Interview Pandemic Perspectives Project

On April 25, 2022 Ideas Roadshow’s senior editor Ruth Barnwood sat down with Howard Burton to discuss his thinking behind the Pandemic Perspectives Project and future work:

RB: Why a film, book and podcast?  What did you have in mind there?

HB: Well, it evolved pretty naturally, as these things tend to do.  First came the idea of the film, which was actually triggered by a sense of frustration from the information I was getting from standard sources.  Like most people, I don’t have a biological background and was completely unprepared and overwhelmed when the pandemic hit: I had a really hard time making sense of what was happening around me—I had no real context and the media reports that were supposed to be “explaining” things for me, weren’t actually very helpful at all. 

So I first thought that I’d do a film just about the science—”a non-biologist tries to make sense of things”— but as time went on it seemed that there were a lot more things to try to make sense of than just biology, like what our response to the pandemic might tell us about the way we govern our societies, or our level of critical thinking, or our moral values. 

So the project expanded, and I began to contact a much larger group of people in history, political science, philosophy and other disciplines.  Once it became clear I would have lots of different people involved in the film and I would need to distill their core concerns down to a couple of minutes or so, it seemed reasonable to have a separate conversation with them to probe their ideas in more detail. I had been doing a bit of podcasting by this point, so that seemed like an obvious way to do that. And at that point, I thought it would also be an interesting idea to describe my own development through this unique process, which is what the book is all about.  

RB: How did you pick the people for the film?

HB: It’s always interesting to me that once things are finished, everyone assumes that you had some sort of rigid, pre-ordained plan, but in real life that’s usually not how it goes. You start off with some ideas, and you ask some people to be involved who you think would have interesting things to say. 

As it happens, through Ideas Roadshow I have met lots of thoughtful, knowledgeable people, so I had a good bank of people to start with. Meanwhile, you’re constantly doing research, investigating this or that direction or angle, and you discover some more. Sometimes people recommend other people. Often you try to contact someone and you can’t get through, or the person isn’t interested, or whatever. So you keep going. I hadn’t planned on 32 people—there’s nothing magic in that number and it’s really much bigger than what I had in mind at the outset. But it just sort of worked out that way. 

In the book, I sometimes touch on the process of how things happened, how I contacted this or that person.  But of course it’s absurd to think that in any way this was a “complete” list. I can’t even imagine what that would mean and I’m sure you can make a thousand similarly intriguing films with completely different people. All I really wanted was to provide a spectrum of different experts with different perspectives and different orientations to give people a wide variety of food for thought that would nonetheless be strung together in one coherent narrative.    

RB: What surprised you the most as you went through the project?

HB: Lots of things surprised me, actually, and not all of it had to do with my direct interaction with the film’s participants.  One of the themes in the book is how strongly I was influenced by Lewis Thomas as I went through this project. Thomas was an award-winning writer, doctor and medical administrator who died in the 1990s, but whose writings I found increasingly relevant as my journey continued—shockingly so, in fact.  So there was definitely that. 

But in terms of the participants themselves, I would have to say that I was most struck by the link between the pandemic and environmental issues that almost everyone involved explicitly referred to in one way or another (Thomas actually talked about this too, as it happens). I hadn’t expected that at all. And what I mean by that isn’t so much how something like climate change makes pandemics more likely through species migration and changing habits and so forth—although that’s certainly true too—but more how the truly international nature of the pandemic is fundamentally identical to most of our most vexing environmental issues and thus naturally calls for a truly international sort of solution. 

A great many of the project’s participants were really tuned into that—far more than I was, in fact—and in many ways I think that’s the core lesson to take away from all of this: that our principal problems now are truly global and we’d better find a way to develop appropriately global mechanisms to deal with them or we’re in big trouble. So in a very real way, for me the core lesson to take away from the pandemic doesn’t actually have much to do with the pandemic itself. Which was certainly a big surprise. 

RB: But you didn’t explicitly say that in the film. 

HB: That’s right, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t put any conclusions at all in the film—which was, of course, deliberate. We’re all so used to being bombarded with one synoptic view about everything these days, and I wanted to push back against that by presenting people with a variety of thoughts, some of them actually slightly at odds with each other, encouraging them to form their own conclusions.  

For the same reason I didn’t formally divide the film into set sections, like “education,” “public policy,” “internationalism,” (even though the film is indeed structured that way) but rather deliberately blurred the lines between subject areas using the metaphor of the prism to show how these areas naturally overlapped with each other. 

I know that this slightly bothered some people, because, as I said before, it’s so different from what we’re used to. But that was the point: to push people a bit out of their comfort zone.  The book is more standard in that respect, because there I do offer some definite conclusions. But on the other hand, in the book I try to push people out of their comfort zones in other ways. 

RB: How so?

HB: Well, I look pretty critically at everyone, from the biomedical community to the media to politicians and more. Not too many people come out of the pandemic unscathed, and I don’t hesitate to give my unvarnished views on things. 

RB: So it’s not that you’re unopinionated, even though you made a deliberately unopinionated film. 

HB: That’s exactly right. The kind of documentaries I’m interested in making aren’t about trying to convince people of my views, but instead try to present an array of stimulating ideas in a hopefully coherent and stimulating way, leaving people to make up their own minds. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have any opinions or am generally opposed to vehicles for voicing personal sentiments. I really enjoy writing and take great pleasure in expressing my own thoughts in essay format.  And I often like to watch documentaries where the filmmakers express their own beliefs, often strongly.  I just don’t want to make those sorts of films. I’m not entirely sure why.  If I have strong views about something, I’d rather write about it. 

RB: How do you hope that the entire project will be received?

HB: Well, you never know, of course.  But my sense is that the real value of this work will come out in the medium to long term. Right now, when the worst of the pandemic seems to finally be past (although we should be prudent about leaping to any conclusions) I suspect there will be a natural tendency for people to want to avoid talking about anything COVID-19-related in the short-term. But that too will pass, of course. 

As time goes on, I’m certain that more and more people will recognize that the coronavirus pandemic was a unique opportunity to look critically at a wide variety of overlapping societal structures, which is precisely what this project tries to do.  I also think that the combination of a film, book and podcasts is an interesting one in its own right. People tend not to mix media like that; and I think that doing so offers some definite and unique advantages. So it would be nice if people would appreciate that too, even if they might not think the way it was done in this particular project was ideal, or whatever. 

RB: Are you thinking about combining film, print and podcasts again in other work?

HB: It depends. Right now, for example, I’m working on two projects: one on chess and another on the foundations of mathematics. For the chess one I will likely combine film and print but probably not podcasts, but for the foundations of math one it seems much more reasonable simply to focus on film. I’m not sure why, exactly.  I could probably come up with some theory, but the real answer is that it’s just a feeling.