Wuhan Labs, Antitrust, Unrest in France, and Catalysts

Sunday August 1, 2021

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Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. What Happens Next offers listeners an in-depth analysis of the most pressing issues of the day. Our experts are given just six minutes to present. And this is followed by a question and answer period for deeper engagement. This week’s topics include the current unrest in France, how to persuade people to change their own minds, and the Wuhan lab leaks.

Our first speaker is Andrew Hussey, who is a professor at the University of London in Paris. Andrew is the author of the French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs. I’ve asked Andrew to speak about the rise of the yellow jacket protestors as a response to the actions by the Macron government. I’m also interested in the risk of violence and civil unrest in France, the potential for a Marine Le Pen electoral victory in the next election, and the French perceptions of the success and failures of Brexit.

Our second speaker today is Jonah Berger, who is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. I first met Jonah when I was a student of his class on the online teaching company course, How Ideas Spread. Jonah has a new book entitled The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. Jonah believes that we try to persuade others to buy our products or believe our ideas by continually providing more information, more arguments. But this way is hard and often fails because people are resistant to change. Jonah thinks the secret sauce is a catalyst, finding out what the exact barrier is to change, and then dealing with that directly by encouraging others to change their own minds.

Our third speaker will be Jim Meigs, who is the former Editor in Chief of Popular Mechanics and runs his own podcast entitled How Do We Fix It. Jim writes in a recent article in the current Commentary Magazine, which is entitled the Lab Lead Theory Coverup, about COVID and the Wuhan labs. I hope to learn from Jim about why the media shut down any conversation about this hypothesis, and why the scientific community also decided not to investigate. I want to learn why the idea is back in the news and why there has not been any condemnation of Biden who has encouraged a full investigation.


Andrew Hussey

Topic: Unrest in France
Bio: Professor at University of London in Paris


Andrew Hussey:
Firstly, I want to discuss the riots by the gilet jaunes the Yellow Vests in France right up until the pandemic lockdown in 2020, which enforced a temporary calm on the situation. Secondly, I want to look backwards over the past few years to the immigrant riots and the Islamist attacks, which culminated in the terrible massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan in 2015.

Now these are events come from two very different parts of French society. The gilet jaunes are predominantly white and working class. And in the case of the Islamist attacks, the source is a disaffected immigrant population. So I’m going to begin with a simple eyewitness account from Paris of the recent riots. I was caught up in Paris in a violent demonstration. I was trapped between the police and frontline rioters. I was battered by a hail of stones from the rioters’ side and tear-gassed by the police. I retreated, coughing, spluttering, and most of all, I was stunned.

What really had shocked me profoundly was the anger of the protestors. So since then, I’ve been asking myself, how did it happen that the forces of order in France came under such attack with such visible hatred?

In 2014, I published a book called The French Intifada. This book opened with very similar scenes of violence during a riot in March 2007. These rioters were mainly black or Arab kids, kids from the banlieue which are the poor suburbs which surround central Paris, and which are made up of a largely immigrant population.

The title of the book was deliberately provocative, The French Intifada. My French publisher actually did not dare to use this title, fearing Islamist reprisals, which tells you something about the climate of fear in Paris.

The analysis which I made in that book seemed to come true in 2015 in the most grotesque fashion with the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan.

Now this is the real point. Since 2015, French politics and society has veered off into a completely new direction. Instead of a terrorist insurgency within France, the so-called French Intifada, the really most important and unpredictable event was the rise of President Macron, and then the violence of opposition to this government from the gilet jaunes.
France is now an increasingly divided country, with class divisions hardened by geography, as well as economics.

The gilet jaunes come from another France, and this is disconnected France, a France which is being left behind by globalization.

The Macron government is built on an illusion. This much is clear during the recent rounds of regional elections, which were characterized, by historic rate of abstention, around 66%. This silence is the anger of the politically homeless.

I think the most important battleground in French politics, the refusal of the left and the right to face of the real challenges of class, race, and economics in modern France, whether in the banilieue or the countryside. Change will not come from the metropolitan, political shape-shifting of Macron.

Now, there’s an obvious chronology in French political history, from 1789 onwards, when change is convulsive, driven by a confrontation between a complacent ruling class and an angry, disaffected subpopulations.

Right now in France, looking forward to the presidential elections in 2022, nothing can be taken for granted.

Questions for Hussey

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Jonah Berger

Topic: How to Persuade Others to do What You Want
Bio: Professor of Marketing at UPenn Wharton Business School
Reading: Catalyst


Jonah Berger:
All of us have something very much in common, regardless of where we live and what industry we’re in and what role we have in our organizations. We all have something that we want to change. So folks in marketing and sales want to change a customer or a client’s mind. Employees want to change the boss’s mind and leaders want to transform organizations. Startups want to change industries, and non-profits want to change the world.

But change is really hard. Often we push and we pressure and cajole and do a lot of work and nothing happens. And so the very simple question I’m going to ask today is, could there be a better way? Could there be a better way to change minds and drive action? Not by pushing, but by doing something else. And so that’s exactly what I talk about. The Catalyst is my recent New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Is really exploring the science of change and more importantly, what we can do to change others’ minds and drive action.

And as I mentioned, when we have something we want to change, we tend to take a particular approach. And that is some version of pushing. I’ve interviewed thousands of folks from variety of industries, and again and again, when asked to write down something they want to change and something they think about doing to change it, they come up with some version of pushing. We provide more information, more facts, more figures, more reasons. We send people one more PowerPoint deck, make one more phone call, send and one more email. We think if we just push people a little more, they’ll come around. And it’s clear why we think pushing works.

