Friday, August 19, 2005

Public health, religion, war, blog: Part I

[First of a multipart series. Part II. Part III. Part IV. Part V.]

The Reveres began this blog over eight months and more than 500 posts ago. There has been at least one, usually two posts per day, sometimes more, everyday since Thanksgiving 2004. Our objective was to jump start a process that has been allowed to lie fallow too long in the progressive wing of the public health movement, the intellectual labor of working through and clarifying our thinking. Too many have relied on formulaic thinking and empty slogans. It was time to get back to work. And not just in a left wing echo chamber. There were too many good ideas from those who didn't identify with the left and too few new ones from those who did. We were not abandoning progressive ideas and values in public health. We wanted to re-invigorate them.

And while we were determined not to "chase traffic," i.e., placate feelings and interests for the sake of increasing readership, we wanted to be open to new ideas. We have taken note of each and every comment, although we have only been able to reply to some. So in that vein, we believe we should address directly the sharp criticism of some commenters that our remarks directed at religion and war were peripheral to our public health focus, especially the strong interest many readers have in bird flu.

Bird flu is not the theme of this site, although sometimes it must seem so considering the amount of space we have given it. At the outset we began blogging without a specific plan, selecting topics that interested us, as the masthead announces. Early on, the subject of preparing for a possible threat from avian influenza seemed a convenient opportunity to discuss the sorry condition of public health, which is leaderless, marginalized and demoralized. Initially, few were interested in bird flu, a topic that has now become widely discussed. At each step of the way we tried to say what we thought important and relevant to public health. Sometimes, we were simply trying to goad public health authorities into doing something. We knew from our logs the blog was read at CDC, NIH and WHO. But clearly it didn't work. It appears you can't goad leaders to do something when they aren't leaders but followers, and the Administration they follow has its attention elsewhere. Eventually we helped start a parallel effort, the Flu Wiki.

But the topic here remains public health, writ large. Many issues have been discussed in that context, but three in particular have attracted critical comment from readers These are guns, religion and war. For some readers, religion and war seem far afield from public health, and they have made it clear they don't want to read about them here. The suggestion has been made that we are turning off people who would otherwise be allies. But we have persisted, and thus we at least owe those readers, whom we value, an explanation.

That explanation is not short, nor is it complete. We hope to begin to spell it out over several posts and advance things with your help. We leave open the possibility that "advancing" might mean a change of direction, since the main objective is not to convince you we are right and you are wrong but to clarify thinking on the matter. Firm commitments, whether about religious skepticism or belief, or the permissibility or not of coercive violence as a policy option, do not imply clear ideas about their relationship to public health. For us, writing is thinking. And thinking is needed to clarify.

We start the process of trying to clarify in the next post.