by Alex Tabarrok
on August 12, 2015 at 12:08 pm
in Economics, Science
Let’s raise their status! Details here.
Hat tip: Zac Gochenour.
Surely Krugman has saved 1 billion lives by now.
tyler, at least write the comment under your own name
Fritz Haber is, um, problematic. Very much so, actually, as you’re probably aware.
Blood transfusions is a tricky one. I don’t doubt that they have saved many many millions of lives, nor that the pioneers of blood transfusion deserve to be widely praised. It’s just, I was surprised a couple years ago by how oddly unstudied the therapeutic benefit is. I mean, nobody doubts that you use them when somebody, say, wipes out in a traffic accident and is at risk of bleeding out — but there’s a lot of intermediate cases where it’s pretty normal to use them but the broad study isn’t there, so, I suspect that the number there is pretty much made up — plus blood groups probably should be a much bigger number than transfusions (think Rh typing in pregnancies or even the general thinking that goes now into things like marrow donation).
Come, come now – what is a world war and its millions of deaths compared to saving billions? (Not precisely saving, though, more along the lines of allowing to come into being.)
Some of these “heroes” have been responsible for the annihilation of many trillions of microbes.
Actually, this is more of a serious issue than many folks are wiling to admit. I think the jury is still out on what the long-term consequences are of petro-chemical intensive fertilizer production and usage are, both with respect to climate change and the depletion of natural chemical cycles in the soil. Its not gonna be much good if the short-term positives in industrial agriculture leads to a long-term collapse or terminal decline in our ability to use the soil.
What a clown.
Soil management is a major concern of most farmers today. There is no doubt that heavy nitrogen fertilization has severely perturbed the planet’s nitrogen cycle, but it’s not clear that the *global* perturbation has many long term consequences for the soil. Local factors are far more important. There are widespread problems with *local* overfertilization such as eutrophication and nitrogen pollution in agricultural runoff. But these problems are (i) increasingly recognized and (ii) a function of fertilizer mis- or overapplication rather than the existence of fertilizer in the first place. Nitrogen utilization efficiency (NUE) is a major area of applied research. The higher the NUE, the more applied nitrogen winds up in the crops and the less is wasted via washout into our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Something like 1% of the world’s primary energy supply goes to powering the Haber-Bosch process, so there is definitely a climate change impact of N fertilization. But if climate change does prove to be a huge disaster (big if), I’d think reducing carbon emissions through lowering our use of heating, A/C, and transportation would be way easier than reducing our consumption of nitrogen.
It’s been a hundred years. When will the jury come back in, please?
You’re asking this from a poster who thinks the jury is still out on the Socialist revolution.
Socialist revolutions in Russia and China may both have been an improvement on their respective previous governments. Thankfully there is more of a role for markets in both places today.
I’m pretty sure the tens of millions of people purged by the Communists in the decades following their take over would disagree with that sentiment.
Yeah, being purged by the Nazi capitalists means your life had value based on the profit the Nazis got from taking it.
I think the jury is still out on what the long-term consequences are of petro-chemical intensive fertilizer production and usage are, both with respect to climate change and the depletion of natural chemical cycles in the soil. Its not gonna be much good if the short-term positives in industrial agriculture leads to a long-term collapse or terminal decline in our ability to use the soil.
Are you serious!?
Great list ! At the top of the list is Synthetic fertilizer is, which the popular organic food movement is trying to eliminate
Perhaps we should save our applause for the folks who pioneered synthetic fertilizer and petrochemical-intensive agriculture until we get a grip on the long-term effects and sustainability on such systems? Sure, they’ve done a lot to sustain and expand short-term growth and yields, but that’s not gonna mean jack if the long-term consequences are the complete collapse of the ecological foundations of our agriculture. I’m not saying that is necessarily the consequence, but there are more questions here than economists and technocrats seem to be willing to acknowledge. Thankfully, biologists and agronomists and ecologists are studying all of this, but its uncertain how much of their work will actually affect the larger political-economic systems of global agricultural production. And then, of course, there is the issue of climate change and its relationship with the petrochemical fertilizer industry, which is a whole other matter…
Some random research papers I grabbed on the matter:
Don’t know who but someone in the sanitation business should make the list since sanitation has saved more lives then medicine. Clean water, clean air, clean food etc has saved huge numbers of people lives and reduced sickness.
