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The Curious Attacks on Bill Gates

In a widely viewed 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates warned of the risk of a global pandemic for which we were unprepared. Now that we’re actually in the midst of a global pandemic for which we are woefully unprepared, Gates has spoken out against the US government’s inadequate response, and his philanthropic foundation has pledged $250 million to help with the manufacture of promising vaccines for the novel coronavirus.

For his foresight and willingness to help combat the pandemic, Gates deserves admiration. Instead he faces suspicion, attacks and vilification. Why?

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Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic: Scientists

Which teams played in the last Super Bowl? Can you name one character from the Star Wars movies? Who is Kim Kardashian’s husband? Likely you answered at least one of those questions correctly. But the following may well stump you: Who developed the X-ray? Who performed the first organ transplant? Who developed the vaccine for smallpox? or whooping cough? or measles?

It’s a curious fact that most of us know way more about sports and pop culture, than about the pioneers of scientific research. But the benefits we’ve all reaped from their work is incalculable, and it’s clear that our way out of this global pandemic will depend crucially on scientists working to understand, track, and combat the novel coronavirus.

One inspiring story, from the pandemic’s early days, has stuck with me. The story of Dr. Helen Chu and her colleagues in Seattle is the stuff of a Hollywood thriller, except it actually happened. They are among the unsung heroes in our midst.

Chu and her colleagues were in the middle of a flu study in the Seattle area, when they learned about the first confirmed American case of coronavirus infection, in Washington state. They quickly realized that they could help assess the spread of the virus. For their flu research, they had been collecting nasal swabs from patients in the Puget Sound area. By running a new test on those samples, they could figure out how widely the novel coronavirus had spread.

With incredible speed, they managed to devise a new test. Because of government regulations, however, they were not approved to run it. So, they petitioned federal regulators to get approval. Days, weeks went by. When they did get an answer it was No.

But they decided to run the test anyway. Turns out the virus had established itself on American soil, undetected. In Dr. Chu’s words: “It’s just everywhere already.”

Chu and her colleagues were caught in a potentially career-ending dilemma: if they disclosed their findings, they would run afoul of regulators, but if they withheld their findings, people might well die. “What we were allowed to do was to keep it to ourselves,” Dr. Chu told the New York Times. “But what we felt like we needed to do was to tell public health.”

The morally right thing to do, they concluded, was to share their discovery with local authorities, and they did so. The next morning, public health officials were able to identify an infected teenager, with mild symptoms, just as he was walking in to school.

Despite having brought to light such critical information, Chu and her colleagues were told by regulators to stop testing. Keep in mind that all this unfolded even as the Federal government’s own tests were found to be defective and testing generally was severely constrained, greatly delaying the rollout of wide-scale testing necessary for tackling the virus.

What I admire about Dr. Chu and her colleagues is not only their ingenuity in creating their own test, but also their courageous willingness to defy irrational man-made obstacles. The ordeal they went through, simply to share essential information about the virus, is a damning indictment of regulators. It’s much to the credit of Chu and her colleagues that they put facts and truth above all else, in the name of protecting human life and advancing our knowledge of this virus. 

They’re not alone. Scientists around the world have pushed aside other projects to focus on this virus. On an unprecedented scale, they’re collaborating across borders and time zones to identify this virus’s characteristics, its behavior within the body, its spread within communities, its Achilles’ heel — so that it can be stopped.

The global race to develop a vaccine for this coronavirus is itself inspiring. Some projects are running multiple trials in parallel, rather than one after the other, to accelerate the process. From the one hundred or so vaccine projects underway, the one based at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University stands out for its size. That effort grew out of the research of Dr. Adrian Hill, who directs the Jenner Institute. Thanks in part to an emergency approval from the UK government, the project will begin scheduling a trial with more than six thousand people in May.

It remains to be seen whether this approach (or one of the many others in development) will prove effective, and if so, for what patient profile. Developing vaccines is a slow process, with a low success rate, at the best of times. But it’s heartening to see so many bright minds focusing with such vigor on tackling the coronavirus.

When it is finally overcome, how will we look upon the scientists who contributed to that victory?

In the last century, after developing a vaccine for polio, Dr. Jonas Salk became a household name. New York offered to hold a ticker tape parade in his honor. But in gaining that widespread recognition for his scientific accomplishment, Salk has been something of an outlier.

