Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Science and Authority

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On this episode of David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, Prof, Harvey argues that what is being done politically to deal with the propagation of the virus excludes the social circumstances in which propagation of the virus occurs. There is a long history of rule by experts, scientists who are supported by state apparatuses. Their solutions are flawed because they do not take into account the totality of the social and economic circumstances of the populations affected.

Transcript has been edited for clarity.

This is David Harvey, and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work. 

One of the things I find very difficult about living and working and talking in these times is that the manner of the polarization of thought and politics is such that there is almost no room for elaborate dissent, and so I want to take up one of the issues here where I find myself rather conflicted. The response to the virus has promoted a lot of discussion and debate. It gets boiled down to the sort of neglect that Trump sets up and the kind of wild statements he makes, and on the other side we see an attempt to confront and deal with the virus under the rubric of, “Uh, well, follow the science.” 

Andrew Cuomo, for example, governor of New York, constantly, every day when he was giving his daily press conferences, would say, “Follow the science. Follow the science.” In other words, what Cuomo was doing was relying upon the authority of science to back up a certain political program. And the assumption is that science is a valid authority to deal with these policy questions. Now, I'm in a difficult situation here because on the one hand, I certainly don't want to say, you know, all science is suspect and all the rest of it, but there are some clear limitations as to what science can say and what it cannot say. 

In Capital, Marx, in one of his footnotes makes a very, I think, serious comment, when he says that the difference between historical materialism and the materialism of the sciences is that the sciences create pods, if you like, or silos of knowledge, within which they pursue matters in great depth and create a certain kind of knowledge and understanding. But that knowledge and understanding is isolated in some way because that's what scientific method is generally all about. It's about creating an experiment where you control everything and then look at certain variables, this kind of thing. Therefore, science is unable to deal with certain kinds of questions. 

Marx says that you can see the difference when the natural scientists step out of their bubble and start to make pronouncements about social and other important questions, including the limits of their own scientific knowledge. Now, when Cuomo says, “Follow the science,” he's saying, “Okay, we have to follow the science as it's laid out by the epidemiologists.” So, let's go and look a little bit at what epidemiologists do. They look at viruses, and they look at the transmission, and they look at how things can work, and they look at the rates of transmission, and they look at how it can go through a population, and they develop these mathematical models which are very sophisticated, and which have very remarkably good predictive power over certain aspects of what is happening. 

Now, the epidemiological model that Cuomo is citing is the standard epidemiological model, which looks at the way in which a virus will progress through a population. You see that there are certain rates of communication and you have a whole theory of diffusion of a virus, or diffusion of an epidemic, or a pandemic. This is good science—I'm not saying this is not good science—but it is limited in terms of the way in which it should be set up. For instance, what we then see, sometime after Cuomo had been saying, "Follow the science. Follow the science. Follow the science," he says, "Well, you know, by the way, one of the things we see is that the epidemic is having a differential impact on different groups in the population. Of course, we know about people in old age homes, but we are also noticing that the black population, and particularly the black poor population, is more affected by the transmission of the virus than the rest of the population." And so, we start to then say that the scientific model we have is good and correct, but we need to recognize that there's a differential impact on populations. 

But notice this: The scientific model itself is unscathed by the fact that black populations are particularly hit hard. But if they're hit hard, they're not only hit hard. They are also acting more as vehicles for the transmission of the virus. In other words, the epidemiological model, if it had started from differentiations in the population, would have seen that actually one of the ways in which the virus moves is through vulnerable populations. And you would start with the vulnerable populations. Instead of having a standard model which homogenizes the population, you'd start with all of the differential populations and the fact that the virus, if it arrives in New York City but it gets into some area of the Bronx where there's overcrowding and a low income population, then that will be the epicenter for the transmission of the virus to the rest of the population. 

Now, this then comes up with what palliative measures are going to be. So, Cuomo says, "Well the palliative measures for this are that we've all got to wear a face mask." Correct. "We've got to be careful about social distancing." Correct. But how do you social distance in a crowded tenement in the Bronx? That's another question. It's very different from social distancing in a Park Avenue apartment, so there's a big, big difference. 

