Risk and the COVID-19 pandemic discussed online by MSU’s humanities institute

Contact: John Burrow

STARKVILLE, Miss.—A Mississippi State University faculty member currently quarantined in Germany will provide expert evaluation of the intersection of COVID-19 and the human perspective of risk during a live interview via Facebook this Thursday [May 14].

Davide Orsini, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of History, will offer his perspectives on risk, how governments and people have historically handled risk, and the problems associated with risk management during the COVID-19 pandemic during an 11 a.m. interview with Julia Osman, director of MSU’s Institute for the Humanities and associate professor of history.

The online discussion will be featured via the Institute for the Humanities Facebook page.

“Dr. Orsini is Italian by nationality, but he has lived and worked in the United States for the last several years, and is currently riding out the virus in Germany,” said Osman. “I’m eager to see what his international experiences can tell us about how the U.S. is handling the virus—both officially and individually—in comparison to other countries.” 

“I am especially interested in talking to Dr. Orsini because, while there have always been risks associated with everything we do, the virus is forcing us to revisit how we think of the risks we’re taking,” Osman said. “It’s difficult when we hear confusing information or when we see other countries or states do things differently.”

Orsini’s research is focused on intersections of science and technology studies, nuclear studies, environmental history and anthropology, and the history of empires, with a global historical approach to modern Europe—especially the Mediterranean area—and the U.S.

“One of my research interests can be condensed in the following question: How do we deal with invisible risks?” said Orsini. “One of the problems with SARS-CoV 2 is that the virus is invisible and the time of incubation in individuals is of 14 days on average. We start getting quite wary of other people, especially strangers, when they get too close to us. So, how do we understand and cope with risk now?

“I hope that during the interview a more nuanced view of how experts and non-experts understand the risks—both personal and collective—of the current pandemic will emerge,” said Orsini. “In particular, I would like to offer some perspective on why and how different individuals, groups, expert communities, and governments understand and face risk differently. Why do some people react to this pandemic by taking risks, like going grocery shopping without masks or distancing from other clients? Why do some governments decide to reopen economic activities while others decide to adopt more precautionary measures?”

Orsini said one of the main lessons he takes from studying the history of risk is that risk is not an “absolutely objective” category, but rather that risk assessment is an activity requiring expertise. “But different experts have different approaches to calculating risks,” Orsini said.

“Understandings of risk are also highly contextual,” he said. “They depend on cultural values and political opportunities.” Orsini stressed the importance of finding “good, reliable information” which “requires effort, and right now we are also in the middle of what communication experts call ‘infodemia.’ We need to critically evaluate what political authorities decide to do on the basis of what expert authorities recommend.”

Orsini earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Siena, Italy, and his Ph.D. and a graduate certificate in Science, Technology, and Society from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He currently is finalizing a manuscript analyzing the political, ecological and public health controversies following the installation of a U.S. Navy base for nuclear submarines in the Archipelago of La Maddalena (Sardinia) between 1972 and 2008.

As part of MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Institute for the Humanities promotes research, scholarship and creative performances in the humanistic disciplines and raises their visibility, both within Mississippi State University and the wider community. The Institute is active on social media on Instagram @msststehumanities, Twitter @Humanities_MSU and Facebook @msu.humanities.institute.

MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences includes more than 5,200 students, 325 full-time faculty members, nine doctoral programs, 14 masters programs, and 27 undergraduate academic majors offered in 14 departments. It also is home to the most diverse units for research and scholarly activities, including natural and physical sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and the humanities. For more about the College of Arts and Sciences or the Institute for the Humanities visit www.cas.msstate.edu or www.ih.msstate.edu.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.