Virtual ProgramTuesday, October 19

In Defense of COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, Sort of: How the Broader Ecology of Laypersons’ Narratives Can Help Medicine

Tuesday, October 19, 7:00 pm–8:30 pm

  session will be recorded and available for later viewing online

Sponsored by the Department of Humanities at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine, the Humanities Institute at Penn State, the School of Humanities at Penn State Harrisburg

Keynote Lecture for Cultural Health: A Forum on Folk Medical Systems


Charles L. Briggs (University of California, Berkeley)

One of the greatest concerns for public health authorities in developing COVID-19 mitigation policies has been a global avalanche of misinformation and conspiracy theories, which are seen as major threats to public acceptance of mitigation measures and vaccination. This lecture examines how concern with misinformation can thwart appreciation of the broad and heterogeneous parameters of lay efforts to produce knowledge about the disease and its effects. During this period, large burdens of care have fallen to laypersons, including for isolation, quarantine, and home care for “mild cases,” even as a tricky virus has thwarted clinicians’ and epidemiologists’ efforts to provide linear timelines or stability and certainty in predicting SARS-CoV-2’s trajectories. The argument is presented that health professionals have much to gain by learning to appreciate not only patient narratives emerging in clinical encounters but the broader ecology of laypersons’ collective contributions to the complexities of care and prevention. In short, accepting laypersons as partners in COVID-19 knowledge production has much to offer in confronting the deep health inequities highlighted by the pandemic, addressing the challenges to health professionals and patients that continue to unfold, and finding ways to minimize chances of future cataclysmic pandemics.