The past year has seen the fields of epidemiology and public health rise to an incredible prominence in public life. The reason for this is obvious enough. What is not obvious is why, during that period, so many political actors have deferred entirely to the preferences of people in those fields. Their guidance is not to be ignored entirely. But for human beings living in actual polities, as opposed to public-health abstractions, there are always inherently political choices to make, and trade-offs to deal with. Simply to outsource one’s decision-making entirely to the science — or The Science — is to evade a fundamental responsibility of government.
There is also the fact that those in these fields bring their own biases to their work: chiefly, the understandable, if misguided, bias of viewing all of reality through the prism they were trained to. Some of the implications of this were made clear in an informal survey of epidemiologists conducted by the New York Times, the results of which were revealed yesterday. As a follow-up to the same survey last December, the Times asked various epidemiologists what activities they were willing to do with vaccines now available and coronavirus cases declining. Their willingness to do various things has expanded considerably from December, but is still worth highlighting as evidence of the mindset they bring to this situation.
The survey measured which of the following activities “they had done in the last 30 days, or would have done if necessary, assuming they would wear a mask or distance as needed.” Some highlights:
- 8 percent had or would have attended a church or religious service
- 25 percent had or would have traveled by airplane
- 30 percent had or would have eaten indoors at a restaurant
- 39 percent had or would have hugged or shaken hands when greeting a friend
- 45 percent had or would have “interacted outside within 6 feet without a mask”
The group turned out to be fairly confident about doing errands in person (92 percent), and . . . bringing in mail without precautions (83 percent). All of these measures are improvements from December. And also, all of these are things that I have done, without much hesitation and when legally permitted, throughout this entire period. I strongly suspect I am far from alone.
Epidemiologists do important work, most of which I can barely comprehend, and to which we owe great deal. And right now, vaccine hesitancy is a serious problem worth addressing. But if this survey is any indication, the work epidemiologists do inculcates a kind of life hesitancy that their ascension to prominence in political decision-making has spread throughout much of society over the past year. Again, their counsel should not be ignored. But their demonstrable, abnormal risk aversion suggests that it should, at the very least, be qualified as our society looks to leave the pandemic behind.