Let’s change that. It will be a sign of moral progress when — instead of overlooking or taking them for granted — we fully appreciate the many unsung scientific heroes of this pandemic.


Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic: Creators of Our Digital Age

Emergency rooms are jammed with COVID-19 patients, fighting for their lives. Doctors, nurses, and front-line healthcare workers are receiving much-deserved praise and appreciation, even though (as I argued in earlier article) they’re still under-valued.

Reflecting on this crisis, I’ve come to have a deeper appreciation for another group of heroic individuals. We rely on their tireless work and achievements every day, but all the more so as millions of us are subjected to stay-at-home orders. But they are unsung.

Call them the builders of our digital age. Thanks to them, the lockdowns are more tolerable than they otherwise would have been.

Thanks to Gmail and Dropbox and Slack and Microsoft Teams, many people are able to keep their work moving forward. Thanks to Zoom, businesses can stay connected, students can attend classes, countless families and friends can socialize, and children can goof around with friends that they used to meet on the school playground. Thanks to Netflix and YouTube and Disney Plus and Hulu and Spotify and Apple Music, there’s an abundance of entertainment on hand. Thanks to Amazon and Instacart and the multitude of local app-based food delivery services, you can have household supplies and groceries and takeout left outside your door.

These apps and online services rely on a technological foundation built decades ago. Bill Gates envisioned a future with a desktop computer in every home. We’ve long surpassed that. In many homes, the computers, smartphones, and tablets outnumber the human occupants. Getting online used to mean connecting a computer to a phone line using a slow, screechy modem and dialing up an internet service provider; now broadband internet is pervasive and we stream movies to our iPhones.

Try to imagine being stuck at home during a pandemic like this one — in the pre-digital age, with none of the tools and apps and services we rely on. To contemplate that is to begin to appreciate the enormous value created by the builders of our digital age.

Who are they? Among them are industry-shaping leaders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Serge Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their startups, now globe-spanning corporations, were made possible by the foresight and risk-taking of investors and venture capital firms. Innumerable coders and computer scientists and network engineers go to work every day to grow these businesses and keep their systems running.

Keeping these apps and networks and platforms operational under ordinary circumstances is an achievement. Doing so amid the pandemic, with surging demand from millions more people self-isolating at home, is an even more impressive feat. Comcast, one of the nation’s largest broadband providers, reported that use of voice and video conferencing traffic on its network was up 212% in March. For Zoom, the number of daily active users has surged since December, up 340%.

We’re leaning more heavily than ever before on the achievements of the creators of the digital age. Let’s take a moment to recognize the benefits we’ve reaped so far and express our appreciation.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

The pandemic is showing that, all around us, there are under-appreciated heroes.

Legions of them work in hospitals. What’s become clear in New York and elsewhere is that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers are up against battlefield-like conditions. The lack of widespread testing, the desperate scarcity of ventilators and dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, have made their work far more difficult and greatly increased their risk.

The horrifying stories multiply by the day: doctors having to re-use their masks; hospital staff using garbage bags to improvise gowns; doctors having to weigh whether to imperil their own lives to save patients. Here, from the vantage one E.R. physician, Dr. Colleen Smith, is a look inside hard-hit Elmhurst Hospital in New York.

A possible sign of what’s yet to come is evident in Spain, which also has an acute shortage of masks and protective gear. Nearly 14% of all COVID-19 cases in Spain are medical professionals, many apparently infected on the job. One E.R. nurse in Spain has decried the fact that, lacking adequate protective equipment, she and her colleagues have been turned into “health care kamikazes.” (Some doctors in the U.S. are writing and updating their wills.)

Many Americans have expressed their gratitude for the work of doctors and nurses. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook. In New York City, residents stood at their windows to applaud and cheer their tireless efforts. Elsewhere, individuals and companies have collected supplies of masks and donated them to local hospitals.

But if only such appreciation were universal. What’s been stomach-turning is the evident devaluing of doctors and nurses by some administrators of certain hospitals and by government authorities. It is the responsibility of government authorities to prepare for this kind of situation by ensuring adequate supplies and resources, but we’re seeing what happens when the calls for crisis-preparedness go unheeded.

There’s still another kind of devaluing of doctors and nurses. Consider the college students who flocked together on the beaches of Florida or Mexico on spring break, or the New Yorkers who reportedly arrange pandemic potluck dinners in crowded apartments. They choose not to voluntarily social-distance. They may decide to be fatalistic about their own health—“if I get corona, I get corona!”—but it’s reprehensible to do that and then when they get sick to expect that doctors and nurses, lacking adequate protection, treat them in the E.R. Imposing such a risk on healthcare workers is to disregard their lives.

