a role to play to keep COVID-19 at bay. Our behaviour determines COVID-19 behaviour. It’s up to us now. Thank you. [Resilience maybe].
So resilience isn’t just keeping on, it’s the power of positive thinking; something our government might have done well to instil in us before, instead of the Prime Minister’s message in June, as he eased lockdown against all the evidence: go out and enjoy the summer.
The Same but Different
To those who are interested, a new work by the BIT will be coming out soon: we all might find something valuable in its pages. Let’s try the resilience which saw my late uncle—called up during WWII despite being in reserved occupation—firstly repairing one flying fortress for months, only to see the pilot crash on the runway in Norfolk at his first attempted take-off; and then found himself posted to India with the RAF to help finish the Japanese off by bombing them in Burma: his new wife waited at tables in an Italian cafe and literally waited for months for him to be demobbed. Meanwhile my other late aunt (my late father’s sister) as one of the first women put herself through a Classics degree at University College London, then a teaching diploma between 1933 and 1936. She lived and worked in a cold, damp, rat-infested room for those three years.
One Christmas away from home, a disaster—seriously? Yes, I think what I am attempting to articulate is that despite the new revelations the media foist upon on us every day, as new and revelatory, is that we all have histories of resilience. Try reading Jeremy Seabrook’s The High Price of Textiles from Bangladesh to Blackburn: The Song of the Shirt which shows how we were all interconnected in subordination to global capitalism from the moment the Dutch/English East Indies company took hold of our rightful resources. White or Black, we have all been slaves of the system. My late paternal grandfather, whom I never met, fought in the third Afghanistan war—he was part of the British Raj, marrying a French Anglo-Indian. We all have histories. I for one was, and still am, very proud of my father’s resilience: that’s why my mum has a comfortable existence at the age of 89.
We are all well aware of the trials and tribulations of the Royal Family, not least recently with regard to Prince Harry and Meghan (of course his Harry and William’s late mother, her life and that of the royals constantly re-hashed in the media, and of course the now persona non grata Prince Andrew: perhaps her resilience through the abdication, her father’s early death, the concept of ‘duty’ is the resilience we need now). I am by no stretch of the imagination a royalist and in fact am ambivalent about republicanism. But we are all human beings with experience we need to learn from-more recently insights from below might prove more useful as I suggest.
Fuller, Steve. 2020. “The Emergence of Civil Libertarian Science in Pandemic Times.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (12): 10-13. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.
Introductory note: An abridged version of this paper appears as a response to the target article, ‘Corona Perspectives: Philosophical Lessons from a Pandemic’ by Yongmou Liu, Carl Mitcham and Alfred Nordmann, published in the 2021 edition of Jahrbuch Technikphilosophie (‘German Yearbook of Philosophy of Technology’).
As COVID-19 reaches its first year as a global pandemic, much has been made of the awkward fit between genuine scientific uncertainty concerning the course of the virus and the need for effective political communication and policymaking. In practice, the world has become a living laboratory, with each nation’s population serving as guinea pigs in rather different experiments based on largely the same science but applied under a variety of geographical, political and cultural conditions. Moreover, there are no agreed standards to make cross-national judgements about ‘success’ in handling the pandemic, though obviously the actions taken by governments have consequences for those outside of their formal jurisdictions. Indeed, every pronouncement by the World Health Organization that presumes such universal standards ends up striking one or more parts of the world as annoying backseat driving.
A useful albeit unexpected point of reference is the controversy over the meaning of Volk in Volkswirstschaft (‘national economy’) in early twentieth century Germany. On one side stood Werner Sombart and the Brothers Weber (Max and Alfred), who in their rather different ways regarded Volk as ‘concept’, roughly equivalent to the nation’s culture, understood as a kind of organism that evolves over time that exists semi-autonomously from the people who actually live within the nation’s borders at any given moment. On the other side stood Bernhard Harms, a founder of modern economic geography who recruited Ferdinand Tönnies to his institute of ‘world economy’ at Kiel. Harms defined Volk in terms of the actual residents in a nation-state at a given time—and the capacities they bring toward promoting the national interest (Plehwe and Slobodian 2019).
