Science and ordinary life. From the covid emergency to the ethics of psychological intervention
Science was one of many factors in the game of a multidimensional reality, alongside the political, social and economic one.
It is now clear to everyone: science has shown its boundaries and its post-positivist nature. We had been in the ‘post’ for a long time, now it has become evident to most. It is not a question of sterile and inessential – to ordinary life – epistemological questions on the concept of science and its procedures, on the logical rigor of its methods, but on placing its piece in the appropriate box, remembering that it is not only experimental laboratory material but a fundamental factor in governing our concrete life.
The dramatic experience of covid-19 imposed it brutally, put it before our eyes as a hallucination that cannot be denied, more real than any reality we could have ‘hallucinated’. But no scandal. When you say or hear people say: “Science says it”, “Science proves it”, first of all, we cannot forget that it is not a monolith, and secondly, that the concept of science itself has evolved continuously throughout history. From the demonstrative conception of the Aristotelian tradition to the descriptive one of Bacon and Newton of the empirical observation of the facts, to the Popperian one of self-adjustability and so on. Through a long and tortuous itinerary, today true science knows that a claim of absolute guarantee cannot arrogate itself and, when it does, it can reach grotesque and ridiculous peaks; he knows that the steps he takes are always provisional and deniable.
What the pandemic has taught us is that science is a continuous research, production of sources, hypotheses to be examined. And it showed how difficult this path is. Creativity and scientific industriousness represent the driving force of research and the tension to discover new ways and winning solutions. This having been catapulted from the empyrean of absolute certainty to the ever-changing everyday life of the public debate has produced a certain confusion, not only of roles, but also of the limits of scientific knowledge itself, of its apparent inadequacy to univocal and immediate responses, often between colliding and quarreling interests.
Science was one of many factors in the game of a multidimensional reality, alongside the political, social and economic one. That is, human-sized. The center of the debate must come back forcefully to emphasize the man, to whom all these disciplines are functional. It is what we use to call ethics, the recognition of the person’s value in its intrinsic and essential characteristics. The concept of ‘ethics’ refers to human behavior in the concrete cases of events that happen and that ‘impose’ the choice of a deontological action. In this sense, the concept of science meets with that of ethics, to the extent that knowledge – constructed by trial and error – can be put at the service of the common good. The figure of the psychologist, in its most essential nature, it represents the person who makes himself humanly available to put his knowledge at the service of people’s health, made up of theories and strategies aimed at their psychological support. It becomes increasingly evident, especially in this phase following the pandemic crisis, that the help of the psychologist can be fundamental: ‘it can’ not in the sense of a probable validity of the support provided, as regards the recognition of its effectiveness and acceptance of its necessity ( in emergency situations such as the one we are experiencing) by the people to whom help is proposed. This passage of acceptance is based on the consideration never taken for granted that psychological work is an eminently personal work (path): its validity is objective in itself, but he needs the awareness of the person about his relevance and usefulness to his problems. It is the principle of freedom, to which the choice to start a therapeutic path must always be traced. Starting it is the result of a decision, first of all intimate, strictly connected to personal motivation, fundamental for change. This is the cardinal principle of any work based on the freedom of the individual. Too often the therapist finds himself invested with a responsibility that belongs to the patient: on the duration of the therapy, on its costs, on its effectiveness, on the claimed healing. It should not be forgotten that a psychological path refers to knowledge that is not that of the mathematical or medical sciences: I take a drug because I have a headache and the drug, without my involvement, it makes me stop the pain (and in truth not always); it does not refer to the measurement of a function between two variables.
It is a knowledge of a dynamic dynamism that is the person, which refers not so much and not only to a specific and particular aspect of my body (although often the entry point for a psychological path is the symptom) but to the whole my person, who suffers and falls ill not only physically, but also in the expression of an emotionality and affectivity that cause an imbalance of the whole organism.
A dramatic situation like that of the pandemic has shown in all its evidence how much what emerges in the real world determines us, ‘forces’ us to certain behaviors, unconsciously moves us in certain directions even in our dream life, showing us a pervasive anguish, despite our efforts to quell it. Many researches and studies during this period (that of King’s College London – on the correlation between stressful events and sleep disturbances, or that of Harvard University – on the frequency of nightmares and phobic dreams during the pandemic) have highlighted the consequences unaware of the perception of non-freedom and constraint relating to the new situation of isolation experienced during the lockdown phase, the consequences of which do not disappear with the simple reopening of the borders of our spaces.
So what is the ‘ethical’ job you need in this situation? How to remedy it? Certainly not avoiding the problem, not being afraid to ask for help, starting from the awareness that what we have experienced is a unique moment, we would never have imagined living it, but above all it is a common event, we are all involved. This makes subjective malaise less ‘self-referential’, the reference of circumstances as inevitability to my person is less ‘paranoid’.
Especially now that there is the beginning of a return to normal, even at work, it is important not to underestimate the stress related to the dimensions connected to the resumption of activities. Psychology is able to give an adequate response to the new anxieties related to the experience experienced in these new situations. When we talk about the profession of the psychologist / psychotherapist, we inevitably refer to two dimensions: the human one, the professional’s sensitivity and availability as a person, and the technical one, that is the set of tools and techniques put in place by the professional to place and offer his help in favor of the whole dimension of the well-being of the person. Do not forget that the very concept of health is defined by WHO as that state of psycho-physical and social well-being, not simplistically running out in the absence of disease or infirmity whatsoever. There is also an aspect related to the feeling of losing control, experienced by many dramatically, as is often emerging from clinical practice. The certainties questioned during the pandemic, even scientific ones about the nature of the virus, may have precipitated the individual into a desert of shifting sands where the truths checked and taken for granted were suddenly perceived as destabilizing the usual balance.
This is why it is important to face a work of awareness, because even in the least controllable situations you can learn that much cited resilience: being able to re-emerge through and thanks to personal resources, whose first step is a knowledge of their own dynamics, of the meanings of their experiences and related anxieties.
All this cannot be a job that the person does alone, at least not always. Awareness is essential about the fact that, as a professional, the psychologist can give support by implementing strategies designed specifically for the individual person (because the virus is one but the way of living the fears connected to it are completely subjective) and resorting to prophylaxis appropriate to concrete situations. The strategies and techniques proposed by the professional are really able to contain anxiety, to work on the symptoms trying to reveal the meaningful contents that can often emerge and reveal to the person himself his repetitive patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Finally, you can take advantage of the positive aspects that were highlighted during the lockdown, such as the possibility of spreading remote help tools, which allow everyone to choose a professional even if not physically close, creating an opportunity (remaining in their own space, known and comfortable) that perhaps in normal times they would not have thought of exploiting. There can be (as clinical practice shows) also advantages in online therapy, with a completely personalized therapeutic setting and brought to the patient, which can bring out differently hidden dynamics.