Wilson: COVID shows why we need not just science, but social science

Understanding why some reject discovery and innovation is essential to us all. Pure emphasis on ‘STEM’ without wider cultural study leaves society prey to conspiracy theories.

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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce has been making the media rounds lately touting the economic benefits of the province’s new STEM-heavy curriculum. While it might succeed in producing more engineering or science grads, the problem is that a focus on STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — often comes at the expense of support for the social sciences.

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There is a history of disdain for the social sciences in Canada. In 2013, responding to questions about the causes of terrorism, then-prime minister Stephen Harper claimed that “it was not a time to commit sociology.” Justin Trudeau’s previous job as a teacher of French, humanities and drama was held up as a strike against him in 2015 election. Earlier this year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney raised the spectre of “divisive, woke, left ideology” infecting the province’s social sciences curriculum. The assumption is that fields such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and history are not as rigorous as the physical sciences and, as such, are not as important.

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The reality is that for complex global problems to be truly understood, social scientists play a crucial role. A singular focus on STEM risks creating a class of technocrats that lacks an understanding of the vast and perplexing responses humans have to scientific discoveries. We all like to think we make rational and sensible decisions, but we are all a product of our culture, for better or worse.

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Consider the COVID vaccines: tens of thousands of people around the globe collaborated in an unprecedentedly short period of time to save millions of lives. It is an astonishing scientific and technical achievement. Most people happily took the vaccine if they had the chance. Yet a significant portion of the population, especially in wealthy western countries, decided it was a nefarious plot, a fabrication by “global elites” looking to curtail our freedom. Why? To seek answers, we need to embrace a sociocultural perspective to uncover why people hold so tightly to unscientific beliefs.

For people who are suspicious of state control, committing to an anti-vaccine position is an affirmation of their identity; it serves to cement their membership in a community of like-minded freedom-fighters. The protesters who rolled into Ottawa in February certainly saw themselves this way. They often described their experience on the streets as something akin to religious communion, a feeling sociologist Max Weber called “collective effervescence.” It’s one of the core needs humans have and it lies at the heart of many of the anti-establishment movements in human history, from the Luddites of 19th-century England to 21st-century Flat-Earthers.

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One common reaction to such positions is to lean on “facts” as laboratory-produced ammunition that can’t be dodged. This focus on debunking pseudoscience seems like a noble goal. However, studies have shown that instead of rousing people from a fog of irrational beliefs, such efforts often feel like an attack, which causes them to double down on their maligned beliefs. In fact, a common refrain from conspiracy theorists when they are challenged is to claim that they are the ones being critical and open-minded while everyone else is acting like sheep. Arguments like this are unwinnable.

Instead, social scientists try to understand science as a cultural phenomenon, something that co-exists alongside deep-seated cultural traditions and psychological needs. For example, anthropologist Michelle Leach played an important role in curbing the West African Ebola epidemic in 2015 by working with local groups to come up with culturally appropriate burial rituals that would also keep people safe from infection. To the villagers being ravaged by the disease, this was a better alternative than the calls from western politicians to ban traditional burials outright, an uncomfortable echo of their colonial past.

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Similarly, advances in artificial intelligence are often viewed with skepticism and even fear, not because of an imperfect understanding of algorithms or circuit boards, but because of enduring cultural norms. Whether you find robots creepy or helpful says a lot about what movies you watched as a kid or whether you read Descartes in university. Genetically modified crops, even if they can be shown to increase crop yields, are often scuttled by what is called the “yuck-factor”: a gut-level aversion to certain technologies that can shift drastically between cultural groups.

To combat anti-establishment trends such as the anti-vax movement or the denial of climate change, social scientists need to be embraced as part of the solution. Otherwise, the most valuable scientific advances will fall flat, prey to conspiracy theories or outright rejection by humans desperately seeking affirmation from a like-minded community. All those STEM graduates, working hard on solutions to humanity’s most intractable challenges, will be baffled to find that people have turned their backs on the laboratory.

Joseph Wilson is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Toronto.

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