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Could scepticism resuscitate democratic politics?

Kelvin Mason finds points of agreement with ideological opponents

Citizens of liberal democracies, at least those who at least broadly subscribe to the principles of liberalism and democracy, tend to regard science as an ally in political debate. Climate change deniers, for instance, are regularly denigrated via citing: “97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” . Armed with such apparently incontestable evidence, “reasonable” people then find it very difficult to make space for scientific scepticism, and this constrains them from entering into debate: Climate change sceptics are accused of politicising the science [1]. Put more starkly, we (yes, I’m one) label our nay-saying adversaries as ‘idiots’ and shut the door to doing politics. Of course, we don’t just do this with respect to the natural sciences. Consider the divisive rancour in the UK around Brexit and how the economic and political absolutes of both sides of that non-debate were most often held to be incontrovertible. Living through the Covid-19 pandemic so far has kindled a new science scepticism in me. It has also led me to consider whether admitting scepticism more generally could help facilitate a regenerative politics, particularly in deeply riven societies such as the UK.

As a preface, I should say that I have an early background in mechanical engineering and so have placed an existential trust in science. Like many citizens, I suspect, I supposed that the science of something like Covid-19 would be relatively well-known, agreed, and so reasonably straight-forward to translate into policy and communicate to citizens as the pandemic took hold. After all, viruses such as those that cause colds and flu, and even coronaviruses themselves (e.g. SARS, MERS), were not new phenomena, and the threat of a pandemic had been long and widely appreciated [2]. As it turned out, however, the science was uncertain and shifting, and the policies of governments across the world varied widely. Meanwhile, how governments communicated with their citizens often appeared to depend not so much on the science but on the culture of the polity, especially the character of government and its relation with the citizenry.

To set the scene, I entered Denmark from Wales on a family visit the day before the border closed. Choosing not to go home, my partner and I holed-up in our kolonihavet, a one room shack on what in Britain would be termed an allotment (a vegetable growing plot). From this vantage, I became a fascinated observer of the science and politics of the coronavirus globally: I compiled a bibliography of some of the political writing around Covid 19 [3], and helped a friend with gathering data for an article on surveillance capitalism in corona times . At the beginning April 2020, I began to focus on comparing Denmark, the US and the UK, including national differences in Scotland, Northern Ireland and, of course, Wales. And I was a more active social media participant than before, interacting on a number of platforms, prominently: Facebook, including Facebook groups that I contributed to and/or initiated in response to the pandemic; Zoom conference meetings with friends and fellow activists; and WhatsApp groups constituted similarly. A number of aspects of the coronavirus pandemic attracted my attention because the science was contested. The adversarial positions adopted on many integral issues exemplified the seemingly irreconcilable rifts in the polity that Brexit in the UK and the presidency of Donald Trump in the US had bequeathed. Denmark by contrast was in a relatively, if not united, then quite civilly contested political moment.

The science issues I followed most closely, commented on, and discussed on were: the R number, hydroxychloroquine, vaccination, and masks. In all these instances when the science must surely be certain, it wasn’t, and there was political controversy. Each of these issues was worthy of its own analysis, but I concentrated on the public wearing of masks in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve posted my research elsewhere [5], but in brief my findings were that the scientific evidence, expert advice and the policies of some governments shifted as the pandemic progressed. Clearly, government policies in the three countries that I studied didn’t always follow the prevalent science or expert advice [6]. With timely interventions and a consistent approach, the Danish government built on a higher degree of public trust to manage the pandemic much more effectively than the UK or US. In defence of medical science, like any other sphere of knowledge it must learn and change. That said, the expert medical advice over time was clearly influenced by political expediency: it was knowingly misleading. As I write the science continues to shift, but the consensus seems to be that wearing the right sort of mask correctly in conjunction with other precautionary measures, notably hand washing and social distancing, will help to reduce the transmission of Covid 19.

