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Jenny Rapp Studies the Role of Science in Politics

Jenny Rapp

As part of their education and training to be Modern Orthodox leaders of the future, Straus Scholars are encouraged to take summer jobs, internships, and fellowships that allow them to build on their Straus Center studies. Many Scholars spent this past summer participating in programs from a variety of disciplines. In this installment, we interview Jenny Rapp (SCW ‘25), who spent this past summer researching at Columbia’s public health school.

How did you spend your summer?

This past summer, I did a research internship at Columbia University’s Mailman school of Public Health, where I studied the impact of different government policies on the spread of COVID-19.

What did you find in your research?

It has always been the struggle of leaders to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. This summer, however, I have begun to realize how this struggle has changed. Sifting through the incredible amount of information available in public databases, it became clear to me that the struggle is shifting to how to make decisions when given a tremendous amount of scientific research and data. Both religious and political leaders have been divided on the debate of how to incorporate scientific knowledge in their policy decisions.

How does your research connect to ideas in Jewish thought?

It is interesting to note the parallels between the difficulties faced by rabbis and politicians in considering scientific data in decision making. Historically, Jewish religious leaders have been open to scientific advancement. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the sages respected and considered the opinion of gentile scholars when it came to natural sciences. To decide when to follow the gentile scholars for different issues in Jewish law, they relied on their reasoning rather than divine tradition. The opposing approach is to disregard science entirely. Rabbi Isaac Herzog and Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler maintained that the Talmudic sages did not create the law based on their reasoning. Rather, they had a tradition of what the law was and they used their reasoning to try to understand why it was that way.

The opposing views of Rabbi Hirsch on one end and Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Dessler on the other, are mirrored respectively in liberal and conservative ideology. This ideological difference became apparent observing the response of the political left and right to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us more about your findings.

Liberal politicians embraced scientific research throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They had more stringent lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccination policies due to this approach. Democratic politicians prided themselves on their research-based policies and were frequently seen with public health officials during press conferences and policy meetings. Conservative politicians, on the other hand, were more hesitant in allowing the guidance of public health officials to shape their policies.

This hesitation had two sides to it. Not only was there a stronger mistrust of scientific experts by the political right, but even when conservative politicians trusted that the scientific research was accurate, they were still hesitant to use it as the primary part of their policy decision-making because they questioned its importance in lieu of other concerns, such as individual freedom, economic prosperity, and childhood development. This approach was taken by many Republican politicians, leading to them reopening schools and workplaces and allowing public gatherings earlier than Democratic politicians did. While the Republican officials undoubtedly took the advice of the public health officials into account, they did not give it the same level of priority that it was given by Democrats in making decisions.

What lessons can we learn from these findings?

Through considering the debates on how leaders should consider modern science in decision making, both among religious and political leaders, a general format emerges. On the one hand, leaders are eager to use the information provided by scientists to increase the clarity of their decision making. On the other hand, leaders are wary of modern science, questioning both its accuracy and importance to the decisions facing them in comparison with other factors such as Talmudic tradition in the case of the rabbis or economic and educational concerns in the case of the politicians. I am curious to see how this debate will manifest and develop as science progresses.