E52: Science is a Social Process (w/ Dr. Abby Cartus)


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It’s 2021, science is back in charge in America, and we’re on a clear path to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. But is it really that simple?

On today’s show, we talk with Dr. Abby Cartus, a PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh, about her thoughts on pandemic rhetoric and policy in the transition from president Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Abby lays out for us the way that the new Biden administration’s technocratic rhetoric has sought to reframe debates over COVID policy as purely “technical” and “empirical,” rather than “moral” and “political.” As a result, the administration’s approach to managing the virus and keeping citizens safe has amounted to continuing investment in the vaccination deployment that began under Trump. At the same time, ordinary citizens are being told that reducing transmission is a matter of their own personal responsibility, even if they are forced to go to work in unsafe conditions. This rhetorical idiom cultivates the sense that even though scientific experts hold power, they are severely limited in what they can do, and the responsibility for controlling the pandemic rests solely in the hands of individual citizens themselves.

This controversy has recently reached a flashpoint in the debate over whether or not public schools in the U.S. can safely reopen at this stage in the pandemic. Abby leads us through the ways that *certain* scientific rhetorics - particularly claims that COVID transmission rates are lower among children and in schools - are being marshalled against teacher unions advocating for safer work environments. In fact, much of the research promoting these claims (often based on selective sample sizes and questionable data-collection practices) is funded by proponents of school privatization, such as the Walton and Gates foundations, who have an economic incentive to demonize and dismantle education workers’ collective power.

To conclude, Abby summarizes what a more humane policy strategy might look like, in the form of a “paid shutdown” - a short-term closure of nonessential businesses, supplemented by paying furloughed workers to stay home and quarantine. We sign off with a reminder that even when the status quo feels intractable in situations like this, “the way things are” should never be taken as the final word on the way things could/should be!

Works and Concepts Cited in this Episode:

Cartus, A. (2020). Education privatization advocates find an opportunity in the school reopening debate. Medium.

Feldman, J. (2021). Coronavirus Is an Occupational Disease That Spreads at Work. Jacobin.

Feldman, J., Cartus, A., & Prins, S. (2021). Biden’s Coronavirus Plan Will Not Prevent Death and Devastation. The Nation.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard University Press.

Prins, S., Feldman, J., & Cartus, A. (2021). Teachers and Their Unions Are Demanding Truly Safe Schools Reopening — Not “Ignoring Science.” Jacobin.

78 episodes