Science: Nil. Stupidity: 1,000,000,000

It was Albert Einstein, I believe, who suggested only two things were infinite. The universe and stupidity. And he wasn’t sure about the universe.

According to media reports, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tinkering with the H1N1 flu virus that triggered a pandemic in 2009 and killed 500,000. Apparently, he’s altered it to take away human immunity built up since 2009. There are solid scientific reasons for doing so – we learn how to make better vaccines. Excellent motive.

Except – e-e-e-except…the modified virus poses a threat if it escapes. Estimates of casualties range from a billion people down to  merely 400,000,000. Kawaoka’s effort has been criticised as irresponsible, and response generally, seems critical.

I’m not a virologist. But I know what happened when the Justinian plague and the Black Death hit Europe, or when Europe’s diseases hit the Americas and Australasia. I know what happened in 1918-19. Diseases to which humans had no immunity. And I think if someone shows something can be done, somebody else will repeat it on that knowledge alone.

What worries me is the wider trend towards tinkering with viruses in labs. We can, I fear, only get away for so long without an accident. Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Virology Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is reported as using more direct terms. ‘If society understood what was going on,’ he was quoted in the Independent, ‘‘they would say “What the F… are you doing?”’

Quite right, too.

Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license
Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


16 thoughts on “Science: Nil. Stupidity: 1,000,000,000

  1. Ah yes, engineered viruses and A.I., two temptations our culture can’t help but explore. Gosh, are we ever a self destructive bunch of baboons! The brains working on both projects are generally ridiculously analytical and focused on turning theoretical abstractions into societal axioms. Are these really the brains we want to mechanize, immortalize? I, for one, think not. Because if one project gets access to the other… we’re in a whole hell of a lot of trouble ~wink

    1. Quite right! Humanity has a huge self-destructive streak…My take is that smart people do ‘stupid’ in smart ways…but it’s still stupid. It’s that framework of understanding issue again – as you say, they get caught up in a narrow analytical framework and can’t see beyond it. I’ve found the university academics I deal with masters at that one. Made worse, on my experience, when they also take the attitude that someone who doesn’t do stuff via that framework is, by definition, unsophisticated, uneducated or whatever. Sigh…

      1. OMG I know what you mean about university academics! I know a few independent ones fightin’ the good fight, but most have become so specialized that they devote all their energies to defending abstract theses that have zero applicable value to 98% of the population!

        Hehee – love your take on smart stupid 🙂 Also, a ‘smart’ brain easily produces glossy rationalization constructs to justify even the most blatant stupidity.

  2. It all makes sense, you see. Nature has a way of balancing things out. So if nature makes a super-predator with a brain able to massively alter its environment, to the point of rendering it uninhabitable, and being so successful it can over-reproduce (again rendering environments uninhabitable) there’s got to be a balance for that. That balance is: tinkering with dangerous things, even while knowing that enough time fiddling with it, and it will bite us in the butt. The population of one animal is always culled by another. In the case of the super-predator H. Sapiens, it’s ourselves.

    1. Yes, we’re by far our own worst enemy. And the enemy of everything else on the planet… I’ve always thought it tragically hilarious how – especially in the nineteenth century – there was a kind of macho pride among certain sorts of Englishmen over their ability to collect lion skins, thus showing their superiority over the ‘greatest’ beast. As if the lion had any chance whatsoever against a gun! Actually, this went on well into the twentieth century – I recall, back in the mid-1980s, visiting a farm in back-country Hawke’s Bay. The owner had a room filled with pelts and the mounted heads of the animals he’d shot during repeated safaris to Africa. Unbelievable! The hardest part would have been getting the pelts back into New Zealand – we have some VERY strict controls relative to anything organic being brought in, and there’s a rigarmarole involving fumigation.

      1. True enough. Put that same guy alone with only a fire-hardened spear in his hands against a lion, and then let’s see if he triumphs against a lion. Probably wet his trousers and whimper like a child instead.

        And maybe if Africa was a little better organized, people would have to pay the very devil to get a lion pelt OUT of Africa.

  3. Out of all the wonderful comments here, I believe “fools never differ” is my favorite, thus ensuring stupidity’s survival, which, ultimately, may be the same thing as the extinction of humanity. That certainly would ease the pressure on the rest of the planet. Oh, my….

    1. I see today that a lost cache of smallpox was found in the US. In a cardboard box apparently. Luckily sealed in glass according to the report. But it was meant to have been eradicated 34 years ago. The scenario of a stupid lab accident unleashing something terrible seems all too real. The flip side being, as you say, that it might save the Earth. Inconveniently for us of course. But likely to the benefit of the environment. I can’t believe that is where the logic leads, but the damage being done by humanity gives a truth to Attenborough’s suggestion that we are the scourge of the planet. Alas.

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