Scientific Law & “High Modernism”
Intriguingly, the term “public health” has been routinely employed when discussing revolving concepts comprising infectious diseases, physical activity, nutrition, substance abuse, mental health, environmental quality, etc. However, incorporated in such a vast assembly of loose concepts, it’s only understandable why many citizens are bewildered by its particularity, in historical and modern societies. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC Foundation) publicized their outlook on “public health” as “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals” (CDC Foundation). Uncovering the preciseness of this definition, it’s interesting how the phrase, “organized efforts and informed choice of society” are alluded to as if there has been an evolution of the institutions, ideologies, and standards in modern democratic societies, which have applied science as a method to authorize public policy. Naturally, it’s our incentive for public/global health institutions and organizations to strive for society as such. However, why does it seem as if we’re nowhere close to this seemingly progressive aspiration in society? Historically, where may have our society’s intentions altered collapsed concerning public health?
To elucidate, the elephant in the room is our most recent tragic event, the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, public figures in our society have stressed the vulnerability and neglect our society has adopted under individualistic priorities, financial matters, and malfeasance signifying our conceptions as humans and society as a whole. For instance, American business magnate and philanthropist, Bill Gates, expressed his concern and insight on our society’s susceptibility to infectious diseases at a public and global health level in a TED Talk in 2014, following the horrific events transpiring from the West African Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak. The Ebola epidemic was a fatal illness and one of the most widespread outbreaks in history. The virus was described as a hemorrhagic fever with symptoms ranging from fever, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea, with severe cases including vascular injuries (blood vessel damage and internal and external bleeding) (CDC Foundation). Case fatality rates varied from 25% to as high as 90% with over 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths within the three-year outbreak span (CDC Foundation). In Gates’ talk, he enlightens his takeaway from the Ebola epidemic raising the concern that “we didn’t have a system at all. . .we didn’t have a group of epidemiologists ready to go who would’ve gone, seen what the disease was, see how far it has spread. The case reports came in on paper, it was very delayed before they were put online and were extremely inaccurate. We didn’t have a medical team ready to go, we didn’t have to prepare people” (TED 2015). Gates’ outlook on the epidemic was an eye-opener and warning to many public/global health institutions, ideologies, standards, and expertise to democratic societies, which never partook any actions until the following outbreak — COVID-19. Consequently, and still ongoing, the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic, stimulated a global health lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, health protocols, and, more importantly, the loss of millions of lives (TED 2015). We weren’t ready for the next infectious disease. We didn’t have effective health systems, especially in impoverished societies. We didn’t have a reliable medical reserve corps, as hospitals revealed a limited capacity for COVID-19 patients. And lastly, we weren’t prepared for scientific research and development in areas of vaccines and diagnostics exhibited by the delayed and rushed distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots. In retrospect, our society was warned yet only fell upon deaf ears.
So when addressing the question, who or what was to blame for this matter? My perspective isn’t to point fingers or criticize specific groups. Nevertheless, we have to understand the underlying challenges our society has experienced leading up to the outbreak and recognize what steps we must take to reduce public/global health equity. This can range from enhancing primary health care, refining research, and development, etc., which are potential methods for preparing ourselves for the next pandemic and even creating a more just and civil society. However, encompassing professionals’ frame of reference, real-life scenarios, and my position, I believe that administering ordering of nature and society by the state would significantly improve our “organized efforts and informed choice of society,” ultimately preventing infectious diseases, prolonging life expectancy, and promoting health among all public and global communities and regions in our world.
Evident from instances such as the COVID-19 pandemic, an individual’s ideologies, standards, and procedures stem from the public health perspective. As previously mentioned, this would include promoting physical activity, improving access to healthy, affordable foods, and expanding awareness of environmental quality. Over the last few decades, our perception of teaching and learning of ethics and conception of ourselves as human beings has influenced the surrounding people to behave similarly. Today, people conceive a more individualistic world seeking competition among others who pursue their interests rather than effectively promoting the general welfare of society. People would prefer to elevate their status and well-being over supporting others who were less privileged to excel alongside them. Emotions such as love, loyalty, and fairness share little to no place, as qualities such as narrow selfishness are more pervasive. This evolution of procedures, standards, and expertise has generated a society of hierarchy widening the gap between different populations based on one’s socioeconomic status.