The ugly premise behind such indifference is that doctors and nurses—individuals who spend years upon years mastering oceans of scientific knowledge and continually honing their life-saving skills—somehow owe us their lives and work. It’s as if they’re our servants, and we don’t have to care what happens to them. The expectation is that they’ll always show up to work, even at the cost of their own health and the well-being of their families. But this is an inverted kind of blackmail, a form of exploitation that counts not on vices, but on the virtues of doctors and nurses. It’s precisely because of their love for their work and dedication to patients that so many of them show up every day.

This same premise, evident in the UK’s National Health Service, long ago wormed its way into America’s government-controlled healthcare system. For decades, we saw the imposition of control after control, minutely regulating the judgment of doctors and nurses, making their jobs harder—with the expectation that they will endure anything to save lives. The pandemic, some people clamor, validates the case for moving to some form of state-run healthcare, like Medicare-for-All. But the opposite is true. Embedded in such systems is a basic disregard for the lives, judgment, and freedom of doctors and nurses.

That’s also what underlies the alarming suggestion by New York mayor Bill de Blasio for a national draft of doctors and other medical workers to serve in hospitals, beginning with New York.

Doctors and medical workers are the “forgotten man” of socialized medicine, with harmful repercussions for us all. Such callousness toward them is a moral travesty.

One lesson we can already draw from this crisis is that we need properly to recognize the tremendous value of doctors and nurses. Another is that rather imposing further controls or nationalizing healthcare, we need to move toward liberating them and their industry. Despite the outpouring of praise and gratitude so far, we’re only just beginning to appreciate them fully.

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Photo by Richard Catabay on Unsplash

In this Pandemic, We’re All Paying the Price of Trump’s War on Truth

By the hour, we are learning more about the spread and lethality of the novel coronavirus. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically upended our lives and economy, it has also brought into sharper focus the dire consequences of putting in the nation’s highest office someone who’s at war with the truth.

Even ardent supporters of Donald Trump acknowledge that he spins, exaggerates, stretches, invents facts. Remember his inauguration ceremony? In Trump’s telling, it had a record-breaking turnout. In fact, it did not.

Such habitual twisting of the truth unnerved both opponents and voters who reluctantly voted for him, but Trump’s ardent supporters shut their eyes to its meaning. A favorite rationalization: it’s a character flaw of little consequence. Yeah, he’s a braggart, but what difference does it make how many came to the inauguration, really?

What about the foreseeable outcome of having someone who habitually twists the truth in the Oval Office during a crisis? Many evaded that nightmare scenario. Now we’re living it as the coronavirus pandemic rages.

In January, while intelligence agencies and health officials warned the Trump administration about a looming crisis, the president shut his eyes to the problem and insisted — as if wishing made it so — that we have nothing to worry about.

Asked on Jan. 22 if he was concerned about a pandemic, Trump said: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control.” He added: “It’s going to be just fine.” Dismissing the risk, he misled the American public into a false sense of security.

At a rally on Feb. 10, Trump floated the dubious theory that, with warmer weather, the novel virus “miraculously goes away.” On Feb. 23, he again insisted that “we have it very much under control.”

At a White House briefing on Feb. 26, the president said “the risk to the American people remains very low.” Referring to 15 cases in the U.S., he asserted that that number “within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” He added: “We’re going very substantially down, not up” — even as the number of confirmed cases climbed and more countries were reporting cases.

Diagnostic tests for this coronavirus are essential for identifying the spread and lethality of the virus and whether “social distancing” practices are effectively slowing transmission. Touring the C.D.C. facility on Mar. 6, Trump assured the public that “anybody that wants a test can get a test” — when in fact such tests were, and remain, painfully scarce.

Then, after the World Health Organization called the situation a pandemic, on Mar. 17 Trump asserted that “I felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” and that “I’ve always viewed it as very serious” — in brazen defiance of his own past statements and actions.

In a time of crisis we need leaders to communicate openly, frankly, and truthfully. What Trump has done is minimize the problem, peddle false reassurance, and lie. This has inflamed people’s uncertainty, fear, panic.

