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  • Let's pretend right here we have a machine.

  • A big machine, a cool, TED-ish machine,

  • and it's a time machine.

  • And everyone in this room has to get into it.

  • And you can go backwards, you can go forwards;

  • you cannot stay where you are.

  • And I wonder what you'd choose, because I've been asking my friends

  • this question a lot lately and they all want to go back.

  • I don't know. They want to go back before there were automobiles

  • or Twitter or "American Idol."

  • I don't know.

  • I'm convinced that there's some sort of pull

  • to nostalgia, to wishful thinking.

  • And I understand that.

  • I'm not part of that crowd, I have to say.

  • I don't want to go back, and it's not because I'm adventurous.

  • It's because possibilities on this planet,

  • they don't go back, they go forward.

  • So I want to get in the machine, and I want to go forward.

  • This is the greatest time there's ever been on this planet

  • by any measure that you wish to choose:

  • health, wealth,

  • mobility, opportunity,

  • declining rates of disease ...

  • There's never been a time like this.

  • My great-grandparents died, all of them,

  • by the time they were 60.

  • My grandparents pushed that number to 70.

  • My parents are closing in on 80.

  • So there better be

  • a nine at the beginning of my death number.

  • But it's not even about people like us,

  • because this is a bigger deal than that.

  • A kid born in New Delhi today

  • can expect to live as long as

  • the richest man in the world did 100 years ago.

  • Think about that, it's an incredible fact.

  • And why is it true?

  • Smallpox. Smallpox killed billions

  • of people on this planet.

  • It reshaped the demography of the globe

  • in a way that no war ever has.

  • It's gone. It's vanished.

  • We vanquished it. Puff.

  • In the rich world,

  • diseases that threatened millions of us just a generation ago

  • no longer exist, hardly.

  • Diphtheria, rubella, polio ...

  • does anyone even know what those things are?

  • Vaccines, modern medicine,

  • our ability to feed billions of people,

  • those are triumphs of the scientific method.

  • And to my mind, the scientific method --

  • trying stuff out,

  • seeing if it works, changing it when it doesn't --

  • is one of the great accomplishments of humanity.

  • So that's the good news.

  • Unfortunately, that's all the good news

  • because there are some other problems, and they've been mentioned many times.

  • And one of them is that

  • despite all our accomplishments,

  • a billion people go to bed hungry

  • in this world every day.

  • That number's rising, and it's rising really rapidly, and it's disgraceful.

  • And not only that, we've used our imagination

  • to thoroughly trash this globe.

  • Potable water, arable land,

  • rainforests, oil, gas:

  • they're going away, and they're going away soon,

  • and unless we innovate our way out of this mess,

  • we're going away too.

  • So the question is: Can we do that? And I think we can.

  • I think it's clear that we can make food

  • that will feed billions of people without raping the land that they live on.

  • I think we can power this world with energy

  • that doesn't also destroy it.

  • I really do believe that, and, no, it ain't wishful thinking.

  • But here's the thing that keeps me up at night --

  • one of the things that keeps me up at night:

  • We've never needed progress in science more than we need it right now. Never.

  • And we've also never been in a position

  • to deploy it properly in the way that we can today.

  • We're on the verge of amazing, amazing events

  • in many fields,

  • and yet I actually think we'd have to go back

  • hundreds, 300 years, before the Enlightenment,

  • to find a time when we battled progress,

  • when we fought about these things

  • more vigorously, on more fronts, than we do now.

  • People wrap themselves in their beliefs,

  • and they do it so tightly that you can't set them free.

  • Not even the truth will set them free.

  • And, listen, everyone's entitled to their opinion;

  • they're even entitled to their opinion about progress.

  • But you know what you're not entitled to?

  • You're not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you're not.

  • And this took me awhile to figure out.

  • About a decade ago, I wrote a story about vaccines

  • for The New Yorker. A little story.

  • And I was amazed to find opposition:

  • opposition to what is, after all,

  • the most effective public health measure in human history.

  • I didn't know what to do,

  • so I just did what I do: I wrote a story and I moved on.

  • And soon after that,

  • I wrote a story about genetically engineered food.

  • Same thing, only bigger.

  • People were going crazy.

  • So I wrote a story about that too,

  • and I couldn't understand why

  • people thought this was "Frankenfoods,"

  • why they thought moving molecules around

  • in a specific, rather than a haphazard way,

  • was trespassing on nature's ground.

  • But, you know, I do what I do. I wrote the story, I moved on.

  • I mean, I'm a journalist.

  • We type, we file, we go to dinner. It's fine.

  • (Laughter)

  • But these stories bothered me,

  • and I couldn't figure out why, and eventually I did.

  • And that's because those fanatics that were driving me crazy

  • weren't actually fanatics at all.

  • They were thoughtful people, educated people, decent people.

  • They were exactly like the people in this room.

  • And it just disturbed me so much.

  • But then I thought, you know, let's be honest.

  • We're at a point in this world

  • where we don't have the same relationship to progress that we used to.

