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Who needs critical social science in a crisis?  For those working overtime to save lives and keep society going in extremis, critical scrutiny and debate appear as unhelpful carping from the sidelines. This was implied recently by one leading researcher, in the context of developing evidence-based guidance for face coverings in public in the UK. Commenting on a critical piece from sociologists pointing to the uncertainties in evidence, the rejoinder was:

“whilst academic sparring has an important place in keeping us on our toes, we also need to remember our moral accountability to a society in crisis.”

When all hands should be on deck for the common good, voicing dissent risks being frivolous – or worse.  The anxiety is that questioning the science will feed into public uncertainty, foster fake news and undermine clear, evidence-informed messaging.  The lessons of the MMR fall out – with measles vaccination rates in the UK now below those needed for official ‘measles-free’ status – continue to resound. The public are framed as easily unsettled: ‘fake’ medical news is a threat to public health. One recent study, for instance, found that greater use of ‘unregulated social media’ correlated with likelihood of believing conspiracy theories about COVID-19 – and that this in turn correlated with less compliance with health-protective behaviour, such as keeping 2 metres apart from others or limiting time outside the house.

Yet in times of crisis, distinguishing belief from fact, conspiracy theory from reasonable hypothesis and misinformation from legitimate critique is not straightforward.  As Charlie Davisonsuggested in an earlier blog, what is at one point unfounded conspiracy theory (COVID didn’t emerge in Wuhan, but was circulating in the latter months of 2019) can seem (with hindsight) a sensible epidemiological inference.

Crises are uncomfortable times for medical science, as well as social science. The contestations, uncertainties, wild sidelines and dead ends that are the inevitable part of scientific progress are played out in full public view.  The COVID-19 pandemic has been characterised by intense media scrutiny of what are, in more normal times, backstage academic debates: about techniques for the mathematics of modelling; or the best methods for assessing the effectiveness of candidate vaccines. Once science is stabilised, this work, typically leading to fragile and perhaps temporary consensus, is black-boxed; largely invisible to all but those engaged in pushing at frontiers or shifting paradigms.  But with rapidly evolving knowledge, these uncertainties become, potentially the currency of public debate.

This is not a time of ‘normal science’, but of contested and emergent science: commissioned, made and disseminated at lightning speed.  The usual rituals of demarcating robust lines of enquiry from the dead-end, such as peer-review, no longer operate, as research findings proliferate exponentially. There is also more legitimate public scrutiny: this is no esoteric backwater of science, but one where everyone can claim some expertise by experience, as they learn to risk-manage in ever-changing conditions.

This expertise by experience is hard-won.  In Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor’s words, the pandemic has “interrupted all lives, even those of the most privileged”.  At an everyday level, our taken-for-granted expertise in social interaction is disrupted, as is our ability to routinely manage hygiene.  More devastating life events, such as bereavement, become unbearable without the usual communal rituals of care and recognition.  The entire population is enrolled in a Garfinkle breaching experiment, with cultural norms revealed in their disruptions.  Everyday conversations then focus on the minutia of managing infection risk and social life: do you wash the shopping? Is your best friend in the bubble? How to manage the family member who stands too close/ doesn’t wear a mask? We collectively engage in moralising criticism of others, who do things differently.

If our hygiene rules reflect the social world, they usually do tacitly, and without overt scrutiny.  This disruption has eroded our everyday competence, we all become sociologists, adept at parsing the grammar of routine interaction and adapting to its changing rules.  What, then, is the role of the professional sociologist? What can they offer, beyond the expertise by experience of any native in this unsettled and evolving culture?

In contrast with Ebola, where failures of the public health response in the 2014-6 outbreak in West Africa led to close involvement of anthropologists in policy, there has been little involvement of social scientists (beyond the behavioural sciences) in policymaking, at least in the UK.   The contribution of anthropologists to Ebola responses was a recognition that a good understanding of ‘culture’ was essential for planning interventions which aimed to change practices deeply embedded in the social, such as managing caregiving or funerals, When policy is directed at an ‘other’, culture can be framed as a barrier, but one that is to be worked with, and through. Health care policy at home, however, perhaps assumes culture as a given: or as invisible.  If they have culture, we have behaviour.

But, simply because the cultures we inhabit are largely opaque to us, does not mean they do not exist. We have, perhaps, paid less attention to the cultural disruptions of the pandemic than we should have done. Understanding crowds on the beach, or the effects masks might have beyond their impact on infection spread, or the long term effects of digital home working, will require asking critical questions beyond the behavioural about how practices and cultural systems evolve, rupture or reproduce in the face of disruption.

Understanding the social impacts of the pandemic will require critical social science.  One of its key tasks might be to interrogate knowledge claims in pandemic times.  An agenda might include, first, taking conspiracy theories seriously: not as truth about their topic, but as truth about the social anxieties that might be difficult to voice individually.  Second, it should also be brave enough to risk getting it wrong sometimes, by subjecting the knowledge claims of public health to critique.  Third, it should be robustly critical of attempts to underplay scientific uncertainty. The lesson of the MMR debacle is not that the public cannot cope with uncertainty, but that attempts to underplay it risk irreparably eroding trust.