How to Address Problems of COVID-19-Era Society?
Year 2020 will down in history as the time when the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged humanity worldwide. Infections continued to surge and decline in number repeatedly in 2021, with the peak of each wave followed by a new state of emergency declaration. In March 2020, the Institute of Statistical Mathematics (ISM) at the Research Organization of Information and Systems (ROIS) began focusing its energy on advancing the understanding of COVID-19 through data science by taking advantage of years of experience in researching mathematical modeling of infectious diseases.
COVID-19-related research shouldn’t be simply dictated by whether certain data is available or what that data may tell us, ISM Director-General Hiroe Tsubaki said. He pointed out what kind of society people envision for the “living-with-the-new-coronavirus” era also matters greatly.
Prof. Kaoru Endo of Gakushuin University is a social science scholar who is working in collaboration with Dr. Tsubaki on the research project, “Post-new-coronavirus Society and Transdisciplinary Studies.” In this installment of the Science Report, Dr. Tsubaki and Prof. Endo will explore academic solutions to a better tomorrow.
Ask the Expert: Kaoru Endo (Gakushuin University)
Prof. Endo is a professor for the Faculty of Law at Gakushuin University and specializes in theoretical sociology, social informatics, and social simulations. She conducts research on wide-ranging topics of her interest, including “media and society relationship” and “cultural transformation,” as well as the “formation of social opinions” and “social changes.” She is particularly well-known for her research that analyzes social media data from a social science point of view. She’s authored many books, including “Social Media and the Public” (2018). Prof. Endo is a 1977 graduate of the University of Tokyo and received her PhD in academics from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. She was appointed to her current position at Gakushuin in 2003.
Ask the Expert: Hiroe Tsubaki (The Institute of Statistical Mathematics)
Dr. Tsubaki is an applied statistician known for his efforts to promote the use of statistical methods as “the basic golden rules of science” in various fields of work, such as official statistics, quality control, drug licensing, environmental measurements, and business science. Dr. Tsubaki has also worked tirelessly to foster the next generation of data scientists. Dr. Tsubaki received his PhD from the University of Tokyo. He served as the National Statistics Center’s Chairman of the Board before being assigned to his current position at the Institute of Statistical Mathematics in 2019. He currently serves as SOKENDAI’s advisor and as a professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba.
Divided Priorities: Economy or Infection Prevention
Prof. Kaoru Endo of Gakushuin University considers the COVID-19 pandemic as a consequence of globalization, climate change and many other issues that have cast some dark clouds over humanity’s future. The United Nations is proposing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a solution to all these issues. Prof. Endo pointed out that achieving SDGs requires a social ethics to be shared by all.
“In considering what kind of social ethics we should have, it’s critically important to apply the methodology of social science, network theory, as well as the perspective of ‘transdisciplinary knowledge,’” Prof. Endo said.
“I’m paying particular attention to how a division in people’s sense of value and their isolation are playing roles in the expansion of the new coronavirus pandemic,” Prof. Endo said. “Especially as to whether the sharply contrasting senses of value are causing the ‘either-or’ debate on prioritizing the economy over infection prevention, and vice versa. While some people argue that it’s necessary to halt economic activities to protect human lives, others insist that if the economy stops, people will lose their livelihood, which can further exacerbate societal confusion and result in more deaths. But you have to wonder if infection prevention and economy are really that antagonistic to each other?”
The country-by-country GDP changes from the previous year and the COVID-19 response index, both published in the UN’s 2020 SDG Report, show that infections were well-managed in the countries that maintained a reasonably good economy, and conversely, countries that didn’t fair well economically saw expansions of infections.
“In other words, it’s not about either infection prevention or the economy. We must seek to take control of both infections and the economy,” Prof. Endo said. “To do that, we need to analyze many different kinds of data from multiple angles and use it for policy making. In that sense, I believe that we need to make social sciences and natural sciences work together more closely than ever before.”
Suicide rate changes in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic
The suicide rate is another topic that began gathering the public’s attention as the pandemic grew. Prof. Endo, who was watching changes in suicide rates from the start of the pandemic, said she saw a downward trend in the beginning.
“But the number of suicide cases in Japan began to rise in July 2020,” she said. “People cited a string of suicides among celebrities and media reports of those incidents helped trigger the increase of suicides. That’s called Werther Effect, or copycat effect. But there have to be many underlying factors that make someone to want to give up on their life.”
Prof. Endo presented a graph showing how each of those factors contributes to people’s desire to commit suicide.
“Rises in suicide rates stem from a combination of many different factors, and the pandemic, which is a short-term circumstance, is only a part of the picture. We need to take into consideration longer-term, more global factors and movements,” Prof. Endo said. “Researchers from around the world are discussing the different contributing factors. This sense of crisis prompted the U.N. to propose SDGs as a path to create a world that leaves no one behind,” she said.