So, I think you can see the point I'm going to make. If you want to deal with the way in which this gets transmitted—and again and again we see this... Oh! It's a nursing home which is an epicenter. Oh! It is a religious group which refuses to stop its religious practices which is another center. So, instead of having an epidemiological model that starts with the population and then shows how the transmission can work through it, we reconceptualize it as differential impacts of the standard model upon different populations. 

This seems to me to be the wrong way around, because it would then say to you, "Yeah it's all very well to talk about masks and all of that kind of thing, and social distancing, but one of the ways in which we can prevent a virus spreading, is to make sure that people in the Bronx have adequate living standards and adequate housing standards, and live in an environment and a situation where the likelihood of transmission is minimized. And now, in other words, if everybody in the Bronx had exactly the same space as all of those people living on Park Avenue, there would not be the same problem. So, we would start with that, and the political problem then comes to be: Well, we've got to do something. We have to start about the differentiation of the population within which the transmission of the virus is going to occur. 

Now—this authority which comes with citing science as if it is all that needs to be said—when you're listening to all this stuff and you see all these graphs being put up by all of the major news networks, none of them start from the idea of a differentiated population. All of them give you a graph of what's going on in the population at large, as if it is undifferentiated. They continue to do that and they continue to, actually, then start to talk about what we should do politically to deal with the propagation and the transmission of the virus. When, really, you should really start the other way around. Instead of occasionally saying at the end of a broadcast, "Oh, by the way, yeah, certain people get really caught with it," and all the rest of it, then there are these super spreader events. Yeah, we know about them—Donald Trump's rallies, or something of that kind—yeah, that's an example of a super spreader. And so, we've got to take care of the super spreaders. But instead of talking about it that way, we talk about it in a radically different way. 

Now, none of this is to say that science is wrong. Science provides us with certain information, but it is certain information that almost invariably excludes the social circumstances in which some set of events, such as propagation of a virus, occurs. Now, what this says, is that populations by and large are constantly being faced with policymakers and, very often, political elites and scientific elites, and so on, who are telling you what to do. 

Now, in this country right now, what we've got is a long history of rule by experts—experts who are supported by state apparatuses, big research universities, and all the rest of it—who presume to tell us what to do, but when they do so, they tell us what to do from the perspective of the particular models which they've created. And this is true of economic policy, it's true of public health policies, and all the rest of it, and a lot of that, people know intuitively, is not going to produce a result which is worthwhile from their particular perspective and their particular experience. 

So, when something like this occurs with the pandemic and the public health authorities come along and say, "Okay, you've got to do this, you've got to do that, this that and that," people are inclined to say, "Yeah, but, you know, I was told that about what to do about the flu, what not to do about something else, and it never worked for me for obvious reasons." So, out of this there comes a skepticism in terms of what science is about and the claims of science and the authority of science to tell us what it is that we should do. I don't want the scientists to tell us what to do. I want the social scientists and people who are living in particular places to say how it is that they would like to see a particular problem addressed. And if you ask people in low income populations, black populations, recent immigrant populations, or homeless populations what it is that they should do and what it is that they would want to see done, you'll get a very different answer to that which expert knowledge typically conveys. 

We live in a world which is, in many respects, ruled according to findings of expert knowledge structures, but the expert knowledge structures are not able to deal with the totality. And here is one of the concepts which I'm constantly coming back to. We all know from our experience with, for instance, medicine: You have a pain somewhere, you go to the doctor, and the doctor does this and prods that, does that, and then says, "I can't find anything particularly wrong, but maybe you should go and see this expert," and so you go and see this expert, the expert prods around and says, "There's nothing. I can't see anything," and you can go to all kinds of experts, and none of them can say you have anything wrong. Then one day you just go around to the local chemist and say, "By the way, I've been having this problem." The local chemist says, "Oh! Oh, it's a very simple answer to that. You just take this or take that and it's gone." 