This distinction in conceptions of Volk is reminiscent of the one later drawn—for the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species—by the German-trained Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr (1959) between what he called ‘typological’ and ‘population’ thinking with regard to the nature of ‘species’. For Mayr, that ‘meta-scientific’ shift in conceptual horizons was Darwin’s ultimate achievement. In all this, we are ultimately talking about updated versions of the medieval scholastic distinction between ‘intensional’ versus ‘extensional’ definitions (Fuller 2020).
Most normative theorists have been biased toward the population side of Volk when dealing with the response to the pandemic, whereas the governments in charge across the world are more typological in orientation. Nevertheless, at a first order level, one can imagine that particular cultures might internalize population thinking as part of their collective self-understanding. What follows is an exploration of this prospect, which I call civil libertarian science.
The People or the Economy
A commonplace of political rhetoric across the world when dealing with the pandemic is that governments must balance people’s health against the health of the economy. And of course, policymakers everywhere claim to be striking just the right balance. However, the task is made much harder when people’s cultural self-understanding includes a strong sense of civil liberties. In their own interestingly different ways, the US, UK and Sweden have faced this issue squarely during the pandemic. I will simply sketch the different ways that I see them handling the matter, including some remarks about the larger theoretical issues that they raise in trying to achieve a philosophically perspicuous perspective on the pandemic.
Most of the media and scholarly focus relating to the US response has been on Donald Trump’s near-denial of the pandemic’s severity. Indeed, that may have tipped the balance against Trump in his otherwise surprisingly close-run 2020 re-election campaign. But let’s think about this situation counterfactually. Suppose Hillary Clinton had managed to translate her three million popular vote victory into an electoral college win in 2016. What would she have done under the same circumstances—and would the results have been any different? It is easy to imagine that Clinton would have started lockdown earlier and tried to enforce it more uniformly across America. And what would happen at that point?
Here we need to recall that the US is a federal republic, which means that state governors have considerable discretion on how they handle matters under their jurisdiction. Put another way, Trump has been able to carry on as he has (until further notice) because a substantial number—perhaps 20 out of 50—of governors already think like him. The de facto result is a largely devolved approach to the pandemic, in which states that take the pandemic more seriously impose their own, often Europe-style lockdowns. Trump has allowed these more severe measures, probably because the US federal system offers him no viable alternative. Nevertheless he makes it clear that he doesn’t like them.
Now imagine that Clinton was in Trump’s shoes. Those twenty pandemic-denying governors would still be there. She would basically need to compel them to impose stricter measures to stamp out the virus. But how might she do this? It is difficult to see how she could avoid imposing some sort of ‘martial law’, which in turn would incite riots and violations, the participants in which would partially overlap with the people involved in comparable activities under Trump’s actual rule. (Perhaps Clinton would take some lessons from Macron—for better or worse!) Arguably, the difference in outcome—at least as measured in terms of fatalities—would not be as big as the ideological differences between Clinton and Trump might suggest.
My point is that the civil libertarianism legally embedded in American culture places limits on the ‘effective’ response that central government can make to a nation-wide, let alone global pandemic. The UK, which characteristically ‘muddles through’ any crisis, recognizes this as well. To his credit, Boris Johnson is much more self-conscious in his rhetoric and actions about his nation’s civil libertarian tradition than Trump. Although the UK media discourse is very much focussed on ‘lives vs jobs’, the UK government is aiming for a more sophisticated approach. It ‘nudges’ rather than compels people to do the right thing, trailing its policies for several days before they are enforced (if they are), in order to enable people to get used to them.