  • We talk about it ambivalently.

  • We talk about it in ironic terms with little quotes around it:

  • "progress."

  • Okay, there are reasons for that, and I think we know what those reasons are.

  • We've lost faith in institutions,

  • in authority,

  • and sometimes in science itself,

  • and there's no reason we shouldn't have.

  • You can just say a few names

  • and people will understand.

  • Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Challenger,

  • Vioxx, weapons of mass destruction,

  • hanging chads.

  • You know, you can choose your list.

  • There are questions and problems

  • with the people we used to believe were always right,

  • so be skeptical.

  • Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence.

  • Don't take anything for granted.

  • But here's the thing: When you get proof,

  • you need to accept the proof, and we're not that good at doing that.

  • And the reason that I can say that is because

  • we're now in an epidemic of fear

  • like one I've never seen and hope never to see again.

  • About 12 years ago, there was a story published,

  • a horrible story,

  • that linked the epidemic of autism

  • to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine shot.

  • Very scary.

  • Tons of studies were done to see if this was true.

  • Tons of studies should have been done; it's a serious issue.

  • The data came back.

  • The data came back from the United States, from England,

  • from Sweden, from Canada,

  • and it was all the same: no correlation,

  • no connection, none at all.

  • It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter

  • because we believe anecdotes,

  • we believe what we see, what we think we see,

  • what makes us feel real.

  • We don't believe a bunch of documents

  • from a government official giving us data,

  • and I do understand that, I think we all do.

  • But you know what?

  • The result of that has been disastrous.

  • Disastrous because here's a fact:

  • The United States is one of the only countries in the world

  • where the vaccine rate for measles is going down.

  • That is disgraceful,

  • and we should be ashamed of ourselves.

  • It's horrible.

  • What kind of a thing happened

  • that we could do that?

  • Now, I understand it. I do understand it.

  • Because, did anyone have measles here?

  • Has one person in this audience ever seen someone die of measles?

  • Doesn't happen very much.

  • Doesn't happen in this country at all,

  • but it happened 160,000 times in the world last year.

  • That's a lot of death of measles --

  • 20 an hour.

  • But since it didn't happen here, we can put it out of our minds,

  • and people like Jenny McCarthy

  • can go around preaching messages

  • of fear and illiteracy from platforms

  • like "Oprah" and "Larry King Live."

  • And they can do it because

  • they don't link causation and correlation.

  • They don't understand that these things seem the same,

  • but they're almost never the same.

  • And it's something we need to learn, and we need to learn it really soon.

  • This guy was a hero, Jonas Salk.

  • He took one of the worst scourges of mankind away from us.

  • No fear, no agony. Polio -- puff, gone.

  • That guy in the middle, not so much.

  • His name is Paul Offit.

  • He just developed a rotavirus vaccine with a bunch of other people.

  • It'll save the lives of 400 to 500,000 kids

  • in the developing world every year.

  • Pretty good, right?

  • Well, it's good, except that Paul goes around talking about vaccines

  • and says how valuable they are

  • and that people ought to just stop the whining.

  • And he actually says it that way.

  • So, Paul's a terrorist.

  • When Paul speaks in a public hearing,

  • he can't testify without armed guards.

  • He gets called at home

  • because people like to tell him

  • that they remember where his kids go to school.

  • And why? Because Paul made a vaccine.

  • I don't need to say this, but vaccines are essential.

  • You take them away, disease comes back,

  • horrible diseases. And that's happening.

  • We have measles in this country now.

  • And it's getting worse, and pretty soon kids

  • are going to die of it again because it's just a numbers game.

  • And they're not just going to die of measles.

  • What about polio? Let's have that. Why not?

  • A college classmate of mine wrote me a couple weeks ago and said

  • she thought I was a little strident.

  • No one's ever said that before.

  • She wasn't going to vaccinate her kid against polio,

  • no way.

  • Fine.

  • Why? Because we don't have polio. And you know what?

  • We didn't have polio in this country yesterday.

  • Today, I don't know, maybe a guy got on a plane in Lagos this morning,

  • and he's flying to LAX, right now he's over Ohio.

  • And he's going to land in a couple of hours, he's going to rent a car,

  • and he's going to come to Long Beach,

  • and he's going to attend one of these fabulous TED dinners tonight.

  • And he doesn't know that he's infected with a paralytic disease,

  • and we don't either because that's the way the world works.

  • That's the planet we live on. Don't pretend it isn't.

  • Now, we love to wrap ourselves in lies. We love to do it.

  • Everyone take their vitamins this morning?

  • Echinacea, a little antioxidant

  • to get you going.

  • I know you did because half of Americans do every day.

  • They take the stuff, and they take alternative medicines,

  • and it doesn't matter how often

  • we find out that they're useless.

  • The data says it all the time.

  • They darken your urine. They almost never do more than that.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's okay, you want to pay 28 billion dollars for dark urine?

  • I'm totally with you.

  • (Laughter)