Lessons from a pandemic

This is a good time to be a New Zealander. In terms of the Covid-19 pandemic we’ve got off extremely lightly, the result of a range of happy circumstances. We’re a small nation, as isolated as they come, our land is sparsely populated, we have a relatively functional media and a cultural tradition that tends towards the pragmatic. And it was a wee while before we got our first Covid cases, which gave us time to learn from trajectories elsewhere. All of that belongs in the ‘got lucky’ basket. But it’s also fair to say we made some smart choices too. Our government were decisive and communicated clearly, and they chose wisely their sources of advice. Our national response was, for the most part, coherent and purposeful and we all benefited from that. And that got me thinking, what are the conditions that aid such a cultural response, and what are the conditions that stall it?

 At the same time, being a school teacher, I was watching the online learning experiment unfold, the institutionalised celebration of the google worldview, which holds that young and curious minds, given the right resources and the licence to roam free and follow their enthusiasms, can learn for themselves in an optimal way. It’s the pedagogical equivalent of the invisible hand, some mysterious force both unseen and beyond analysis that leads us towards a happy intellectual equilibrium. It’s all tremendously modern and exciting, particularly for those who like to feel that they are at the cutting edge of this thing we call progress. As you’ll likely know, I’m not yet a convert, and I think the Covid-19 case provides an interesting insight into the flaws of the information free-market.

 Amongst all the other factors required for a co-ordinated public response to a pandemic, one platform that presumably has to be in place is a well-informed and rational public. Most of us knew precious little about virology or epidemiology or public health going in, and yet when push came to shove, we were happy to listen to those who did. And crucially, we were less inclined to subscribe to the belief that the virus was spread via 5G technology, or that it was a beat up being driven by governments who aimed to control our lives, or that it wasn’t much more than another flu, or that social isolation wouldn’t work, or that herd immunity was a better strategy, or inhaling disinfectant could get the job done, or…

 Now, adherents to the digital information revolution might posit that this speaks to our ability as a nation to critically assess information sources, and this in turn will stoke their belief that the most important thing we can teach our young is to be more critical consumers of online information, but I’m not so sure. Whatever it was that allowed an easy public consensus to build in New Zealand, it sure as hell wasn’t a general level of scientific literacy. Early on, before the spread of the virus into Europe, I read a number of articles playing down the risks associated with Covid-19, and truth is I wasn’t qualified to judge them either way. I’m reasonably well informed when it comes to these things – I’ve spent a year working at a  genetic research centre, I enjoy reading popular science books and articles, I’m fairly literate and numerate etc,  but that in itself doesn’t get us over the line when it comes to working out which information we should trust. When it comes to important decisions we rarely have the time or the expertise to evaluate competing viewpoints properly.

 Rather, I believe, the key thing when it comes to guiding a populace through the information jungle is a strong and stable sense of trust in institutions, a trust which in turn must be earned. It seems to me that if we are to make informed community wide decisions, as we did with Covid, then we’re going to need some mechanism by which we are encouraged to trust those who know what they’re talking about. It’s not about being smart, of owning the finest minds and the best funded learning institutions. New Zealand could never hope to match the expertise of the UK or the US, both of which have world leading research capacities, yet in this case we had political leadership that communicated better and was, frankly, easier to trust, and that made all the difference.

 The silver bullet in terms of information literacy may well turn out to be social cohesion. The more we find ourselves disenfranchised, the less likely we are to trust those in positions of authority. And the less we are able to rationally trust those with the resources to discover and disseminate reliable information, the more susceptible we become to the misinformation that abounds online. Leave groups out of the social contract and the resulting fragmentation leads, amongst many other things, to ignorance. 

 If this is right, then the educational imperative becomes much less about developing critical faculties (for there are some very smart and intellectually agile conspiracy theorists) and more about developing a sense of belonging and participation and trust. And all of this requires institutions worthy of trust. It requires a well functioning media, an engaged populace and leaders who put the service of their community ahead of the service of their own venal interests. Which, in this day and age, feels like a mighty big ask.

 Values precede knowledge, is my point. In fact, values enable knowledge. Without the politics of integrity, service and inclusion, smartness sits forever out of reach, and teaching students how to evaluate the trustworthiness of information sources becomes little but a farce, albeit a tremendously lucrative one for the providers of our online platforms.


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