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Andrew Lakoff: “The Risks of Preparedness: Mutant Bird Flu and the Politics of Global Public Health”

March 21, 2014 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Talk abstract: What kind of problem does an experimental virus pose for the public? The answer depends in part on which public one has in mind. During the controversy that began in late 2011 over the laboratory creation of a mutant strain of H5N1 avian influenza, at least three different publics were conjured. First, there was a vulnerable public, whose health was to be protected against a deadly pandemic through risk mitigation and preparedness measures. Second, there was a threatening public: here the problem was to restrict access to potentially dangerous knowledge about the virus to those who would use it for legitimate scientific purposes. And third, there appeared an ignorant public whose unfounded fears threatened to stifle scientific advance: this public needed to be informed of the benefits of what might at first glance appear to be frightening research. What was at stake in the invocation of these various publics in the mutant bird flu affair? This talk suggests that, rather than a conflict between scientific authorities and a fearful public, or between open inquiry and the demands of security, the controversy should be understood as a conflict among experts over different conceptualizations of an uncertain situation. As the controversy unfolded, a fracture appeared in the existing alliance between life scientists and global public health authorities around the uncertain threat of avian influenza.


Andrew Lakoff is Associate Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Communication at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Research Cluster in Science, Technology and Society. He is the author of Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry (Cambridge, 2006), and co-editor of Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices (Duke, 2006) and Biosecurity Interventions: Global Health and Security in Question (Columbia, 2008). His current research concerns the intersection of global public health and national security around the category of “emerging infectious disease.”

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March 21, 2014
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm