Jun 13, 2021Liked by Claire Berlinski

The Great Filter is the smartphone.

Expand full comment

I believe that's plausible, yes. Or certainly, the epistemic derangement to which it's given rise, along with the loss of deep literacy.

Expand full comment
Jun 13, 2021Liked by Claire Berlinski

Biowars, spycraft, Star Trek, alien life forms, existential threats. The CGs are fearless. I like Neil deGrassie Tyson’s comment that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and can barely communicate with them. Imagine the barriers to communication with life advanced enough to get here. It’s possible they have come and decided there is no intelligent life here.

Expand full comment

The assumption seems to be that an intelligent species would eventually evolve a science-based, technological civilization. But is that assumption valid? It could well be that our own technological civilization is a galactic anomaly. Perhaps the overwhelming majority of intelligent species take their civilizations in a different direction and never hit upon the empirical scientific method at all. There are human precedents for this, for instance the ancient Greeks. Their highly developed civilization had no science at all, as we understand the term.

Expand full comment

That is an interesting intellectual gambit.

Lets start with the Greeks. I think saying they had no science is a bit harsh. Did you ever see Bronowski in the Ascent of Man, prove Pythagoras' theory using triangular tiles? The basis for geometry. And then there is Archimedes and his eureka moment discovering the law of buoyancy and Pythagoras again observing that because children looked like their father, the genes must be passed through the semen. (Of course it took a few centuries before someone noticed they might also look like their mother.) The point is those Greeks drew conclusions from empirical observations, rather than superstition or religion, flawed though they were.

But to address your bigger point, the Greeks fought off the Persians, only to be conquered by the Macedonians, then the Romans, and then the Turks. The latter three were militarily and presumably technically superior.

I am thinking that successful life is something that replicates itself using the mechanics of DNA/RNA and then survives using Darwin's law. And if DNA/RNA is based on chemistry, is it unreasonable to assume that life in other galaxies would probably be based on a similar DNA/RNA process, and that the surviving life forms would be the fittest?

If being the fittest is necessary for survival, then competition becomes a way of life and striving for superiority the norm.

Of course, there might be a Buddha figure that taught them that pain, hunger and envy were mere externalities and they might all Zen out and find good karma within, without needing to find food or figure out how to replicate or avoid discomfort. Not sure if that's a recipe for survival. (I read recently that the Buddhists in Myanmar have taken a very un-Zen dislike to Muslims.)

Looking forward to your riposte!

Expand full comment

It's true that Greek philosophers engaged in what we would call scientific theorizing. But except in the case of mathematics, it yielded little or nothing in practical terms. A technological civilization depends not simply upon science but upon applied science. The Greeks did nothing to verify their speculations—which admittedly were sometimes correct—and so there was no spur to technological development.

The Greeks fell to the Macedonians and later to the Romans because Greece itself was not a unified polity. It was a patchwork of (usually antagonistic) city-states. To be Greek was to give one's allliegence to the polis and nothing higher. Such unity as classical Greece exhibited was cultural and that was not sufficient to prevent the Peloponnesian War, whose deprivations were the proximate cause of Greece's decline. The Persian War was thus a great anomaly: the one occasion when classical Greece mustered sufficient unity of purpose to defeat a powerful invader. But that unity did not last long.

The Hellenistic and Byzantine periods raise other issues too tangled to go into here.

As for the rest, I shall quote J.B.S. Haldane and leave it at that: "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

Expand full comment
Jun 13, 2021Liked by Claire Berlinski

I so enjoyed your recent issue on biotech safety and pandemics. I have been tuned in to Dr. Bret Weinstein (“wine-stine”) since 2018. He was an early adapter to the lab leak hypotheses in early 2020 and at present he suggests the Wuhan Covid lab be relocated to a ship in the ocean- where a leak wouldn’t encounter necessary human hosts beyond the ship.

Expand full comment

You *enjoyed* it? You're scaring me. "Appreciated," maybe, or "found worthwhile," but if this vision gave you pleasure, you're who I'm worried about. (But I assume this is just a case of failure to use le mot juste .... )

Expand full comment
Jun 13, 2021Liked by Claire Berlinski

You are indeed a journalist’s journalist. And you have a sense of humor. The “it” I enjoy is the validation of ethics in science. That is the nerd in me.

Expand full comment
Jun 12, 2021Liked by Claire Berlinski

Claire, another masterpiece; really informative and well-researched.

Not to go all Fox Mulder on you, but there’s another bio threat worth reflecting on; the deliberate release of engineered organisms for the best of reasons that goes spectacularly wrong.

