We Need Social Science, Not Just Medical Science, to Beat the Pandemic

tags: public health, Polio, medical history, COVID-19

Nicholas Dirks is the president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences.

As with most disasters, when the history of the COVID pandemic is written, there will be a fair amount of finger-pointing involved.

Much more could have been done to mitigate the coronavirus impact in the United States, but in reality, there are very few countries that totally escaped this scourge. Scientific research has provided a lot of new knowledge by which to manage the pandemic—and of course, the development of vaccines in record time is welcome news. But even with vaccines, success in controlling this virus continues to depend in large measure on human behavior. Science cannot take on these big challenges solely through medical fixes; rather it needs social and behavioral science to have a seat at the table as well. History is also a useful guide for understanding the present.

Anthropology is a broad field that has long focused on issues having to do with social organization, cultural meaning and human behavior. And as a professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, in addition to my role at the New York Academy of Sciences, I have seen how classic fieldwork methods of ethnography—based on close observation of patterns and structures of social meaning—have revealed important insights into why modernity has accommodated enormous variation of thought and behavior.

The general assumption that modern societies are ready to “follow the science” is no more readily confirmed by historical example or anthropological fieldwork than it has been by our direct experience of widely disparate reactions to the current pandemic.

We should have learned from the responses to the great pandemic of 1918–19, when some cities did much better than others in containing the spread of a virus that ultimately killed close to 50 million people around the globe. A combination of distrust in government and science played havoc with government efforts to control the flu by wearing masks.  Despite medical advice, many Americans not only refused to comply, they engaged in major protests against mask mandates.

The polio pandemic of the 1950s is another often-ignored “teachable” moment. On the surface, it would seem that it was a scientific, medical and policy success story. But the reality is closer to what we are seeing with COVID.

Read entire article at Scientific American

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