Social scientists can play a key role in stopping the coronavirus

Yes, excess haste can lead to mistakes, but the same is true of natural science, says Sandro Galea

May 7, 2020
a building with a coronavirus lockdown sign in Cape Town
Source: iStock

The Covid-19 pandemic has created deep uncertainty about nearly all aspects of daily life. Into the breach of this uncertainty has stepped science. As the crisis has unfolded, scientific groups all over the world have worked quickly to offer their best analysis of the virus. How might it behave? How can we stop it? Can we safely resume our work, and how might we balance the risks from the virus with the pressing needs of our economy? This work has been the lifeblood of policy decisions worldwide.

All aspects of science have been relevant to the current moment, from natural sciences that explore the mechanics of the virus, to social sciences that look at how populations are responding to stay-at-home orders, to the political science that reflects the intersection of policymaking and public health.

This work has been ongoing despite the fact that the current moment is far from ideal for the work of science. Science tends to be most in its element working at a slower pace. Covid-19 has forced us to think and work differently. This has resulted in some excellent science, some mediocre science, some thoughtful, nuanced approaches and some showboating. In short, it has led to science that reflects the full range of human responses to a difficult problem.

Understanding how science works and what, in the face of substantial adversity, it has achieved in the past few months makes Anthony Fowler’s recent Bloomberg op-ed, “Curing Coronavirus Isn’t a Job for Social Scientists”, puzzling indeed. In the piece, Fowler says, “social science suffers from a host of pathologies”, and he questions its motives and capacity to work quickly and accurately during the present crisis. “Rushing to publish timely results means more carelessness, and the promise of favorable news coverage in a time of crisis further distorts incentives,” he writes.

If this were a critique of science in general, we could perhaps argue its merits. I myself am a scientist, and I could point to many examples of published science that I thought were ill-conceived or shoddy for being done in haste. And I could point to many more examples of science done well and credibly under difficult circumstances. For example, despite enormous pressure from the US president to say that hydroxychloroquine has utility in treating Covid-19, science has steadfastly shown that it has not. Similarly, science is highlighting that a disproportionate burden of Covid-19 falls on marginalised populations, suggesting that a key takeaway from this crisis is the need to build a more equitable world.

But Fowler is not criticising science as a whole. Instead, he targets social science in particular. The trouble is, there is simply no argument to be made that the flaws Fowler cites are pertinent only to social science, or, for that matter, to natural science, or any other individual science category.

Science aims to unearth universal truths. We do so through systematic observation and experimentation, rigorously carried out, and reviewed by peers. All science does that, and all science has been tested during this Covid-19 moment. All science has had its occasions of success and its shortcomings. Singling out the social sciences is highly selective, and, I would say, unfair.

Adding a tinge of irony to Fowler’s case is the fact that the most important breakthroughs relating to Covid-19 will likely emerge from the social sciences. For example, in my area of public health, we know that health is shaped by the social, economic and environmental conditions in which we live. Doctors and medicines treat us when we are sick, but these conditions determine whether or not we get sick to begin with. In a sense, then, Fowler is correct in saying that social scientists cannot cure the coronavirus. But what we can do is contribute to a body of knowledge that creates a world in which infectious threats such as Covid-19 cannot grow into world-stopping pandemics.

Yes, we are currently concerned with the biology of the novel coronavirus, and with identifying a vaccine. That is urgent work, which demands special near-term focus on natural sciences. But the key questions in the medium and long term will be about how we prepare for other pandemics, how human behaviour can adapt in times of uncertainty, how we understand risk, how we evaluate the cost of different approaches, how we deal with the mental health burden of Covid-19, and how we narrow health gaps. These are questions for social science.

Addressing Covid-19 is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise. The world needs social science now more than ever.

Sandro Galea is professor and dean at the Boston University School of Public Health. His latest book is Pained: Uncomfortable Conversations about the Public’s Health.

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