In other words, there's a real problem with medicine, that medicine is caught up in silos. If you've got a problem with your kidneys, okay, there's somebody to take care of kidneys. If there's a problem with your heart, you've got a person to take care of the heart. You've got a problem with your lung, a problem with your nervous system, you can have brain surgery or something, so the human body gets carved up into specialist areas, and frequently the knowledge involved in those specialist areas. And I've had this happen to friends and colleagues and all this kind of stuff. They get wrongly diagnosed or ignored because they're not within the realm of speciality of the particular doctor, and then somebody comes along and says, "Well, look. We should be really thinking about holistic medicine," and then people can say, "No, no. That sounds like it's Chinese, or it's Asiatic, or it's indigenous, or something of that kind." But, it turns out, holistic medicine is terribly useful and important in certain circumstances. The same thing applies to public policies as they are formulated in the social sphere. 

And we see this, I think, clearly in the way in which COVID-19 has has been managed. That it's managed through expert knowledge structures, and we find the politicians, instead of saying, "This is what we should do from a political perspective, taking account of the science," instead of doing that, they say, "Follow the science. Follow the science." I think this is an abrogation of authority and an abrogation of responsibility, and what that means is that we're likely to end up with these mixed kinds of solutions where it's a happenstance whether we get the total problem right. 

This COVID-19 problem is not simply about a virus. It's about a population which is infected by the virus with certain kinds of consequences for economic, political, and social life—mental life as well. In other words, it can't simply be approached as an immediate medical problem. Now, if you've got COVID and your lungs are freezing up, obviously you don't say, "Well, wait wait a minute, I need the holistic medical person to come along and help me find out why I've got this cognate pain in my left toe," or something. Obviously not. But, one of the things that I think that we should be learning from the progress of this, is to start to think about not only a virus problem, which, it seems to me, is a classic case in which you need to take into account a lot of the social circumstances, a lot of the economic circumstances, a lot of the mental conceptions, and the like. 

So we need to take all of those things into consideration, because public knowledge and public understanding is also critically important. Then, people throw up their hands and all those experts throw up their hands and say, "Look. We've got all these stupid people out there who won't listen to what we say and what we experts say, and because they don't listen to what we experts say, we are actually ending up with a far bigger mess than what needed to be the case. 

Now, that may be true, that if we followed some of the ideas of the scientists more systematically, we wouldn't be in the current dilemma, but that would not deal with the whole of the problem. The whole of the problem is: structures of communication, structures of understanding, structures of feelings, structures of social relations, and the conditions of life. And we should start with the conditions of life because then we start to say, in a very different way, that the policies here are such that we have actually created, by creating segregated communities, by setting things up a certain way, population centers which are extremely vulnerable to the penetration of a virus. And if those populations are super vulnerable, then we should start by super-protecting them even at the first sign that a virus might be on the horizon, but we don't work that way. We should work that way. 

And my point here, again, is to say, look, I am not anti-science. I think the scientists do a fantastic job and I'm delighted that they've come up with a vaccine, and so on. I'm really, totally behind all of that. But what I would want, however, is to situate all of that scientific knowledge against the background of a society which is comprised of populations which have certain habits, populations which have certain characteristics, people with desires and needs and wants, and therefore, what that would then mean, is that that knowledge which is coming from the medical sector just doesn't land with a thump upon the population to tell it what to do, because that population is unlikely to do what it's told, for the simple reason that it is not persuaded, because it has experienced enough misdiagnosis and missed ideas that it is very skeptical. 

And in the United States right now, we have a whole range of issues where the failure of public communication is having consequences. We've seen that in this COVID-19 case, that the miscommunication, the inability to communicate properly and well, and to do it, not in the sense of telling people what to do, but by giving people the information which will allow them to come to the conclusion that that is what they should do. We have the same problem with something like climate change. The reason that the climate change issue is not sufficiently well addressed, has a lot to do with the way in which the expert knowledge has been communicated. And it's been, if you like, thrown upon a population, cast upon a population as if the population should immediately agree and immediately accept all of these scientific findings. 

Again, I don't want to challenge the science. I want the science to go through. I want it to become better and better and all the rest of it. It's just the situatedness of that science and the authority that the scientists themselves presume over how to work in the world and what to do in the world, that authority, is, I think, to be challenged. The authority has to come from the people, and it has to come through popular mechanisms. And that authority is therefore something which is very critical to create and cultivate. 