To be clear, I’m not talking about genetically engineered crops; that’s a remarkably safe endeavor where the risk is remote but the rewards are enormous.

To give you an example of what I am talking about, consider the example of the Florida Keys.

The Aedes aegypti family of mosquitos makes up only 4 percent of the mosquito population in the Keys but account for almost all of the mosquito borne illness impacting the area. Selectively eradicating these mosquitos would be a boon.

A company called Oxitech just released a genetically altered male mosquito which passes on a gene to its female offspring that kills them in the larval stage. Over time, the Company hopes that it will be a great way to exterminate this very harmful mosquito family. Consider it Aedes aegypti genocide.

This particular experiment is unlikely to go wrong. But remember, insects, especially mosquitos and ticks, are ideal vectors for diseases that afflict humans. Malaria kills an enormous number of Africans; developing a vaccine for it has turned out to be extremely challenging. Lyme disease has become a major league headache in the Northeast of the United States. Ironically, investigators at Yale developed a safe and highly effective vaccine against Lyme Disease many years ago. It was marketed by Glaxo SmithKline. After 3 shots, it offered close to 80 percent protection.

Things went well until the anti-Vaxers got hold of it. After a series of frivolous lawsuits facilitated by ridiculous American tort law, GSK pulled the vaccine from the market in 2002. The resultant unnecessary human suffering is hard to fathom.

Anyway, while genetically engineering mosquitoes to kill them sounds great, the more we learn about how to modify these insects, the more likely it will be that someone will figure out how to turn the insects into a lethal weapon. Things could go very wrong very fast. See,


Claire, I wonder whether Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins are getting a bad rap on funding WIV. NIH provided $600 thousand to the Institute; other American organizations provided far more.

It’s very hard to believe that the Chinese bioweapons program did not work very cooperatively with the WIV. It seems likely to me that in light of that fact, American intelligence operatives must have tried to penetrate the the place. American funding might have provided cover to do precisely that. Perhaps American funding gain of function experiments at WIV provided insight into work that Chinese bioweapons experts might have been conducting. Maybe Fauci and Collins encouraged the NIH funding because they were implored by the American intelligence community to do so. It seems to me that we would be negligent as a nation not to try and penetrate that lab.

Most of the real work in American laboratories conducting biomedical research is done by postdocs (budding scientists who achieved the PhD but are a few years away from getting a faculty appointment). Without postdocs and graduate students senior scientists don’t have a viable lab and will never obtain NIH funding.

Here’s a secret that experienced investigators share amongst themselves but would never admit out loud; they all want Chinese postdocs. Japanese, Israeli and Russian postdocs are also in big demand but there are just fewer of them than Chinese postdocs who’ve recently moved to the United States to work in American labs. Why are they in such high demand? It’s mostly because they work much harder than postdocs from the United States and Europe.

Obviously this is a generalization so it won’t be true every time, but there’s nothing unusual about a Chinese postdoc practically living in the lab. 20 hour days are not unusual; long after the Americans have left for the pub, postdocs from China and the other countries listed above can be found burning the midnight oil.

Much of what goes on in research labs can be used for fair or foul. Anyone who thinks that Chinese intelligence operatives haven’t penetrated American university labs is just being naive. But that’s not the most common problem. The really vexing problem is what use is put to the techniques Chinese postdocs learn when they return to China.

Give it a decade or so; this could all really work out very poorly.

Expand full comment

Great comment. And yes, if I had to bet--especially because DoD funded this research, too--we were trying to gain insight into that lab. That doesn't get anyone off the hook, though. When it goes wrong, it goes wrong. If that's what happened, we need to admit it. We need the truth about what happened, even if it's deeply embarrassing. We *need* it--it wouldn't just be "nice to have"--to prevent it from happening again. It would cause great embarrassment to both the US and China to come clean, if this theory is correct (both that they were conducting bioweapons research there *and* that we were funding it to gain insight into this research), but we could really distinguish ourselves from China--and morally, we must--by being the ones who admit this to the world. If we do not, however--for fear of the massive reputational damage and opprobrium, international and domestic, and because we're embarrassed--then we're not as different from China as we like to tell ourselves.

Expand full comment

Neither China or the United States will come clean in the end. The cover-up will surely continue. Biden asked the intelligence community to investigate and prepare a report within 90 days. Isn’t this a case of the fox being asked to surveil the hen house?

