Prediction, preparation, and humility

Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard has a really interesting essay in Boston Review titled “‘Preparedness’ Won’t Stop the Next Pandemic.” The whole thing is worth a read, but here’s the gist:

Humility, by contrast, admits that defeat is possible. It occupies the nebulous zone between preparedness and precaution by asking a moral question: not what we can achieve with what we have, but how we should act given that we cannot know the full consequences of our actions. Thought of in this way, humility addresses the questions perennially raised by critics of precaution and refutes the charges of passivity. Confronted on many fronts by riddles too knotty to solve, must society choose either to do nothing or to move aggressively forward as if risks don’t matter and resources are limitless? Decades of effort to protect human health and the environment suggest that the choice is not so stark or binary.

There is a middle way, the way of humility, that permits steps to be taken here and now in order to forestall worst-case scenarios later. It implements precaution by unheroic but also more ethical means, through what I call technologies of humility: institutional mechanisms—including greater citizen participation—for incorporating memory, experience, and concerns for justice into our schemes of governance and public policy. This is a proactive, historically informed, and analytically robust method that asks not just what we can do but who might get hurt, what happened when we tried before, whose perceptions were systematically ignored, and what protections are in place if we again guess wrong.

There are some responses to the essay here, which I’ve not yet read.

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