New space-times for politics

My concern here is not, however, to assess the science of wearing masks to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. Seeking out the best science, I entered debates on social media so that people - family, friends, allies and contacts – might not use masks poorly nor advise others to do so, and thus actually increase the risk of transmission. Moreover, I wanted to warn people about taking false comfort from wearing a mask and so become less fastidious about hand hygiene. Some social media discussants were adamantly pro-mask from Day 1 of the pandemic. One Facebook user in Ceredigion, west Wales, which had a remarkable low incidence of Covid-19, posted:

“I genuinely don’t understand why, when I go to shop, nobody is wearing a mask. I really did think people here had a greater sense of civic responsibility. Worse than that - I get funny looks - despite the fact the mask is far more about protecting others than myself. It is just basic respect. It is very very disappointing. UPDATE: Since posting this I have been correctly informed that THIS mask is not effective in protecting others because it has a valve. I will be replacing it ASAP!"   

This post expresses the desire to do one’s duty as a responsible citizen. Via its ‘update’, it also reveals how such a responsible citizen is drawing on scientific advice, possibly gleaned due to the stimulus of social media debate, to modify his behaviour. Whether or not the second strand of information followed was any more correct than the first is open to question. The following quote is from the email of an 85 year man living in mid-Wales. Our social media encounters were via a weekly friends and family quiz. This Zoom group used the space-time to catch up with one another and ensure that the more vulnerable were getting deliveries of food etc. Well looked after and happy enough locked down with his garden, this 85 year old is a savvy individual who is also technically adept. His quote, which I have amended with some clarifying terms placed in parentheses, is an example of the impact of some of the confusing advice about face masks:

“i have been going to make face masks ,niki gave me a pattern but the power to be (powers that be) have altered the way they are made (so) that i have no idea which is right,

“first the material was two pieces of cotten, then three, then three specific types of material - a white cotten then an inner of some polly (poly/synthetic) material then a polly cotten, now the two latest - first the top material has to be water resistant now they say you can make them out of a pair of socks and gave a quick demo on how to do it. so what to do for the best, i think it keeps someone in work

“the material will have to be what i have on hand.”

The same man told me that, reportedly following official advice, a friend had bought a large pack of coffee filters to use in making face masks. However, the coffee filters apparently went “soggy” very quickly, which would harbour infection. To give them the benefit of the doubt, if governments had actually struggled to assess the scientific evidence and expert advice on wearing face masks rather than politically tailoring it to suit, in the UK at least they patently failed to differentiate between types and designs of masks in order to advise citizens accordingly. Once again, citizens were right to be sceptical. Best known for his work on science and technology, philosopher Bruno Latour observes that, due to Covid 19:

“The public are learning a great deal about the difficulty of statistics, about experiment, about epidemiology. In everyday life, people are talking about degrees of confidence and margin of error. I think that’s good. If you want people to have some grasp of science, you must show how it is produced”. [7]

Overall, my exchanges on social media in Corona times support Latour’s observation. What’s more, even as we – unsurprisingly – struggled to communicate complex statistic and the shifting science, myself and the people with whom I was interacting were evidently learning more about politics too. In my case, due I believe to spending more time in my existing social media spaces as well as exploring new ones, I was engaging with views on and around the Covid-19 science that I would previously have found it inconceivable or unacceptable to countenance.

Researching the science of wearing face masks and how governments were forming and enacting policies on the pandemic made me more understanding of what I would have dubbed extreme libertarianism, specifically in the US. When I first clicked on a Facebook post and viewed media footage of armed demonstrators besieging the legislative chamber of Michigan’s state capitol, objecting to an extension of Covid-19 measures, I thought “idiots”, scary idiots with big guns too! But then, an African American in a cowboy hat addressing the crowd asked with respect to social distancing: “How did they come up with this number of six feet? I think they just pulled it out of their rear end!” [8]. And, not only did I have to laugh out loud, I had to concede he had a point. Consistently throughout the pandemic the World Health Organisation recommended maintaining a one metre (approximately three feet) distance between oneself and others, a recommendation borne out by the most recent scientific studies [9]. Valid concerns about the economy and people’s livelihoods were also expressed by the US libertarians: were human lives in the present being valued more highly than future lives, livelihoods and well-being? Given its record on the pandemic, I could certainly understand libertarians’ burgeoning distrust of government in the US along with their scepticism about the science. Answering a question on government orders mandating the use of masks in certain situations, Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian research and advocacy organisation the Cato Institute in Washington, stated:

“Nobody knows just how much additional good each of these individual measures that the government wants to implement are going to do in terms of reducing the incidence of transmissions of this deadly disease versus how much harm those measures will do in terms of harming people's livelihoods or even leading to interactions with police that could themselves lead to harmful situations.” [10]

On the other hand, I should say that I read the libertarian case for wearing masks. In a nutshell: “The irony is that civil-libertarian objections to masks make draconian measures more likely. The more people refuse to wear masks, the greater the risks of reopening …. Conflating personal protective measures with government overreach all but guarantees that the latter will be necessary” [11]. Overall, libertarians were posing valid scientific and democratic concerns about the Covid-19 science and government policy, albeit while on occasion armed to the teeth. There was also disagreement within libertarian circles on the politics of Covid-19. Perhaps I could never agree with US libertarians about the reach of the ‘free market’ in society, but I could engage with their scientific scepticism, critiques of government, and concerns about personal freedoms: I could respect their views.

Let me give one more example of how my sceptical reawakening made an impossible politics possible. Responding to a posting in a WhatsApp group, I pursued accusations of (left-wing) media bias or “fake news”, a topic I’d previously judged to be – well – fake news: a stock right-wing rebuttal of good investigative journalism. The WhatsApp posting was from a YouTube channel called “Frank” that aimed “to share with you, what the fake Media is not showing you.” Frank stated that “Everyone should do there own research and make up there own mind.” Frank’s grammar did not evoke confidence. The posting I was interested in was a response to BBC coverage of Donald Trump’s infamous “sunlight and bleach” press conference on Covid 19, which was delivered on 23 April 2020 [12]. Watching the eleven minute video, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the effort that had gone into the presenter’s research. He deconstructed the BBC’s editing, reiterating the point that they had condensed a long press conference into a report lasting just a few minutes. The BBC had, he argued, elided the context in which the US President’s comments were made, that is the presentation made by William (Bill) Bryant, Acting Under Secretary for Science and Technology, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which Trump was responding to. Allegedly, Bryant’s presentation was not referred to in the BBC report.

The YouTube video presenter was not defending Trump’s patent scientific ignorance, rather he was attacking the BBC for turning what could (arguably) have been objective journalism into anti-Trump propaganda. BBC editors overegged the pudding, as the saying goes: “they had Trump on his bleach comments so they didn’t have to go the extra mile, but they did anyway.” The YouTube presenter claimed the BBC edited out two key twenty-five minute segments of the press conference. Having done a lot of editing work myself, I could appreciate the difficulties of cutting down a long piece for the sake of drama or watch-ability. However, the YouTube presenter did have a point on the content of that edit: the BBC had arguably not outlined the context of Trump’s remarks sufficiently, and that did serve to render his gaffs on “sunlight and bleach” even more idiotic. There could also be substance in the charge of falsification: the YouTube presenter claims Trump never said anything about drinking detergent, while the BBC interviewed an expert on that very exact proposition. While the YouTube presenter may be guilty of the same sin he accuses the BBC of, editing video footage to make a predisposed political point, his claims were worthy of debate. And indeed that is exactly what I did with the person who posted the video in our WhatsApp group. Scepticism when viewing mainstream media reports, we were able to agree across a considerable ideological chasm, was valid from both our point of views.

Doing politics with the enemy: walking across that burning bridge

What was happening as citizens interacted to debate the science and politics of Covid-19? Well, I suggest that we were doing politics ourselves, specifically politics as conceived by the theorist Hannah Arendt. As governments in the UK and US were palpably failing their citizens over the Covid-19 pandemic, a plurality of people came together and interacted in the cause of ensuring human lives and freedoms, although that may not have been their explicit intent. Arendt dubs this coming together to debate as a “public space of appearance” that must be constantly recreated via “action”, citizens disclosing themselves to each other through word and deed. We created such spaces of appearance in a new set of space-times that Covid-19 itself served to open up to us. Some of the virtual spaces revealed during the pandemic were new, at least to many ‘users’, notably social media conferencing platforms such as Zoom. Others, such as Facebook and WhatsApp groups, were reconfigured and revitalised by virtue of people having more time to spend in/on them. Thus, in many instances, it seemed, they invested that space-time with views that had been more rigorously thought through. Online activism can not to be politically isolated from activism in the ‘real world’: the internet is a space of the real world, and acts of citizenship performed online are doing politics. That said, opinion varies on the effective relationship between online activism and material action [13]. Many activist groups have, nevertheless, responded to government lockdowns or social isolation policies by turning to the internet. Extinction Rebellion in the UK, for example, offered a daily programme of workshops using Zoom. Presentations, vigils, webinars… Activists even managed to organise political choirs online.

