This post will be fairly brief because I just want to note a couple of things that are presently of interest to me which I might wish to further explore at a later date:
First, the pandemic – or, rather, behaviour during it – has reminded me of a distinction I started thinking about during my PhD: a distinction between knowledge practices as shaped by action (e.g. policy preferences) Vs knowledge practices as constitutive of action. We tend to think of such practices in the latter terms, where (so we think) we collect and/or review evidence or information as part of our efforts to determine a particular course of action etc, but often knowledge utilisation and mobilisation can take different forms.
A related observation concerns how people can form a preference (e.g. a policy preference) and then this influences how they identify and appraise evidence in ways that can mean these knowledge practices are strongly shaped by their preferred course of action rather than determining their preferences. Or people may commit to a specific path of action and then selectively attend to evidence which helps to later defend it, and so on.
A pandemic-related example that comes to mind concerns some important unknowns and how these are attended to and why: e.g. uncertainties regarding whether all those get infected gain immunity and, if so, for how long. A recent observation concerns the ways that people who are in favour of an elimination strategy (e.g. seeking to fully eliminate the virus from a country) and/or who are against herd immunity-related strategies often attend to preliminary news reports about reinfection risks and extensively share these on social media. The views of relevant experts such as virologists and immunologists are often less extensively attended to, such as: (i) those who caution against jumping to conclusions; (ii) those who have suggested other explanations (for reported ‘reinfections’) are more likely to be correct; and (iii) those who state that there are good reasons to expect people will be immune for a period of time post-recovery, though we don’t know how long for and we don’t know what individual differences there might be (e.g. regarding factors that might influence the level of acquired immunity that some people have post-recovery). This is clearly a topic requiring further investigation, but what I observe is a tendency to uncritically jump on unreliable data that is perceived to support their preferences and to undermine their opponents’ policy preferences. In these ways (and many others) knowledge practices can be strongly shaped by preferences rather than informing/shaping them.
Indeed, equally people who are strongly against the current lockdowns in place in many countries can be reasonably critiqued for selectively attending to evidence that supports their preferences. (I’m not just picking on one side!). Where this occurs their knowledge practices sometimes appear also to be strongly shaped by their preferences.
A further observation related to above ones is that some of the most interesting discussions about the pandemic have been vigorous debates between people with diverse policy preferences. One reason for this is that they often bring different knowledge to the table that relates to their preferences and the ensuing discussion (and debate) is then able to draw on a much more comprehensive knowledge base that it would otherwise and such debate often also better brings out different interpretations of relevant data.
Second, something else that’s interesting to me is the level of certainty conveyed by many folk (such as some people I interact with on social media), and the media, and how this compares others such as academics and scientists examining the same topics. Consider the endless reporting of apparently factual and definitive statistics by the media and by other social actors – basically in real-time during the pandemic – and then consider the following contrasting statement made by academics at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at the University of Oxford (which was recently made on April 6 [link]):
We have little trust in the current reported COVID data. Everywhere we look we cannot get a handle on the essential facts or at times we get 2 completely different answers to the same question. The military historian Sir Basil Liddle Hart would have called this “the fog of a pandemic” or perhaps the “fog of information overload”.”
An interesting question worth pondering one day is: why is this issue (or concern) regarding reported COVID data not given much attention or representation in the media or other locations? Who exhibits greater trust (in the reported data) and why do they trust it?