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Coronavirus and the open society

Date:26 May 2020
Author:Jouke de Vries
Jouke de Vries
Jouke de Vries

COVID-19 is an awful virus, but the approach to it is very interesting, both politically and from a philosophy-of-science perspective. When mentioning politics and the philosophy of science, I automatically think of Karl Popper. He took his philosophy of science work De groei van kennis (‘the growth of knowledge’) and also applied it to his political analysis De open samenleving en zijn vijanden (‘the open society and its enemies’). As a young student, these books made a lasting impression on me.

While resisting against the coronavirus, an important question to ask is which political regime has been approaching the problem the best: a democratic regime or an autocratic regime? An open society with opposing ideologies or a closed society with apodictic ideologies? At first, autocratic regimes appeared to have an advantage, as they were able to take quicker decisions while democracies found it harder to get things underway. 

I would like to try to answer the question for the Netherlands, although I cannot yet give a full answer, as much is still unknown and the crisis is still unfolding. The Netherlands is an open society with a multi-party system. At first, the Cabinet relied heavily on the RIVM experts, under the leadership of the unshakeable Jaap van Dissel. The Cabinet had to take 100% of the decisions with only 50% of the knowledge. In doing so, the Cabinet also leaned heavily on the Outbreak Management Team, which founded its analysis of the problem on certain assumptions: 1. it was just a flu, 2. it only affected old people, 3. children could not be carriers, and 4. face masks had no effect. 

It is interesting that, during the development of the virus and the increasing societal discussion surrounding it, these statements were subject to discussion. In a ‘Popperian’ sense, one cannot demonstrate that these statements are true, but it is possible to demonstrate that they are not true – a process through which the growth of knowledge is possible. And so we learned that it was not just a flu, it also affected young people, children could be carriers too and it was debatable whether face masks could have an effect or not.

Politicians and scientists have been searching and groping around for solutions and, by trial and error, they are coming incrementally closer to answering many questions – the growth of knowledge in action. Through trial and error, we are all attempting to reach a better explanation of the phenomenon. An open society that allows for variety and selection is capable of much. 

Jouke de Vries

President of the Board of the University

26 May 2020