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Blind Faith in Experts Is As Unwarranted as Faith in Angels

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For us non-epidemiologists, it’s hard to know whom to trust. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reverses itself on masks; scientists get into Twitter fights; politicians deceive their constituents. The answers that have been provided so far—the bailout, the makeshift hospital beds, the eviction moratoriums, the new injunctions to wear masks on the streets—seem inadequate or incomplete.

There are ruptures between medical science, the public, and the political response. It’s hard to know how to think about it—which, thankfully, is where science and technology studies (STS) comes in. The small but influential discipline takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how areas of knowledge that we’re often happy to concede to experts function in our lives. As Sheila Jasanoff, a pioneer in the field, writes, STS studies aims to parse the ethical, legal, and political dimensions of science so that it “takes its rightful place within and not above society.” The current crisis began with a medical problem, but it doesn’t mean that those of us without an MD should let the doctors take the full burden of the response.

Like the rest of us, Jasanoff, who founded and directs Harvard’s STS program, has been keeping a close eye on the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike most of us, she’s equipped with decades of experience analyzing how democracy and science interact across countries and time periods. In our interview, compiled from two conversations, she explained how she’s been thinking through the crisis.

—Nawal Arjini

Nawal Arjini: Have there been any recent developments that have surprised you?

Sheila Jasanoff: The thing that strikes me is where explanations stop short. Germany’s fatality rates are low compared with other European countries that have corresponding infectivity rates, but they’re not fully taking on board the implications of their own explanations. Better testing and contact tracing are two answers given as to why some countries have been better able to control their fatalities than others. But it’s not just the contract tracing by itself, right? There’s the question of what you do with those contacts, and that goes back to the infrastructure of health care, of communications, of traditions of dealing with a population-wide crisis.

A friend in the Netherlands told me about their shortage of intensive care units. Germany has one of the highest ratios of intensive-care beds-to-population of Northern European countries. They’re economically very comparable countries, so why the lower percentage of ICUs in the Netherlands than Germany? My intuition is that the Dutch have a much more stringent idea of when ICUs are allowed to be used—that is, their social definition of what patients should get ICUs seems to be different from Germany’s. What is a life worth saving? When do we declare that further measures should not be undertaken, when do we not call it triage but a sensible medical decision? These are cross-cultural questions that we haven’t really thought about.





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