Tag Archives: Science and Religion

War, sacrifice, and swallows that tell of summer: the narratives and metaphors of the Covid-19 pandemic

A line from Vera Lynn's WW2 song, also quoted by Elizabeth II during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a pub window

Since joining the University of York, I have been applying my background in communication and media science, history of science, and comparative literary studies to analyse the narratives of the Covid-19 pandemic. A preprint of my first research article ‘Over by Christmas: The impact of war-metaphors and other science-religion narratives on science communication environments during the Covid-19 crisis’ is now available. In it, I outline the prevalence, and the reasons and implications of the UK’s cultural preference for framing Covid-19 as warfare, but also explain its shortcomings in a science communication context. I have spoken about this research to German news Channel WDR.

This research touches on medical communication, history of science, theological themes. In a forthcoming book chapter ‘When words are poison: Toxic narratives in health communication‘, I explore how ill-chosen narratives in health scenarios pollute science communication environment, acting in a way analogous to polluting toxins. In a recent conference paper, I explore also what the history of science, science communication, and religion of past epidemics can teach us about the use of narrative in a public health crisis through a comparison of Covid-19 with the Victorian cholera epidemic, which also shows us what narratives and metaphors might be preferable. I have also written an article on the science communication of Christian ministers in the Victorian cholera epidemics for the Methodist Recorder. I expand on the comparison with the Victorian cholera epidemics in my contribution to a Historicising Covid-19 collection, forthcoming in 2021 with De Gruyter. If you’re pressed for time, I also wrote a shorter blog piece, which you can read here.

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New Job & Affiliation!

I am incredibly excited to have joined the University of York’s Department of Sociology as a Research Fellow on their “Narratives of Science and Religion” project in March, to work with Professor Tom McLeish (Physics) and Dr Amanda Rees (Sociology), who are both utterly brilliant.

This is the narrative-based branch of project of the collaborative ECLAS project, based at Durham, London and York, which brings together scientists, science historians, communication scientists, theologians and professional clergy to investigate effective ways to understand and communicate science, asking all “the Big questions”.

In a rather tumultuous start to the post, I have hit the ground running, researching religious narratives in the Covid-19 crisis in, but especially outside religious discourses, in politics and science journalism (wonder why we keep hearing baout the “sacrifice” of health workers, Covid as a “punishment for x”, from which “lessons” must be learned, and all this being a “war” in which various actors are fighting a “virtuous” fight?). I examine what happens when religious language is instrumentalised by politicians and journalists in a medical crisis, why and when they decide they do so, when they have historically done so, and what can be learned from that about the uses and pitfalls of such rhetoric.

To view the effect of such communication not only in a theoretical framework, but to also understand its dynamics in action, I examine this not only in a Science Communication framework, but also through responses to epidemics in the past. The Reverend Charles Kingsley, for instance, harnessed rousing Biblical imagery to communicate the findings of modern population health sciences – but also to hold governments and institutions to account – during the nineteenth-century cholera crises, to draw equally substantial audiences to his “Cholera sermons” at Westminster Abbey, his lectures at Cambridge University or at the Ladies’ Sanitary Association (which went by such attention-grabbing tiles as “The Pharaoh’s Heart” or “The Massacre of the Innocents”).

I am looking forward to draw on my experience with effective science communication in media and museums, and my previous academic work on the role imaginative and fantastic literatures played in digesting, contextualising and communicating new scientific findings, and their practical societal and epistemological implications (Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, and indeed Kinsgley were all critical and unconventional clerics – and science communicators).

Watch this space for upcoming conference and journal papers, as well as some shorter public pieces, which are already in the works (and soon hopefully even more thrilling stuff, when we move on to the environment, AI, genetic engineering – and more)!

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