Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Jayat Joshi on the role of science as a guiding principle of political and societal action in extraordinary situations like the COVID-19 pandemic

Jayat Joshi

An old yet powerful principle has emerged from the COVID-19 crisis. It was introduced to the West in the writings of Carl G. Jung, and has its roots in the works of the pre-Socratic Greeks: enantiodromia (enantios – opposite and dromos – running course) (Jung 1968). Put simply, this means when something is pushed to the extreme, it tends to turn into its opposite. There is more than one way to conceptualize this principle, as the idea of the coincidence of opposites has had some form of cultural expression throughout the world. When the classical Greek thinker Heraclitus alluded to it, he described it in the form of a natural process of equilibrium, in which cold things warm up and warmer things cool down. Later it found a voice in Plato, and then Hegel’s dialectic. In Daoism, the principle was given the shape of the yin-yang symbol, in which contrasting forces complement each other in an eternal cycle, bringing forth the sacred balance upon which the world rests. The riddles presented in these ancient writings are very similar: they all imply that opposing powers are impregnated with the seeds of their own reconciliation. Jung was deeply intrigued by this philosophical strand and used the term prominently to mark a psychical phenomenon. In his observation, the dominance of a radical propensity in conscious life over a long time rouses the unconscious opposite that has been festering below the surface. For him, this overarching dualism was a nearer, personal phenomenon, reflected in one’s struggle with the self. Jung’s notion of the archetype of the shadow symbolizes the unconscious invisible properties of an individual’s personality that are not integrated with their conscious identity. A subtle implication contained here is towards the analogy of the good wolf and the bad wolf, the clash between the known and the unknown, the struggle within as the image of the struggle without.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also a crisis of modernity. Our shortcomings in dealing with it can indicate a remedy for not just the effects but also the causes of the crisis. In a Jungian sense, these causes are deep and become fully apparent only against an extreme condition, like the current context. In other words, as the modern gets pushed to an extreme now, the technology and the rational discourse that supported it give way. This calls for an urgent rethinking of the scientific spirit on which the modern world was founded. The threat posed in this emergency is not merely, though considerably so, biological. The threat posed now is of the framing of the risk (of the virus) as it flows through various global, interconnected networks and mechanisms of modernity: the media, state policy, international organizations and the corporate. A scientific understanding of our situation in an intensely networked world is not standalone. It is enmeshed with perceptions of risk, political interests, communication challenges and inequalities of access. Even though our lives are laden with technological knowledge, this does not necessarily translate into a scientific spirit. German sociologist Ulrich Beck is one of the foremost theorists of globalization who have diagnosed the ailments of humanity’s modern condition. In the early 2000s, Beck posited that the process of modernization, after a time, enters a distinct second phase which he called reflexive modernization (Beck 2003). This should not be taken to connote a quality of ‘reflection’, rather, it implies the modernization of modern society. In other words, Beck observed that after a point, modernization became radicalized in a manner that made its own characteristic institutions suspect and unstable. The nuclear family, the steady provider nation-state, financial security, all began to crumble. With the loss of these reference points of modern features, we are left only with a permanent state of flux, where it is difficult to put one’s finger down on particular changes with respect to an earlier condition of modernity. This re-modernization is a process of continuous restructuring. It is not to be confused with the critical approach called postmodernism, which implies a deconstruction of the structure and sense of modernity.

Sociological works have originally comprised various investigations into the evolutionary dualism of the traditional (premodern) and the modern (Giddens 1999). The new dualism of modernity and its radicalized form is not evolutionary, but that of a discontinuity in history (Beck 2006). This means that the way society culturally imagined itself at a particular time has shifted—the reference of the past is replaced by a view of the future, or rather multiple competing visions of it. The COVID-19 crisis is distinctive of this radical historical breakage. In the Jungian sense, it is the thing transmogrified into its shadow, becoming its own forbidding opposite (Jung 1968). There are a few reasons for this that are intuitive and others that are nuanced. The contagion itself, first, is a novel virus with under-studied effects on the human body. Although grim waves of different kinds of plague have swept through the world in the past, the arrival of another deadly germ at the peak of the technological and informational revolution came as a huge shock because the public imagination did not anticipate or expect it. Not only this, it startled our mechanisms of mining and predicting information to guide our actions. It also brought to halt many visions of the future.

Facts related to such pandemics have been known to be accompanied by their own fictions. A major factor that contributed to the grassroots response to the pandemic is tied to how information from various media sources is consumed by people. The crisis unfolded in different local contexts, but within and from a global network. The epidemiological and medical efforts that followed it also evolved in a highly fluid situation, but with a power of outreach unparalleled in history. Yet this range of information outreach frequently missed the adequate vocabulary required for communicating the science to the layperson (Davis 2019). It was not surprising then, how prescriptive guidelines swiftly became polarizing subjects of rights versus responsibilities. This enmeshment of cognitive overload and suspicion of science, the state and modern global networks caused a fundamental moment for individual agency. Now, the individual alone was responsible for self-preservation. Nevertheless, not everything in this can be labelled a false alarm. The striking failure of institutions in the face of this pandemic might have political roots, but it also reveals a weakness that has been well documented in the social sciences. To understand this, we must understand Beck’s notion of the ‘risk society’. According to him, the perception of risk in modern society is ironical—it projects uncertainty as calculable and the ensuing risk as manageable, whereas actual peril lies in the unknown and the unforeseen (Beck 1990, 2006). The risk society creates a management business of some risks it has produced itself, and others which it hasn’t anticipated through a typical, structured pattern of responses. This rationalized trapping of the anticipation of uncertain events is at the root of two phenomena—the imbuing of risk globally, and a cynical bent towards individualization. The first is fairly evident in relation to the current crisis, but the second demands more attention.

In classical liberal thought, the premise of the individual as the locus of social development is a foundational ideal. The individual is naturally rights-wielding, and a rational subject. But what happens when the individual disappears in the flood between global institutional failure to navigate risks and increased individual responsibility to do so? The Western liberal world order of global governance has long established a dense network of organizations such as the WTO, the World Bank, the United Nations and bodies under its aegis. However, these powerful international networks did little to take account of the looming danger when China, the source of the virus, first braced itself for a wave of infection. Even with powerful technological and cultural anchorages, the Western world led by the US, has not been able to move beyond domestic political challenges and the set operation of dealing with risks (Beck 2006). Similarly, Sweden realised late that its target of herd immunity had gone wrong. Pushed to the extreme in the wake of the following devastation, the composition of the Western consciousness seems to have gone astray—worsened by its own virtues and expertise. An instance that highlights this best is the debate on masks triggered due to initial recommendations from the WHO that declared their relative uselessness to the non-infected person. It was understood later that this was proclaimed in order to tackle resource scarcity for medical professionals, but it fell short of reasonable economic thinking: people could stitch appropriately secure masks from easily available material to meet the demand. Such precautionary measures are fairly intuitive and seldom require the confirmation of hard scientific data. In this regard, economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb has raised the most significant rationale.

Taleb is an outlier in his approach to diagnosing the pandemic. In his work he has repeatedly warned of the threat posed by viruses, which showed up in the recent past in the form of SARS, MERS and Ebola. He stresses the need for focused, early and systematic response mechanisms to pandemics. These measures are absolutely necessary to dramatically reduce the spread of the infection. In a highly connected world, any positive or negative event of distribution is likely to multiplicate—the same is true for a virus, and this is why the goal should be to nip it in the bud. Statistical calculations of risk, especially those that dominate in the current context, are prone to the mistake of not taking asymmetry into account in decision making. Early stage scientific discourse gives pre-eminence to hard evidence but it is not so sophisticated as to obtain the guide for right action in the absence of such particular evidence. A systematic approach to dealing with such risks cannot afford to wait for detailed proofs when the general nature of the threat is already known. Additionally, because past experiences with pandemics are not predictive, and people are risk averse, the realization of these goals is accessible. That said, Taleb believes that the catastrophe will not radically change the international system; it has the potential to bring about new, revised ways of life. Future responses to such risks will be better coordinated and strengthened too, because the shock of this crisis will have trained us (Taleb 2012, 2020a, 2020b).

One of the most resilient protocols in dealing with the virus has been that of Germany. Rapid tracing, compulsory quarantines for all travelers, mobility and gathering restrictions, and implementing physical distancing norms without having to force people to stay shut in has led the country to vastly succeed across all four pillars of mitigation strategy: prevention, detection, containment and treatment. There is a reason why this theoretical discussion is planted in the works of two great German scholars. The German experience of modernity during the World Wars has arguably been the starkest, and the lessons learned from that period of history have profoundly influenced the shaping of the people’s psyche. The COVID-19 crisis is a comparable experience of enantiodromia for the Western world. However, as Jung would say, within this moment also lies the opportunity for reinvention. A robust healthcare system and disaster response mechanism must be based in a societal foundation that has risen from the ashes of modernity, and rekindled the enlightenment spirit of a scientific temper interwoven with humanitarian rationality. The business of projecting risk onto the world in calculations is undoubtedly novel and beneficial to a degree, but it hides a perilous value in plain sight—purporting its own value-lessness, even as it sets human and machine in the same competitive framework (Appadurai 2012). Neither are human problems mechanical problems nor can they be interpreted unilaterally as ‘bugs’ in the system. In this situation of denial, there is an empty space for accounting for the vast complex of human emotions, inclinations and needs that must go hand-in-hand with response strategies, to carve a whole. This void can be filled by an old sensibility of the modern, although in a new techno-cultural setting. A major reason for the short-circuiting of scientific awareness in today’s world is the severing of historical, developmental context: media affect makes every bit of data instantaneous and independent, not locating it in the stream of logic and consciousness in which its facts have evolved. It is crucial to embed scientific temper in our preparations for large-scale threats like pandemics. It is not, as one might be tempted to think, a dated cause in our age. The severing of scientific reason from the way it gets tied to politics and communicated to the masses is a serious challenge, not least in this critical time. To engineer a cohesive bottom-up response needs the dissemination of scientific knowledge and pragmatic habits at the local level. Even though not much might be known about the effects of this particular virus, the biological behaviours and evolutionary goals of viruses in general are well known, and not hard to grasp. Scientifically backed policy decisions must not be treated as ends in themselves, rather as practical, evolving means towards preserving life. The return to enlightenment is the potential result of the enantiodromia of our time, and simultaneously the move that can counter it best.

“Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). A rendezvous with the history of the modern scientific tradition will bring to the fore in the public imagination an educational streak that emphasizes our intellectual foundation in curiosity, rather than in denial of human existence, and the desire to improve it. Competing thoughts can find home in a scientific temperament in civil society, without the risk of reduction of genuine efforts to rumours and superstition as well as an informed scepticism towards authoritarian state policy. There is nothing fantastical about it: the global order is itself recovering from the realisation of the importance of the setup of first modernity—the state’s role in human preservation and development has been cast in new light, but so has the importance of building productive public discourse. The great benefit of scientific discourse has been the dispelling of unfounded beliefs and creation of new ones through the application of a scientific method (Russell 2016). Advancements in life through innovation also follows from this premise. The strength of building a culture of scientific thinking is the fact that it encourages flexibility and evolving our understanding of the world based on rigorous evidence. Our choices come to be guided by examination, not dogma. The historical development of science shows that it is essentially a social process, rather than something that happens in isolation (Cowles 2020). Social mobilization gives science its scale. In the midst of this crisis, two broad pathways have emerged in the new international order—tendencies towards populist, totalitarian narratives that will snatch more, and tendencies towards valued human goals of reason and freedom. If one has set its wheels in motion, it is not only possible but also imperative for the other to do so.