Domesticating models: On the contingency of Covid-19 modelling in UK media and policy

Lukas Engelmann*, Catherine Montgomery, Steve Sturdy, Cristina Moreno Lozano

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Our article traces the representation of pandemic modelling in UK print media from the emergence of Covid-19 to the early stages of implementing the first UK-wide lockdown in late March 2020. Covid modelling, it is widely assumed, has shaped policy decisions and public responses to the pandemic in unprecedented ways. We analyse how the UK print media has configured modelling as a significant evidence tool in the representation of the pandemic. Interrogating assumptions about infectious disease modelling, we ask why models became the trusted tool of choice for knowing and responding to the Covid pandemic in the UK. Our analysis has yielded four different periods in the evolution of intersecting policy and media frames. Initially, modellers, policymakers and media alike emphasized uncertainty about available data, and hence the speculative character of modelled projections, thus justifying a ‘wait and see’ approach to government intervention. With growing public pressure for government action, policy and media frames were adjusted to emphasize the importance of timing interventions for best effect, with modelling evidence mobilized to justify inaction. This gave way to a period of crisis, as the press increasingly questioned the reliability of the existing models and policies, leading modellers and policy makers to dramatically revise their projections. Finally, with the imposition of the first UK lockdown, policy and media frames were brought back into alignment with one another, in a process of domestication through which the language of modelling became a basic resource for the discussion of the epidemic. Our epistemological microhistory thus challenges general accounts of the impacts of pandemic modelling and instead emphasizes contingency and interpretative flexibility.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalSocial Studies of Science
Early online date13 Oct 2022
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Oct 2022

Keywords

  • Covid-19
  • modelling
  • performativity
  • pandemic policy
  • media analysis

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