Working at grassroots level, Ross Chrisdale reminds us that political activists cannot engage in mutual aid in communities beset by a pandemic as if they were doing politics among their peers in collectively constructed social spaces:

“We – especially those of us who are less-impacted by the various toxic and oppressive ideas that are floating out there in our neighbourhoods – are going to need to find ways to be patient and to talk through some pretty major differences, rather than immediately banning or excluding folks cause they think we need the police to protect us from irresponsible neighbours, or because they think 5G causes COVID19.” [14]

Paul Chatterton termed similar interactions between dedicated activists and non-activist communities as encounters on ‘uncommon ground’, recognising the need to “give up activism” to learn how to communicate and act in different contexts in order to shape and effect genuinely collective social change [15]. Another UK based activist, Anna Kleist, comments on the need to invest mutual aid with a feminist ethic of care : to recognise that caring is a political act:

“Too many times over the last few weeks I’ve seen comrades flouncing out of WhatsApp groups because they ‘aren’t interested in being involved in a group that isn’t explicitly political’, as if caring for (and with!) those deemed ‘expendable’ isn’t in-and-of-itself vital work, as if they wouldn’t associate themselves with people who don’t automatically think like they do. In giving in to these puritan impulses (which exist in many of us, myself included) we not only doom ourselves to irrelevance, but we abandon the people and ideals we claim to care so much about.” [16]

Even when we are not doing mutual aid in the material world, shopping for and delivering food to the more vulnerable members of our communities, for example, we can be engaged in caring: getting together to do a quiz on Microsoft Teams, having ‘a night in at the pub’ to chat on Google Meet, singing our hearts out together on Zoom while muted because our voices would be horribly out of synch… When we engage in these sorts of activities we will likely exchange information, about Covid 19 and/or our communities, and we will be caring for each other’s physical and mental health, whether explicitly or implicitly. In many instance we will be doing politics together, discussing the vagaries of policy-making around Covid-19 and perhaps moving on to other issues of mutual concern as the world turns: Brexit, Black Lives Matter, economic recession… In the virtual world as in the material one, as Kleist and Chrisdale highlighted, we will probably not be in an affinity group with our political peers: we may well have to enter discussions about bogus science, ‘fake news’, and even countenance ostensibly bizarre conspiracy theories. Doing politics outside of our ideological bubbles was never going to be easy. Between excluding people and/or ‘flouncing out’ of community engagement and staying silent in the face of irrational, immoral or even malefic views lies the thorny territory of discussing, questioning and challenging: uncommon ground.

The end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)

Because of Covid-19 lockdowns, social distancing and where I found myself during the pandemic, culturally and politically away from home, this is inevitably a very personal piece of research. I have talked about new and revitalised social media spaces, but perhaps more foundational to making space for scepticism and thence doing politics differently is the fact that, for many people, the economic imperatives that served to limit the time citizens have for doing politics disappeared in a flash. As Bruno Latour writes:

“The first lesson the coronavirus has taught us is also the most astounding: we have actually proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world…” [17]

Also with respect to social media technologies, in some instances they did not support doing politics. Some people shied away from the various conferencing platforms because of concerns about security, a corporate lack of transparency, and inadequate encryption measures. Other people took the opportunity of not being compelled to engage in economic activity, along with the often concomitant social interactions of going to work, to fully embrace and enjoy social isolation as tranquil and restorative solitude. Technically, social media conferencing technologies, including people’s unfamiliarity with technical protocols and poor internet connections led to some groups, especially larger ones, giving up on them as a media for meaningful discussion.

