Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 102: Who's winning the war on cancer; Thiel on decadence and apocalypse; the future of community; and more...

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Who's winning the War on Cancer?

At our Organising Genius reading group last night, the focus was the Manhattan Project. One question we discussed was what kinds of challenges are amenable to Manhattan-like, top down solutions. The “War on Cancer” is an interesting case study of one such attempt - and it turns out to be surprisingly hard to know if we’re winning.

Scientific American published a post by noted skeptic John Horgan, which suggests we’ve made very little progress on cancer since the 70s. He argues that apparent improvements in mortality are largely the result of (a) smoking cessation and (b) early detection (so five year survival from detection improves). See here for a good Twitter discussion and here for an interesting interview with a leading oncologist Horgan cites.

Helpfully, though, Scott Alexander wrote an excellent pre-buttal (?) to this line of argument in 2018. He concludes that we really are getting better at treating cancer - albeit perhaps not as rapidly as we might have expected in 1971 given the resources deployed. One provocative question, though, is whether cancer remains one of humanity’s grand challenges. Eliminating cancer entirely would now increase average lifespan by less than three years. Perhaps there are bigger missions for the next Bohr, Feynman and Fermi. 

Thiel on decadence, progress and apocalypse

Last year Tyler Cowen asked who the most influential contemporary conservative thinker is and ventured a (surprising?) answer: Peter Thiel. This week Thiel reviews a new book by another candidate, NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat’s book, The Decadent Society, argues that modern America is stagnant, sterile (literally), schlerotic and repetitive. There’s a good essay length version here and a good interview with Douthat here.

In some ways, this is familiar territory for Thiel, a long-time proponent of the technological stagnation thesis. He reaffirms some arguments he’s made elsewhere - particularly on the lack of real breakthroughs outside information technology since 1950 - and echoes Douthat’s point that we’ve lost our connection to the future (see previous discussion). His last sentence, though, is different and worth dwelling on:

If we do not find a way to take the narrow and moderate path, then we may find out that stagnation and decadence were all that kept immoderate men from stumbling into the apocalypse

I don’t think I’ve seen Thiel make this argument before. He criticises “indefinite optimism” in Zero to One - but largely for its incrementalism, not because we might pick disastrously bad goals. There’s an echo of this idea in this point from Noah Smith, on the other side of the political spectrum from Thiel: if people tire of only ever tearing things down, there’s a danger that building anything looks like progress. 

What does the future of community look like?

One TiB theme has been engaging with smart critics of liberalism (see, e.g. here and here). A common thread in their critiques is that liberalism’s celebration of the individual has destroyed community and led to disastrous social outcomes (I often think of the finding, discussed here, that identifying as Christian but not attending church was one of the strongest predictors of voting Trump in 2016). So if you wanted to rebuild a sense of community in a de-unionised, secular society, how would you do it?

This short paper by two academics at Harvard Divinity School profiles ten contemporary organisations - from Soul Cycle to Juniper Path - that are building communities that fulfil some of the traditional social and cultural roles of organised religion (Thanks Sarah Drinkwater for the link). The authors note the echoes of traditional religious practice - ritual, pilgrimage, confession - in many of these examples.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the West has undervalued community over the last forty years (if not to the broader anti-liberal critique). The approaches in this paper, though, seem to have limited scalability. Soul Cycle et al, however successful, are unlikely candidates for creating a cross-cutting national identity. If anything, they risk exacerbating the metropole / hinterland divide we’ve discussed before. We need more innovation in this space, though, so experiments like these are worth keeping an eye on. 

Quick links

  1. As we drink, we vote. How alcoholic beverage choice predicts political behaviour (or vice versa)
  2. Manifest destiny? Which populations are most likely to believe that neighbouring countries belong to them?(!)
  3. Palaces or paracetamol? Were the kings of the past incomparably poorer than ordinary people today? Branko Milanovic on how to compare wealth across history.
  4. State capacity vs coronavirus. Extraordinary thread of China's shutdown measures to contain the outbreak.
  5. I'll be dammed? What should we do about climate change? Just close off the North Sea...

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Until next week,