Learning from COVID

by Robert Frodeman

The coronavirus amounts to an ongoing, real-world experiment in societal response to an international calamity. The pandemic will be studied for decades, but COVID has already taught us much about the relationship between science and decision-making.

Two recent essays begin the process of making sense of our predicament. In Pandemic Science and Politics, Dan Sarewitz claims that the unique features of the COVID-19 virus reveal central truths about the connection between facts and values. In COVID-19: the Medium is the Message, Laurie Garrett believes that in an age of misinformation, underfunding communication staffs at agencies like WHO becomes a deadly mistake.

For Sarewitz, COVID reveals the nature of the relation between science and politics. The virus brings clarity that stands in contrast to our usual “disagreements around climate change, nuclear energy, mammograms, K–12 public education, chemicals in the environment…” For in the case of COVID,

  • We all have the same value – to save lives
  • Causality is clear – everyone agrees about what’s causing illness
  • Facts are sufficient to create a plan of action – even if they turn out to be wrong

COVID highlights the fact that “science’s place in politics is determined not by the logic of facts, but by the fundamental influence of human values.” Science gains its centrality in the current crisis because we already line up on questions of value.

One can agree with Sarewitz’s overall point while parting with him over the distinctiveness of COVID. For we do not all share the same value concerning the preservation of life. Some commentators place the saving of lives in competition with another value, the preservation of the economy. Some have proposed that it’s the duty of the aged to sacrifice their lives for its sake. Thus Dennis Prager: “That attitude, that the only value is saving a life … it leads to cowardice. It has to. No one can die? Then it’s not a war.” But one does not need war imagery to make the point. A nation-wide maximum speed limit of 25 MPH is a possibility, but we choose efficiency at the cost of lives.

Nor is the question of causality so clear when we try to strike a balance such claims. Opening up restaurants and businesses won’t settle the matter; even if that leads to the further extension of the pandemic and additional economic harm, some will argue that the deaths would have occurred anyway, or that the situation would have been still worse if social isolation policies had stayed in place.

The larger point, however, is that Sarewitz’s account lacks a third term, one that takes account of the institutions and intuitions that mediate between science and politics. The fact that the United States now has the highest number of cases even with ample warning via China and Italy calls for an explanation beyond that of the language of fact and value. Call this third term the media, since it is what mediates between facts on the ground and the values people hold – facts that are almost always disputable, and values which are often weakly held, contradictory, and susceptible to manipulation.

This is where the American science journalist Laurie Garrett enters the conversation. In an age of fake news and mis-information Garrett emphasizes the importance of public agencies being able to control the flow of information concerning the virus. Garrett is concerned with the overall lack of funding for agencies like WHO and CDC, but her particular focus is on the assumptions that so strongly prioritize the production over the dissemination of information. Garrett decries the fact that communication staff at these agencies are understaffed and overwhelmed in their task of informing the public.

But here the analysis falters. Garrett cites Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism ‘the medium is the message’ in both the title and at the conclusion of her paper, but her account makes no use of his insight. McLuhan is emphasizing the way that information is shaped by the available means of communicating that information. The medium affects the nature of the information being generated: for instance, a culture that communicates by smoke signals is unlikely to produce War and Peace. In our (more serious) COVID example, a fractured and highly polarized media culture lacking in any authoritative voice will inevitably muddy attempts at a clear message.

We know that the media landscape has been transformed over the last 20 years. The nearly infinite range of sources today makes a definitive voice such as Walter Cronkite’s impossible. In the case of COVID, even Anthony Fauci is being attacked in some precincts. Garrett assumes a deficit model for scientific information where the crucial lack consists of getting reliable information out to the public. McLuhan’s aphorism actually works against her point: merely increasing the communication staff at WHO will have not affect the media environment, which will still shape and filter information according to their biases and interests.

Note, however, that this third term is made up of more than what’s conventionally called ‘the media’. Mediation is thicker than that: it also includes the social, cultural, and philosophical traditions embedded in our institutions and habits of speech. The information provided by science about public matters not only gets run through media institutions – the Washington Post and the Washington Examiner, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, the National Review and the New Yorker – but also through the deeper assumptions that govern our public life.

In the case of COVID, the poor US performance compared with other countries reflects the 40-year ascendancy of a particular political philosophy. Small government philosophies (making government small enough to “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”) have had very practical effects: among all the shortages the 170 ventilators the city of Los Angeles recently received from the national stockpile had to be repaired before they could be used. The US and South Korea recorded their first case of the coronavirus on the same day (January 20th). South Korea instituted a rigorous testing and tracing regime while the US dithered. At the time of this writing South Korea has just over 10,000 confirmed cases, the US over 250,000.

There’s another phrase for this third term: the humanities. Fauci is an instructive example here. He has exceptional rhetorical skills and is proficient at speaking to different audiences from Presidential news conferences to Science magazine. He even visited Sean Hannity to bring his message to an audience primed to dispute his account of the severity of the virus. His history of public intervention goes back to the AIDs crisis of the 1980s, where he was first castigated and then praised by AIDs activists.

This is in part a matter of personal qualities, but also note Fauci’s educational background – he attended a Jesuit high school and majored in classics in college before going to medical school. But the point goes beyond individual biography. The skills and perspectives of the humanities serve as bridge between science and politics, informing both. Sensitivity to the needs of different audiences, the apt use of metaphor, and being conversant with traditions like that of political philosophy augment our understanding of both facts and values. Effectiveness in a time of crisis requires adding these to our toolbox as well.

The humanities receive little attention when we search for explanations for events such as our current predicament. It’s amazing how the canard that the humanities are not practical has the staying power that it does.