While Trump refused to face the facts, the U.S. government squandered precious time. Time that could have been spent better preparing hospitals and enabling widespread, rapid testing on the model of South Korea. Result? Lives needlessly lost. And Trump’s denial has wreaked havoc on our daily lives and the economy. For weeks and weeks and weeks the message was “we have it totally under control,” now suddenly tens of millions of Americans are under lockdowns. Innumerable businesses are shuttered, with an uncertain future. Many people have already lost their jobs. The looming economic downturn is potentially catastrophic.

Businesses ruined. Individuals robbed of their livelihoods. Americans sickened and dead, needlessly. The full reckoning will take years to compute.

The lesson here is that you can evade the character of a political leader — shutting your eyes to the facts, wishing them away, inventing feel-good stories. You can tolerate his war on truth, rationalizing it as bragging. And you can tell yourself that, if a crisis erupts, he’ll miraculously face the facts, speak the truth, and handle it honestly. But you cannot escape the consequences of such evasions. Trump’s disdain for facts and truth is blatant, it’s part of his character, and it’s pervasive. So, it’s sheer fantasy to expect him to deal with a crisis honestly, rather than aggravating it.

We’re all now suffering the destructive consequences of installing a person contemptuous of facts in the Oval Office.

Should You Judge Other People?

Should you judge other people? When you call someone “judgy” or “judgmental,” that’s taken as an insult. A caring friend, many believe, offers a “no judgment zone.” Some tell us to follow the biblical advice: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

But can this approach really guide us in our daily life and thinking?

No. On the contrary: in life it’s crucial to form moral judgments of other people — and act on your evaluation.

That’s what I argued in a recent webinar, part of ARI’s weekly series Philosophy for Living on Earth,drawing on Ayn Rand’s moral theory. Essential to Rand’s view is that our moral judgments must be objective, not emotion-driven. To reach objective evaluations is a serious responsibility. It’s a task, she observes, “that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought.” An aspect of what’s so distinctive in Rand’s perspective is that moral judgment is primarily about seeking out, nurturing, supporting the good people in our life and world (not just identifying the people to shun, avoid, condemn).

One highlight of the webinar was having my colleague Aaron Smith moderate the Q&A portion and also join in the discussion. A fascinating issue that came up early on: what are some reasons that people are reluctant to engage in moral judgment?

Watch the video of the webinar, or download the episode on the ARI Live! podcast (Apple PodcastsStitcher). And join us next time by subscribing to the series.

The “Islamophobia” Smear: A Conversation with Sarah Haider

There’s a growing taboo in our society around the religion of Islam. Take an obvious contrasting example. The Book of Mormon, a musical that lampoons Mormonism, is a hugely successful, critically acclaimed Broadway show, but no one today would dare to stage a musical that subjects the religion of Islam to similar criticism and ridicule.

The taboo is partly the result of well-founded fear. For expressing criticism of Islam, filmmakers, novelists, journalists, playwrights have faced death threats and violent attacks. After a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammad, there were riots, fire bombings, and a political crisis. For “insulting” Islam, twelve journalists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered at their office.

Beyond the threats of violence, the taboo is also enforced by a stinging epithet: “Islamophobia.” This term deliberately blurs together anti-Muslim bigotry and any analysis and criticism of Islamic ideas. The effect is to smear, and thus discredit, any critical discussion of Islam as an instance of prejudice.

To explore the taboo from a unique perspective, I turned to Sarah Haider. She’s the executive director of Ex-Muslims of North America. Today in America, she observes, we behave as if there’s a kind of de facto blasphemy law regarding Islam. Haider brings an admirable frankness to the issue of Islam and its impact on individuals and societies.

Born in Pakistan and raised in the U.S., Haider left Islam in her teens and is an atheist. Her organization works with people who abandon the religion of Islam. No mainstream religion, Haider notes, treats apostates quite the way Islam does. The stigma, difficulties, even threats, they face are considerable. Some people she works with insist on anonymity. Out of security concerns, the organization itself has no physical address.

One fascinating thread in our conversation relates to the pushback and attacks that Haider has faced from individuals she expected to be allies — notably from progressives, liberal feminists, and even secular humanists. Frustrated and disappointed, she called out in particular the hypocrisy of feminists who shut their eyes to the well-documented subjugation of women under Islamic norms.

The “Islamophobia” smear, too, came up in our conversation. Haider objects to what she calls the racializing of Muslims. The sheer existence of ex-Muslims attests to the fact that Islam is a set of ideas people can think their way out of and reject. Being a follower of the faith is not coded into one’s DNA.