But there is no attempt to cultivate that because our society tends to work not only on class domination, but on the domination of experts. The rule of experts, as the anthropologist Timothy Mitchell calls it. The rule of experts. And they're all over the place. I mean, I can't work on my computer without having an expert tell me exactly what to do, and sometimes I need to know exactly what to do in certain situations. Other times, I just wish they would organize the whole computer world in such a way that it becomes understandable. And I don't know if other people have this problem, but I just get used to some system in the computer where everything seems to be working fine, and then they change the whole damn thing and I need another bunch of experts. And I don't want that to happen. I want something where I find out how to do it and it continues to be to be communicable.

So, the rule of experts and the authority of science is something that I think we have to question. Not question the science, not question the expertise which exists, but question the social structure that sets up things in such a way that the rule of experts and the authority of science start to dictate exactly how we shall live our lives, because when that happens, people start to revolt. People start to say, "Who are you? Who is that to tell me exactly what to do?" 

And one of the lessons we should learn from this whole COVID-19 thing is that, in a situation where a pandemic is coming through, first off, we ask ourselves: How is it being transmitted, via which populations? How can we actually protect those populations? How can we actually change, in the long run, the situations in which those populations live which make it particularly susceptible to being transmitters of the virus? How can we change all of that? In other words, the whole thinking has to be challenged and has to be overthrown. 

And this seems to me to be a crucial aspect, not only to politics in general, but to anti-capitalist politics, because, in anti-capitalist politics, there is a lot of expertise, to the degree that many of the scientists who are involved in, say, climate change work are anti-capitalist, they're anti-capitalist with an expert authoritarian kind of stance. And that is the sort of thing that needs to be challenged. 

I think that an anti-capitalist politics is not something that I can impose on everybody. What I should do as a researcher is to try to actually depict, as well and as openly as I can, the dynamics of capital accumulation, and what happens as that capital accumulation spirals out of control to create many of the problems which we find at these other levels. Then it is up to people exactly what to do with that information, but the important thing is that it be communicated, which is why I'm trying to use these podcasts and my little book here as part and parcel of that educational project. I'm not arguing that there is some innate wisdom in indigenous communities or the populace in general. No, there is some wisdom and there are some silly ideas, but then there are just as many silly ideas amongst the experts as there are in the population in general. 

In other words, I'm up for some silly ideas in general, but I think that this is one of the things that we need to take into account, and I think one of the things we can learn from the history of COVID-19 is the limitations of, "Follow the science!" The limitations of expert knowledge. And it's so interesting to see even how the media is constructed. Everybody brings in their experts. Where all these experts come from, I don't know. 

I have to say, it's interesting that I've never been called an expert on anything, which is, I think, I suppose, a badge of honor as far as I'm concerned, because I don't feel that I want to be put in a situation where I tell anybody what to believe, or how to think, or how to act. But what we can do as an anti-capitalist politics is to be prepared to challenge those forms of knowledge which are set up as expert and infallible structures when, in fact, they're fallible and need to be addressed in a social mode. 

With that thought, I'll leave you to think through for yourself the modes in which expert knowledge, scientific authority, and so on, what role it plays in regulating your life, and whether it makes any sense to continue with that regulatory regime. 

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's anti-capitalist chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.

Transcript by Clay White
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Showing 2 comments

  • Marc Hudgens
    commented 2021-02-18 07:34:52 -0500
    When will there be new episodes of this podcast? I recall back in December, one of the last episodes stated the show will go on holiday break but be back in January. Yet here we are in February and still no new episodes.
  • Steve Greenberg
    commented 2020-12-03 14:34:42 -0500
    The very notion of anti-capitalism is an expert, authoritarian approach. That’s why I like to call myself a “what worksist”. Capitalism has some positive aspects in certain niches of our society. Instead of focusing on destroying it, it might be better to understand the circumstances under which it provides value and the circumstances where it is likely to not provide value. In each situation try to bring in the system that works best. I think a well thought out mix is probably best. The best mix changes with time and circumstance. We need systems that adapt and change with the circumstances. The people living with the consequences and knowing what is working and not working for them must be able to influence how the system operates.

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