The Muddled Middle

In terms of scale, the discipline of science can be thought of as having two extremes. The very large scale includes studies of matter, energy, and planetary systems while the very small scale studies microscopic processes, protein formation, and bacterial physiology. What lies between these poles David Waltner-Toews refers to as the “muddled middle”. Waltner-Toews is a veterinarian and epidemiologist by trade but has come to understand the importance of letting larger issues (social, economic) inform the work that he does (traditionally small in scale). To show this, in his lecture he detailed a case study of trying to prevent Hydatid disease in Nepal. Previous solutions proposed moving animal slaughter from its previous location on the riverbank to enclosed slaughterhouses, thus preventing street dogs from eating the discarded animal Hydatid cysts and subsequently passing the infection onto humans. In theory this plan should work as it eliminates the path of transmission from meat to dog to human. The plan also included improving street sanitation (normally done by young women), and killing stray dogs and treating those with homes; but the problem of infection persisted.

While the ideas stand to work in a vacuum, they cannot simply be implemented without other costs (social and cultural) and therefore may not be accepted by the people at risk. By creating slaughterhouses, the tradition of butchering animals with family and passing the trade through the generations is lost; by killing street dogs, a source of protection for residents and businesses is lost; by increasing the number of young women working as street cleaners it keeps them from attending school or caring for their children.

Waltner-Toews pointed out that consultation with the community and stakeholders identified larger problems to be addressed. People were concerned about water and food quality, garbage removal, childcare, and housing not Hydatid infection. After much hard work the community came upon an action plan: there were enclosed slaughter areas (but not slaughterhouses), homes were created for people originally squatting along the river, public toilets were created, and community gardens were planted in previously degraded areas. Many of the community’s problems were addressed in ways that complimented the way of life and the social constructs of the region by identifying the connections between them (i.e. by having childcare, women are able to remove more garbage from the streets, which reduces the number of street dogs that may carry Hydatid disease).

This seems like a great story – my one beef with it was that there has not been follow up to see if the infection rates of Hydatid disease have indeed dropped. It has been unfeasible for Waltner-Toews to continue a study originally focused on identifying methods of transmission and coming up with possible solutions. Instead, what started out as a study about disease transmission became one about how simple “logical” solutions are complicated by reality. Further, he stressed that one should not reduce a problem to the scale of their methods, but find new (perhaps non-scientific) ways of looking at the problem.

Aside from the lack of follow-up, I think this case study highlights a problem that permeates science: it exists in a bubble. While doing controlled, focused studies with few variables helps us understand very specific questions about an organism or ecosystem, we sometimes forget to see how the small pieces fit back together. We need to question if the answers we have found are feasible and how they interact with the social, cultural and economic spheres in which they will be implemented. Does this mean the scientific method needs to be restructured? No. After all, controlling for certain variables can yield valuable information for future study, or in the case of epidemiology for creating vaccines, etc. But there must be better understanding and flexibility when it comes to how the findings actually function in an uncontrolled setting. Vaccines and treatments, for example, cannot be provided blindly without considering what causes the prevalence of a disease in the first place, which may often be related to economic or cultural norms.

3 Responses to “The Muddled Middle”

  1. ellis says:

    Is this process – establishing slaughter areas, planting community gardens etc. – science or policy? We could also ask whether it is natural science, social science or policy – but of course to ask that latter question we need first to establish that social science and policy are distinct. Are they? If not, then in what way are the natural sciences distinct from social sciences?

    Culture Kid referred to an approach to environmental policy-making that she described as ‘linear.’ She didn’t say that linearity was necessarily a good thing, and the approaches tried here do not appear at first blush to result from linear thinking. Assuming that these approaches were fairly effective – and Crocus notes above that we don’t have much information on this – what kinds of methodological frameworks and techniques would have produced them? How do we get from Hydatid cysts to community gardens?

  2. merle says:

    This post also raise a difficult question implicit in many other posts: how do we integrate, if possible, local knowledge, culture and interests with abstract/universalistic knowledge (often de-contextualized) and interests? Aside from the epistemological question concerning the integration of different (and perhaps partly incompatible) epistemic frameworks, I am most interested in the question of competing interests: at a very large scale, one could say that there is the interests of the biosphere or of humanity (depending of one’s conception of moral standing), and the interests of bigger and smaller communities. At a smaller scale, when a community does an intervention in another community (whether the latter one is seen as a subset of the former or not) to solve what is seen as a problem by the second community, then it seems that it only raises the question of whether or not the problem is solved without ending up costing the community in question too much of other things. But when a community (A) intervenes in another (B) for the sake of humanity or for the sake of that community (B) even if this latter community (B) does not recognize the problem as a problem or does not want the help, then which principle(s) should guide the intervention? What could justify this paternalistic attitude and the violation of sovereignty (if we are talking about sovereign nations)? Is it possible to set up rules for these cases? Would it be appropriate? Does it make a difference if the intervention is direct or indirect (for instance by forcing a nation to do something by applying economic sanctions)?