Monday, October 25, 2021

How Did COVID-19 Start?


Nearly two years after the initial fatalities that would turn out to be caused by the COVID-19 virus, we still do not know the answer to that question.  But last week, the U. S. National Institutes of Health revealed that it was funding "gain-of-function" research on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan during 2018 and 2019, in direct contradiction to Dr. Anthony Fauci's testimony before Congress that no such research was being supported by NIH there. 


In times past, plagues were regarded as simply acts of God, and while people tried to avoid transmitting infections by means of quarantines and travel restrictions, it was rarely possible to pinpoint the exact time and place where a given pandemic began.  But with advances in genetics and biochemistry, infectious agents can often be tracked down and successfully traced to their source, as was done with a localized outbreak of what came to be known as Legionnaires' disease, when it was traced to bacteria harbored in an air-conditioning water system.


By all measures, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst plague in modern times in terms of economic and social disruptions, casualties, and deaths.  According to the website, COVID-19 has been responsible for about 4.9 million deaths worldwide so far.  If for no other reason than to learn from our mistakes, it should be an urgent global priority to discover how the pandemic started, and whether it was by accidental transfer from an animal species such as bats to humans, or by means of deliberate creation of more aggressive viruses than occur in nature and accidental spread from the laboratory that created them.


Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic started in a country that has systematically suppressed the information that would help in deciding this question.  But the following facts are known.


Shi Zhengli, a viral researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has worked for years with viruses taken from wild bats, as bats have the peculiar ability to host a wide variety of viruses that can be harmful to other species without themselves becoming ill.  To perform this research, she and her colleagues traveled far and wide to collect samples from bats in remote caves in other parts of China.  She has continued to perform research connected with COVID-19 in China after the pandemic began, and denies that there has ever been an accident in her institute resulting in infection of staff or students. 


Wuhan is by all accounts the city where COVID-19 first claimed its victims.  It is the largest city in central China with a population of about 11 million.


As we now know, the NIH funded so-called "gain-of-function" research through an organization called EcoHealth Alliance, headed by researcher Peter Daszak, which was conducted in association with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  Gain-of-function is a bland phrase that means an infectious agent has been enhanced in its ability to infect a host.  While some argument can be made that concocting such viruses is the only way to figure out a defense against them, it is obviously an extremely dangerous thing to do.  Dr. Zhengli admits that prior to COVID-19, much of her viral research was done in lab conditions that were less safe (so-called "BSL-2" and "BSL-3") than the highest-security BSL-4 labs.


Let's imagine a different scenario and ask some questions about it.  Suppose nuclear weapons had not yet been invented, but researchers were hot on the track of cracking the secret of nuclear energy.  Suppose also in this contrafactual fantasy world that the U. S. funded some of this research at a center in Sao Paolo, Brazil.  Suddenly one day, a huge explosion happens in Sao Paolo, wiping it off the map and sending radiation into the air that eventually kills a total of 4.9 million people worldwide.  Despite the fact that most of the relevant data to determine the exact cause was vaporized in the explosion, wouldn't it be wise at least to do our very best to figure out what happened, with or without the cooperation of the Brazilian government?


In a sense, we already know what to do.  Whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, actually originated in a lab accident in Wuhan or in an exotic-food market there, we now know that early detection and faster responses to highly contagious new diseases might make the difference between another world-crippling pandemic and a minor contained outbreak. 


In the case of COVID-19, the Chinese government delayed for weeks before even publicly acknowledging the magnitude of the problem, and criticized brave medical workers who tried to publicize the seriousness of the nascent epidemic.  In retrospect, this was exactly the wrong thing to do, but it is the natural response of most governments to minimize something that is not yet so obviously awful that denials will look silly. 


One hopes that if a similar outbreak happened in, say, Chattanooga, state and federal officials would be more forthcoming than their Chinese counterparts in telling the rest of us about what was going on.  As to the measures that would have stopped the epidemic in its tracks, it seems that only a city-wide 100% quarantine with extreme measures taken to enforce it would have worked, and maybe not even then.  Any government will be reluctant to impose such a draconian measure unless there are very good reasons to do so. 


But as things stand, there are still unanswered questions about what other activities EcoHealth Alliance was doing in China that they were supposed to report on but didn't.  Unless the Chinese government suddenly becomes more forthcoming about what really happened in Wuhan, we may never know how COVID-19 really began.  But we certainly know how it spread.


In investigations of engineering disasters, future accidents of a similar nature can't reliably be forestalled until the exact mechanism of the one under investigation is understood.  We have part of the picture of COVID-19's origins, but not the whole story.  The best we can do now is to be much more aware of rapidly spreading fatal diseases in the future, and willing to take what may look like extreme measures locally to prevent another global pandemic. 


Sources:  National Review carried on its website the article "The Wuhan Lab Coverup" at  I also referred to the NIH letter at and the Wikipedia article on Shi Zhengli. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Federal Regulators Turn the Heat Up on Tesla


On Tuesday, Oct. 12, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent a letter to the automaker Tesla telling it to issue a recall notice if a software upgrade to its vehicles involves a safety issue.  This is the latest development in an escalating conflict between federal regulators and the electric-car maker, whose flamboyant CEO, Elon Musk, seems to enjoy twitting regulators of all kinds.  But beyond personalities, what we are seeing here is a conflict between a traditional legal system and a technology that has advanced beyond it.


The immediate issue that prompted the letter was an "over-the-air" software upgrade that Tesla made in late September.  The NHTSA had started investigating a number of crashes of Tesla vehicles into emergency vehicles that were parked and had their flashers operating.  The upgrade was intended to improve the ability of Tesla vehicles to avoid hitting emergency vehicles in low-light conditions. 


What annoyed the NHTSA was not that Tesla addressed the problem they were looking into, but the fact that they didn't issue a recall notice along with all the formalities and paperwork that are required along with it.


On the one hand, Tesla's position makes a certain amount of sense.  Back in the pre-software days when every automotive defect required a trip to the repair shop, the only way to get something fixed was to issue a recall to every traceable owner of every involved vehicle and try to get them all repaired within a reasonable time frame.  But now that software comprises a growing part of the overall system that we still call an automobile, upgrades can be done remotely and silently over the Internet without the owner even being aware of it.  So why go through all the hassle and bother of a recall when the thing can be done without anybody but the automaker knowing about it?


On the other hand, the NHTSA seems to think that such so-called "stealth recalls" can lead to problems.  How do car owners know the upgrade has really been done?  How will purchasers of used cars know they're getting a car with all pertinent upgrades?  What if an accident happens before the upgrade is done and there's no public record of whether the particular car involved was upgraded before the accident?  It's issues like these that are presumably behind the NHTSA's insistence that even over-the-air upgrades have to be accompanied by recall notices if they affect safety issues.


Of course, which upgrades affect safety is not always an easy matter to determine.  But the upgrade issued to improve the discrimination of emergency-vehicle lights certainly falls in that category.  This is not a trivial matter for Tesla, because if the NHTSA decides the firm has not complied with recall regulations by Nov. 1, they can fine the company $114 million.  Even to Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world, that is not chump change.  And there are the people called shareholders to consider.


Concerns like these are not confined to the NHTSA's dealings with Tesla, as cars from all makers are starting to resemble rolling software platforms rather than the all-mechanical vehicles of old.  The AP report describing the conflict attributes the agency's tougher stance to a general trend on the part of the Biden administration to clamp down on automated-vehicle safety issues, rather than tread lightly for fear of crippling the new technology in its cradle, so to speak. 


A dyed-in-the-wool libertarian might criticize the NHTSA for insisting on its bureaucratic rules being followed despite the fact that Tesla was doing the right thing, namely, fixing the emergency-vehicle-light problem that was attracting public attention.  But decades of experience with government regulation of auto safety includes numerous examples, ranging from introducing double-layer safety glass to defective-air-bag recalls, in which it is pretty clear that left to their own devices, the automakers would not have acted to protect the public from the hazards caused by their own products. 


The problem I see is not whether to regulate, but how to regulate in light of "over-the-air" recalls that do not require physical trips to a repair shop that are hard to document.  Clearly, the old-fashioned recall regulations need revisiting in the light of current technology, and it's always easier for a bureaucracy to use the regulations it has rather than to rethink them on the fly. 


But suppose there had been some kind of National Internet Security Administration in place at the dawn of the Internet, and in the 1990s they'd passed a regulation requiring all web-browser designing firms to write letters (not emails, but letters) to all users whenever an upgrade to their web browser was made that affected security.  That might have made a little sense back when web browsers were upgraded once a year, but anyone using Microsoft products knows upgrades are done almost daily, affecting all kinds of things, including security.  If such a regulation were still in place about notifying users, we'd all be buried in a blizzard of mail from software companies.  This would be a boon for the U. S. Postal Service, but not for anyone else.


So clearly, new technologies call for new regulatory processes.  One can imagine some kind of software certification for purchasers of used cars, verifying that the cars they buy have all the software upgrades made up to the date of purchase.  That would require cooperation among the automakers, used-car dealers, state and federal regulators, and customers, but these parties have worked together in the past, and it can happen again.  As for written notifications any time safety-related software is upgraded, it sounds to me a little like the NHTSA is hounding Tesla just for hounding's sake. 


In a related concern, there are genuine issues regarding how easy it is for drivers to fool Tesla's autopilot into thinking the driver is paying attention to the roadway when in fact the driver is playing a video game or even sitting in the back seat.  And Tesla needs to be taken to task for that issue.  But it's not good sense to punish a company for doing the right thing, which the NHTSA appears to have done in this case.


Sources:  Many news outlets published the Oct. 13 AP story by Tom Krisher which was entitled on the AP website "US regulators seek answers from Tesla over lack of recall," at, to which I referred.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Against Cartesian Dualism


Every now and then, it's useful to look at the philosophical underpinnings of current thought and what implications they have for engineering ethics.  In a recent post on the website of the journal First Things, professor of biblical and religious studies Carl Trueman noted that Cartesian dualism—a way of looking at the human person promulgated by RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650)—is enjoying a comeback in the popular mind, although modern philosophy has long since discarded it as an inadequate model.


If you know anything about Descartes, you will probably recall his most famous saying:  "I think, therefore I am."  He arrived at that conclusion after discarding everything he could think of that might possibly not be true—the evidence of his senses, things he knew on authority, and so on.  Whatever else might be false, he reasoned, he couldn't help thinking that he was still thinking, and therefore there must be a thinker somewhere.  He was so impressed by this idea that he developed a whole philosophy around it, which came to be known as Cartesian dualism.


Descartes believed that the soul—which in modern terms pretty much amounts to what we would call the mind—was a "spiritual substance" that was immaterial, without dimensions or location.  And the body he believed to be completely material, an entirely separate substance from the soul, consisting of the brain, the nerves, the muscles, etc., all of which operate under the control of the immaterial mind and will.  As to exactly how the immaterial controlled the material, Descartes wasn't sure.  But he thought the point of contact might be the pineal gland, a small pine-cone-shaped gland near the middle of the brain.


Modern science has discovered that the pineal gland, far from controlling the entire body, mainly secretes melatonin, which affects sleep patterns—but that's about it.  And modern philosophy has discarded Cartesian dualism, because nobody after Descartes was ever able to show how a completely immaterial thing like Descartes' hypothetical soul could affect a physical thing like the body.


But this news evidently hasn't reached a lot of women athletes who submitted an "amicus" (friend of the court) brief to the U. S. Supreme Court, urging the court to uphold abortion rights in the upcoming Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case, in which the State of Missouri is seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision that made abortion legal in the U. S.


As Trueman observes, the women in the amicus brief speak of their bodies as nothing more than sophisticated tools or instruments, operated by their minds and wills.  They say that they "depend on the right to control their bodies and reproductive lives in order to reach their athletic potential."  If we stop with only that quotation, we can see that (a) the operative verb is "control" and (b) the purpose of controlling the body is to "reach their athletic potential." 


In other words, for these women, their body is a means to the end of achieving success in athletics, just as a fast race car is a means to achieving success in the Indy 500.  And prohibiting abortion is like compelling a race-car driver to give a ride to a 300-pound hitchhiker during the race. 


Cartesian dualism shows up in lots of places these days outside of law courts.  The whole transhumanist movement, of which famed entrepreneur Elon Musk is a proponent, is based on the idea that the real you is basically a software program running on the wet computer called the brain.  The phrase "meat cage" that some people use to describe the body partakes of this same idea—that we are not our bodies, but that we use our bodies in a way not much different in principle than using a car or a computer. 


Perhaps the most pernicious feature of Cartesian dualism is the temptation to assess the humanity or non-humanity of other people based on our judgment as to whether they have a mind worthy of the name.  I would imagine it is easier to contemplate an abortion if you believe the fetus in question has not developed a mind yet.  And the same goes for people who are mentally disabled, suffer from Alzheimer's disease, or are otherwise incapacitated to the extent that their minds no longer control their bodies adequately.  Perhaps it's just as well to sever the connection between the mind and the body if the mind can't do its job controlling the body any more.


Well, if Cartesian dualism isn't true, how should we think of the relation between the mind and will (or soul, to use the more old-fashioned term) and the body?  The model of the person Descartes was trying to displace is called hylomorphism, originated by Aristotle.  Philosopher Peter Kreeft explains that Aristotle's theory considers the body to be what the person is made of, and the soul as the form or molding and patterning influence of the body.  So matter (Greek hyle) is "informed" by form (morphe) to create one integral thing with two aspects or causes:  the material cause, namely the body, and the formal cause, namely the soul.  But the human person is one unique thing, not two.


If hylomorphism was more popular than Cartesian dualism, I think we would see a lot of salutary changes in everything from attitudes toward the life issues (abortion, euthanasia, etc.) to medical and surgical procedures (sex-change operations, transhumanist initiatives) and even tattoos.  If you thought you were hiring a tattoo artist to burn an image of some hip-hop star on your very being, instead of just some piece of machinery you happen to be living in now, you might think twice before doing it. 


But the spirit of the age favors Cartesian dualism.  As consumers, we are urged to treat the rest of the world as a selectable, disposable warehouse of products and services—why not treat our bodies the same way?  I'm glad that my university is a rare holdout among public institutions of higher education for continuing to require that all its undergraduates take at least one philosophy course.  In such a course, they stand  a chance of hearing about Cartesian dualism and why it is no longer respectable.  And they might even take what they hear in class seriously, and apply it to their lives.  Such a hope is all that keeps some educators going.


Sources:  Carl Trueman's article "The Body Is More Than a Tool" appeared on the First Things website at  Elon Musk's promotion of transhumanism is described at  Peter Kreeft demolishes Cartesian dualism (and a lot of other false philosophical ideas) in his book Summa Philosophica (St. Augustine's Press, 2012).  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on hylomorphism.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Should Kids Use Instagram?


In mid-September, the Wall Street Journal published "The Facebook Files," a series of investigative reports that was partially based on internal documents leaked by a whistleblower.  The overall impression left by the revelations is one of hypocrisy:  a company saying in public how seriously they take their responsibility to protect their users from harm and police their content, but in private giving free passes for certain favored "whitelisted" users and conducting research that reveals how harmful Instagram can be to teenagers, especially girls.


Just how harmful is it?


Time Magazine's summary of the WSJ articles includes such tidbits as the following.  Internal research presented at Facebook showed in 2019 that "Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls."  Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, "6% of American users traced the issue to the photo-sharing app."  Eating disorders and depression are also linked to Instagram use by young people, which according to the article comprise about half of Instagram's user base.  "Young" was not defined, but presumably we are talking about people in their teens and early 20s.


