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Post-Covid graduates must challenge experts

A post-Covid-19 New Zealand needs university courses that produce graduates empowered to question the overconfident ethical pronouncements of experts everywhere, writes Nicholas Agar 

My one prediction about the post Covid-19 world is that we will see a rush of people claiming to have predicted this pandemic. If only we’d listened to them!

There were certainly many people who warned of the dangers of zoonoses, diseases transmitted to humans by animals. Spillover, a 2012 book by the science writer David Quammen, described some terrifying possibilities. He was at a loss to explain why there weren’t more spillovers of zoonotic diseases into humans. I particularly remember Quammen’s perplexed line: “Is there some mystical umbrella that protects us? Or is it fool’s luck?”

We’ve now learned that the luck of even the most fortunate fools eventually runs out. While reading Quammen’s book I fleetingly entertained some frightening scenarios – an influenza virus that has somehow incorporated the most lethal elements of the horse-killing Hendra virus or a virus that spreads like the common cold but kills like Ebola. Perhaps virologists would reassure me that these weren’t even possible. I didn’t know. But I remember that I found these depressing scenarios hard to think about, promptly turning to more amusing thoughts. Will Prince George grow up to look more like Kate or William? Why did Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford allow himself to be filmed smoking crack?

Something like the Covid-19 pandemic has long been a possibility but that doesn’t mean someone should have predicted it. In his important work on forecasting, the Canadian-American political scientist Philip Tetlock documents our gullibility in the face of “dress to impress forecasts” – forecasts that can be fashioned into catchy soundbites and broadcast on CNN. Recent history is littered with the wrecks of overconfident forecasts.

Rather than bemoaning the fact we didn’t predict this pandemic, we should be regretting the fact that we didn’t try hard enough to imagine it – and that we still aren’t trying hard enough to imagine all the other possibilities opening up in these times of technological and climatological change.

As we proceed into an intrinsically uncertain future, we need immunity against the advice of overconfident experts just as much as we’d like immunity against lethal zoonoses.

Our current attempts to imagine the future are hampered by a dangerous myopia. We don’t imagine deeply enough. Among the resets for universities in a post-coronavirus Aotearoa should be a focus on courses that extend the imaginative reach of young minds.

Suppose that after finishing Quammen’s book, instead of thinking about Prince George, I’d tried harder to imagine the consequences of a viral pandemic. I could easily have pictured crowded hospitals and busy funeral directors. But one thing I wouldn’t have imagined was an Aotearoa cut off from the rest of the world, struggling with a crashed tourism industry, and facing record unemployment. I wouldn’t have imagined the way a virus has exaggerated preexisting stressors on the Kiwi economy.

Calamities don’t patiently wait in line giving us time to respond to each in turn. Just last week, tropical super cyclone Amphan was wreaking havoc in India and Bangladesh. How will this unexpected event derail what might otherwise have been effective pandemic responses in these regions?

There is ongoing discussion of Sweden’s relaxed approach to Covid-19. Sweden rejected the strict lockdowns of its Nordic neighbours. One hope was that enough Swedes would contract and recover from the coronavirus to offer the benefits of herd immunity to older and sicker Swedes.

Recently this hope has faced the challenge of lower than expected levels of coronavirus antibodies in Stockholm residents. Why is this so? Is it wrong to think that we acquire resistance to Covid-19 in the same way we acquire resistance to the ‘flu? We should expect to know the answer to this question at some point but it’s dangerous to think we can know it now.

Suppose New Zealand’s record of success against Covid-19 continues. How should we think about a family of high-spending Swedes who’d like to book a 2022 holiday in Queenstown? What might this injection of Swedish krona mean for immunologically naïve Kiwis?

It’s tempting to imagine that a vaccine will promptly restore normalcy. Kiwis will add this to our annual ‘flu shots. But it’s dangerous to be overly confident about this alluring possibility now. The influenza vaccine helps against an old enemy – the Greek physician Hippocrates described the symptoms of ‘flu 2400 years ago, while something that may have been an influenza outbreak occurred in China approximately 8000 years ago. The lack of antibodies among many Stockholmers may suggest a different response to Covid-19. Suppose the vaccine helps many but leaves the sick and old exposed. Let’s hope not, but if so, we may think somewhat differently about those vacationing Scandinavians.

As we proceed into an intrinsically uncertain future, we need immunity against the advice of overconfident experts just as much as we’d like immunity against lethal zoonoses. Our universities should produce graduates who can offer and consume essential expert advice with an awareness of its limitations.

The educational thinker Cathy Davidson has called for a redesign of universities in ways that could meet the needs of a post-Covid Aotearoa. She reflects that many of the specialisations of today’s university courses are shaped by the priorities of the labour market that emerged from the Second Industrial Revolution. An unfortunate byproduct of this specialisation is a lack of awareness of ideas from other areas of knowledge.

We need graduates who reach across the boundaries of established academic disciplines. These graduates will recognise and promptly reject the various anti-vax and chemtrail conspiracies now flourishing on social media. But they will also feel empowered to question the overconfident ethical pronouncements of experts everywhere.

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