Given the DOD funding of the WIV can we really expect a report by American intelligence agencies to admit that funding gain of function research at the WIV was provided as a cover to facilitate American penetration of the Institute?

That seems very doubtful to me. Putting the American intelligence community in charge of the investigation is more likely to promote a cover-up than reveal one.

Biden doesn’t want the truth to come out because he’s certain that Americans can’t handle the truth.

As for an investigation by the WHO, it’s a waste of time to even bother. Any incriminating evidence has already been destroyed by the Chinese.

There will never be real proof of how or why the virus emerged.

Expand full comment

The incriminating evidence hasn't been destroyed. There are some 200 employees of that lab, and many civilian, military, and government officials who know what was going on there. I wouldn't take out life insurance on any of them, but surely enough will be alive for long enough that people who know--if there is something to know--will sooner or later talk. I doubt the records and databases have been totally destroyed. The medical records of the workers there haven't, I'm sure, disappeared. A full and unrestricted international scientific and forensic investigation into all COVID-19 origin hypotheses, with full access to all relevant records, samples, and key personnel, is still possible, and if there is adequate international pressure, it may happen: This isn't just about China versus the US; it's about China and the entire world. It shouldn't be so difficult to persuade the entire world to demand this. Even those intimidated by China have been so personally affected--not a person on this planet hasn't been personally harmed--that I suspect it will be possible to put a great deal of pressure on the regime. They're not 18 feet tall.

Expand full comment

I think we can be confident that the Chinese regime will never, ever, under any circumstances, permit an independent investigation of the origins of COVID—since it’s very likely that some kind of lab leak is to blame. The circumstantial evidence for this being strong, the so-called world community should go ahead and impose sanctions on China. The presumption of innocence is a Western legal principle, inapplicable to diplomacy—particularly where a country like China is concerned.

My conclusion is that all the hand-wringing over the lack of definite proof on the part of the West is just a dodge. Nobody really wants to get tough and squeeze China’s shoes over its irresponsible, despicable behavior—which has taken millions of lives. But talk is cheap so we get plenty of that.

Expand full comment
Jun 14, 2021Liked by Claire Berlinski

I really I hope that you’re right about evidence, if any, of Chinese malfeasance. I also hope that the full story of American support of the WIV emerges.

The story is way too important for the truth to be covered-up.

You know more about the press than I ever will. It might help if the mainstream media took an interest in the story instead of closing its eyes and hoping it just goes away.

Expand full comment

The press seems to be quite interested in the story now. I'd pay special attention to Josh Rogin's reporting for more about this.

Expand full comment

It would help a lot, though, if more journalists took the time to read the scientific literature and more were able to read Chinese. That's one reason DRASTIC has been so successful: They're capable of doing both. This is a case where the story is apt to be buried in a paper or a Chinese database that no one reads. The bills of lading of shipments to that lab, for example, during the time the three employees supposedly got sick, could be very interesting. Records of traffic patterns would be, too; for example, there's a metro line that goes right to the lab--if that station was "shut down for maintenance" during the period when three employees reportedly fell ill, it would be quite interesting. It would be very helpful if US journalists could get more information about the lab accident that sickened researchers--someone leaked the story to the WSJ; so someone wanted that to be in the news. That person or entity would be doing the world a favor if they leaked a little more of that story. Do we have the names of those employees? How do we know? If we know from signals intelligence, obviously, that would be highly classified, but if we were listening to the labs' phone calls, that would say a lot about what we knew and why we were funding it. Likewise, if we heard the PLA discussing such an accident, we probably heard them discuss a lot more.

It would also be extremely helpful if our journalists in Taiwan--not that we have many, because we no longer have foreign news bureaus--cultivated Taiwanese military and intelligence sources, because if anyone's apt to have evidence, it's them.

One day, if I can turn CosmoGlobe into a big, fully-funded international news organization, this is the kind of thing we'll be able to do. But it takes a lot of money. While I don't think it's true that Americans can't handle the truth, I do think they're not interested in the truth. If they were, newspapers and news shows would have the kinds of big budgets for international reporting that you need to cover a story like this. But they don't.

The New York Times is in the best position, financially, to devote resources to a story like this, and every so often they do fabulous investigative pieces overseas--their investigation of the fire at Notre Dame was better *by far* than anyone else's, including all of the French press. Their recent investigation of the Mexico City subway overpass collapse was superb too (and surprising, given they fingered Carlos Slim as the villain. Or perhaps not surprising. I don't know the real story of why he sold his NYT shares; maybe there's bad blood). But the NYT purged their competent Covid reporter (McNeil) for Badspeech and replaced him with the woman who thinks asking about Covid's origins is racist. It will be hard for them to recover from that.

