The Most Pressing Science & Faith Question tournament has reached the final round; scroll down or click here to vote between now and midnight EDT on Sunday (April 11). We’re going to take a break from answering these questions while I line up other folks to offer their perspectives. This week, I’d like to address some omissions from the bracket. Arguably, the most pressing science & faith questions of the moment have to do with religiously motivated COVID-19 vaccine refusal. I left out pandemic topics in part because I wanted this series to provide some respite from them and in part because their urgency is only temporary. Still, public health remains my vocation and so my thoughts never stray too far from SARS-CoV-2. That also means I am extra motivated to do what I can to bring about a time when I can put my focus elsewhere.
As the New York Times reporting indicates, white evangelicals are the demographic in the United States most likely to report hesitancy about being vaccinated, at a rate around 45%. I’m a white evangelical and a professional in the public health sector, so that particular stat does not sit well with me. At the same time, I am not surprised. We’ve covered the history of Christian and evangelical engagement with science while discussing The War on Science and When Science & Christianity Meet. The evangelical relationship to science is not purely supportive or purely adversarial, but there is often a stance of skepticism. And vaccines specifically raise concerns about the use of cell lines derived from aborted individuals (covered briefly in response to one of the bracket questions). Unfortunately, those predictable concerns and the historical skepticism have opened the door to a whole host of misinformation and conspiratorial concerns with diminishing connections to reality.
At the same time, Americans generally have a shallow understanding of public health where extends beyond medical care for individuals. It is clear to see how my decisions affect my health for good or ill. I have to live with the consequences, so why not let me make the decisions? This fits well with the American ethos, embraced by evangelicals, that everyone gets what they merit by virtue of their effort, their moral fortitude, and so on. We have less of a framework for talking about and valuing the indirect consequences of our choices for other people. I say indirect because we clearly understand direct benefits like charity, where you choose to give me something you have earned. But the benefits to me of you getting vaccinated accrue invisibly and in aggregate. Still, those benefits are real. The more of you who are vaccinated, the less chance I have to interact with someone who is infected and thus become infected myself. Even less directly but also important, the more of you who are vaccinated, the less chance there is that someone develops a chronic infection that allows vaccine-escaping mutations to accumulate. These benefits are also not zero-sum, which is a less familiar arrangement. It is easier to reason about scenarios where my loss is your gain than ones where your experience is the same whether 1 or 10 or 100 other people benefit from your vaccination.
In the face of misinformation about the virus & the vaccines and a lack of understanding about public health, my instinct is to launch into education mode and address common questions and misconceptions. At the same time, I am aware that a bigger issue is one of trust and standing. The facts are all out there already; the question is why believe me over one’s pastor or friend or favorite Christian pundit. So I thought I might try something different to provide some more bandwidth to build trust. I’m going to host an online office hour each weekday. Basically, this is an invitation for anyone but especially Christians who have questions about the vaccine and would like to talk about them with someone who shares their beliefs and values. Maybe that’s you. Or maybe that is a pastor or friend or family member in your life that you could invite to a conversation amongst the three (or more) of us. That way we can build on the trust between you and them and between you and me. (In case folks want to know my credentials, I have a PhD in infectious disease biology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and I’m the Chief Science Officer at a public health software company where I’ve worked for the past dozen years.)
Here’s how it’s going to work. Starting tomorrow (April 8th) I’ll be at this Google Meet from 4-5pm EDT: jha-hrtb-pkd . (Copy that code and enter it at meet.google.com where it says “Enter a code or link”) Just like course office hours, there won’t be a formal presentation; I’m just there to answer your questions about the science of the vaccines. I’m not a physician so I cannot offer personal medical advice, but I can explain how the vaccines work, how thoroughly they’ve been tested, how they compare to other vaccines many of us have already received, that sort of thing. Since I’m posting this publicly, I only ask that you let me know in advance who I can expect so I can let you in; I will be blocking names and e-mail addresses I don’t recognize for your protection and mine. You can leave your name or email in the comments below, in a Twitter DM, or a Facebook message. If I find a better way to do this or need to make changes as issues arise, I’ll update this post and mention it in future posts. But let’s see how this goes.
Hopefully I’ll see some of you at office hours. Now, here’s your bracket to vote in the final round and pick an overall winner.