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Social distancing sign on rural road.

Public health emergencies present unique challenges for consensus-building for many reasons, including uncertainty and disagreement among experts.

Facing disagreement, some scientists may seek to develop a curated consensus by gathering experts who agree in order to, for example, present a unified scientific voice in support of urgent policy action. This may be expedient, and can lead to public health benefits, although it may have negative effects.

For example, (i) an intervention presumed to be beneficial may turn out to be ineffective and/or harmful, (ii) a curated consensus may promote scientific blindspots because key data or research questions that contradict the consensus are ignored, and (iii) experts who have valid criticisms of the consensus view may be ostracized or punished (e.g., by exclusion from research funding). As a result, (iv) others may be further dissuaded from pursuing such lines of inquiry, exacerbating scientific blindspots.

Project Aims

This pilot project will explore how public health emergencies including the Covid pandemic have reshaped public health consensus building, both our theoretical understanding of it and the institutional, evidential and social landscape. We will address the following research questions:

  1. How have public health emergencies challenged our understanding of public health consensus building?
  2. How have public health emergencies reshaped evidential standards regarding the balance between risks and benefits of interventions?
  3. How have public health emergencies opened new opportunities for epistemic pluralism in public health consensus building?

Project Team

  • Euzebiusz Jamroz, Ethox Centre University of Oxford
  • Jonathan Schaffer, University of Vermont
  • Kevin Bardosh, University of Washington
  • Peter Godfrey-Smith, University of Sydney

Image credit: Logan Weaver on Unsplash