Critically, my research made me more sceptical about the science of Covid-19, which led to admitting a more general scepticism into my consciousness. This admission, in turn, made me more open to at least trying to do politics with others whose views I would previously have considered irrational, immoral and/or malefic. When I talk of scepticism here, I do not mean the strict philosophical concepts of denying the possibility of all knowledge or suspending judgement. Rather, I mean those everyday aspects of scepticism that admit doubt into one’s world view, a questioning of what we think we know, reconsidering and testing ideas: we must, I believe, be sceptical about our very selves! In tune with Arendt’s notion of freedom, such scepticism offers the potential to resuscitate a moribund and putrefying politics, to begin something new: one step beyond liberal democracy.

 

NOTES

[1] NASA. “Scientific Consensus: Earth's Climate is Warming.” https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/ (Accessed 22 June 2020)

[2] See, for instance, Mike Davis (2005) The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, New Press

[3] Kelvin Mason. “Looking beyond the coronavirus pandemic: brave new world or same old suffering (and then some)?” https://www.peacenews.info/node/9632/looking-beyond-coronavirus-pandemic-brave-new-world-or-same-old-suffering-and-then-some (Accessed 22 June 2020)

[4] Mark Whitehead. “Surveillance Capitalism in the Time of Covid 19” https://www.isrf.org/2020/05/11/surveillance-capitalism-in-the-time-of-covid-19-the-possible-costs-of-technological-liberation-from-lockdown/ (Accessed 22 June 2020)

[5] Kelvin Mason. “Contested corona science, and “I’ll wear a mask for you””. http://kelvinmason.weebly.com/blog/june-14th-2020 (Accessed 22 June 2020)

[6] For example, Rowena Mason. “UK failure to lock down earlier cost many lives, top scientist says” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/07/uk-failure-to-lock-down-earlier-cost-many-uk-lives-top-scientist-says (Accessed 23 June 2020)

[7] Bruno Latour. “This is a global catastrophe that has come from within.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/06/bruno-latour-coronavirus-gaia-hypothesis-climate-crisis?CMP=share_btn_fb&fbclid=IwAR0wT39kg4xPVUZ-AWa3pzUA4m1vd4TxBl5X1QMS7UIdmsOI9XQjOInWDoU (Accessed 22 June 2020)

[8] “Armed protesters enter Michigan’s state capitol demanding end to coronavirus lockdown” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXXFf0Q2bcU

[9] Derek K Chu et al. “Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The Lancet Online, 1 June 2020.

[10] Michael Martin. “Libertarian Perspective On Government's Role In Health Crisis.” https://www.npr.org/2020/04/26/845224133/libertarian-perspective-on-government-s-role-in-health-crisis?t=1591720742263 (Accessed 22 June 2020)

[11] Daniel Tenreiro. “The Libertarian case for masks” https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/05/the-libertarian-case-for-masks/ (Accessed 22 June 2020)

[12] “Frank”. “BBC lies & fakery editing and manipulating Trump “sunlight and bleach” press briefing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIJrLkRQMOY (Accessed 22 June 2020).

[13] See, for instance Yu-Hao Lee and Gary Hsieh. “Does Slacktivism Hurt Activism?: The Effects of Moral Balancing and Consistency in Online Activism.” CHI '13: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. April 2013, pages 811–820 https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/2470654.2470770 (Accessed 23 June 2020); Versus Kevin Lewis, Kurt Gray, and Jens Meierhenrich. “The Structure of Online Activism.” Sociological Science, February 2014, Volume 1.

[14] Ross Chrisdale. “Mutual Aid Groups: Five reflections for ‘Activists’ going local for the first time.” Freedom. https://freedomnews.org.uk/mutual-aid-groups-five-reflections-for-activists-going-local-for-the-first-time/ (Accessed 23 June 2020)

[15] Paul Chatterton. “”Give up Activism” and Change the World in Unknown Ways: Or, Learning to Walk with Others on Uncommon Ground.” Antipode, Volume 38, Issue 2, March 2006.

[16] Anna Kleist “Five quick thoughts on the limits of Covid-19 mutual aid groups & how they might be overcome.” Freedom https://freedomnews.org.uk/five-quick-thoughts-on-the-limits-of-covid-19-mutual-aid-groups-how-they-might-be-overcome/ (Accessed 23 June 2020)

[17] Bruno Latour. “What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?” AOC http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/downloads/P-202-AOC-ENGLISH_1.pdf Accessed 23 June 2010.