Admittedly, this has led to considerable confusion in messaging, especially for people who don’t regularly follow the news. But it is telling that ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’ is not calling for the government’s downfall. Indeed, the UK Labour Party—now under new, more Fabian management—has been largely supportive of the government’s efforts, complaining mainly about the lack of clarity in messaging. Interestingly, as I write, the Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has for the first time called for a second total national lockdown. Unfortunately, it comes at the same time that the Labour Party Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham declares that Boris has already gone down too far down that route, leading Burnham to threaten civil disobedience. If nothing else, in the UK, like the US, concerns for civil liberties persist, regardless of who happens to be in power during the pandemic.
Sweden provides a very interesting variation on this theme, given its early open endorsement of a ‘herd immunity’ approach to the pandemic, which the UK echoed in more muted terms—and then retracted, at least officially. At first, the relationship between herd immunity and a civil libertarian culture may not be apparent. However, it begins to make sense upon considering Sweden’s self-understanding as a nation-state that raises people to be responsible individuals and then simply lets them get on with it, based on the information made available to them and a sense of mutual trust between the state and the individual. At a conference on children’s rights, the Swedish journalist and Olof Palme biographer Henrik Berggren (2006) illuminated this sensibility in terms of the story of Pippi Longstocking, in which the state stands for Pippi’s absconded parents, who nevertheless left her a chest of gold coins with which to manage her affairs. Pippi rises to the challenge with a strange combination of recklessness and generosity, according to the narrator, who is a more ‘normal’ child living next door—and is duly impressed.
On Civil Libertarianism
There is much to say about the relationship of the state and the individual implied here. It ultimately reflects the implicit Deist theology of civil libertarianism, what Voltaire ridiculed as deus absconditus: the divine perpetrator who flees from the scene of the first crime, Creation! (Here Voltaire was making fun of himself, since he too held this view but wasn’t willing to cover up its absurdity in Biblical references. Little did he realize that Schopenhauer would take him seriously!) Such Deism is evident in the US Founding Fathers, who held that no human governor should be more powerful than the deity in whom the governed believe. This was their Locke-inspired civil libertarian response to Hobbes’ challenge that God should simply be replaced by a secular state holding the monopoly of force in society.
The intuition here is Augustinian/Calvinist: The mark of humanity’s fallen nature is that the problem of free will vs. determinism is not to be resolved intellectually (à la Hume) but rather is always lived through in high tension. Even if God is gone from the scene, humans—no matter how powerful—are always in less than absolute control over their own fate. It is easy to see how this plays into the emergence of probabilistic reasoning in the Enlightenment, and more specifically the incentive to take risks—what I have called the ‘proactionary’ attitude (Fuller and Lipinska 2014). After all, even on the Deist view, the fact that we’re fallen and that the deity is ‘gone’ doesn’t take away from our having been created imago dei. That’s Pippi’s gold chest, which is now courtesy of the welfare state. William Beveridge, the liberal eugenicist economist who designed the UK welfare state thought similarly. I have described his aim as breeding ‘natural born liberals’ (p. 76). So what does this mean with regard to the current pandemic?
At the most basic and seemingly trivial level, it means that the state should trust itself that it has already sufficiently ‘raised’ its population that people will trust the state whenever it needs to issue any further instructions concerning their behaviour. As the agricultural metaphor of ‘raising’ (crops and livestock) suggests, what states provide is an expansive potential for response, based on some sense of ‘improved’ seeds and grounds. But in the end, the seeds must negotiate their relationship with the ground—and here the state’s role is no more than to minimize absolute failure. But there will be failures. The elderly and those with ‘underlying’ health conditions are more likely than others to die from COVID-19. In many such cases, all that additional state intervention would have achieved is a few months’ delay of an outcome that was largely overdetermined. Of course, one should not be too glib about this prospect, since as Keynes famously reminded us, we are all dead in the long run. Nevertheless, as the earlier counterfactual analysis of Trump vs Clinton on the pandemic suggested, the political science of civil libertarianism doesn’t allow that much wriggle room for saving lives. There will be blood whoever is in charge.
Berggren, Henrik. 2006. “The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State.” New York: Columbia University (unpublished).
Fuller, Steve. 2020. “Our Love-Hate Relationship with Humanity.” Review symposium on Daniel Chernilo’s Debating Humanity. Distinktion 21 (1): 67-73.
Fuller, Steve and Veronika Lipinska. 2014. The Proactionary Imperative. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mayr, Ernst. 1959. “Typological Versus Population Thinking.” In Evolution and Anthropology: A Centennial Appraisal edited by B. J. Meggers, 409–12. Washington, DC: Anthropological Society of Washington.
Plehwe, Dieter and Quinn Slobodian. 2019. “Landscapes of Unrest: Herbert Giersch and the Origins of Neoliberal Economic Geography.” Modern Intellectual History 16: 185-215.
Hewitt, Des. 2020. “Behavioural Insights from the Pandemic: Experiencing the State’s Pseudo/Quasi Sociological Approach to Social Control and COVID-19.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (7): 45-50. https://wp.me/P1Bfg0-4Wa.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
This essay critically analyses the English State’s approach to social control during the pandemic and why the easing of lockdown is about more than economic recovery. I argue that the State, the current Conservative government, believes the pandemic will be a permanent feature of life for many years. If that sounds a simple argument then think about this question: one could ask, as the captain of the Titanic (the Prime Minister) presses on regardless of the gaping wound in the ship’s hull, how many more of us will die in the name of the ‘new normal’?
I will argue the government see the risks and are frightened of the danger of losing social control: as recent events have demonstrated, temperatures can easily reach boiling point. However, they are seemingly impotent even with the availability of the evidence already available to them from science and social science; particularly individual and collective everyday experience and expertise on the way to frame effective messages on the pandemic and how to really ‘stay safe’ to a unsurprisingly frustrated public used to immediate gratification exists: it seems however something else drives the English State.
But what is it, incompetence, a lack of preparedness, a deeply and reasonably held fear that society might well collapse into anarchy if the economy continues to stall, or because the herd immunity policy the government wanted to implement after abandoning testing and which was met with disgust when revealed, is easy to revert to because of recent events? This essay is written from personal experience, and very much driven by the feeling that the world the State and media present is not mine; a cognitive dissonance to say the least.
The Grim Reaper Advances
The Black Lives Matter demonstration and counter demonstration and raves, although concomitant to economic concerns (ironically) as the scenes at Bournemouth beach are, are a useful enough mechanism as any to condition and justify to the public the acceptance of the ‘new normal’ (another unfortunate although less dangerous aspect of COVID-19 to emerge this year); thus, the grim reaper lurks, barely in the shadows, as Leicester, Merthyr Tydfil, Doncaster, Leeds and Bradford and Rochdale and, many other towns, present to us like the spectre from Dickens’s ‘Christmas Carol’: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Priti Patel’s condemnation of the scenes from London to Liverpool is like a cursory ticking off in the context of the obtuse style of [I understand their concerns because I have known racism myself but this behaviour is totally unacceptable etc., etc., … …] It seems then, viewed through this prism of limited surveillance and discipline (in every sense), very much as though the government have reverted to the social Darwinist herd immunity policy; encouraged twice now by Dominic Cummings, first as policy, then by his own example, and the example of some members of the public themselves. During the pre-lockdown Coronavirus Downing Street briefing, the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Adviser repeatedly made the point that like Leicester there will be fresh outbreaks of the virus and that through implication means more deaths. And yet the Prime Minister also repeated a new mantra: go off and enjoy summer safely.
A Quiet Life Again
Paradoxically, in a previous essay, ‘A Quiet Life’, I argued that plague was central to the history of our world and indeed, migration; it shaped the world as we know it now, and moreover, that partying (and the pub garden in those balmy April days) as Pepys did in the 1600s would be what everyone would really like to do to escape the terminal boredom of the media and social media the likes of Facebook bring to our lives (Hewitt 2020). But that was an individual’s experience and desire, amidst the dross of the digital world was, and still is, serving up. I also argued that the weekly applauding of the NHS supported the government and media’s discourse of its centrality and ability to cope through the pandemic was hypocrisy, as the shopping scenes at my local supermarkets testified to as did the ‘unseen’ street parties I witnessed near to my elderly mother’s house in Berkshire two months ago on the way home to Wiltshire, and yes, under the lockdown rules II was able to visit to provide care, medicines and food. I wasn’t really wishing for a world of widespread illness and death.