These numbers seem pretty suspect.
For example, Ancel Keys is on here, when he almost certainly has a death toll associated with him and not a lives-saved number.
But what have they done for me lately?
All four are from Germany or Austria…mmmh need to learn German
Yes, but two emigrated to the US, Karl Landsteiner & Richard Lewisohn. One ran afoul of the Nazis, “fell into despair and alcoholism” and died, Carl Bosch. And the last, Fritz Haber, tried to protect Jews working for him from the Nazi’s and ended up fleeing to Switzerland where he died.
So, as always, caveat emptor.
5) Barack Obama
Barack Obama will save over 7,000,000,000 lives through his single handed efforts to eliminate global climate change and create a durable nuclear-war-free future by investing in peace with Iran.
Barry is #1!
By then it will be at least 10 billion. Population growth, my man.
The oceans are going to recede, man.
I assume you’re talking about nuclear winter. That is mostly up to Putin and, potentially, John McCain.
” Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.”
From the Coronation speech of Barack Obama, St. Paul June 3, 2008.
Ah yes, the moment when “we ended a war and secured our nation.”.
I’m planning a constitutional amendment to allow King Obama to have a third or maybe even fourth term. Should we do that before or after the government seizes all private firearms? Just looking for strategy advice here. Thanks.
Come on Jan, get real. The Constitution was written by a bunch of dead, white slave owners. Furthermore, it’s a living document.
That whole amendment process is designed as a way to oppress minorities and prop up the power of the rural, small state Conservatives. What we need is to have a public vote hosted on WhiteHouse.gov. And there won’t be any of this right wing voter suppression. The vote will be open to everyone across the world, because this is too big a decision to let the haters & capitalists control.
You don’t vote for kings.
Tell that to the Holy Roman Empire.
It’s like you’ve been reading my strategy on how to get everyone is this country (and outside of it 😉 ) to vote, sometimes multiple times, for Democrat only candidates!
Now, I’ve also been looking for a way to simultaneously suppress the white vote in a way that is internally consistent with my “multiple votes for all” voter justice (not fraud) scheme. Please note that this will not be necessary in affluent coastal states, as those white voters tend to do what I want to do.
Sorry, I didn’t address the living document issue. I was concerned you meant it is a literal living document, which it obviously isn’t. In this particular instance I recommend a narrow reading of the language in the 2nd Amendment.
As “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Clearly, under Obama or any other Democratic president, we do not reside in a “free state,” making the 2nd amendment moot. Refer to original post on confiscating guns. We are proceeding.
Is that Haber number net lives saved, or is it not including the millions his chemical warfare advancements killed? (I guess he’d still come out quite positive according to this strange exercise.)
Haber? Chlorine as a weapon was a fail. It can be stopped by using a mask and it was equally dangerous for friends and enemies in the battlefield.
The other infamous weapons as sarin, mustard gas and lewisite were made by other guys. Yes, the exercise may be strange, it assesses results not intentions.
Haber-Bosch process also prolonged WWI by making artificial ammonium nitrate available for explosives in Germany instead of having to import it from natural deposits in Chile.
His institute also is responsible for developing Zyklon A. I bet you can guess what secondary concoction was then built on that work…
Haber’s work was so problematic that he drove his wife to suicide. And WWI would have ended MUCH sooner, with the (political) outcome, with Haber’s process.
This is an interesting topic, but a poorly constructed list.
She had mental issues (depression) long before that. Besides, how DARE the Germans defend themselves! They should have just surrendered as soon as the French, British, and Russian armies showed up at their borders!
Which was an insecticide and pesticide, used before war and until today. If you gonna SJW, why not go all the way and indict also Newcomen and Watt? Without steam engines, Nazis wouldn’t be able to transport millions over hundreds and thousands kilometers.
And to think, some organic growers think synthetic fertilizers are bad.
Some people think there are no negative consequences of using synthetic fertilizers.
I’m not sure in what sense Haber and Bosch saved 2.7 billion lives. If I convince a woman to have a baby, did I save a life? If I convince her to go on the pill, is that tantamount to murder?
In any event, the only evidence for the claim on the linked site is, “Smil and others have calculated that over 2 billion people, about 40% of those alive, are fed by food grown using fertilizer from the Haber-Bosch process.” It’s a pretty big leap from “are fed by” to “had lives saved by”.
The assumption is that without that food, the people – especially children and the elderly – would die of famine or malnutrition. The logic isn’t very strained.
It seems like it’s very strained.
1) As Jacob says, if you assume the process/fertilizer is necessary to feed them, most of those people would probably not have been born if there was that big a food shortage in the world (the population just wouldn’t have grown so much).
2) The economists can either correct me or explain it better than me, but, if food were in fact in that short supply as to “kill” that many people, wouldn’t the price would go up encouraging other solutions – maybe even more sustainable farming. But we might have fewer big screen TVs, maybe? So he saved big screen TVs?
Jacob’s point seems like a good one to me: he’s raising the question of whether, in the absence of the extra food, those billions of people would have existed at all. Someone who’s never been born is at no risk of dying of famine or malnutrition.
Indeed, couldn’t we say that Haber and Bosch were responsible for billions of deaths, given that all of those billions of additional people have died or are going to die some day? Seems silly, but no less silly than equating “created conditions that led to X’s birth” with “saved X’s life”.
“If I convince a woman to have a baby, did I save a life? If I convince her to go on the pill, is that tantamount to murder?”
I going to go out on a limb here and say that while I’m not entirely convinced of the moral equivalence of enabling a life that wouldn’t have been and preventing the death of one that already is, I’m at least tempted by the argument. It seems like there is some sort of loss when lives that could have been lived don’t get to happen. For example I think you generally do more good by making a baby than you do by extending the life of a 90 year-old, within some broad constraints.
To me, at least, they’re clearly not even close to equivalent. They might both be good and, as you say, it may (for some) depend on the quality of life or age of the person saved, but for example, if a new process enabled 6B more people to be fed on earth, even of those additional people are in fact born and it doesn’t turn out to be a bad thing, it’s clearly not as good as if, if everyone on Earth were going to starve to death in the next month – and someone developed a new food source and saved all 6B (?) of us, I would say that is a much higher good (even putting aside avoiding extinction) – saving lives that would starve is clearly a higher good that enabling potential lives – although I suppose others with religious or others views could come to a different result (e.g., God wants us to be fruitful and multiply).
I’m an atheist and I’m still not sure I see the distinction. Seems like every time someone dies of old age after a full life surrounded by fat grandchildren, that’s a victory.
Put another way, I’m not sure it isn’t mostly status-quo bias which leads us to think saving lives is more important than creating them, simplifying a little, all-else-equal, etc.
Is it morally praiseworthy to maximize the world’s population?
Increasing it, all else equal, is clearly morally praiseworthy. Maximizing it implies you discount other goals, which might also be important too. For example, you may want to think long-term and maximizing the population today might lower it later, say by spoiling the environment. For another example, you may put some value on the quality of each life, and would want some buffer between you and the minimum life that’s better than death.
But yeah, I can’t think of many better goals than maximizing long-term the number of people who get to live basically good lives.
Can someone point me to some information about Richard Lewisohn? I cannot find an English language Wikipedia page on him and his name is not in the articles about blood banks or blood infusions, which makes me question his inclusion on this list. But perhaps I am just blind.
Also, blood transfusion were made possible by the discoveries of many people. It’s problematic to include just one man arbitrarily, and this applies to many people on this list.
Here’s a small article:
Albert Hustin was the guy who determined that sodium citrate could be used as an anticoagulant. He was also the guy who performed the first-non direct infusion. Lewisohn just determined how much sodium citrate was needed to preserve the blood. And he’s the fourth most important scientist in lives saved on this list?! LOL! Maybe the author has a hard-on for German scientists.
Like others have mentioned, these discoveries are in many cases the products of years of research from many different contributors. I appreciate that scientists should be raised in status, but this list is just absurd.
What a ludicrous exercise. You might as well attribute all lives saved by chemistry to Lavoisier and Dalton, all lives saved by physics to Newton and Maxwell, etc, etc. And you can blame the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Einstein and Rutherford. Profoundly stupid exercise, I’d say.
Anyway, how many lives saved did they attribute to Adam Smith – he’d certainly merit a very large number – and a large negative number for Karl Marx, I suppose? Them economists, eh?
I agree. The whole notion of “saving a life” in this counting context does not make sense. One can count a number of people killed by someone or something, because people only die once. But as one can be saved arbitrarily many times, counting the total and using it for ranking discovery makes very little sense. Plus, as far as I know, all those billions of people “saved” are either dead, or going to die soon enough, so their “saving” is only temporary anyway.
“And you can blame the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Einstein and Rutherford”
Or you can credit them with saving the lives that would have been lost in a prolonged war culminating in an Allied invasion of Japan.
(Also, J. Robert Oppenhiemer would be the more logical reference)
In any case, you’re right, the list is eminently debatable – but then that’s part of the fun
Arguably, they Japanese capitulated because the Russians were coming. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were merely two more small cities after a long list of major cities that had already been quite completely bombed.
But it give the Emperor the perfect excuse for surrendering: “Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
“Arguably, they Japanese capitulated because the Russians were coming.”
When did the Russians learn to walk on water? Last time I checked, WWII-era Russians pretty aggressively disbelieved in the one guy who could reportedly do that.
The Russians, much like the Apostles, had boats. And much unlike the Apostles, they had airplanes and bombs and an exhausted enemy–and no experience on turning the other cheek. And even if they could not walk over the water they could walk over mines-or make other Russians do it, which must be a useful talent at war ( https://books.google.com.br/books?id=oWqaAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA350&lpg=PA350&dq=Zhukov+eisenhower+mines&source=bl&ots=PCEiejZHcL&sig=d2fJzQdbeAhnTaiMw1OuYYKDg9I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAGoVChMIsNmf9KylxwIVwl4eCh1HXAD-#v=onepage&q=Zhukov%20eisenhower%20mines&f=false )
The USSR had thirteen oceangoing warships in the Pacific, none larger than a light cruiser, none configured for amphibious assault. They had no long-range bombers, and they had no airbases within range of their smaller tactical aircraft. Their nominal “airborne” divisions had been reconfigured as regular infantry in 1944. The Russian industrial base had been devastated by the war, and partially rebuilt with a very narrow focus on things that were not warships, amphibious transports, or long-range bombers, and it would take years to recover.
Stalin’s Russia could and presumably would have reclaimed Manchuria and Korea, or at least argued with the Chinese Communists about such things, if the war had continued. There was no credible threat of a Russian invasion of the Japanese home islands in 1945. No matter how brave and numerous the Russian soldiers of the day, there was no way for Russia to transport enough of them to matter in Japan.
Nah, it’s far too stupid to be fun.
Alex is trying to raise the status of scientists for the good of humanity one blog post at a time. Quit interfering.
Not sure that you can say Haber saved lives on net. The green revolution would have happened without him. And delaying his work just a few short years would have saved quite a few millions in WWI. I would argue that it probably would save even more lives in WWII because the occurance of WWII was an extremely unlikely black swan event but that is a digression into a completely different subject matter. And there’s the problem with lives saved indirectly, how do you tally the esoteric details which can be huge? You could even suppose that a delay of Haber’s work would have shortened WWI and meant that there is more capital in 1919 and the Green revolution goes faster without Haber. Without the chance to run repeat experiments on the universe it’s just impossible to know, we aren’t measuring impact we are measuring visibility.
It’s funny how almoist everything on the list (read the whole thing) is something that significant numbers of people are paranoid about.
Inorganic fertilizer / Green Revolution
Chlorination of water
They want to take my perecious bodily fluids.
A man who did not ‘know nothing,’ John Snow. Of London, 1854 (not that other John Snow!).
He proved that cholera outbreaks came from bad water polluted by the infected, not by “bad air” which was the theory at the time.
Proving that poor waste sanitation was killing people spurred major improvements in the sanitation in all the major western cities…although it took a bit of time, because the Brits rejected his findings. But accepted it about 12 years later.
Same fate as Ignaz Semmelweiss’ findings and roughly at same time.
There’s a difference between saving lives and promoting population growth. It’s one thing to extend existing lives that would otherwise be cut short, but one of Earth’s major problems is overpopulation, so people like Haber, Bosch and Borlaug haven’t done anything to celebrate. They are not heroes, they are eutrophicators responsible for polluting the planet with too many nutrients.
If I invented and dispensed into the atmosphere an airborne drug that induced couples around the world to produce triple the number of children that they would otherwise produce, would I shoot to the top of this list? Would that be a heroic achievement?
AlexT: “Let’s raise their status!”
Ray Lopez: “Let’s raise their pay!”
AlexT is old-school: give the inventors a pat on the back and a bronze plaque, and hope they continue to ‘do what nerds do’ so that you, the businessman, can profit from it. It’s tried and true, sadly, and it works, sadly, but you’ll never know how many science people stopped doing science and now just run mundane businesses because of this attitude by society. I myself dropped out of the field, went into business, made all of my money in about 15 years, semi-retired,and now live in PH with a girl half my age. I’m also getting into chicken farming, it’s profitable if you practice automation. But doing hard science so you can get a bronze plaque and fake smiles and a few hand claps? That’s for the birds…
What impresses your PH prostitute/girlfriend the most? Your past scientific career, money, or…something else?
Ray is the Frank Perdue of Luzon.
It’s better than being the wax perdue.
Jack: Tell me again, Harry, why did I take this job?
Harry: Oh, come on, thirty more years of this, you get a tiny pension and a cheap gold watch.
Looks like about 11 billion lives have been saved in total. I guess I’ve been saved twice and I didn’t even notice. Thanks for pointing this out. Now if someone can let me know who has saved me those two times, I can work out who to appreciate the most.
“And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
And your parents probably were saved a few times too. And their parents and their parents’ parents. And their parents’ parents’ parents. So you prpovably were saved a few hundreds of times.
the real 3 comma club
Jesus saved all True Believing Christians ever to live. Think about it. Every…single…fucking…True Believing Christian from 33 AD to the current day (not sure about those poor saps born in the BC). That puts him way at the top of that list.
Take that, Science.
But since He is God, he condemned ALL Mankind to physical death and all non-Christians (and misguided Christians, but there is no consense concerning who owns the patent of the real true Christianity, the pope, the televangelists, the Watchtower, the Mormons, the Unitarians?) to a fate worse than death. Nice job breaking it, hero. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NiceJobBreakingItHero
One of my heroes is Jon Fitch, an American race car driver. After his driving partner died in the worst crash in the history of the 24 Hours at Le Mans, Fitch developed in the 1960s, over a number of years of testing, the modern system of putting trash cans with increasing amounts of sand in them alongside highways in front of lethally immobile objects like bridge abutments.
The lifesaving toll of this invention must be over 100,000 by now. And whereas most of the great scientific innovators were standing on the shoulders of giants, Fitch’s clever little idea didn’t require huge scientific advances from other researchers to prepare the way. Anybody could have come up with the idea in the previous half century, but it didn’t happen until Fitch made it his mission.
I didn’t know they had increasing amounts of sand in them. Make sense. Haven’t hit one in a while.
Another traffic safety hero is John Stapp, the air force officer who personally rode the 600 mph rocket sled in the 1940s and 1950s to determine the best ways to help pilots survive bailouts and crashes. He then became a spokesman for seatbelts in cars and for buckling up, and was highly influential because he obviously wasn’t some worry-wart wimp, he was the man who routinely risked his life to scientifically study how pilots could survive catastrophes.
Any mention of Stapp is incomplete without a link to more detailed information, so the reader can picture what an incredible daredevil he was:
Also, the name “Murphy’s Law” was coined during his experiments.
Traffic safety heroes deserve a lot more credit. Interestingly, John Fitch lived until 95 and John Stapp made it to 89.
BTW, since you’re a noticing kind of guy, I assume you noticed something about that list of scientists.
I’m all for praising the heroes of science, but let’s do it in a scientific way. This website absolutely fails to consider the counterfactual (someone else would have made these discoveries, maybe within a few months or years), and makes somewhat controversial ethical assumptions about future people.
Would be interesting to see what number you could assign to Henrietta Lacks under the same exercise.
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