Sociology As A Moderator Of Economics

Zeynep Tufekci speaking at a conference in Munich. “I’ve just been struck by how right she has been,” said a Harvard epidemiologist. Credit: Felix Hörhager/Picture Alliance

By the time Zeynep Tufekci appeared in our pages last year I had been reading her analytical essays and op-eds for a while, and found her perspective on technology consistently clarifying. My instinctive apprehension about social media, which I could not explain, combined with my vague optimism about technology more broadly, which I also could not explain–found something to orient with in her writings. Now she makes an appearance through the lens of a keen observer of our media. What is keen about the observation is the attention to the sociological foundations of her perspective. With all that economics has done, for better and for worse, the influence of that dismal science has been ascendent for much of the modern era. Sociology has never had the prestige or influence in the USA that the field of economics has, and this profile hints at what this may have cost us:

How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right

Dr. Tufekci, a computer programmer who became a sociologist, sounded an early alarm on the need for protective masks. It wasn’t the first time she was right about something big.

Dr. Tufekci at a 2017 conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. Credit:Julia Reinhart/ Getty Images

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans in January that they didn’t need to wear masks, Dr. S. Vincent Rajkumar, a professor at the Mayo Clinic and the editor of the Blood Cancer Journal, couldn’t believe his ears.

But he kept silent until Zeynep Tufekci (pronounced ZAY-nep too-FEK-chee), a sociologist he had met on Twitter, wrote that the C.D.C. had blundered by saying protective face coverings should be worn by health workers but not ordinary people.

“Here I am, the editor of a journal in a high profile institution, yet I didn’t have the guts to speak out that it just doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Rajkumar told me. “Everybody should be wearing masks.”

Dr. Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science with no obvious qualifications in epidemiology, came out against the C.D.C. recommendation in a March 1 tweetstorm before expanding on her criticism in a March 17 Op-Ed article for The New York Times.

The C.D.C. changed its tune in April, advising all Americans above the age of 2 to wear masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Michael Basso, a senior health scientist at the agency who had been pushing internally to recommend masks, told me Dr. Tufekci’s public criticism of the agency was the “tipping point.”

In recent years, many public voices have gotten the big things wrong — election forecasts, the effects of digital media on American politics, the risk of a pandemic. Dr. Tufekci, a 40-something who speaks a mile a minute with a light Turkish accent, has none of the trappings of the celebrity academic or the professional pundit. But long before she became perhaps the only good amateur epidemiologist, she had quietly made a habit of being right on the big things.

And the success of Dr. Tufekci and others like her at seeing clearly in our murky time represents a kind of revenge of the nerds, as outsiders from American politics and from Silicon Valley’s pressure to align money and ideology sometimes see what insiders don’t…

Read the whole article here.

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