Humanity will win the fight against Covid-19

Nature’s viruses are no match for human reason.

Norman Lewis

Topics Covid-19 Politics Science & Tech UK

Covid-19 has focused attention on society’s scientific expertise like never before. The immediate battle might be with an invisible enemy, but another unseen battle is also being waged which will have far greater significance once this battle has been won: the conflict over where authority ought to lie between experts and the rest of society in the post- Covid-19 era. This issue goes to the heart of society’s future problem-solving capacities.

This is not an abstract academic debate about the future of an obscure concept. It is an infinitely practical and pressing political issue in the here and now: the question of expert authority has been shown to be literally a matter of life and death. Besides the obvious issue of health, it is now intimately linked to political decisions that will determine the future of jobs, families and communities, nations, cultures, and the global economy on which we all depend.

And it is also linked to something more enduring for the future which we ignore at our peril: the need to use the experience of Covid-19 to educate and inspire young people to see themselves as tomorrow’s problem-solvers, not as a helpless, passive generation of victims of nature.

Make no mistake. The future of society’s problem-solving capacities is what is at stake right now. The capacity to solve existing problems and the myriad problems we will face in the post-Covid19 era depends upon existing and future specialist knowledge and expertise. The pandemic has shown that existing knowledge is never enough to deal with the unexpected and the unknown. The expertise we have today, the knowledge we have accumulated and preserved in books, journals and libraries, as well as the technologies we have at our fingertips, can only take us so far.

But here is the thing about knowledge. It is not a scarce resource. It is a bountiful resource that grows through use. Unless it constantly develops, expands and advances, it ossifies and dies to become a barrier to future insights and progress. And this is the paradox of knowledge: knowledge can only really be preserved through making itself redundant. Today’s wisdoms – the accumulated understanding and experience of previous human achievement – are tomorrow’s orthodoxies that will need to be overthrown. New experiences, new discoveries, new threats make advancing our knowledge inevitable and necessary.

Covid-19 is such a challenge. Mankind will rise to the occasion and develop the understanding to defeat this threat. New knowledge will not only ensure we gain mastery over an invisible enemy, but in the quest to defeat this virus new and unexpected insights will emerge that will advance medicine and society’s capacity to manage risk in the future that could not have been anticipated beforehand.

The unpredictable path of human knowledge is both wonderful and frightening. In human history, science and exploration have led mankind to discover worlds that had never been imagined. Who could have anticipated what the uncovering of the physical properties of the world – like electricity, radio, radar and the transistor – would mean for mankind? These and other discoveries have spawned all sorts of ‘outlandish monsters’, as the historian Daniel Boorstin describes them – monsters which have come to dominate mankind, but have also prompted further developments that subjected them to human needs. Boorstin’s example of the invention of the combustion engine illustrates this wonderfully. He correctly asks who could have predicted that the ‘internal combustion engine and automobile would breed a new world of instalment buying, credit cards, franchises and annual models – that they would revise the meaning of cities, and even transform notions of crime and morality, with no-fault insurance?’. But they did. And every new innovation becomes a stepping stone to even more ‘outlandish monsters’ which change society for the better.

The monster we now face is not man-made, but it will take human ingenuity to both defeat the initial threat and to deal with the man-made decisions and choices we have taken in an attempt to mitigate it. This point cannot be stressed enough. The choices we have made – from the focus on the need to protect the health system to the drive for the rapid development of ventilators, from the drastic decision to shut down the economy to the enforcement of social distancing – are all man-made decisions. They are informed by science but based on human judgement. Covid-19 does not have any agency. We do. These decisions may turn out to be right or wrong, remarkably perceptive or disastrous, but they are human decisions, acts of conscious human will.

And this is precisely the point we should be highlighting to younger generations. Human agency is the way out of this crisis. In fact, it is the only way. It is the source of the solution, not the problem. Making mistakes is part of the reality of expertise, of developing knowledge and problem-solving. It may turn out, as some experts are claiming, that ventilators are causing more deaths than are necessary. This would be tragic. But in science, as in all problem-solving, there are no guarantees. Failure simply means the solution remains elusive and we need to learn from it, move on and look elsewhere.

The only guarantee is that without the courage, inspiration and perspiration to apply human ingenuity and imagination to solve this problem, we could lose and become victims of a natural monster. That would be a man-made disaster, not a victory of nature over man. Nature has no concept of victory or failure, only life or death. Covid-19 does not even know it is a deadly virus. It has no idea or concept of acting with a purposeful will. But mankind does.