Hence, these conceptions are some of the many causes of health disparities and infectious diseases shown under the Ebola epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic. These events present an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems, and social disruption, devastating millions of families who were enduring poverty, undernourishment, and the risk of losing their livelihoods. The lack of social protection and access to quality health care left many families to survive on their own without assistance. I wish to never experience an event as such again and strive to find a clear, consistent, evidence-based guidance for families and communities to recover and prevent another pandemic from occurring again. Therefore, I believe that everything stems from improving one’s human condition to succeed, and we consider the public health effects and local conditions to enhance a society of less self-centered ideals, promoting a more collective and supportive community expanding onto a global level to prepare for any unexpected events. My outlook on assessing the individual and local conditions are alike to the author, James C. Scott’s thoughts on social organization and epistemic knowledge. James C. Scott is an American political scientist, anthropologist, and author of “Seeing Like A State.” His book observes how failures of specific ideologies — in Scott’s words “high modernism” — have shown that if our society utilizes responsibilities and willpower, it’s possible to achieve a more just and equal society. This is an immersive and powerful text touching on the political values of communism and socialistic views where an individual can design and operate society under the power of scientific laws (Scott 1998).
To start, James C. Scott catalogues many schemes throughout his book to exhibit a system of beliefs under the term “high modernism.” Scott frequently exercises this term through his book presenting the audience with a utopian perspective of society, designed and operated following scientific laws. Through many failed attempts, the author believes that utilizing an irrational planner, removed from the conditions of the world, would be the most optimal solution to enhancing society. The text incorporates many aspects of communism, fascism, and socialism from the early 20th century as blueprints to ideologies of societies that must follow standards, cultures, and beliefs in the modern day. He touches on many key figures such as Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, and his contributions to modern architecture through his visions and willpower on cities such as Paris or Brasília. Scott also briefly touches on monocropping where the practice of growing the same crop on the same plot of land is inferior and reduces organic matter in the soil over time. From an encompassing perspective, Scott presents the reader with various instances of failed ideologies.
However, more importantly, the author explores the conceptual repertoire for making sense of improvisation in a social and cultural role through “metis” and “techne.” Metis is the contextual and practical skills and knowledge that an individual possesses, while Techne shares the universal technical knowledge on the politics of improvisation. These terms refer to the local knowledge and the ability of a system to encapsulate intelligent behavior and Scott exercises this high modernism ideology as he mentions how “Metis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and nonrepeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply. In a sense, metis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote” (Scott 316). Scott employs the concept of metis as a model that societies should uphold by becoming more aware of this tacit knowledge that exists in different societies around the world. And failure to maintain metis can create many issues in a society where ideals and standards become exploited and mistreated. Ideals such as affordable and accessible healthcare and opportunities for healthy nutrition and physical activity are some of the many principles the authors challenge for. He advocates metis in many practical implications for how someone may live either life and the decisions that they make in their career, social environment, and relationships which can influence one’s political beliefs and policy decisions.
Discussing further the failures in social ideologies discussed throughout the book, a significant example was the failure of “scientific forestry.” For centuries, forests were well recognized as a source of lumber and a place for hunters and villagers to forage and hunt, outside of state control. Scott discusses how a scientific approach to clearing these open forests and planting monocultures of a fast-growing trees would seem beneficial to the ecosystem of animals and plants, however, highlights that it’s much more complicated. He elucidates how although it would be more efficient, organized, and produce high-quality lumber, it would destroy a local ecosystem — a complex system of relationships between plants, animals, and people who interacted with the forest. And imposing scientific forestry and superior systems to maintain and organize an existing ecosystem may seem beneficial at first, but displayed many existing problems which may be present today. For instance, the author illustrates how in a societal setting, “a state that improved its population skills, vigor, civic morals, and work habits would increase its tax base and field better armies; it was a policy that any enlightened sovereign might pursue. And yet, in the nineteenth century, the welfare of the population came increasingly to be seen, not merely as a means to national strength, but as an end in itself” (Scott 91). From the author’s statement, although at first it may resolve the issue, and may seem as if it had higher yield and outputs, over time, it can manifest into an issue substantially enough to critically impair our world (Scott 91). Throughout history, scientific forestry proved to be effective in the first century, yet immediately after ecosystems collapsed, plants and animals were defiant, the nutrient balance of soil was disrupted, etc. And through this example, James C. Scott analogizes making significant changes and modernization to our society, like scientific forestry, which can disrupt our ecosystem — a complicated system that seemed chaotic — however, embodied a multitude of intelligent behavior.
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