In a Congressional hearing held Sept. 30 in response to the revelations, Facebook's Antigone Davis, the firm's global head of safety, disagreed with how the WSJ characterized the company's research.  She emphasized that users benefit from Instagram, which helps them in dealing with the hard issues that beset teens.  The reason for the research, she said, was "to make our platform better, to minimize the bad and maximize the good, and to proactively identify where we can improve."  But on Monday, the firm announced that it was pausing its work on a product tentatively called Instagram Kids, designed for users under 13.  Of course, anybody who is old enough to type and read can say they are 13 and try to get an Instagram account today, and millions have succeeded. 


One Senator drew a parallel between Facebook and the tobacco industry, which concealed internal research for years showing that smoking caused lung cancer and publicly denied the facts it knew about privately.  Suicide isn't lung cancer, but dead is dead.  While it's unlikely that a statistically significant number of teen suicides can be definitely linked to Instagram, it is an unvarnished fact that teen suicides in the U. S. have risen dramatically since the early 2000s, rising from a rate of about 10 per 100,000 in age group 15-19 to 14.5 per 100,000 by 2017, the latest year for which national numbers are available.  And COVID-19 has not improved matters in that regard.


Correlation is not causation, and there are many factors besides Instagram that make it hard for teenagers to negotiate life these days.  But the question before us is this:  does the harm done by Instagram (and similar photo-based media) to teenagers outweigh whatever perceived benefits the services provide?


Phrased that way, the question implies that the proper way to analyze this issue is a cost-benefit study.  But I'm not at all sure that's the right way to do it.  For one thing, the benefits are of many different kinds, as are the costs.


The most obvious benefit is financial, to Facebook, its investors, and similar media giants, along with their advertisers who pay Facebook gargantuan fees to sell goods and services.  Another category of benefit is whatever good feelings, sensations, and experiences users get from using Instagram and similar products.  The parallel to tobacco is relevant, because studies both by Facebook and outsiders show that social-media use is highly addictive, and is purposely designed to be that way.  This is an open secret, deplored even by some developers of social media, but it is well known and needs to be considered in any discussion. 


It's one thing if a mature, responsible adult decides to indulge in an addictive product, but there are reasons that states have minimum ages for purchasing tobacco and alcohol.  Society has made a judgment that teenagers below a certain age need to be protected from these substances, because their ability to judge such matters as alcohol or tobacco use is not yet fully developed.  Having been a teenager myself, I can vouch for the truth of that statement.


Some states such as Texas have already taken steps to restrict certain social-media firm activities such as banning individuals based on political content.  If we as a society decide that the benefits of Instagram to teens are not worth the harms, we could try to make it illegal for them to use it.  Under the present social dispensation, that idea sounds almost ludicrous.  But in 1965, who would have imagined that a scant thirty years or so later, smokers would be a disdained minority, unable to light up in workplaces, restaurants, or bars, and condemned to puff in freezing weather at least twenty feet from the nearest entrance?  Yet it happened, and a big factor in the social turn against smoking was the blatant hypocrisy the tobacco firms indulged in, as investigations later showed.


I have had at least one young person talk to me wistfully about what it was like growing up without social media, saying that he thought his smartphone was one of the biggest differences between my generation and his, and not a good one, either.  As powerful as the tobacco interests were, their wings were clipped, and they paid huge sums to states in retribution for the harms that were caused. 


I don't know what's going to happen to Facebook in the future with regard to their teenage customers.  In the Greek myth about Antigone, she got into trouble with a king who had defeated and killed her brother in battle, and who didn't want anyone mourning for him or burying him.  She tried to anyway, and ended up committing suicide. 


Facebook's Antigone Davis may be trying to bury some facts that refuse to stay buried.  With regard to the whistleblower who leaked internal data to the press, she said, "We've committed to not retaliating for this individual speaking to the Senate."  But a lawyerly reading of that sentence shows it says nothing about not retaliating for anything else the person did.  And if the experience of other whistleblowers is any guide, that person's career in social media is over, and they might as well start studying for their real-estate license or something else they can do on their own.


Sources:  I refereed to an NPR article on the Facebook revelations and Antigone Davis's remote testimony before Congress at, as well as a Time article at  The statistics on teen suicide are from