I also know that a warehouse, not all full of what could be described as essential stock, at which I used to temp during my days of university study, reopened two weeks into the full lockdown, despite the knowledge that the skeleton staff it employed were coming from homes they lived in with partners and some with children—I hasten to add that these were not key workers. When I asked the warehouse manager why, as I was intending to write an anonymised article, he said he’d have to think about that and why they took that risk. Now the pubs and restaurants are due to reopen, barring Leicester, on July the 4th, American Independence day and, apparently this year, ours too—liberation at last—or have we all secretly been at it? 
So does the population really care or not and has the government seen this and taken its cue and lifted the lockdown too early, or is it taking advantage to follow the herd immunity policy it so clearly wanted to until the media revealed the government’s intention to let the population become infected and see who was left standing at the end. The purpose of this essay is to look at the argument for the latter. Thus I argue the reality is that our government is truly incompetent and, cynical in a rather terrifying way: it wants us to accept death and loss, to maintain control, and of course, power. But can it, as politicians, according to the Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the Nudge Unit), state that politicians are not trusted while doctors and scientists are, but who makes the law?: the State that’s who.
But however, the UK’s politicians more often than not also present a picture of total incompetence as well as cynicism in ignoring the blindingly obvious; this would be laughable if not for the situation’s obvious seriousness. The failing testing app outsourced to Serco after months and months already wasted, despite the examples from South Korea and others of the effectiveness of detection through meticulous tracing and tracking. The failure to intervene in Leicester, despite having been warned eleven days before of the exponential rise in cases per every 100,000 of the population, even despite the flaws in data collection and sharing highlights this, as the Health Secretary Matthew Hancock, as he admits was warned well before he intervened by introducing England’s first reintroduction of a localised lockdown. Speculative reports suggest a failure to abide by lockdown rules, by local garment businesses in particular, which employs the younger aged men that are now testing positive in Leicester is one of the factors for the spike in cases there. So is it exploitation of certain workers, a failure to convey the message of science to the public effectively in a trustworthy way, as the Behavioural Insights Team suggest, or a deliberate policy to return to the herd immunity policy as long as this is containable with the NHS will not be overwhelmed discourse or a deep seated fear of losing social control because of quarantine fatigue?
Salvation From a State Bent on Suicidal Policies
Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was the austerity dedicated coalition government of David Cameron that made much mileage out of using his so-called Nudge Unit, a revamped version of Behavioural Insights Team. The Mass Observation Organisation, famous for exposing the truth about how the British felt during the darkest days of the blitz, is active at this very moment with regard to COVID-19: the experiences of those taking part are available now and anybody can contribute; and this is available to government via academic researchers and journals. The contribution by volunteers to the COVID-19 diaries is said to be significant compared to this time last year. What an irony then that the notion that good old Blighty is in a struggle akin to the Second World War, a notion repeatedly promoted by Piers Morgan and others in the media, is reinforced through this historical connection; however, as I pointed out in ‘The Quiet Life’, comparing the war with the pandemic was like comparing apples and pears, especially as firstly we (science and medicine) are still trying to understand the virus, and are finding new complications and anomalies almost on a daily, if not weekly basis. Secondly, what apart from what the media and social media serve up do we know about how people are behaving and how they think and feel about the COVID-19 crisis.
