On Masks and Masking: Epistemic Injustice and Masking Disagreement in the COVID-19 Pandemic

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We have previously argued that masking, censoring, or ignoring scientific dissent can be detrimental for several ethical and epistemic reasons, even when such dissent is considered to be normatively inappropriate (de Melo-Martín and Intemann 2018). Masking dissent can be inappropriately paternalistic, undermine trust in experts, and make effective policy debates less fruitful. Here we explore another concern. Focusing on the case of communication about scientific information during the COVID-19 pandemic, we examine the extent to which masking disagreements among experts can result in epistemic injustices against laypersons. In an emerging public health crisis, uncertainties are high and public policy action is urgently needed. In such a context, where both policymakers and members of the public are looking to scientific experts to provide guidance, there is a great temptation for experts to “speak with one voice,” so as to avoid confusion and allow individuals, governments, and organizations to make evidence-based decisions rapidly (Beatty 2006). Reasonable and policy-relevant disagreement were masked during the pandemic in two central ways. First, scientific information with respect to particular interventions was presented in ways that masked the role of value judgments, about which disagreements existed. Interventions were thus presented as following directly from the scientific evidence. For example, decisions about whether to lockdown countries, what degree of lockdown to implement, and for how long depend not only on scientific evidence about the severity of Covid-19 but on ethical, social, or political judgments about, among other things, the importance of human life and health, the significance of civil liberties, the relevance of the financial recovery, the distribution of risks, and the proper role of government. When the policies were presented as following directly from the science, the role of value judgements in reaching conclusions was obscured. This denied laypersons the opportunity to assess how alternative value judgments might have led to different conclusions. In other words, it denied them rational grounds for objecting to, or following policies that may depend on value judgments. Second, disagreements about empirical data in assessing the efficacy or safety of interventions were also masked. For example, concerns about the consequences that minimizing the risks to some populations could have for the public willingness to follow recommendations, led to an overemphasis on risks to children and with it, to school closures. In these cases, masking scientific disagreement about empirical claims can deny decisionmakers access to contextualizing information that can be helpful in assessing risks that could (or could not) be reasonably taken or imposed on others. We conclude by drawing some lessons for how scientists and public health officials might communicate more effectively in circumstances where there are significant uncertainties and urgent need for action. Beatty, J. (2006). Masking disagreement among experts. Episteme, 3(1-2), 52-67. de Melo-Martín, I. and Intemann, K. (2018) The Fight Against Doubt: How to Bridge the Gap Between Scientists and the Public. New York, Oxford University Press.
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Montana State University
Weill Cornell Medicine--Cornell University

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