i saw the picture and thought “surely not gene hackman!” anyway this was an interesting bit of history, thanks.
This reminded me of an old joke from Laugh-In:
A new disease has been discovered. It has no symptoms, it has no known causes, and has no known cure. The only good thing is, it only affects people from New Jersey.
The article is great, but one question, the author states the following: “By the force of his arguments, Zhdanov was successful. The WHO abruptly reversed its position, agreeing to form a campaign to completely eradicate the disease.” Yet, nowhere in his article does he state that the WHO was AGAINST eradicating smallpox. So, what did they reverse their course FROM?
Yo Viktor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish but John Snow had one of the best discoveries of all time.
Well yea, eradicating smallpox is nice and all, but I would really be more impressed if…
Also going to throw in joesph lister as a suggestion.
I think you have to give strong consideration to Bernie, who discovered ladies. Jump to around 3:18.
From what I have read, samples of the smallpox virus have been archived by the US, Russia, and possibly other governments. This allows it to be re-established and potentially weaponized. Last year some improperly stored samples of smallpox were discovered in a storeroom at NIH in Maryland. In 1978 a medical photographer in England was exposed to smallpox through a ventilation duct and died. I’d like to believe that the last chapter has been written on smallpox, but I have to wonder.
Norman Borlaug saved somewhere around one billion lives. I think he wins “best person ever”.
Wouldn’t the inventors of Science live far enough upstream of this accomplishment, and a vast number of others, that any one of them would far outweigh Viktor Zhdanov? This seems not very defensible as an answer to the stated question, versus “Who did the most good in the 20th century?” or “Who did the most good that is similar to the sort of good GiveWell tries to do?”
Calling someone the literal all-time winner for human good accomplished so far, is a much stronger judgment than “Viktor Zhdanov saved millions of lives and is a great hero”, and implies a comparative judgment of all the other strong candidates.
Whom we valorize is not a value-neutral act, still less who we valorize above others. You can see how I might question and indeed, call shenanigans, on awarding the literally highest valor to someone who played a major causal role in a long causal chain ending up in completing the eradication of smallpox in the 20th century.
Over all of human history, which is the stated breadth of judgment in the article, Science as a whole clearly accomplished much more good as a whole - including, e.g., the eradication of smallpox. Even a relatively more distributed or relatively more replaceable causal role in Science’s development would lead to a clear claim on scoring more net utilitarian points. Consider humanity’s entire development curve over the last 500 years, then consider the total effect over all that time of shifting the development curve 1 year forward, then ask whether any of the scientists on my given list might have accomplished that much with their lives, when Science was young and fragile. Even if you believe the Renaissance was inevitable, I find it hard to believe that the earliest scientists really made so little difference to how it developed or how long it took. I’m not an expert historian but I find it easy to imagine that killing Gutenberg would have counterfactually set back the curve of human progress by at least 1 year.
In this context, awarding the highest value of all time to a global poverty anti-disease campaign activist (after smallpox had already been significantly fought back, so that we cannot reasonably award the effort in which Zhdanov played one role, all of the credit for defeating all of the smallpox in the 20th century) is something that I not only disbelieve, but find hard to believe was a neutral error.
Anything we might say to devalorize the most important scientists of the 16th century, at this remove, is probably an argument that we could level against Zhdanov too. So I say again that it is very suspicious that the most important people involved in by far the biggest story of the last 500 years, along with the people involved in the second-biggest stories of democratic institutions like the democratic revolution in the US colonies, are being thrown under the bus for a 20th-century global poverty disease eradication activist. The existence of vaccines, antibiotics, and modern medicine as a whole is something like maybe the 4th most important story of the last 500 years with a significant share of its own credit going to Science. I’d put industrial revolution / capitalism / finance 3rd, where a big share of the credit there goes to democratic institutions (though not all of it, it was gathering speed in Britain well before democracy got started) and then a lot of the technological aspect flows back to Science too.
Human history is a big story. Lotta stuff happened. Science, democracy, industrial markets, and the existence of modern medicine are not unreal background forces that we quietly assume so that we can focus on real understandable things like delivering a vial of vaccine to another country. Science, democracy, industrial markets, and modern medicine did not always exist. People had to fight for them. They gave their lives for them. The world has not always been the way it has been. (And it won’t always be the way it is, either.)
And not just Gene Hackman, but Gene Hackman from The Conversation.
Thanks. I was going to try to look up Petrov, for this very reason; I hadn’t heard of Arkhipov.
I’m from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, so if we’re going with the eradication of smallpox, I’m gonna have to call out my homie Dr. Edward Jenner, who as well as developing the smallpox vaccine, in doing so pretty much invented vaccination.
Also from Gloucestershire - came here to say exactly the same thing. It’s all well and good talking about a guy who implemented Jenner’s idea for one disease - Jenner’s work led to all vaccines… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Jenner
Yo ppdd, I’m really happy for you. Imma let you finish, but Norman Borlaug was the savior of billions of lives and one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Yo Snow, I’m really happy for you. Imma let you finish, but Joseph Bazalgette ushered in the age of modern sewage management that ensures our water supply remains uncontaminated, preventing a host of diseases, yo…
First thing I though of. Single-handledly preventing nuclear war must count for something.
Not that I agree that “potential human lives saved” can ever be a reliable measure of anything, because how can we possibly measure the causal chain of something that didn’t happen? To twist a cliché, maybe if the tribeswoman hadn’t stepped on precisely the right butterfly 20.000 years ago we would be all dead of Lepidoptera Megapox today. You don’t see statues of her around.
I have a smallpox vaccination kit from the eradication days, complete with vaccine. I need to mount that shit in a display case, it belongs in a museum!