My Experience in an Alternative Dimension
How does the idea of a nation united against a common foe compare with reality and have lockdown restrictions been respected by the majority? Watching Sky news today, on the 3rd of July, my ears prick up when I hear a report apparently from the emergency services, that tomorrow, the 4th July when lockdown ends for the majority in England, the police are preparing as though it’s the last Friday night before Christmas. Yet another irony, because in Quiet Life I said visiting my local Tesco’s here in Wiltshire during the unusually balmy days of April was like shopping at Christmas. And so tomorrow we can go the pub again, soon Greece will realise it’s missing out and accept the ‘air-corridor’ policy of the English government and we can all have that party.
Being a member of a certain popular Greek holiday island on Facebook I happen to know English people have in fact already successfully entered that country but I myself wait. I wait for the official announcement by Greece on the 15th July and worry; I worry because in the Alice through the looking glass world of the insurance industry and the State, my insurance for my holiday booked for September will be invalid even when the insurance is bought after the advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have been that it is safe to travel there and, Greece allows English tourists to return; because I booked before the announcement. So how could the State frame its messages about COVID-19, lockdown restrictions, what we can and can’t do more effectively and logically to prevent frustration and loss of social control and to stop the spread of the virus? 
Today as I waited outside the local building society branch of with my partner, I pointed out to the officious member of staff refusing access to more than one person at a time (because someone was inside an internal office making a phone call, otherwise it would have been two…), that in fact the risk of contracting COVID-19 standing two metres apart for a certain length of time was the same as standing one metre apart for half that length of time—I think that message went under the table.
My partner had been turned away from this branch twice before on the grounds her transaction wasn’t essential despite it not being possible on the internet, and funds had to be deposited in person. Moreover, 20 minutes down the A4 in Berkshire, in a different branch of the same building society staff were only too happy to oblige. At the other end of the spectrum, and at the start of lockdown amidst the fear and panic, when a 75 year old neighbour of my partner asked a staff member of a local upmarket supermarket to self-distance, after he sneezed in the neighbour’s face, the store manager came out and physically touched him by placing his hand on his shoulder and berated him for complaining and he was then surrounded by other members of staff. It seems the blitz spirit, so-called, really isn’t alive and well, despite the likes of Captain Tom’s laudable fund raising for the NHS. So how do we explain these anomalies?
How Research Could Help Us Build Knowledge and Direct Policy: Is Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives (Stay Alive) Really Adequate?
The Behavioural Insights Team say that effective messaging during the COVID-19 crisis would have looked like this: for example, the much vaunted anti-body test and its limited use and dismissal as not 100% effective and doesn’t necessarily make you immune. The (international) Behavioural Insights Team (BHT) in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that removing the word immune from messages and asserting that even a test that is only 86% percent effective is better than negative messaging: stating that because in other similar viruses, for example with regard to the Sars CoV 1 virus etc., it did however mean you were much less likely to catch it is much more positive than pointing out the flaws—the daily Coronavirus briefings of course allowed/forced the politicians and scientists to present caveats on this and many other issues surrounding COVID-19. Interestingly the Behavioural Insights Team has also conducted studies on what happens when people start suffering lockdown/COVID-19 fatigue.
What is also very interesting is that the BHT have worked with the media, specifically some of the broadsheets to get a better understanding of what people are and are not understanding about government messaging. I would argue, as I did in Quiet Life that they are part of the problem. For example, TV’s ‘Good Morning Britain’s’ resident doctor who also writes, dismissed the wearing of facemasks until very recently when we finally took on board all the physical and psychological benefits of doing so, which the Insights and Team and WHO have been promoting for sometime after studying other countries and previous virus’s such as MERS and SARS CoV. The BHT also point out that correcting incorrect messages only makes people question their original beliefs, it doesn’t necessarily make them believe the new correct advice. The WHO said this in May as many lockdown restrictions being lifted were being planned and talked of by the English Government (available via the Behavioural Insights Team link); Simply put, our behaviour today, will set the course for the pandemic.
As governments lift restrictions, you, the people become the main actors. It is an individual as well as a collective responsibility. Follow the recommendations of your national authorities, limit social interactions, keep washing your hands, maintain physical distancing and reduce risk to the most vulnerable in our society, the elderly and those with chronic underlying health conditions. They rely on the choices you make.
