Listening to Experts

III.  Pandemic in an Anti-Science Era:  Reflections from and for STS

The Trump presidency and its relationship to science and truth have prompted both reflection and action by STS scholars, including contributors to a recent thematic collection published in early 2020 in Engaging Science, Technology, and SocietyFor this newsletter, we requested that the contributors to that collection re-visit the arguments made there in a series of brief commentaries in order to speak to our unfolding experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. Please visit the ESTS website to read the original collection, edited by Daniel Lee Kleinman, in addition to the commentary below.

Listening to Experts

Kinchy
Abby Kinchy

By Abby Kinchy, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are closely watching debates about competing models, possible (and dangerous) treatments, and the accuracy of death counts. It is infuriating to see political leaders facilitating the spread of misinformation and suppressing knowledge that runs counter to desired policy goals (such as reopening meatpacking plants). As sociologists who study science, knowledge, and technology, we are familiar with these dynamics, even if the situation is unique. Throughout Trump’s term as president, environmental sociologists and STS scholars have been analyzing his administration’s “anti-science” (or “post-truth”) tendencies. At the start of the Trump Administration, it was evident that environmental protections were being slashed and environmental science was being suppressed and erased. Many social scientists quickly took action to resist these moves, joining efforts like the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) and the March for Science. My own reaction was to collaborate with “pro-science” environmental activists, but also to question the novelty of Trump’s actions so that we could more fully understand the social forces in play. During the presidency of George W. Bush, there were heated debates about “politicized” science and the censorship of scientists whose work was inconvenient for powerful industries or the religious right. Then, as now, I was concerned that responding to these moves with calls to “listen to experts” or base decisions solely on scientific criteria was actually playing into the hands of the corporate interests who want to displace crucial public issues into the narrow domain of professional science.

In the past few weeks of the pandemic, it has been heartening to hear sociological perspectives amid the (justified) anger about Trump’s ill-informed and reckless response to the pandemic. Of course, we must add our voices to the vigorous advocacy for investment in medical research that can bring this pandemic to an end. At the same time, we can respond to calls to “listen to experts” with a sociological analysis of the medical and research institutions that failed to produce timely testing and treatment, the patterns of racial oppression that put some bodies at much higher risk of disease and death, and the reasons why opening up “the economy” is increasingly prioritized over the protection of lives. Our own expertise as sociologists is necessary for making sense of this situation. At the same time, we all know that these problems will not be solved by experts alone.

My reaction to the Trump Administration’s attacks on environmental science was to call on environmental sociologists and STS scholars to explore relationships with social movements that were pushing back. Not only could we document the work of social movements, but we could also conduct research that assists advocacy organizations, helping activists navigate the policy process, understand the history of science funding, and critique the ways that corporations cultivate strategic ignorance. In the midst of this COVID-19 crisis, sociologists of science can make the same kinds of alliances, joining online resistance to misinformation, amplifying the voices of health justice advocates, and contributing to a growing understanding of the power relations that shape the pandemic. Our understanding of the social dynamics of knowledge production can add practical value for groups that are resisting efforts to undermine our hard-won knowledge about preventing disease.

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