Dr Anthony Fauci 1207
Dr. Fauci: US not helpless against coronavirus
02:47 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Nicholas Agar is a professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Stuart Whatley is a senior editor at Project Syndicate. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Nearly a year after the novel coronavirus first emerged, news that scientists have developed several effective Covid-19 vaccines has been widely celebrated. Markets have rallied, politicians have called it the “light at the end of the tunnel” and the US’ leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said, “The cavalry is on the way.”

But Fauci and other public health experts around the world have also hastened to point out that the crisis is far from over. The winter months will be brutal, and manufacturing and distributing vaccines at the scale needed to end the pandemic will pose a massive logistical challenge. Disinformation designed to sow fear about vaccination will continue to poison many minds.

Nicholas Agar
Stuart Whatley

The road ahead is long. But let’s suppose widespread vaccination proceeds seamlessly, consigning the Covid-19 crisis to history sometime in 2021 or 2022. What lessons will we take from this episode? Certainly, there will be a good case to be made for the triumphant power of human ingenuity.

But let’s not forget: countries like New Zealand and South Korea managed to control the virus early on by implementing solutions like face masks, social distancing, and contact tracing. Meanwhile, the US and Europe suffered a devastating loss of life and effectively hedged their bets on a sweeping scientific breakthrough.

Sure, that bet seems to have paid off (though certainly not for the families of over 280,000 people who have died in the US), but where does that leave us when it comes to other global challenges like future pandemics or climate change? The wholesale reliance on technological and scientific progress to provide a convenient solution that may never materialize can be detrimental if it becomes an alibi for inaction.

In the case of climate change, scientists warn that Earth is heading towards a tipping point if we continue on our current path, with evidence showing that irreversible changes to environmental systems are already underway. And yet so many of us – paralyzed by the question of how to tackle this problem or simply unwilling to confront the reality of the situation – are still holding out hope that some easy fix will present itself. The response many people have had to the simple act of wearing face masks does not bode well for the larger structural changes, let alone personal sacrifices, that may be necessary to fight the climate crisis.

We would do well to interrogate our faith in technological progress as omnipotent and inherently benevolent. In 2018, the Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker offered a typical expression of this modern creed in his best-selling paean to progress, “Enlightenment Now.” Listing humanity’s technological and economic advances since the Industrial Revolution, Pinker proclaimed that in today’s world, “disease outbreaks don’t become pandemics.”

That claim, obviously, has been proven wrong. Like many other commentators, Pinker welcomed what turned out to be a false dawn in humanity’s progress against infectious disease. Left unchallenged, those who subscribe to this belief will undoubtedly point to the new mRNA-based vaccines to further bolster the narrative of solutions that appear just in the nick of time.

But the pandemic stems from a single cause – a virus. Consider the war on cancer, wherein false dawns have been a recurring source of disappointment. When Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, he and his advisers anticipated the discovery of a cure within five years. Similarly, when Bill Clinton unveiled the “working draft” of the human genome in June 2000, he said, “Our children’s children will only know cancer as a constellation of stars.” Clinton now has grandchildren, and they will join the rest of humanity in knowing cancer as a maddeningly intractable disease.

Our long, difficult history of dealing with cancer suggests that we may be placing too much faith in a god who will forsake us. While modern experience justifies a belief in technology’s potential to deliver transformative solutions, the struggle against cancer reminds us that the narrative of progress might not apply when we need it to.

Silicon Valley hype often declares progress inevitable. But without knowing what it will take to achieve a given end – be it “the cure” for cancer or the ability to control global warming – the fact that technology is advancing exponentially doesn’t tell us much. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that technological progress in many domains is actually becoming more difficult, and that scientific research is delivering diminishing returns now that we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit.

Finally, we should remain wary of what is being sold under the banner of “progress” more generally. Safe and effective new vaccines certainly qualify as invaluable contributions, but advances in facial recognition or machine learning, for example, have been used for nefarious purposes. Techno-optimists, by definition, believe that the moral arc of innovation bends toward justice, and most tech entrepreneurs would like to believe they are making the world a better place. And yet, good intentions do not guarantee good results.

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Consider Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In November of 2016, he wrote that Facebook is “blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it.” He also dismissed as a “pretty crazy idea” the concern that fake news on his platform may have swayed the election, only to then express regret for the statement, admitting that “This is too important an issue to be dismissive.” Nonetheless, today his platform is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading disseminators of disinformation – including about vaccines – and has even admitted to being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar. When members of Congress asked him in April of 2018 how his company would redress the demonstrable harm it has allowed, he resorted to promising ever-more technological fixes, like artificial intelligence. And yet, these measures have repeatedly come up short, arguably because Facebook is facing not just an engineering problem but an ethical dilemma: It is trying both to re-win the public’s trust and to serve other goals of providing an “open” platform and increasing growth; but these are not necessarily compatible with one another.

No one doubts that technology has the potential to change the world for the better; but it’s not always a failsafe solution. And the more that we rely on technology to resolve not just practical but ethical problems, the more vulnerable we will be to threats that demand broader social, political and collective responses.