Social science, humanities—and society—can answer questions that science alone cannot, says Stephen Hughes
“Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Prime minister Boris Johnson’s stark words on 12 March underlined the seriousness of the Covid-19 outbreak and the need for a strong and immediate response.
Where do we look to for answers in times like these? To experts, of course: those who understand how diseases affect our bodies, how they travel through populations and, most importantly, how we can stop them.
It is disconcerting, then, to see the growing collection of letters, signed by hundreds of scientists and academics, questioning the answers and policies coming from the UK government and its scientific and medical advisers.
Yet this uncertainty does not need to mark a crisis in expertise. It can instead show us the limits of scientific insight and allow us to widen the pool of who we consider an expert. In doing so, we can achieve sharper insights to help guide decision-making about Covid-19.
The first thing we need to recognise is that scientific knowledge is always partial. We never have a full picture of what is going on. This is due, in part, to the dynamic complexity of the world. It is also partly because science is not one stable corpus of knowledge. Rather, it is a collection of many different methods and ways of representing the world.
Coping with uncertainty
Sometimes these approaches clash—models don’t align, assumptions don’t match up, theories differ—and scientists, through no fault of their own, fail to produce a coherent picture of the situation. Even so, decisions such as how we must respond to Covid-19 still need to be made, and often at pace.
This is the point at which choices can become guided by tacit assumptions and habits, often informed by debatable visions of the best outcome. Decisions about who should be classed as vulnerable, how we ought to protect them, and even who we should allow to die do not follow easily from scientific data, however complete or partial it may be. This is where widening the pool of expertise can be helpful.
Regarding Covid-19, there are two clear sources of relevant expertise. First is the kind of knowledge which comes from the social sciences and humanities. Sociology, political science, history and philosophy are adept at thinking through difficult moral issues. These fields excel at navigating ambiguity and uncertainty and deepening our understanding of the social world.
Social scientists are currently reflecting on the politics of Covid-19 responses. They are identifying groups of vulnerable people who fall outside the sick/not sick parameter—precarious workers, undocumented migrants, low-income parents, and those with disabilities or mental health conditions—whose lives and wellbeing may be disproportionately impacted by government measures.
The social sciences and humanities have something important to say about how we value life, justify sacrifices and protect the vulnerable. They show that these issues require careful thought.
That is not to say that those currently advising the government are careless. Far from it; their expert knowledge of coronaviruses and their transmission is indispensable. But the inevitable gaps in this knowledge can invite assumptions and judgements that might not be so careful.
The second source of expertise comes from society itself. This is the experience of the patients, workers, healthcare professionals, communities, families and others living with Covid-19. They are also the ones who will live with the consequences of government policies.
These experts can tell us what is working or not working and what else needs to be done. They do this with their bodies (when tested for the virus), through their behaviours (such as stockpiling) and through communal organisation.
Groups have sprung up across the country addressing the needs of communities that are not currently being met by the government. Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, for example, is a collection of hundreds of volunteer groups coordinating care efforts, emotional support and the provision of information and supplies to the most vulnerable.
These two groups of experts diversify the pool of knowledge and help to bring some perspective to the issues guiding the response to Covid-19. The point is not that scientific expertise is ineffective or unreliable. The knowledge and insight of scientific experts is essential. However, it is also partial.
This novel coronavirus cuts across many areas of social life. In order to really understand it and respond to it we need a range of experts guiding our decisions.
Stephen Hughes is a teaching fellow in responsible innovation at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight