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Episode 12 features Reason Magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey, co-author of our recent book, "Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know."

The Covid Tonic, Episode 12 Transcript

By Ronald Bailey @HumanProgress

By Marian L. Tupy @HumanProgress

The full video interview between Marian L. Tupy and Ronald Bailey can be found here. The transcript is below.

MARIAN TUPY: Ron Bailey— hello, and welcome to The Covid Tonic! 

RONALD BAILEY: Glad to be with you. Thank you for inviting me. 

MT: My pleasure. Our book, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting, will be out on August 31st, so I thought it might be fun to just talk a little bit about you as my co-author and, of course, about the book itself. Now, we decided to join forces about two years ago, but I take it that you’ve been thinking about doing a book like this for a while. Why did you think that a book like this might be needed in the world?

RB: Well, as you know, I’ve written several books on the topics. A lot of the topics that we talk about in the book [are] various global trends and environmental, economic, and social trends. My last book on that was a book called The End of Doom. It was basically 400 pages with a lot of footnotes, and it sold okay, but I kept thinking that people nowadays read blog posts. They watch Tik Tok. To get someone’s attention, I figured that perhaps a picture book might be the way to go, and so I conceived of this book, Ten Global Trends, as a picture book— a data picture book, if you will. I had this in the back of my mind literally for the past four years and was just thinking: how could I pull this off? For a while I was saying, well maybe, I could self-publish it on Amazon, and so forth. Then, I decided I’m going to have this guy who’s the head of HumanProgress, he’s all about data— maybe he could be useful for this. So then, we had that cocktail and discussed it, and you kindly agreed to join me to create this book. 

The book, as you know, is basically designed to have various trends, and it’s one chart with a page across from it explaining what the chart is. It’s all kinds of trends— social, economic, and ecological— and the idea is that most people will be surprised by most of these trends, that they won’t know a lot of this data. My hope is that people will buy the book— it makes a wonderful Christmas, Bar Mitzvah, birthday, wedding present…you can’t have too many copies; that they will take the book and flip through it; and that they will find, “Oh! I didn’t know that. Who knew that world population was going to peak in the middle of the century and go down,” or, “Oh my goodness! You know, the world economy has grown a hundred-fold in 200 years. Who would know that?” or, “Did you know that the tree cover on planet Earth has been expanding, not declining, since 1980?” 

Those kinds of things that I think would surprise people, because one of the problems is that the kind of information people get, and we can discuss this— I’m sure we will— is mostly focused on the things that are going wrong, and therefore, people don’t hear a lot about the things that are going right. So, what we wanted to do was to provide that information to people. 

MT: We’ll get to the negative biases in a second because I think that forms a very important part of how we conceived of this book, but let me just add, obviously, I was very pleased to be asked to be your partner on this project, partly because even though I’ve written many columns and some studies, I’ve never written a book. So, this is my first, and obviously it’s very thrilling to now have a book out of it. The other thing I think is worth mentioning, both as a plug for people to buy the book, but also as a statement of reality, is that we put a lot of effort into the graphics, and it’s a book on glossy pages and high quality, specifically for a reason, which is that we don’t want it to be gathering dust on a shelf. 

What we want is for it to be sitting on a table in the living room, so that when people arrive for a party, for example, or you are just chatting with a few friends and sharing a few drinks, maybe somebody will start flipping through the book and decide, “Hey! This is interesting,” and it will form a sort of a conversation piece, which I think is a very important component of that. I always get amazed [by] what I see on people’s living room tables— things like architecture or pictures of houses and all sorts of style books. Why not have a book about the world? I hope that people will use it that way. 

RB: Right, well, what I’m hoping will happen also is that people will flip through it and will go to those cocktail parties, or go to dinner with their friends, and they’ll just go, “Did you know that?” and they’ll be surprised, and it will be a good way to start a conversation. 

MT: And maybe instead of a bottle of wine, they can bring the book as a—

RB: Well, absolutely— as a hostess gift! 

MT: Oh boy…yes. We aim high. Okay, by my count, this is your seventh book that you have either authored or co-authored. For people who don’t know your background, you’re obviously the science correspondent for Reason magazine, but maybe tell us a little bit more about yourself, the main areas of interest for you and perhaps even, how have those interests evolved over time? What was your original passion, and how [has] that changed over time?

RB: I don’t know how far back you need to go with this, but let’s just start with back when I was in college, quite some time ago, during the 1970s, and my professors were then telling me that the world was coming to an end. Basically, there was The Limits to Growth, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and earlier on there was, of course, Silent Spring; the world was going to be poisoned, overpopulated, and running out of everything. Basically, my future was miserable, it was going to be miserable, and only get worse. In the fullness of time, leaping two decades forward, I was actually working as a staff writer at Forbes magazine, and I looked around one day and I noticed that we were all still here and that things were in fact remarkably better than they had been in the 70s. 

So, I went to my editor— a genius editor— named Jim Michaels at Forbes and said, “What I’d like to do is reread all these books and go to the people, if they’re still alive, and ask them, ‘What happened?’” I rather naively thought that they would go, “Oh, thank goodness I was wrong.” Well, that’s not what happened. I went up to MIT and talked to the people who did The Limits to Growth, spent the day with them going through the book, and basically, they were saying: all right, fine, we overemphasized the physical resources side. And I’m going: but of course, that was what got you on the front page of the New York Times— that we were going to run out of oil and natural gas before the year 2000, etcetera. Never mind, there are other problems we’re worrying about. And then, I actually interviewed Paul Ehrlich about The Population Bomb, and he literally said to me– this was in the early 90s— Ron, I got my timing wrong; the famines are still coming, they’re going to be hundreds of millions people starving, and it’ll happen after the year 2000. It’s now 2020— still has not happened. 

I did a bunch of these, and eventually, I came to realize that a lot of these claims were ideological, they were not in any way scientific. So, I got together a whole bunch of these articles and went to a book editor and said that I’d like to write a book about this, and they said sure, sign me up. My first book, Eco-Scam, was a result of that, but just because you’ve written about something, doesn’t mean the problem’s gone away, and I’ve been following that intersection between public policy and science with regard to all kinds of ecological and technological trends. That’s how I ended up very happily being offered the position as a science correspondent at Reason magazine. 

I’ve been following these issues for quite some time. For example, my first article for Reason was a freelance article in the mid 80s on biotechnology and the people who are going to be opposing biotechnology. There was basically a prediction that there was a movement that was going to oppose crop biotechnology and some medical biotechnologies, and lo and behold, there they are. Reason, I’m happy to say, sent me to the first climate change conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and I wrote an article for Reason about that. [I] basically said what I did on my summer vacation was go to a climate change conference. 

As I said, I’ve been following this for quite some time. To make one other point about that is because I was writing on these things and talking to various people, I got to know Julian Simon, who, as you know, is a great intellectual hero both of us. He’s been somebody who, for a very long time, was arguing against the intellectual ties saying that human ingenuity could solve most of the problems that people were pointing to, and it turns out, as we both know, he’s been proven very much on the right side of history.

MT: So, you talked about Julian Simon; what or who were the other big intellectual influences on your life and on your thinking?

RB: Well, as you know, I now work for a libertarian magazine, and probably the person who is the largest influence intellectually in my life is Friedrich Hayek. As you know, he is a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the Austrian School of economics, and he is somebody who made certain kinds of arguments with regard to tacit knowledge and the institutions that basically enable freedom and prosperity to occur. His insights, also, were just amazing in that regard. So, I turned— I still turn— to him quite frequently in my thinking when I’m trying to figure out, well, how is this going wrong and why is it going wrong? Hayek was always there ahead of most people. 

MT: Just to sort of round off the conversation about you and your intellectual journey, can you think of one or two things on which you have changed your mind over the course, aside from the big one, obviously, which is that the world wasn’t going to end. Was there anything else?

RB: Well, with regard to the topics, for example, that I’ve been covering as a journalist for a long time, the biggest change was that I was very skeptical in beginning [that] climate change was going to be a significant problem, and I argued and followed the science and the policies. I’ve been doing that now for almost 30 years, and sometime around 2005, the data just became overwhelming that there was probably going to be a significant problem. So, I publicly changed my mind [and] said: I thought it might not be a problem, but I’m now worried about it. I think that humanity is still going to be able to handle it, but we can’t just say it’s not a problem anymore, the science doesn’t agree with that. I have to say that when I made that statement, a lot of people in the Washington policy circles who had been my friends at the time stopped talking to me for a while, which surprised me a bit, but anyway. 

MT: Our book is devoted both to global trends which are improving but also to trends in the United States which are improving. As you write in the introduction, a lot of people don’t know about the improving state of the world right. So, could you outline a couple of arguments or insights as to why is it that pessimism sells and optimism doesn’t?

RB: Well, as you know, they’re basically psychological glitches. A couple of them, one of them, is something that a zoologist buddy of mine [said to me] many, many, many years ago. I’m in the news business, I’m a journalist, and I was complaining to him that my editors always want bad news stories. I have some good news stories. He [the zoologist] goes, I get it because the truth of the matter is every editor knows bad news sells. Why is that?

The zoologist said, look, Ron: we’re human beings evolving in Africa; if there was a rustling in the bushes and there was one guy who thinks it’s the wind [so] I’ll just keep going, and it turns out to be a lion, he’s deselected. He’s not our ancestor. The guy who hears any rustle in the wind and thinks it’s a lion and runs away— they are our ancestors. Basically, we’re the descendants of people who are very cautious. We focus on the negative first, and we can think about the good things whenever. The other thing is, as you know, progress hides itself. What happens is as things get better and better, the old problems of children dying all the time of infectious diseases go back into the misty past and no one remembers that. Instead, we focus on the fact that still the infant mortality rate is five per thousand–oh my god, it’s terrible— but we forget that it was 150 per thousand only two generations ago. It’s still a problem— we would still like to have even lower infant mortality rates— but we focus on how to get the infant mortality rate from five down to two, three, or whatever, and we forget how much progress we’ve made. 

It’s the same thing for getting richer all the time. I’m not sure if many people could remember there was a time when there wasn’t an internet, for example. Now, of course, we’re all worried about the internet, deservedly so, with techno-nationalism and all that stuff. Those are problems to worry about, but we should still celebrate the fact that you and I are able to talk basically across hundreds of miles, sitting in different rooms, recording ourselves in a way that would have literally been impossible just two decades ago, if not ten years ago. 

MT: What came to you as the biggest surprise when you researched for this book? Was there a particular trend or anything else that you thought, “Ah! This is much better than I thought it was.” Or alternatively, did you see anything where you thought, “Hmm…I wish this could be better.” I have a candidate, but I’ll—

RB: Go ahead! I’d like to hear your candidate. 

MT: I think the freedom of the press—I think that our chapter on freedom of the press is called “Press is Freer, but with Setbacks,” and that is to say yes, it is freer than it was in the 1970s or so, but it’s definitely not on a steadily improving trend—

RB: Right.

MT: —and that’s something that over the period of time that we looked at the data, it is an improvement, but we are definitely seeing a retraction, and that is something that is unfortunate—

RB: Right, I agree with that.

MT: —because it’s a positive trend, but it’s not as positive as I would like to be. 

RB: Absolutely. As a journalist, everybody should have completely free press all the time and access to that information. I suppose that the two that really surprised me were —that I hadn’t really thought about completely— the trend in interstate war. I knew we were in a long peace— after all, I read Steven Pinker— but I hadn’t quite realized until you looked at the data at how rare war had become between countries anymore. Again, I was looking at some of the extrapolations that the RAND Corporation had come out with. That’s [the decreasing trend of war] still going to continue down, they fully believe for at least the next 20 years, which would be great for humanity if that’s true. 

The other one that I was aware of, but I hadn’t really thought through, was the fact that the tree canopy on planet Earth has been expanding for 35 years. We hear a lot about deforestation in the tropics, and it certainly is happening. It’s largely happening because governments are horrible at trying to take care of commons [i.e. common spaces], but in fact, if you look around the globe, tree area has been expanding for quite some time. In other words, we’re getting, if you will, a kind of global greening with regard to forests. The more forests there will be, the less pressure there’ll be on biodiversity eventually over time, i.e. the threats of extinction that various species will receive. That was a surprise for me, somewhat, exactly how much had happened over the last 35 years. 

MT: Yeah, and of course, our book is coming out during a pandemic.

RB: Oh yeah, I’ve heard! Is there a pandemic, really [jokingly]?

MT: As a result of that, the date of release of the book has been postponed a couple of times. I would have been worried if the book came out in March or April, when everybody was feeling incredibly down and worried, but I think that psychologically people are beginning to get back to somewhere around normal, partly because the shutdown is unsustainable, people are longing to get back to normalcy, but also because we can sort of see a light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of some form of a vaccine or a treatment. 

What I’m hoping for in this book is that it comes out right at the time when people not only need a dose of optimism, but also are ready to receive it, which they may not have been back in March or April. Knowing that we are in the middle of this pandemic, how has that altered your view of human progress? Has it?

RB: There was a certain disappointment on my part when it began. I had hoped that there would be such reservoirs of technical prowess, if you will, and governance prowess that would have been able to effectively address the pandemic. Unfortunately, with the due respect that, really, they deserve, the situation in the United States is a result of essentially a massive failure on the part of our governing institutions. Our public health authorities failed us, and our political leaders have failed us in that regard. There would have been a path that would have dramatically reduced the effect of the pandemic on people, on the country, and on the economy; we didn’t take it because of the chaotic leadership we have at the top of our government, and apparently the entirely sclerotic public health bureaucracies of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 

The CDC basically delayed rolling out testing for the disease, which would have enabled us to figure out how big a problem it was early on and start addressing it. They delayed by almost a month and a half to two months. In contrast, South Korea had their testing up and running using private companies, by the way, in a week. That [the CDC’s initial handling of COVID] was terrible. Then, of course, we had the FDA delaying all kinds of approvals for treatments and so forth— it’s just been terrible. 

Given that, nevertheless, eight-nine months into it, there is a light at the tunnel. Private industry has in fact stepped up with government subsidies, to be sure, and we should have some effective vaccines available before the end of the year, is my best guess on that. I’ve been following it [vaccine development] as a reporter for quite a while since the beginning of this, and that is an absolutely remarkable achievement as you well know. In fact, you might want to talk about the chapter you worked on with regard to vaccines in discovery of the disease. 

MT: Indeed, as we have written in Chapter 34 “Accelerating Vaccine Discoveries,” aside from the text, what you can perhaps see on this side in the chart [holds up a copy of the book] is how much time is required for humanity to come up with a vaccine or a life-saving drug that will keep you from dying from a contagious disease, and how that has shrunk in time. 

Some of the data that we give in Chapter 34 is that it took 3,348 years to come up with a vaccine for polio; it took 3,296 years to come up with a vaccine for smallpox; cholera— 2,500 years; typhoid– 2,500 years; measles— 1,500 thousand years; rubella— 350 years; and for diphtheria— three centuries. Then, you get to the 20th century, and for Ebola it was 43 years before we had a vaccine, and for HIV/AIDS, we don’t have a vaccine, but the amount of time that it took from the time that we started talking about HIV— which was in 1980— to the time that the first life-saving drugs came on the market in 1995 only took fifteen years. 

With COVID, it took three months from the identification of a problem in China to the time when people started seriously working on the cure. As you say, maybe for the first time in human history, we will have a vaccine in under a year, so that would be really cool. 

RB: One of the other things about the vaccine, for example— some of the vaccine platforms that are being developed now will be generalizable to all kinds of illnesses. Essentially, you will be able to use those platforms to create a vaccine in the future in less than a year for almost any new thing that comes up, assuming that the trials work out by the end of the year. If that’s true, that’s a huge game changer for humanity with regard to infectious diseases that might be lurking out there later in the century. 

MT: I wanted to move on to the next question, but I cannot resist playing off the comments that you were making about the bureaucracy and the government and the stupid rules that have been in place. One of my pet peeves, which I’ve had for a very long time, is— you saw that the government decided last week that if the Brits come up with the vaccine, then we are going to fast track it through the system, so that as soon as the Brits judge it to be effective and safe, it can be applied in the United States, which raises an obvious question: why don’t we do this all the time?

RB: That’s the obvious question: why don’t we? What would our bureaucrats have to do if we allowed other bureaucrats to approve things?

MT: I know because I’m from Europe that people think that in the United States it’s like cowboy capitalism— there is no regulation, you can sell anything, and therefore Europeans have to evaluate all the products independently of the United States. It’s the same in the United States: we have this vast bureaucracy independently evaluating things which have already been evaluated in Europe, and it’s not like Europe is a third world country or the United States is a third world country. It’s not like we are trying to actively poison our own citizens, so why not simply have a mutual recognition? If it’s okay to be sold in your country, it should be okay to be sold in my country. It would just save so much money and so much time and so much effort— I just don’t understand why it took COVID for us to really start doing this. 

Rather, I do understand it, and it’s pathetic in the same way that, for example, if you wanted to be a nurse and you are qualified in Maryland, you cannot work in New Jersey until you get re-qualified. Until COVID, when suddenly nurses became more desirable than diamonds, all of a sudden you have all of these governors canceling all of these regulations unilaterally and asking nurses to come and work in their states. It just seems absolutely insane. 

RB: Well then, there is good news from the pandemic: we’re clearing away a bunch of regulations. Interestingly on the COVID thing again, I’ve been following a lot of the diagnostics that are coming online very slowly in the United States, have already been approved in Europe. American companies are sending their diagnostics to be used in Europe. We can’t get them here yet— that’s stupid. 

MT: Stupid and astonishing. Looking into the future, what are the greatest threats to human progress? Innovation, medical innovation— what do you think?

RB: Well actually, the thing that worries me most is turnkey totalitarianism. I’m really afraid that the China model is going to be sweeping the world— essentially, pervasive surveillance, including facial recognition; tracking; and following people online and requiring them to have apps that do what they call ‘geo-fencing’ that allows people to go into certain places [and] in certain buildings. 

For example, during the outbreak, in China, people had apps on their phones which basically were green, yellow, or red with regard to their exposure to COVID. If you had a red one, you had to stay in your apartment and people will come make sure that you did. If you were yellow, you might go out shopping, and if you had green ones, you were able to travel. That way, the government was using public health in a certain way to monitor and control people, possibly to their benefit, but also once you’re monitoring and controlling people for those reasons, you can do it for other reasons as well. 

China has rolled out, and is selling around the world, their video facial recognition technology, which basically makes all public spaces available to the police powers at any time, which obviously changes the way people will behave and will enable the government to control them if people are doing things that the government has decided is not in the government’s interest. 

That is my main fear with regards to the United States; we’re setting up the system exactly like that but in private hands at the moment in the United States. I have this horrible worry that if we have another 9/11 moment, all of a sudden, the government will go to the private company to say we want all your data now streamed to us immediately, all cameras available to us at any time, and apply facial recognition now. We could have a turnkey totalitarianism established in the United States and frightened Americans might put up with that because unfortunately we put up with a lot of intrusions into our privacy in the aftermath of the terrible atrocities.

MT: Okay, so we talked about your worries with regards to furtherance or acceleration of human progress, but what about some low-hanging fruit when it comes to human progress, such as areas of innovation, for example, where humanity could get the biggest bang for the buck, so to speak? 

RB: The problem when you ask a question like that is the possibilities are literally endless. Human ingenuity has by no means near played out at all. If you look at biotechnology, essentially, I fully expect that crop biotechnology will become so efficient that we will be using maybe a third of the crop land we currently use to raise all the food needed for the populace in the planet by the end of the century, with the vast restoration of nature occurring because of that. With respect to biotechnology, I make this prediction: I believe that people your age and younger have a very good chance of being able to decide exactly how long they want to live, that essentially modern medicine will move along fast enough that it will be able to cure most of the diseases and old age afflicting you in 30 years or so. I don’t think I will be the beneficiary of that technology, unfortunately, given my age, but I think that you’ll be able to basically decide how long you want to live and how young you’d like to be. 

MT: Well, that sounds wonderful, although I do hope that for the sake of humanity, journalism, and the Reason magazine you are going to be included in this lucky cohort. 

RB: That would be delightful. I would suck to be the last person to die [jokingly]. 

MT: Okay, Cas9: do you think that it’s overhyped, or do you think— 

RB: No! It’s amazing, and it’s only getting better because now that they know that these molecules are out there, they’re finding even better and more efficient ones overtime. This is CRISPR; basically, it’s an editing tool that, as I’m sure your listeners know or your viewers know, is basically able to edit DNA as though you were editing a text and change genes and improve genes enormously. 

There are no limits on what it could do for crops, livestock, and human health. It’s just absolutely amazing what that technology will be able to do, and it’s just getting better. Unfortunately, there are people who are trying to oppose its use in many different ways, and unfortunately that means you and I still have a job to do in order to make sure that people have access to this brilliant new technology to benefit themselves and their families. 

MT: That also means we are going to draw a salary for a while–

RB: I hope so. 

MT: —which is not a bad thing. 

RB: On the other hand, if we could move to a libertarian world, I would be happy to retire to the Caribbean. 

MT: Same here, I love the Caribbean. That’s one of the passions that we share. My last question for you was going to be to let your imagination run wild.

RB: I just did!

MT: The best-case scenario would be to live forever in the Caribbean, snorkeling, reading books, drinking a lot of like red wine—

RB: —which of course has resveratrol, and it has health benefits, we’ll just say. 

MT: Well, let’s hope that this wonderful book that you and I wrote, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting, sells well and infuses other people with as much optimism and passion for life that you have and you have poured into this book. I want to thank you very much for the time that you have taken to talk to me today on The Covid Tonic, and we will no doubt be seeing each other online again as we promote this book. 

RB: Indeed, I look forward to it very much. Thank you for having me on The Covid Tonic. 

MT: Thank you.

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