Please note the change of program: Xifan Yang will no longer participate in this Institute’s Colloquium event.
Moderator: Teresa Hollerbach
Scientists on Stage: Public Trust in China during the Covid-19 Pandemic
Most academic and media analyses of China’s Covid-19 response have treated “China,” “the Chinese government,” “the Chinese communist party (CCP),” and “Chinese officials” as homogenous and unitary entities, disregarding an army of diverse personnel who contribute to the country’s disease control strategies and who put them into practice on the ground. In fact, many of these personnel hold multiple statuses at the same time: among the government officials, CCP members, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s ranks are virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, and doctors who provide indispensable information and advice on pandemic control in China and internationally. Some scientists are also investors, board members, and corporate partners in the pharmaceutical industry whose interests are intricately connected to their research into the treatment of Covid-19. As the virus sweeps throughout China and the world, these individuals are playing and made to play various roles, including establishing scientific credibility, on different stages. In this talk, Yishu Mao will bring to light a few examples to illustrate how public trust in science in China is forged when some individuals smoothly switch between their different roles, adopting diverse techniques, and undermined when the multiple roles of some individuals create conflicts and raise public controversies.
History in the Making: COVIDCalls and the Covid-19 Pandemic
Disasters are too frequently described as external events—they happen to us, the temporality is linear and brief, we recover from them—with very brief background and limited exploration of deeper social structures and disaster impacts. It is much more the case—and we are seeing this with COVID-19—that a disaster is the result of a great number of interconnected processes. Disasters don’t come to us from the outside, but they reveal the society we have—and we don’t recover back to some previous whole—the disaster becomes part of us, woven into the fabric of our lives in our memories, our psychology, our laws, and our science. Disaster researchers and other guests on the COVIDCalls podcast bring out of obscurity the historical links among decisions made to protect some, and not others—to privilege some health and not that of others across history. Disaster researchers in this public venue also suggest ways to keep those linkages right in front of us, and even suggest tools of analysis, care, and policy to keep the truth of disaster inequality right in front of us—through the present and the future of this pandemic, and beyond. In doing so COVIDCalls is also forming a historical record of the pandemic.
Pandemics Past and Present
In this talk Laura Spinney will compare and contrast public communication and trust in science in the context of two pandemics—the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. She will also explore the subject of pandemic memory, and ask whether the world’s most recent pandemic might lend itself more easily to remembrance than the catastrophe of 1918, because of advances in information technology that happened in the interim.
“Democratic” vs. “Authoritarian” Pandemic Containment: The Danger of False Dichotomies
After an initial period of cover-up and chaos in Wuhan, China’s communist regime brought the Covid-19 pandemic widely under control in China through draconian policies unseen elsewhere, as well as with test-trace-isolate measures that were similarly applied in democracies such as Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. In this talk, Xifan Yang will outline how the debate around how to combat Covid-19 was highly politicized in both China and the West from the beginning of the pandemic. China’s Communist Party, under pressure from criticism of its early response, was eager to attribute its later success to a proclaimed “superiority” of its political model. By mirroring this narrative and framing comprehensive containment measures blanketly as “authoritarian,” Yang will argue, politicians and media commentators in Western democracies in return set a tone that has prevented their societies from learning valuable lessons from countries in Asia. Since early 2021 the pandemic has entered a phase that poses new risks and chances for both authoritarian and democratic governments. By putting propaganda value over data in its vaccination campaign, the Chinese regime risks losing regained trust from its citizens. Western governments on the other hand can make up failures in containment with speedy vaccinations and increased transparency in public communication, as the Biden administration shows.
Yishu Mao holds an MA in global studies from Humboldt University in Berlin, and spent parts of her studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi as well as the Latin American Social Sciences Institute (FLACSO) in Buenos Aires to conduct research on globalization from the Global South perspective. Before that, she studied literature and digital humanities at Bard College in New York. She has worked at Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) on a range of topics including the ideology of Chinese overseas students, digital development, and the intersection of online public opinion and policymaking in China. Her current research focuses on the ethics and values in the development of science and technology in China, particularly in the field of Artificial Intelligence. During the time of her visiting fellowship in the Lise Meitner Research Group, Mao Yishu will also work on a study of the complex role of Chinese scientists in the COVID-19 crisis, in collaboration with Anna Lisa Ahlers and other members of the group.
