The Politics of Science: Evidence From 19th-Century Public Health

Casey Petroff (Harvard University)

Abstract: How do governments decide between protecting public health and protecting the economy when a new disease threat emerges? I study this question using evidence from cholera epidemics in the 19th century. In the face of this new threat to public health, professional opinion was divided between those who believed that cholera was a contagious disease that could be controlled with quarantines versus those who believed it was a localized disease against which quarantines were useless. By the end of the century, following major scientific discoveries, researchers reached a consensus that cholera is primarily waterborne and can be spread by human movement from place to place but mitigated with investments in hygiene and infrastructure. In the interim, costly disease control policy decisions with economic externalities were made in an environment of uncertainty. I use a large digitized database of representative English-language scientific writings to empirically document what beliefs different factions within the research community expressed, how they discussed the economic implications of their beliefs, and how knowledge and beliefs were transmitted between the scientific and policymaking communities. Preliminary findings note a pattern wherein the opinions of government-employed scientists tended to mirror that of the mainstream academic research community, however, researchers who lobbied governments to change their policy positions tended to write from an anti-quarantine perspective.

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