How Humanity Gave Itself an Extra Life and Politics as a Lifesaver

Karen Plaut

Dr. Karen Plaut, Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture, Purdue University

How Humanity Gave Itself an Extra Life by Steven Johnson and Politics as a Lifesaver by David Leonhardt

Recently, I read a New York Times commentary by David Leonhardt entitled Politics as a Lifesaver. This commentary made a reference that led me to Steven Johnson’s How Humanity Gave Itself an Extra Life article in the New York Times Magazine. Johnson’s article is a fascinating lesson on how scientists develop technical expertise, but it is the ability to persuade the community through political and social mechanisms that really influences and changes society, which is extremely relevant to many of today’s critical issues.

Excerpt from Politics as a Lifesaver

“I wanted to highlight Johnson’s essay, because I think it sheds light on many of the world’s biggest challenges today, like Covid and climate change. On their face, they might seem to be technical problems. In truth, they are more political than technical.

“Scientists have already invented amazing Covid vaccines; the question is how quickly the world can produce and dispense them. Scientists have also developed technologies that produce energy with relatively little pollution. Yes, further technical progress is important, but the bigger question is when political leaders and voters will decide to prioritize the fight against climate change. 

“A similar dynamic also applies to many big economic questions. There isn’t a big mystery about how to reduce inequality and lift living standards for most Americans. Raising taxes on the wealthy, which are historically low, and devoting the money to everyone else would make a real difference. But that doesn’t mean it will happen. 

“Americans sometimes like to dismiss politics as a grubby business that is disconnected from the things that really matter — science, health and everyday life. And while politics certainly can be grubby, it also remains the most powerful mechanism for human progress.”

Categories: What We're Reading
Tags: Karen Plaut


The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business

We talk a lot about data-driven decision making on Consumer Corner, because there are many good reasons to use data to make business decisions. The problem is that when we become data-driven, we face a few unfortunate truths, which we explored in great detail in our letter Don’t Eat Random Mushrooms.

What Should Danny Do?

In our house, we like to read the classics — Dr. Seuss, Sesame Street, Goodnight Moon, and so on. With two little ones at home, fitting in adult reading can be a real challenge! However, many of the books we read have important take-home points for me and my kiddos.

Wellbeing at Work

How do we measure success in business? Most often we have used financial metrics to look at success, but what if we measured success based on how people within a business experienced the work necessary to create these outstanding financial metrics? This is the rough premise of Clifton and Harter’s book, Wellbeing at Work.