The tragedy is that this point and opportunity is being lost in the current politicisation of expertise along the culture-war divide, as Frank Furedi argued on spiked. As he points out, this development is not entirely new or unexpected. For decades before Covid-19, expertise has been systematically politicised by the elites as they have faced a growing crisis of legitimacy, which became particularly acute in the post-Cold War era. The elevation of the expert as a new source of legitimacy for governance removed the need for political accountability. Technocratic managerialism removed the need for decision-making to be debated with the demos. Expertise was politicised while democracy was depoliticised. We see this working itself out before our eyes today.

The modern concept of technocracy – indeed, the invention of the term itself – came from the US at the end of the First World War. Californian engineer William Henry Smyth, who was part of the Progressive movement, coined the term in 1919 to reflect how engineers and other experts had been drafted into the state to pursue a coordinated response to the Great War.

These early pioneers of technocracy were driven by a passionate belief in progress and human reason. The spirit of technocratic progressivism was based on the ‘practical idealism’ of engineers – a supposition of objectivity, a stress on scientific method, belief in knowledge and predictable laws, and using knowledge to exert control over the world. This would ensure, above all else, predictability and consistency in an uncertain world.

While the inherently anti-democratic tendencies of these ideals would only come to the fore in the interwar years – expressed initially through the debate between Walter Lippman and John Dewey over how technical experts could be held to democratic account – this spirit stands in stark contrast with the advocacy of technocracy today. Today’s technocratic politics is not driven by a belief in progress or in Promethean heroism – the ascendancy of man’s reason and practical powers to shape the natural world and to transform uncertainty into predictable outcomes. Instead, it is driven by a conscious desire to rein in humanity – to curb mankind’s ambition and to insulate society from alleged mass irrationality and unreason. The desire for predictability today is based on the supposition of the need to curb human unpredictability rather than nature’s unpredictability.

So, while the term ‘technocracy’ is used as if there were an unbroken line from the early 20th century to today, its content and context is a galaxy away from the earlier tenets of ‘engineering idealism’. Yesterday’s technocrats wanted to liberate mankind from nature through the conscious application of science and reason; today’s want to liberate nature from mankind through placing limits on science and reason.

What’s more, yesterday’s technocrats believed in the power of reason. They also believed that this capacity existed in all humanity, not just in experts. Today’s technocrats believe that reason resides in the few experts, not the masses. They see elite control of this minority capacity as a necessary bulwark against mass ignorance. Yesterday’s technocrats had an ambivalent attitude towards democracy and the public accountability of experts, whereas today’s see democracy as a problem that expertise needs to be protected from. While technocracy has always been about ensuring the protection of the status quo, today technocracy is informed by an explicitly authoritarian and misanthropic elitism which enforces social control from the top.

This paradox cannot be stressed enough. The current politicisation of expertise and the inevitable blame game that has already broken out over the country’s handling of Covid-19 means that expertise itself is going to suffer a body blow to its inherent authority. Each side in the culture war will claim to be upholding experts – the experts who support their perspective. This is not a defence of human reason or mankind’s problem-solving capacities. Far from it. It is the partisanisation of expertise, the fracturing of reason along sectional political lines. The unfortunate message this sends to society is that expertise is not objective, not a universal human attribute and achievement, but a relative truth that can be wielded according to short-term and sectional needs.

The politicisation of expertise represents a technocratic attack on humanity’s capacity for reason at a time when society is so patently dependent on the outcome of that reason. But every cloud has a silver lining: the attack on reason cannot be sustained. Why? Because science will eventually beat Covid-19. Human ingenuity will triumph over nature, and this will be recognised as a remarkable human accomplishment.

This is why Covid-19 opens the possibility for a positive re-articulation of the relationship between expert authority and society. The stakes are so high. This is the younger generations’ Moon landing moment. If the adults in the room stop behaving like children and stop recklessly politicising expertise, this crisis could inspire a whole generation to become tomorrow’s epidemiologists, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs.

For decades we have been mistakenly praising children for being naturally good with digital technologies. Instead we should be using the wonder of smartphones and iPads to inspire them about algorithms, mathematics, chemistry and the physics behind computer chips and touch-screen technologies.

Covid-19 must be a turning point. Inspiring a new generation to take up the struggle would preserve one of humanity’s greatest legacies – it would breathe new life into the quest for knowledge, ensuring this will be preserved and furthered for generations to come. Above all else, it would reaffirm the authority of human reason and its foundational role in the problem-solving we will need in the future.

Dr Norman Lewis is a writer and managing director of Futures Diagnosis.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Politics Science & Tech UK


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