Scott Gabriel Knowles is a Professor in the Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy at KAIST, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He is a historian of disaster worldwide. He focuses on the historical processes that make disasters possible, and the application of history to reduce future disasters. Since March of 2020 Knowles has hosted #COVIDCalls every weekday, a live podcast discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He was (2019) a research fellow of the Interuniversity Centre for the History of Science and Technology, NOVA University of Lisbon. He has previously been a research fellow or visiting faculty member of CIGIDEN/Catolica Chile (2018), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (2016), the Rachel Carson Center (2016), and the University of Tokyo (2015).
Knowles is the author/editor of six books—including The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Legacies of Fukushima: 3.11 in Perspective (co-edited with Kyle Cleveland Ryuma Shineha, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021); Worlds Fairs in the Era of the Cold War (co-edited with Art Molella, Pittsburgh University Press, 2019); The Second Environmental Crisis (co-edited with James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf (Springer, 2019); Building Drexel: A University and Its City, 1891-2016 (co-edited with Richardson Dilworth (Temple University Press, 2016); and Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). He is also publication series co-editor (with Kim Fortun) of "Critical Studies in Risk and Disaster" with the University of Pennsylvania Press.
His work on the history of risk and disaster has appeared in Daedalus, Anthropocene Review, Natural Hazards Observer, History and Technology, Journal of Policy History, American Scientist, Technology and Culture, and Engineering Studies—he has also written for Hankyoreh, New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Slate, Conservation Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Hill. Knowles is completing two new books: The United States of Disaster; and, Slow Disaster.
Laura Spinney is a writer and science journalist. Her writing on science has appeared in The Guardian, The Economist, Nature and National Geographic, among others. She is the author of two novels, The Doctor (2001) and The Quick (2007), and a collection of oral history, Rue Centrale (2013). Her bestselling non-fiction account of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (2017), was published in the UK by Jonathan Cape and has been translated into 16 other languages. She lives in Paris.
Xifan Yang (Chinese 杨希璠) was born in Hengyang, an industrial city in the southern Chinese province of Hunan. At the age of four she migrated with her parents to Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany. Later on in Munich, Yang studied psychology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University for a while and started writing at jetzt.de, the youth magazine of Süddeutsche Zeitung. After an apprenticeship at the German School of Journalism in Munich, Yang moved to Shanghai in 2011 to work as a freelance China and Asia correspondent for German-language media such as Stern, GEO and Süddeutsche Zeitung. In 2015 she published her first book “Als die Karpfen fliegen lernten” (Hanser Berlin), a story of the last 80 years of recent Chinese history told through the eyes of her family members. From 2016 until 2017 she worked as an editor at SZ Magazin, the Friday supplement of Süddeutsche Zeitung. Since 2018, Yang has held the position of Beijing Bureau Chief of Germany’s biggest weekly DIE ZEIT. She received the award Deutscher Reporterpreis 2020 in the category "Reportage of the Year."
Crisis and Capacity: Perspectives in the Humanities and Social Sciences
Months have passed since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. People have experienced the effects of the virus’ rapid global spread: the politicization of medicine, worldwide shortages of and bidding wars for protective equipment, disputes and uneven public health messaging about prevention and treatments, disproportionate distributions of health risks in populations, and mass mortality. While many issues related to the Covid-19 outbreak are dealt with by scientists and health practitioners—such as the search for treatments and cures—other concerns command the expertise of scholars in the humanities and social sciences.
Developing from the MPIWG's History of Science ON CALL video project, the Institute’s Colloquium 2020/21 therefore facilitates conversations around how humanities and social sciences scholars might deliberately or inadvertently form a long view of critical contemporary issues, aiming to:
Normalize reflexive intellectual discussions about challenging topics about inequalities such as race or gender
Connect to other dialogues within and beyond Berlin about plural histories and sociologies of crises
Ultimately, the program seeks to bring to the fore various insights into local, regional, and international cooperation and academic work prompted by Covid-19.