A lot of the story of the cover-up was buried in the footnotes of that paper by Anderson et al. in Nature. At the time, I just didn't bother to read it closely; I only looked at it after that blockbuster piece by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Any reasonably careful journalist would have seen, if he or she checked the references, that they didn't amount to a slam-dunk case for zoonotic spillover--at all. And any reasonably curious journalist would have been alerted by that to the possibility that things were ... getting strange. Why didn't I read it at the time? It wasn't my focus; it's not that I wasn't reading the scientific literature at all, but this was the very beginning of the pandemic: I was devoting my time to what struck me as more important: trying to figure out whether the forecasting models (from e.g. Imperial College) were solid. And they were, as I wrote here: https://claireberlinski.substack.com/p/welcome-friends-of-newt

I'm writing today about cognitive biases that affect our perception of catastrophic risk. One of them is hindsight bias. It *now* seems the community of journalists, including me, should have spent more time on those papers in the Lancet and Nature and less on other scientific papers published early in the epidemic. But at the time--without benefit of hindsight--this would have meant paying equal attention to *everything* published in the scientific literature, looking for anomalies like that. No one has the time to do that. As I write in the essay, it's also easy in hindsight to say they should have paid more attention to the warning signs that the Space Shuttle Challenger's o-ring might fail, but at the time, this would have meant paying attention to *every* warning of possible failure, and if you overdo that, you'll never get a space shuttle off the ground. Neither of those papers came with a label that said, "Here's your story!"

Still, it's remarkable that none of the many journalists covering the pandemic story read them closely. I suspect this is because, first, there aren't all that many journalists with a solid science background, and even those who have one aren't entirely confident in challenging subject-matter specialists--the potential for embarrassment is huge. (I don't have a solid science background either, but I can recognize logical errors, and I'm not intimidated by academia.) Second, at the time, journalists were trying frantically to learn about the *most* urgent questions: How do we treat this thing? How many of us are going to die? Why don't we have a test for it? What does this bug do to you? Those papers just weren't a priority. And of course, the majority of journalists now aren't really doing journalism at all, in the investigative sense, but rather writing opinion pieces. Probably 90 percent of the articles written about Covid at the time weren't investigative at all; they were either partisan opinion pieces about the way our politicians--and the media--were handling or covering the pandemic. (And we ran those too--here, for example.)





Pieces like that *are* important. No matter the origins of the virus, it can't be allowed to overshadow the staggering failures of Western governments and societies which turned a crisis into a catastrophe. But media organs used to offer a balance of about 80 percent reporting to 20 percent opinion; that ratio has been reversed. It's deeply unhealthy. The reasons are, as I've said over and over, economic; the cause is the Internet, and no one knows how to solve it.

So ... subscribe to the Cosmopolitan Globalist and ask all your friends to subscribe and invest. The only way to get the journalism we both want is to figure out how to get people to pay for it.

(I should probably publish this in a place more people can see it.)

Expand full comment

I am going to admit something which is probably difficult for a lot of people to admit but I was a Star Trek fan or Trekker when I was a kid in the 1990s and still watch an episode or two on occasion. What I find interesting about the Star Trek franchise are not totally unrealistic premises of how we get from today to the future not just technology wise but also politically wise. In the later iterations of the Star Trek when it changes from a solely American centric franchise to one with a more global following the writer's make an implicit argument that the United Earth and later the United Federations of Planet take on the values of we would associate today with the United States and the European Union in part as other societies on earth like Russia and China when extraterrestrial life is discovered are essentially unable to deal with the implication for the human race and force to cede political leadership in uniting the peoples' of earth into a single political entity to the United States and Europe who are more open-minded and able to cope with implications(Not a totally outrageous thought if say we discovered extraterritorial life next week)

The second interesting argument of Star Trek canon especially as time has disproved some of the premises of the original 1960s TV series is that not just Earth has been visited multiple times in secret by alien lifeforms but that humans from the future have also traveled backward in time on multiple occasions and changed some of the supposed events of the late 20th century that were in the timeline of the original 1960s series(such as World War 3). Transparent aluminum which is a real thing and was even conceptually something the writers knew was possible in 1986 when they wrote "Scotty" having brough and introduced the technology to late 20th century Earth.


The third comment I will make is I find interesting that writers of Star Trek also assumed that while the future discovery of extraterritorial life politically unites Earth into a single political entity it also quickly creates an intergalactic version of 18th and 19th century European imperialism as the Earth led United Federation of Planets faces off against extraterrestrial "imperial" rivalristic "great" powers like the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians in the Star Trek series. Perhaps this is how you get people to watch the tv show and buy tickets to the movies but it is also a somewhat dour view of how contact with other alien species might like look like. Obviously the humans and earth have "allies" in the show but the tend to be "weaker" planets and races like Bajor and the Bajorans(which the writers in the early 1990s modeled off of the newly independent post Soviet states in Eastern Europe) The big premise of Star Trek Deep Space is the journey of the Bajorans to join the United Federation of Planets(akin to Eastern Europe wanting to join NATO and the EU). I have a feeling the DS9 writers were basically writing stories coming out of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s news reports right into the show(Right down to famed "villainous" character actor Frank Langella playing a Viktor Yanukovych/Alexander Lukashenko like figure).

Anyways enough of my Star Trek analogies.

Expand full comment

I have to say, the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” regime was too much like the EU…

Expand full comment

It's complex as to why this happened. One reason is Gene Roddenberry at a personal level started to just believe a lot of strange stuff in the 1970s(I have heard him compared to L Ron Hubbard in this regard) but it is also true the franchise would have evolved with or without him. Nicolas Meyer who was brought in by Paramount to "clean up" Roddenberry's mess after the failure of the first movie and Roddenberry moving "back" to TV with NextGen, was a noted Francophile and Europeanist and in his own way also brought the franchise through the movies towards a more EU-like direction. The decision to have the President of the Federation office in Paris was actually a Nicolas Meyer decision. Meyer actually wanted all of the Star Trek IV, the Voyage Home to take place and be filmed in Paris until the studio told him no on that one replacing Paris with San Francisco(not sure how serious Meyer was but it has been reported multiple places).

Anyways there is great documentary by none other than William Shatner on the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the general craziness of Gene Roddenberry in his later years.


Expand full comment

Big Star Trek fan here, too, especially when I was a kid in the 90's. I haven't completely outgrown it. ;)

Expand full comment

You're in good company here. A surprising number of us are hardcore Star Trek fans. Something about Star Trek and Cosmopolitan Globalism just goes together naturally.

Expand full comment

Yes. As I recall, the Enterprise returned to the earth from the future to save us from more than one self-inflicted disaster. If you liked Star Trek, you might like this spoof,


Expand full comment

Loved it.

Expand full comment

Ms. Berlinski, I agree with your assertion that most of us are not scared enough of the array of possible civilization ending catastrophes that may await us. But regarding the Fermi Paradox, there is actually plenty of eyewitness evidence, and possibly some hard evidence, that other civilizations are visiting us. That they haven’t announced themselves by landing on the White House lawn seems reasonable. After all, when viewing an ant colony, we don’t look for the queen with the idea of introducing ourselves to her.

Expand full comment
Jun 12, 2021Liked by Claire Berlinski

"Is our species wise enough to survive the technologies we have invented?"

Is our species smart enough, let alone wise enough, to survive without our technologies?

Drake's equation also makes a number of heroic assumptions. A few of them are:

-communications: aliens think enough like we do to have communications media we'd detect

-communications: aliens think enough like we do to communicate in a way we'd recognize, even given a possible detection

-communications: aliens would recognize us as a life form, or as a life form worth the effort of talking with

-communication: is two-way. Our present understanding of physics suggests that communication with aliens is either a years-long (assuming something communicable exists in nearby systems like Centauri) or thousands of years long, just for a single exchange. More likely, what we're not detecting is a one-way, general purposes blat--which from a security standpoint would be pretty dumb to put out. The ordinary noise of alien radio or TV could easily be beyond our receivers' capability. See, also, whether we'd recognize what we'd hear.

Which brings me to a short list of questions that also bear on Drake's equation, along with my answers:

Do we understand what life is? No

Do we understand what communication is? No

Do we understand even what language is? No

Those are all homocentric concepts, so far. And still enormously hazy.

Do we understand physics? No. It's entirely possible that the aliens have figured out communications that is FTL--in which case we'd not detect their calls because we don't have that tech. We may be getting to that point, though; we're aware of tachyons.

"There are two possible explanations for the Great Silence. "

There's a third possible explanation. All the aliens extant in our neck of the time woods are inside the Dyson spheres they built to capture their sun's energy. In which case nothing about them would be detectable. At least by our current technology.

Eric Hines

Expand full comment