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A group of people wearing masks, waiting outside a Covid-19 testing centre.

This project aims to explore the ethical questions arising from the use and non-use of scientific knowledge and expertise under conditions of uncertainty during a public health emergency. In particular, it aims to characterise what we call ‘constructive ignorance’, that is, the systematic non-production of knowledge due to limitations in the frameworks, narratives and evidence-into-policy institutions that feed into policymaking.

According to sociological studies of ignorance (McGoey, 2012), ignorance and uncertainty are not the flipside of knowledge and certainty. They do not refer to some generic absence of knowledge, but to highly specific forms of unknowing (Gross and McGoey, 2015, Kerwin, 1993, Mair et al., 2012, Will, 2020) resulting from more or less purposive courses of action. Ignorance and uncertainty are a direct effect of social arrangements of power designed to enable institutions to pursue their goals by actively excluding information. This project builds on the tradition of social studies of ignorance, also combining insights from agnotology (the study of ignorance), from social studies of expertise (Collins and Evans, 2002), and from philosophy and social epistemology (in particular, theories of epistemic injustice (Dotson, 2012, Fricker, 2007)).

Debates on evidence-based policymaking have centred on the question of how to reclaim truth and evidence in the face of the alleged crisis of expertise and the shift to post-truth. The focus has been on the role of knowledge as input for policy. We argue that a more sophisticated understanding of policy making under pressure requires us to attend also - or perhaps particularly - to constructive ignorance as a form of knowledge in its own right.
The complexity of societal crisis (from climate change to COVID-19) demand the inclusion of potentially conflicting or incommensurable types of knowledge and perspectives from diverse and often geographically dispersed sources.

However, such diversity can generate uncertainty and deep disagreements, value conflict and polarisation, especially with regards to the scientific evidence. More or less institutionalised forms of constructive ignorance may be necessary to bracket out uncertainty and disagreement and in this way allow governmentality.
In considering these two epistemic dimensions - knowing and unknowing - a key ethical question is how these need to be negotiated during a public health emergency in order to avoid bad policy choices. The use (and non-use) of knowledge and expertise during a public health emergency raises important ethical considerations. What epistemic resources are mobilised (or not) determines the range of options available (or not) to policymakers to address the needs and priorities of diverse publics. One key ethical consideration is how to minimize epistemic injustices – that is, minimize injustices related to knowledge, communication and authority. For example, one form that epistemic injustice can take is attributing too much credibility to some people and information sources while attributing too little credibility to others (what Miranda Fricker terms credibility excesses and deficits).

This project is informed by previous work by Mormina (Mormina, 2022) mapping out epistemic injustices related to the use of scientific advice during COVID-19, and by the preliminary research findings from a Berman Institute-based research project on COVID-19 policymaking in U.S. states (Barnhill).

Milton Friedman famously said: ‘When [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around’ (Friedman, 1962). Only by considering how policymakers managed both knowing and unknowing, and by situating these policymakers within broader epistemic communities, institutions and processes, can we begin to understand the real influences on policymaking under pressure, and lay the groundwork to ensure that in future economic, political, and climate crises there are enough good ideas lying around.


Through this project we seek to test the feasibility of data collection methods and begin to form a philosophical approach for a larger project that will aim to:

  1. Identify the forms of expert and other knowledge that percolated through government institutions and directly influenced COVID-19 policymaking, and identify the broader epistemic communities that formed during the pandemic;
  2. Analyse this data to understand and explore how the two forces of knowledge and non-knowledge operated during the pandemic; 
  3. And consider how these processes may have resulted in epistemic justice and injustice. This is a first step towards building an effective framework, grounded in a realist perspective, to guide policymaking under pressure.

Project Team

  • Anne Barnhill, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics
  • Maru Mormina, Ethox Centre, University of Oxford

Image credit: Jakayla Toney on Unsplash