Population health and humility during the COVID-19 pandemic

I am a philosopher who studies “population health,” and for as long as I have worked in that area, I have found the most interesting and admirable feature of population health science research is that humility serves the glue that holds it all together. Personally, it has also been a welcome change of pace for me to study humble science, having spent the earlier half of my career studying scientific hubris: there have been plenty of scientists convinced that their own brilliance showed the wisdom of everything from unethical eugenics programs to worthless medical tests. By contrast, I see three different kinds of humility that population health researchers have been tacitly doing every day, and should continue doing if they want their work to be grounded in evidence and contribute to efforts to make the world a better place. Diverse faith communities can and should be valued parts of those same efforts. Their participation is all the more important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first kind of humility I advocate for is what philosophers call “epistemic humility”: the notion that one shouldn’t be overconfident about their own knowledge, nor should one be dismissive of other people’s knowledge. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our ability to cope with the limits of our knowledge. I see this challenge as an invitation to heed the wisdom of our respective traditions. Abraham, Confucius, and innumerable other influential figures from religious and cultural traditions around the world have articulated the value of being humble. Each tradition has its own ways of counseling us to avoid the arrogance of doubting the wisdom of others simply because we do not like what they are saying, and also to be wary of frauds and quacks who pretend to have all the answers. The uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic require us to engage in respectful and inclusive dialogue—listening to and sharing knowledge as we try to get through this. As I like to put it, nobody knows everything about health, but everybody knows something.

The second kind of humility I see as crucial for good population health work is intersectoral humility. By that I mean that we need all of the different sectors of society to humbly work together, if we want to have a real chance at improving health. Failures in the US COVID-19 response have artificially pitted different sectors of society against each other: business leaders demanding fast reopening; medical experts pleading for restraint; employees torn between fearing for their families’ health by going to work or fearing for their families’ ability to put food on the table if they stay home. A handful of faith groups have been in the news for their leaders’ reckless decisions to defy restrictions on public gatherings. This is a shame, both because these leaders do not speak for the many other faith groups that have acted responsibly and because it speaks to a missed opportunity. Faith groups have long been at the front lines of disasters, including this pandemic, providing material aid and spiritual comfort to those in distress. If we had a wiser COVID-19 strategy, faith groups would have been a key piece of an organized national effort to care for our neighbors, rather than leaving faith groups to work independently.

Finally, I also urge that we need interdisciplinary humility: lots of different kinds of expertise from lots of different perspectives, including many scientific disciplines, and other knowledge traditions. The COVID-19 has shown that we desperately need knowledge from across society to navigate these perils. Epidemiologists can help us save lives. Therapists can help us to manage the stress. We need faith communities’ wisdom as we look for meaning and dignity in these times of isolation and fear.

Humility in population health can take a lot of different forms. It might be meat packing plant workers seeking legal intervention because they have seen that their bosses have done little to keep workers from spreading COVID-19 in cramped unsanitary conditions. It might be government officials inviting parents and teachers to consult on the details of how to protect children as schools begin reopening. Humility means listening to and respecting people and groups with views that are unfamiliar, and seeking to combine that knowledge to achieve something greater. Interfaith collaborations on population health—humbly sharing and combining our knowledges—help us to build a world where all can thrive.

Sean A. Valles, PhD is Director and Associate Professor in the Michigan State University Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences. He is a philosopher of health specializing in the ethical and evidentiary complexities of how social contexts—everything from one’s local food options to the presence/absence of exposure to violent policing practices—combine to create patterns of inequitable health disparities. He is author of the 2018 book, Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. Additionally, he serves as an IPHN Adviser.