Miasmas, mental models and preventive public health: some philosophical reflections on science in the COVID-19 pandemic
When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is written, it is likely to show that the mental models held by scientists sometimes facilitated their thinking, thereby leading to lives saved, and at other times constrained their thinking, thereby leading to lives lost. This paper explores some competing mental models of how infectious diseases spread and shows how these models influenced the scientific process and the kinds of facts that were generated, legitimized and used to support policy. A central theme in the paper is the relative weight given by dominant scientific voices to probabilistic arguments based on experimental measurements versus mechanistic arguments based on theory. Two examples are explored: the cholera epidemic in nineteenth century London—in which the story of John Snow and the Broad Street pump is retold—and the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and early 2021—in which the evidence-based medicine movement and its hierarchy of evidence features prominently. In each case, it is shown that prevailing mental models—which were assumed by some to transcend theory but were actually heavily theory-laden—powerfully shaped both science and policy, with fatal consequences for some.