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2020 Supplement

Thinking in a Pandemic

From masks to models and from data to drugs, COVID-19 has prompted a high-stakes dispute about science and policy. This issue explores these debates in real time.

Thinking in a Pandemic:
The Crisis of Science and Policy in the Age of COVID-19

Nearly a year after the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in late 2019, the brutal toll of the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise. The result has been not just a crisis of public health but also a crisis of public reason. What do we know, and how should we act? From masks to models and from data to drugs, the novel coronavirus has prompted a high-stakes dispute about ideas: which evidence counts, which arguments succeed, and which interventions matter.

The essays in this volume—from leading physicians and epidemiologists, historians and social scientists, anthropologists and philosophers—explore this meeting place of science and society head on. Combining historical reflection with careful argumentation, the contributors provide a lucid and essential guide to the greatest public debate of our time. Together they make clear that the challenge of COVID-19 has always been both scientific and social.

Editor’s Note
Matt Lord


We should be wary of simplistic uses of history, but we can learn from the logic of social responses.
Alex de Waal

Crisis management only blurs ever more the boundary between politics and technical expertise.

Jonathan White
History shows that outbreaks rarely have tidy conclusions.
Jeremy A. Greene, Dora Vargha


COVID-19 has revealed a contest between two competing philosophies of scientific knowledge. To manage the crisis, we must draw on both.
Jonathan Fuller
For the sake of both science and action in the COVID-19 pandemic, we need collaboration among specialists, not sects.
Marc Lipsitch
As policymakers debate the right response to COVID-19, they must take seriously the harms of pandemic policies, not just their benefits.
John P. A. Ioannidis
The debate over pandemic response is not only about the facts—including the grim death toll. It's also about the relationship between science and decision-making, where values inevitably play a role.
Jonathan Fuller


Mortality rates typically fall during economic downturns. But the unprecedented features of the COVID-19 shutdown suggest that trend might not hold this time.
Sarah Burgard, Lucie Kalousova
How a drug became an object lesson in political tribalism.
Cailin O'Connor, James Owen Weatherall
The UK government’s ultra-cautious approach to “evidence-based” policy has helped cast doubt on public health interventions. The definition of good medical and public health practice must be urgently updated.
Trisha Greenhalgh
There’s no silver bullet, but local experiments and global experiences can help us control the pandemic.
Natalie Dean
Pulse oximeters give biased results for people with darker skin. The consequences could be serious.
Amy Moran-Thomas

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