So, my three messages today:
One—Communities: Remain vigilant and protect the gains. Our complacency is COVID-19’s playground.
Two—Policy-makers: Keep attuned to what people are doing—listen, learn and adjust measures accordingly.
Three—To us all: we all have a role to play to keep COVID-19 at bay. Our behaviour determines COVID-19 behaviour. It’s up to us now. Thank you.
In conclusion, what I take from this more than anything else is this: it is the responsibility of all, government and society to act together. And a rational act, taken collectively would not have been to allow the lifting of the lockdown completely yet. But as I argued in ‘The Quiet Life’ and here, we have not acted collectively and safely at all. The evidence from the US is that bars are the breeding ground for the virus; hence the sudden spikes in cases. The English government is surely not oblivious to this. This begs the questions I asked at the start of this essay: Is it social control or the opportunity to reintroduce the ludicrously reckless herd immunity policy—or is the government simply overriding scientific advice and implementing their own policy to save the economy and jobs?
It is a difficult balancing act, of course, but a combination of cock-up and contradiction seem to be the only real answer. After all, the Prime Minister has suffered a bout of COVID-19, has a new baby with his partner, so the idea that Social Darwinists such as Dominic Cummings could persuade him to take a course of action akin to genocide is equally ludicrous. But then again they know death is around every corner, for even they read the newspapers and watch the 24/7 offerings the media serve up, which give the new grim death tolls from the US and other countries that eased the lockdown too soon.
The State surely has ultimate responsibility for the permanence of death from COVID-19, and yet does so with so much expertise at its hands—that is, the lived experiences of people via the Mass Observation Organisation or the Behavioural Insights Team, and the rest of social science, a fraction of which is referenced here, they have clearly failed to persuade the public to behave responsibly. No sane person could possibly think that alcohol and COVID-19 will produce an inviting and enlivening cocktail: COVID-19’s playground, in other words. We don’t need behavioural insights to tell us that. But as Boris Johnson said, don’t fear the reaper, go out and enjoy the summer.
Contact details: Des Hewitt, University of Warwick, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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, email@example.com
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.
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) 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.
The local governments also promote new energy vehicles. For example on 31 April, Shenzhen (深圳), in Guangdong Province, announced two measures:
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. 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.” 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. 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
 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.
 Shi, Hao, Shaoqing Huang. 2014. How Much Infrastructure is too Much? A New Approach And Evidence From China. World Development 56(C), 272-286.
 王曦, & 陆荣. (2009). 危机下四万亿投资计划的短期作用与长期影响 (Doctoral dissertation).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Fuller, Steve. 2020. “A Post-Truth Proactionary Look at the Pandemic.” Postdigital Science and Education 1-5. doi: 10.1007/s42438-020-00124-5.
 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.
 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.
 Fuller, Steve and Veronika Lipińska. 2014. The Proactionary Imperative. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
 Fuller, Steve. 2012. Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.  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, email@example.com
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.
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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.
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“One Nation Under Lockdown,” 
Kathryn Johnson, Taylor Loy, David Dansereau, Maria Gomez, George Atalla, Nataliya Brantly, and Sonja D. Schmid
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. 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. 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. 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.”  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.”  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.
“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. 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. 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?
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. 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.” 
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. 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
 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.
 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.
 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.”
 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.
 “Corporate America Seeks Legal Protection for When Coronavirus Lockdowns Lift” (Reuters, April 21, 2020).
 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?
 Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Translated by Mark Ritter. SAGE publications, 34.
“A Quiet Life: An Essay Inspired by Steve Fuller’s ‘When A Virus Goes Viral—Life With COVID-19′,” Des Hewitt
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.
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. 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. 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.
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). 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. 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.
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.  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.
Contact details: Des Hewitt, University of Warwick, email@example.com
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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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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, email@example.com
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.
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.
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.
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. ‘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. 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.”
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. 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.’ 
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’. A growing global consciousness along this vein is easily predictable.
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