Unsung Heroism

Published 25 April 2020

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Wet markets

Huanan Seafood Market is a Chinese ‘wet market’ selling animals live and dead, wild and domesticated – from badgers to birds to bats and pangolins. There is a strong case for severely restricting wild animal trade on the grounds that it threatens the loss of protected and endangered species. In a recent article, philosopher Peter Singer goes further: “[w]hat the world really needs is a permanent ban on wet markets.” An obvious and compelling reason for phasing out all wet markets is animal welfare: the descriptions I’ve read conjure images of callous, medieval butchery. Singer pulls no punches: “For the animals, wet markets are hell on earth. Thousands of sentient, palpitating beings endure hours of suffering and anguish before being brutally butchered.”

Yet, there is another reason for shutting down, banning, or replacing wet markets, and it starts with the news that the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan city has been traced as a potential origin of the COVID-19 outbreak. This was neither unprecedented nor unforeseeable. For well over a decade, scientists have warned that these environments pose serious hygiene risks. Dead animals, insects, butchers, clerks, and customers circulate blood and fluids; providing the conditions for diseases to rapidly mutate until they become infectious to humans. Both avian flu and SARS too have been traced to wet markets. Even the Spanish flu of 1918, which infected about a quarter of the world’s population at the time and killed anywhere from 17 to 50 million people, might likely have originated from some kind of human animal agriculture. In sum: the wet market, the slaughterhouse, and other forms of poorly regulated animal agriculture are speed-dating venues for zoonotic diseases. In a prescient 2007 paper, Cheng et al. wrote:

Large numbers and varieties of these wild game mammals in overcrowded cages and the lack of biosecurity measures in wet markets allowed the jumping of this novel virus from animals to human. (…) Coronaviruses are well known to undergo genetic recombination, which may lead to new genotypes and outbreaks. The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.

There are many ways COVID-19 could have been prevented from killing a single person. Better sanitation practice might have prevented the virus mutating for long enough to infect humans. By a stroke of luck, it might have been spotted and contained while it was still easy to isolate. Or the Huanan Seafood Market might have been shut down, along with other wet markets throughout and beyond China, before the mutation occurred. Consider what that might have looked like. Imagine some parallel world where in 2018 some group of activists or lobbyists successfully closed down hundreds of wet markets in China, and lobbied for legislation imposing hygiene restrictions on the others. On this timeline, the COVID-19 virus never mutated to become infectious to humans, and no global pandemic erupted in early 2020. I don’t think this is outlandish: the SARS outbreak prompted China to impose a temporary ban on wild animal trade on the grounds of its now obvious epidemiological risk, just as they did on January 26th of this year following the outbreak of COVID-19. Clearly, these decisions served China’s interests just as they did the rest of the world. Further, many voices are calling for the shutdown of ‘wildlife markets’ in China, and it is easy to imagine that pressure having succeeded earlier.

Yet, if COVID-19 failed to kill a single person, odds are that you never would have heard about it. In turn, it is even less likely that you would ever hear about the people (activists, lobbying groups, or far-sighted officials) responsible for preventing its spread by shutting down the Huanan Seafood Market. In our parallel world, those people will not be remembered as heroes. Insofar as they have anything resembling a ‘reputation’, it will be mixed. They might likely be viewed as culturally insensitive gadflies who tossed away the livelihoods of hundreds or thousands of clerks and butchers in the do-gooder guise of addressing a threat that was ethereal at best: a remote tail risk of a severe epidemic.

Unsingable heroes

History is probably full of these people, who averted massive catastrophes before they bubbled above the level of possibility and conjecture, or else saved countless lives in some imperceptible way. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in The Black Swan:

We remember the martyrs who died for a cause that we knew about, never those no less effective in their contribution but whose cause we were never aware–precisely because they were successful. Our ingratitude towards the poètes maudits fades completely in front of this other type of thanklessness. This is a far more vicious kind of ingratitude: the feeling of uselessness on the part of the silent hero.

