The division of scientific labor fuels the growth of knowledge, specialization, and expertise. However, it simultaneously creates silos, skepticism, redundancy, and missed opportunities. Specialists who make breakthroughs in their own disciplines too often miss complementary information or applications next door. And experts who make groundbreaking discoveries in their own labs, surveys, or field sites often have trouble translating them into digestible, intelligible, or actionable information.
Never have these contradictions been more consequential than during the COVID pandemic, when scientists had trouble keeping up with advances in their own areas of expertise let alone collaborating and communicating with their fellow scholars and citizens. And rarely have they been more revealing than at a series of workshops sponsored by CIFAR in the fall of 2021. Surprisingly, just as our individual scientific spheres collapsed to the home, the lessons for resilience were born from collective action across disciplines.
These workshops brought together about three dozen CIFAR fellows from ten different interdisciplinary programs to discuss the question of “COVID and collective action.” Their individual specialties ranged from anthropology to zoology, consciousness to climate change, and neuroscience to political science. The goal was to “reflect on what has happened, what lessons can be learned, and understand what is unique about how COVID-19 mobilized global communities and what challenges, solutions, or responses are generalizable to other global problems.” While the discussions—like the pandemic—are ongoing, a number of tentative lessons have emerged.
First and foremost, the information that’s required to address the pandemic are at best maldistributed and at worst inaccessible. The problem’s not just that scientists have trouble keeping up with a virus that’s rapidly spreading and mutating, though obviously they do, but that the normal channels of communication—ranging from discussions by the proverbial water cooler to the public school and health care systems—are constrained, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Other channels of communication are politicized, weaponized, or tainted. And many are Janus-faced: social media channels that are as likely to deceive as enlighten, social networks that can help or hinder the flow of knowledge, and broadcast networks that are by their very nature more interested in the bottom line than the public good.
Second, these problems are compounded by a baseline level of scientific naivete in society at large. People aren’t used to thinking probabilistically. They want certainty, not standard errors, and when certainty is not forthcoming, they’re especially susceptible to misinformation of various sorts. It doesn’t help that different sciences have different norms and standards, leaving outsiders to wonder whether the scientists themselves know what they’re doing.
Third, all of this leaves science policymakers on the horns of a dilemma. If they try to dictate to the public, they’re likely to provoke skepticism and hostility, often for good reason; and if they try to build trust and understanding over time, they’re likely to reach their goals too late—if at all. Skepticism could mount, in fact, as things get worse before they get better, with the potential for all sorts of perverse outcomes.
Fourth, the costs won’t be distributed evenly across society. Better-off, better-educated individuals will be able to inoculate themselves to a degree, both literally and metaphorically, whereas their less privileged counterparts will often lack the knowledge and resources to do so. Lacking not only personal protective equipment (PPE), but also personal space, they’ll be unable to isolate themselves from exposure and more likely to contract and transmit the virus.
This brings us to the final, and in some sense the most enlightening, lesson of the workshops. Pandemic diseases like COVID are transmitted less through individuals than through households. Members of the same household share not only the same disease environment but also the same information and economic environment. When one household member gets sick, the other members are more likely to be exposed. When one household member absorbs misinformation, the other members tend to absorb it too. When children cannot attend school, the older members become teachers, potentially propagating half-truths of which even they are uncertain. When one household member can’t go to work, the other members are forced to compensate or pay the price. And insofar as differences in socio-economic status tend to divide people between, rather than within, the households, pandemics tend to aggravate these and broader inequities.
What this means, in scientific practice, is that the household unit provides a key focal point not just for public health policy but for scientists who want to draw interdisciplinary lessons about contagion – both of disease and ideas. It’s the key pivot that links the individual, psychological, and neurological, on the one hand, to the collective, political, and organizational, on the other. It offered an invaluable touchstone for our broad, multidisciplinary discussions. And we believe the household unit will nucleate similar interdisciplinary groups addressing COVID and other global challenges in the years ahead.
*The CIFAR Working Group on COVID and Collective Action includes more than 30 CIFAR fellows, directors, and advisors.