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First steps into the future

from Jamie Morgan

Part 2 of six part Pandemic aware economies, public health business models and (im)possible futures

As we are now finding out in the UK, what happens first depends on data, treatments and vaccines. Post-lockdown societies and economies require trust in social interactions and confidence that social spaces are safe. This has always been relative, rather than absolute, but in the wealthy world the need for trust and confidence has newly been impressed on our awareness. If we think that information on who has and who has had Covid-19 is comprehensive and contemporary then who we see and how we engage them become less about ‘maybes and worse cases’. Equally, if effective treatments become available and the mortality rate for those contracting Covid-19 falls and the possible suffering involved in having a severe case of Covid-19 reduces, then the fear factor of Covid-19 subsides. Fear is socially contagious and it is not just fear for oneself – it is fear for significant others (who we know and those who we are simply aware of in the abstract who we may affect through chains of contagion). Lockdown and ‘phased transitions’ will end sooner or later in different countries, but what matters is not just formal changes to government directives, it is the whole repertoire of socially-directed pandemic related infrastructures.

And, to be clear, there is no single strategy or simple solution involved. There are multiple possibilities, each involving a ‘let’s see how this works out and then adjust’. Information is the bedrock of timely response, but there is no such thing as ‘the science’ or being ‘guided by the science’. Science is dependent on method, there are varieties of expertise each bringing a different perspective or emphasis to a complex evolving problem, occurring in real time in a complex evolving world. Each offers more or less adequate insight into the conjoint causal mechanisms that structure the ongoing events that we experience as our social reality.

An epidemiologist, virologist and behavioural scientist may be pulling in the same direction, but their points of departure involve different theories, assumptions and issues. All have different takes on what is the significant feature of evolving infection rates and death rates in terms of what should decisively affect decision making. The practice of social science for pandemics seeks to link the past to the present and to a managed future. Models are the standard way to do this. There are different models and different methods of modelling. No model can be effective if its data is deficient, all models have assumptions (and each may have different core ‘variables of interest’) and in the end the world is not a model – the model is at best a simplified sketch of the world, at worst it can be a simplistic caricature of it.

This is not to denigrate science, but rather to emphasise that it is through contingent investigation, competing explanations and multiple points of view that science has progressed. At the heart of progress has been the acknowledgment that findings are contingent, and good science acknowledges this, it acknowledges that science is not certainty, it is not ‘models’ it is evidence tested degrees of confidence in an uncertain world; its appropriate attitude when giving advice to politicians is prudential; when advice is given it is on the basis of ‘do a then b may happen, and this may affect c, d, and e’; ‘do v, then w may happen, and this may affect x, y, and z’, ‘both a and v have their merits, but each have their costs and neither may evolve as we thought’. Since this is repeated across the many types of available expertise, it is impossible by  virtue of the very nature of good ‘science’ to suggest ‘guided by the science’ is meaningful, as though the phrase passed responsibility for decisions taken by politicians from politicians to scientists. In the end, there are choices to make and these are not just taken by politicians, they are political.

Tomorrow: Part 3 – Trust in the future, trust as the future

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