Just like our hypothetical heroes who diverted the current global pandemic with some well-targeted regulation, this ingratitude marks a far more general trend. Not being able to point to some concrete counterfactual (look what we avoided!), the heroes who prevent rather than react to disasters don’t only go uncelebrated: they might even be demeaned for squandering public resources from more dramatic and obvious problems. Taleb asks us to imagine some safety-minded legislator who, after great perseverance, manages to enact a law which enforces that all airplanes fly with continuously locked bulletproof doors in every cockpit. The law is effected in early September, 2001. Airlines, already struggling financially, pour scorn over the law as soon as it is announced: bulletproof doors do not come cheap. What comes next?

The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary… Seeing how superfluous his measure was… the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office. Vox clamantis in deserto. He will retire depressed, with a great sense of failure. He will die with the impression of having done nothing useful. I wish I could go attend his funeral, but, reader, I can’t find him.

Melodramatic, maybe. But the point is sound: if your goal is to prevent something terrible, then a mark of success for you is precisely when that terrible thing doesn’t happen: business as usual. By contrast, it is harder to miss the loud heroism of reacting to some terrible and public event that does happen. The heroes that prevent terrible things, in succeeding, erase their own records. Taleb again:

Who gets rewarded, the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politi­cian who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)?

Maybe the ‘quietest’ kind of catastrophe-prevention is the emerging movement to minimise so-called ‘existential risks’ – risks of permanent and drastic curtailment of humanity’s potential. Candidates include natural pandemics and artificial bioweapons, asteroids, runaway climate change, nuclear fallout, and the threat of unaligned artificial general intelligence. On the scale of decades, these risks are obviously super low, and shrouded with all kinds of uncertainty. Yet many extremely talented people, at institutions like CSER, FHI, FLI, MIRI and others, are dedicating their careers to addressing them. Given the full expectation that these efforts will not be ‘realised’ or definitively ‘succeed’ in the course of a single lifetime, this strikes me as fantastically and unequivocally altruistic. Like the hypothetical lobbying that diverted the current pandemic, existential risk research is unsexy, difficult to get intuitively excited about, potentially unnecessary in the short-term, ignored when successful, and enormously important.

Just as acclaim, recognition, and celebration elude the ‘silent heroism’ of averting catastrophes, so does it also elude the heroism of incremental improvement: of those people who work to relieve the burdens of disease and poverty and unfreedom and all the other facts about the world that we might prefer to flinch away from. When was the last time you saw a headline announcing the stupendous strides of progress the world has made in realising delicate political and economic freedoms, gender equality, eliminating malnutrition and infant mortality, etc., etc.?

So there’s the question of how ‘loud’, obvious, or widely recognised are various kinds of heroism; and I’ve suggested that heroic measures to prevent catastrophes and realise incremental improvements go disproportionately unsung – often because success just looks like business as usual. But there’s also the question of how those kinds of (purported) heroism are valued once they’re recognised. For instance, keeping face by reacting in kind to acts of aggression is often valorised, while wonkish voices cautioning against reckless action and suggesting unpopular kinds of compromise are often demeaned as lily-livered or bleeding-hearted.

In the first instance, this is just a shame: it feels unfair that so many people and so much silent heroism should go relatively unrecognised and uncelebrated. But I also wonder if the problem is more consequential, because expected recognition (and the fame, wealth, and power that tend to go along with it) presumably works as an incentive to embark on the kind of work that leads to it. This might be true even if it’s an embarrassing source of motivation and one most of us are unwilling to openly admit to. Indeed, it seems possible that most of us are in fact motivated in part by the promise of esteem even if they do not consciously admit as much to themselves.

Now, it would be a patently good thing if more people pursued the kinds of careers that contributed to these kinds of ‘silent heroism’. It would be good if more people diverted more time and resources into mitigating tail risks, preventing obscure diseases, or lobbying for unglamorous but impactful legislation. Insofar as recognition provides an incentive in that direction, it would also be a good thing if such efforts were more loudly and widely celebrated. How might we go about doing that?


Honestly, I don’t have any interesting ideas. That said, a tentative start must explain the causes that make some kinds of heroism loud, and other silent. Why do people talk and know about the latter over the former? We could think about the institutions that recognise and reward different kinds of heroism in the form of grants, prizes, accolades, and titles. But maybe a more direct factor is the kind of incentive structures that exist in journalism: if it bleeds, it leads goes the saying– and no cable news station could be blamed for running a story on some big spectacular recent disaster over some hypothetical disaster averted or painstakingly long-term positive progress on an obscure metric. It would be too rash to just blame journalists for this: when they are actually asked for their views about the kind of sensational and superficial stories that every station covers at once, they often agree that the situation is absurd and that interesting stories are being overlooked. Instead, chalk up this unfortunate neglect of silent heroism to a kind of inadequate equilibrium where no single outlet can afford to break ranks.

Moreover, the relative newsworthiness of the ‘loud heroism’ following sudden disasters is partly just baked in to their nature. Part of what it means for something to be news (and considered newsworthy) is and will always be a function of how suddenly a change occurs: that it’s an event rather than a process– that it’s new. It’s not an unreasonable assumption that most improvements in e.g. global health, standards of living, economic indicators are slow and incremental and by definition not newsworthy. Diseases are eradicated and nations lift themselves out of relative poverty over the course of decades; news cycles are not decades long.

Further, most of these incremental improvements and averted catastrophes happen away from home: the best news about improvements in standards of living often comes from low-income countries a long way from the demographics of news producers. To appreciate the kind of national mood that can be fermented by such victories closer to home, consider this delightful account of the day Jonas Salk (1914-1995) & Albert Sabin (1906-1993) declared their vaccine for polio vaccine ‘safe and effective’:

April 12th had almost become a national holiday: people observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, kept their red lights red in brief periods of tribute, took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies.

Worse still is the kind of unsung heroism that prevents a terrible thing from happening, precisely because success consists in that thing not happening; and when do you decide to report on that? When was the last time a news reporter declared ,“I am reporting live from the scene of an enormous conflict that, just today, didn’t happen”? By contrast, setbacks to progress are normally immediate and identifiable: it is painfully obvious when conflict erupts, or something is destroyed, or fails. Therefore, negative stories are just inclined by their nature to count more often as news. It is both tired and true to say that the news is always depressing, even when so many things are measurably improving. This is often marked up to people’s secret penchant for morbid stories and schadenfreude and whatever else. But remember that there is a more innocuous explanation: that good news is normally slow news, and therefore not news at all.

It would be easy to feel resigned about this, and decide that unsung heroism is unsung because of unchangeable features of news cycles or human psychology or whatever else. But here’s a tentative suggestion for cutting through the deadlock: just write more and talk more about the things you think people should find interesting (or important, or newsworthy). If you have the opportunity to do so, write about the unsung heroism that you think more people should know about. And share the examples of unsung heroism that you’ve read about! Two examples are Hans and Ola Rosling’s Factfulness and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which both present data about incremental improvements in global health, peace, literacy, etc. in fascinating and scintillating and illuminating ways.

The stories behind the lives and projects of ‘unsung heroes’ are often fascinating and uplifting. So there is an obvious reason to share their stories far and wide, in journalism and elsewhere, and there is no prima facie impediment to people enjoying and discussing them. That’s really the point I want to make: that journalists or writers with significant audiences have an opportunity to incentivise ‘unsung’ heroism by crafting engaging stories about it and celebrating the people behind it.

The idea of privileging stories about incremental or long-term changes and other kinds of unsung heroism is reaching some news institutions. Here are three examples: firstly, Vox’s Future Perfect discusses big-picture ideas about how to do more good. Secondly, the magazine The Tortoise emphasises slow and reflective reporting of current events. Thirdly, the charming ScienceHeroes.com keeps a tally of the scientists and reformers who have made lifesaving discoveries and saved improved the lives of millions of others (plus it looks like it’s been airdropped straight out of the late-90s).

An incomplete list of unsung heroes

Lots of these are taken from scienceheroes.com and Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now.

Normal Borlaug

Gertrude Elion

(These ‘lives saved’ stats need a caveat. They should not be read as ‘counterfactual impact’ – how many more lives would likely have been lost if this person had not been born – because if is normally extremely difficult to make such predictions. Rather, they stand for something like, “suppose this person’s key innovation, discovery, or initiative had never been made: how many more lives would likely have been lost?”. This obscures the fact that some other person or group might have stepped in to ensure some key change (e.g. the Green revolution) does in fact happen.)

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