In its own way, Haider’s organization is challenging the taboo around the issue of Islam. Which is important and necessary work, because no set of ideas, whether secular or religious, should be fenced off from critical scrutiny. That’s doubly important when some proponents of that ideology seek to silence all criticism by threats of violence.

Why Patents and Copyrights Matter: A Conversation with Adam Mossoff

Would you walk into a store, grab a bottle of wine, and walk out without paying for it? No, that would be stealing. It’s morally wrong, and few would even consider doing it. But many people routinely download or stream pirated content — movies, TV shows — without giving it a second thought. They do not think of these two cases, stealing a bottle of wine and violating a movie copyright, as equivalent morally.

This attitude is compounded by a growing hostility to copyrights and patents. For years some intellectuals and politicians have been calling for drastically scaling back the protections for these forms of intellectual property. And they’ve made inroads. The U.S. patent system once led “the world in securing stable and effective property rights in cutting-edge innovation,” innovation that has supercharged our standard of living in myriad ways. That system was widely seen as the “gold standard.” But no longer.

Why do patents and copyrights matter? What do they protect? What to make of the objections against them? For instance: that no one is really hurt by violations of copyrights or patents; or that these rights are obstacles to progress and innovation; or that they’re an unfair, government-granted privilege or favor?

To explore these issues, I talked to Professor Adam Mossoff, who teaches law at George Mason University. Mossoff is an expert on intellectual property law and policy, who has published extensively in academic journals and popular outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Politico, among many others. He has testified several times before the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Mossoff is also a contributor to two recent books of essays on Ayn Rand’s philosophy: A Companion to Ayn Rand and Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy. Rand was a principled advocate for individual rights, emphatically including rights to intellectual property, and one thread of my conversation with Mossoff relates to his interest in Rand’s ideas and their impact on his thinking.

Two points resonated strongly with me after the interview. First, I was alarmed to learn that protections for patents in the U.S. have diminished so much that some companies, particularly in biotech, have opted to shut down operations: why spend years and invest billions of dollars in R&D if a breakthrough innovation cannot be secured under patents? Second, it was refreshing to hear a justification for intellectual property rights grounded not on economic arguments, but on a moral case about an individual’s right to the product of his mind.

Watch the interview:

 

Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

The Campaign to “Abolish Billionaires”

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are jockeying to spearhead a new crusade. Its premise is that the sheer existence of billionaires is a moral outrage.

“I don’t think that billionaires should exist,” Sanders explained. The crusade’s rallying cry: “Abolish billionaires.” To that end, Warren and Sanders have each proposed special taxes on the ultra-rich.

Central to this crusade is a claim many find plausible. In a New York Times column that went viral, Farhad Manjoo called for “kneecapping the wealthiest among us” because a billion dollars is “far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however much he believes he has contributed to society.” A burgeoning chorus keeps telling us: “No one deserves a billion dollars” (Tom Scocca); “No one earns a billion dollars” (Jacobin magazine). The implication: everyone who accumulates — not earns, mind you, but accumulates — so vast a fortune must have done so by shady means.

What’s truly corrupt, however, is the campaign to “abolish billionaires.” It’s founded on a smear. It’s not ignorance that leads billionaire-haters to deny the sheer possibility that a billion can be earned. It’s a willful disregard of the facts.

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The War on Vaccines

Nearly twenty years ago, measles in the United States was declared “eliminated” — thanks to widespread vaccination. But measles has made a dangerous comeback. In the last year, several outbreaks occurred in Washington State and parts of New York, particularly in communities with low rates of vaccination. Such outbreaks reflect the influence of the anti-vaccine movement.

What animates this movement? What to make of its assertions about the dangers of vaccines? And what is the state of scientific knowledge about the efficacy and safety of vaccines? To explore these issues, I interviewed Dr. Amesh Adalja, a physician and expert on infectious diseases. Adalja is co-editor of the new book Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, and he has published in scientific journals as well as popular outlets such as The Atlantic, Forbes, and USA Today.

Two major takeaways from the conversation: First, the war on vaccines does not stem from a dispute over facts; rather, it reflects a wider cultural disdain for facts, truth, and reason. Second, the anti-vaccine movement is itself a significant danger. The more it succeeds, the more we can expect an increase in preventable infections and deaths.

Watch or listen to the interview:


Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash