Read the Room, Historians

Before I committed to writing this newsletter, I sketched out a list of 15 “starter” topics for the new few months. None of them anticipated a global pandemic. As I type this, the city where I live—Philadelphia—is a few hours into a more-or-less voluntary lockdown. No one’s attempting to keep residents in their homes, but all the gyms, bars, casinos, and nonessential retail facilities have been shut down. Even the gargantuan King of Prussia Mall in neighboring Montgomery County has been closed. As is happening in an increasing number of countries and US states, restaurants have been ordered to either convert to takeout or shut down.  

Right now, I’m about as interested as writing a post on the relationship between science and politics as you are in reading it. What is there to say, really, that hasn’t been said? Many, many federal governments, including my own, have made or are currently making disastrous errors that will likely result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of needless deaths. The impact of the crisis could have been lessened had political leaders (and the public) followed the advice of public health authorities, epidemiologists, and social psychologists. And, as is pretty much always the case with major crises, the epidemic is revealing social vulnerabilities that those in power typically sweep under the rug. For example: School districts in many major cities, including my own, delayed shutting down because so many of the students are homeless, and schools are the only place students are guaranteed to get meals.

This is no way to run a society.

There will be plenty of opportunities, in the both near and distant future, for historians of science and medicine and science studies scholars to poke around under the epidemic’s hood. Many, many books and dissertations will be written on who lived, and who died. Social historians will have a field day on how quarantines and social distancing play out in different local and national environments. They will uncover the differential effects of these same measures across race, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, and—one can only surmise—political commitments. There’s lots to be said about how data on this novel epidemic is being collected, how it’s being understood, and how it is (or isn’t) being shared. Personally, I’d love to know more about the assumptions baked into the various exhortations to “flatten the curve” (and can’t stop looking at the Washington Post’s simulation of quarantines vs. social distancing).

But the most important thing to know, right now, is that many people are going to be hurt in so many different ways by this epidemic. There’s no Hippocratic Oath for historians, but “do no harm” seems like a good starting point for most professions. Historians of science are, by nature, skeptical of expertise—and now just isn’t the time. Nor am I particularly in the mood to use other people’s suffering to theorize about the epistemology of disease or the nature of social contagion.

Every epidemic eventually ends. Most of my ventures to the outside world right now involve trips to my community garden, where I can poke around in the dirt and plant seeds for happier and healthier times. Plants offer the promise of a future. It also feels reassuringly normal. I hope that you, too, can find some moments of peace, normalcy, and small joy in the chaos all around us.

More next week, I promise. In the meantime, thank you, so much, to the medical professionals, healthcare workers, first responders, and disaster planners who, faced with unbelievably difficult choices, are doing the best they can to try to take care of us. Be well.


Recommended Reading: Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland is an urgent account of how and why white conservatives in the United States consistently vote against their self-interest. Focusing on case studies involving gun laws, education, and health care, Metzl shows how these voters’ choices are directly correlated with shortened lifespans. It’s highly relevant for our current moment.

It’s the Little Things: If you’re missing your gym and looking for a home workout, try searching for “equipment free workouts” on YouTube. The Tabata-style videos are particularly entertaining.

Audra IRL: None! Everything’s cancelled! But the paperback of Freedom’s Laboratory is now available for preorder direct from Johns Hopkins University Press. Use code HTWN for 30% off.