“In society, the poor, the young, and women, among other vulnerable groups, tend to become isolated. Suicide isn’t only a serious social problem in itself; the suicide rate can serve as an index of global problems in the simplest format,” Prof. Endo said. “In order to solve the problem of suicides, we need to create an analysis model based on different types and kinds of data, including short- and long-term data, regional and domestic data, global and individual data, and data related to media. Transdisciplinary knowledge born out of collaborative data science research by researchers with diverse backgrounds holds the key in this endeavor.”
Experts’ Dialogue: Possibilities created by the combined use of social science and data science
Tsubaki: I’ve always thought of academia as a monolith. But as we discussed earlier, the values of two academic fields, economics and public health that seeks to prevent diseases, are now creating confliction. I think this era of ‘living with the new coronavirus” calls upon us more than ever to find the best way to integrate the humanities and sciences. We need to map out the long-term path toward a post-COVID-19 society and figure out how not just data science, but the academic system as a whole should function to design that society.
Endo: There are many economics scholars who view the economy as more than the vehicle to produce profits. We need to get scholars from many different fields, such as social ethics and ethical philosophy, involved in the conversation on this topic. For example, we could create a model based on Dr. Tsubaki’s data science research and then conduct simulations on varying conditions. That could provide an important mutual understanding among scholars about how to communicate scientific information with each other. Social scientists have long struggled to choose between macro social science and micro social science. There’s now a growing expectation for using simulations as a tool to create a dynamic model that connects the two approaches to social science. Simulations are helpful to anyone, thanks to the technology that can present information in an easy-to-understand visual format. Each research field has its own “language,” and having a common communication tool like this helps lower the language barrier and even could make it possible to communicate with industry people and government officials, as well as with citizens at large.
Tsubaki: In the background of all of this is the development and maturing of tools for mathematical experimentations, such as “agent-based modeling,” which is a computer simulation method that generates autonomous individuals or groups of people to evaluate their impacts on the overall system. I think this is quickly changing social science from being a cognition science to a design science with which to create a society.
Endo: Yes, I have a lot of expectations, too. Humans often do illogical things. I think that by creating a simulation model that takes into account what motivates people to take actions, their mentality and world views and the emotional aspects that are normally discounted in natural science studies, it becomes possible to use it as a tool to make new discoveries and generate more robust narratives about society.
Tsubaki: I believe humanities and social studies are meant to provide ethics and standards for people to pursue. Because it’s not easy to evaluate the viability of such ethics and standards through social experiments, it’s more appropriate to do so through simulations. New types of humanities and social science will come out of simulations. It also makes it possible for data scientists like us, and researchers from the mathematics or engineering fields to come together and contribute to creating solutions for the post-COVID-19 world’s problems. I’ve always understood that the whole of academia needs to work as a system to promote the selection of values through social science studies. But now is the time for each of the organizations that form the Inter-University Research Institute Corporation to do its part to make this vision a reality. The Institute of Statistical Mathematics is currently working to foster the next generation of data scientists and to identify the aspects of statistical mathematics to be prioritized in educating young scientists. Based on what you told me today, I realized the importance of teaching statistical and mathematical knowledge to self-motivated researchers who have deeper understandings about the value of simulations as a research approach and are interested in designing simulations, like agent-based modeling, that are beneficial to society. The ISM has an internal academy called Tokei Shiko-In. In 2021, we plan to begin an education program there for people who are interested in becoming university faculty members. If the program can produce data scientists who know how to communicate with their social science counterparts, that would help create the transdisciplinary knowledge that you talked about.
Endo: I think so, too. We cannot solve conflicts and divisions of values by choosing the “right” one. Society, as a whole, could perhaps decide what to do if we use simulations to promote a shared understanding of situations, as well as public discourse about the situations. But society will not always reach a consensus. So, it is important to have many, many discussions to find tentative solutions and move the direction of society gradually. And the process should reflect everyone’s voice to “leave no one behind.” I believe setting up these discussions is one of the goals for us to aim for. Data science and mathematical science play critical roles in bridging gaps in understanding among people. I think it’s also very important that as we go through the course of public debate, we evaluate how the action taken in the previous step has changed society and use that knowledge to make a decision for the next step. It would be wonderful to advance societal changes through a dynamic process based on shifting situations, rather than relying on static evidence!
Tsubaki: I hope that our collaborative research will also provide young mathematics researchers with the opportunity to discover mathematical structures and simulation models that can truly benefit society. I’m once again realizing the depth of the humanities and social science. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of these research fields to people’s attention. I hope you will continue to guide me on these matters.
Interviewer: Rue Ikeya
Released on: Mar. 10, 2022 (The Japanese version released on Mar. 10, 2021.)
* This interview was conducted online.