Amaral: Which science are enlightened elites following?

Luis Amaral, Op-Ed Contributor

Our nation appears to be divided between those that say that we need to lift all restrictions imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, and those that worry that conditions are still too dangerous. We now are led by a presidential administration that claims to “follow the science,” so why are there such disagreements and why are many epidemiologists not supporting the choices of our leaders? To answer these questions it may be helpful to consider an intellectual tradition at the core of Western societies: the Enlightenment. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Enlightenment scholars embraced the belief that given the same information, all intelligent, rational and educated individuals would come to the same conclusions. Philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, proposed a society governed by reason, echoing Plato’s “Republic.”

It is difficult to identify a better enactment of a society governed by reason than the modern U.S. university. Here, we have a population of highly intelligent, highly educated individuals making many collective decisions. Why do disagreements still abound here, then? As is true across the nation, university campuses are divided between those that say we are opening too much, too fast and those that claim the opposite.

In the natural sciences, there is still a religious belief in the Enlightenment’s rationality values. Yet the social sciences have long moved on. Philosophers Adam Smith and Karl Marx noted that not all people have the same values — the same ‘utility’ functions, in economic jargon. These different utility functions will lead equally informed people to different conclusions. While Smith would want us to believe that those individually selfish decisions would yield the best of all possible worlds, many have reasons to be skeptical.

Is the best of all possible worlds one in which elite congregating places like Northwestern ‘move on’ from the pandemic? I can see how tempting it is to answer ‘yes.’  We are a highly vaccinated community with a large fraction of healthy young people and ample access to masks, tests and world-class medical care. It is easy to believe that it is unlikely that a member of our community will have to deal with serious complications from a COVID-19 infection. It is easy to recognize that the current restrictions are creating their own health burdens due to chronic isolation, anxiety and stress.

So, why do some of us answer ‘no’ to the question? Are we unmoved by the mental health cost of these restrictions?  How is our utility function different? It should be clear that a large number of infected individuals going about their lives as if the pandemic is now over increases the danger for those who would be severely impacted by a COVID-19 infection.  The more infected individuals there are, the more opportunities for the virus to reach an immunocompromised person, a person taking immunosuppressive drugs or a child too young to be vaccinated.

Moreover, the burden of the pandemic has not been shared equally. The poor, the non-white, the non-binary and gender non-conforming and the disabled have all paid an unacceptably high price. They have paid such a price because they lack the ability to work from home on a whim, they lack the ability to take a few hours from work for a medical appointment, they lack access to paid sick days, they lack savings or relatives that can pinch in if needed. 

Some of us have a visceral familiarity with these deficiencies. Our utility functions do not discount the suffering of those outside the NU community.  Our communities do not terminate at the campus boundary. We know that around 2,500 people are dying every day from this disease. That more than one hundred thousand lives have been lost to it since Thanksgiving. That even though nearly all of us at NU are safe, that we are contributing — by keeping those infection chains growing — to those deaths. Perhaps a way to address people’s anxiety and sense of isolation is not to ‘open up’ in a rush but to collectively fight for things such as Medicare for All, paid sick leave, paid maternity leave, free childcare and dignified housing for all. 

Luis Amaral is a professor of chemical and biological engineering. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.