In the physical world, if we want to move something, pushing is actually a great way to get it to go. If I have a chair, for example, that’s sitting in the middle of a room and I want to move that chair, well, pushing it’s a great way to get it to go. I’ll push on the chair, and the chair slides across the floor. But when we apply that same intuition to people, we run into a little snag, which is not only that people aren’t chairs, but when you push people, people don’t just go, they push back. They think about all the reasons why they don’t want to do what we’re suggesting. They’re digging their heels and they actually become less likely to do what we want, rather than more. Not only do they resist, but they push back. And in fact, the more we push, the more they push back.

And so if pushing doesn’t work, what does? Well, there’s a nice analogy to be made to a very different discipline, and that is chemistry. And in chemistry, change is very hard. It takes eons for carbon to be squeezed into diamonds or a plant matter to turn into oil. And so chemists in the lab often add temperature and pressure to try to make change faster and easier. They squeeze things together. They heat them up to create chemical change.

But it turns out there’s a special set of substances that chemists often use that make change happen faster and easier, but do it in a slightly different way. They actually require less energy, not more. Rather than heating things up or requiring more energy to squeeze them together, they make the same amount of change with less energy, not more. Now, that might seem impossible. How can we make change happen with less energy? Change always requires energy. But what these substances do is they identify the barriers to change and they mitigate them. As you can probably guess, these substances are called catalysts.

And the same idea applies to the social world. Rather than trying to say, “Okay, well, what could I do to get someone to change?” Great catalyst, great change agents often ask a subtly, but importantly different question. Why hasn’t that person changed already? What’s stopping them. What are the barriers or obstacles that are getting in the way of change? And how by mitigating them, can I make change more likely?

A good analogy, good way to think about it, imagine you’re parked on a car. You’re parked on a hill, you get in the car, you stick your key in the ignition, you turn the key and you step your foot on the gas. If the car doesn’t go, we often think, wow, I must need more gas. If I just step on the gas, the car will move. And we often use that same idea applying to people. People don’t move, we think we just need more gas. If I just push on them harder, they’ll change.

Well, we can step on the gas all we want. If the parking brake is engaged, car’s not going to go anywhere. And so before we can get change to happen, we got to depress that parking brake. And so this is the real insight behind the book and behind that quick conversation we’re going to have today. How can we be better at finding the parking brakes? We have barrier blindness. We’re so aware of the change we want to have happen, but we don’t really understand what the barriers are. We don’t often know what the obstacles are, because we’re so focused on what we want, we don’t think about the people or the organizations we’re trying to change. And so we got to get better at finding the barriers.

In writing this book, I’ve talked to amazing sets of people. I’ve talked to top selling sales professionals and transformational leaders. I’ve talked to best performing consultants. I’ve talked to people who change their boss’s mind in most difficult situations. But I’ve also talked to some unusual folks. I’ve talked to hostage negotiators. I’ve talked to substance abuse counselors, and I’ve talked to parenting experts. People have to create change in much more difficult situations than most of us do in our daily lives.

And again and again, the same five barriers came up. And so in the Catalyst, I put them in a framework called the REDUCE Framework, that stands for reactants, endowment, distance, uncertainty, and corroborating evidence. Put those five things together, and they spell a word, and that word is reduce, which is exactly what great catalysts do. They don’t push harder. They don’t add more pressure. They don’t provide more facts, more figures, more reasons, they identify the obstacles and they mitigate them. They figure out what the barriers are and they figure out how to get them out of the way.

I don’t know if we’ll talk about all five of the barriers during the question and answer period. We probably won’t have time for all of them, but feel free to check out more information in the book or on my website. Lots of free resources there. But again, the goal here is really simple. How can we change the way we think about change? And by doing that, make us more able to change anything?

Questions for Berger

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James Meigs

Topic: Wuhan Lab Leaks
Bio: Podcaster for How Do We Fix it
Reading: Commentary article is here


Larry Bernstein:
All right, let’s begin today’s session. I’d like to welcome our next guest, Jim Meigs. He is a former Editor in Chief at Popular Mechanics and is a scientific journalist by training. He is currently at Commentary Magazine and excitingly, I think, he is a podcaster like myself, and his podcast is entitled How Do We Fix It? Jim is going to talk to us today about the Wuhan lab leaks. Jim, go ahead.

James Meigs:
Thanks, great to be here. I think that understanding the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most important public health questions, certainly of our lifetime. And unfortunately the way the global health establishment, many leading scientists, the news media, and government agencies in the U S approached this question was very problematic, and actually disturbing to some degree.

So I want to go back to the very early days of the pandemic and just make sure people have the right perspective, because we tend to edit our memories of how these things went down.

So in January and February, the idea that the COVID-19 might have leaked from one of the labs in Wuhan, China, was not considered a really bizarre or extreme idea. It was floated, actually, in China. A number of scientists thought this is something we should look at. A leading virologist named Christian Anderson actually emailed Anthony Fauci saying, looking at the genome of the virus, saying some of the features potentially look engineered. Which would refer back to the idea that in some types of virus research, there’s some manipulation of the genome for various reasons. And it may not, it’s not necessarily to make it into a bio weapon or something like that. It’s a legitimate aspect, or controversial, but generally accepted aspect of research to do this kind of manipulation.

Well, if this virus really came out of a lab and had been manipulated, that was a real bombshell. Almost overnight people started pushing back against that idea, including the virologist who’d sent that email to Anthony Fauci. Peter Daszak, the head of a group called the EcoHealth Alliance, which is a group that distributes a government grant money through its organization to scientists around the world, a leading figure in this world, he organized a letter to be published in the Lancet, the British medical journal with 27 top public health experts and virologists. And they didn’t just say that they thought that that lab leak theory was unlikely, that an origin in the natural world was more likely, but they said it was a conspiracy theory to suggest that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.

A lot of scientists looked at that and said, “Well, that’s not a very scientific statement. Really, we don’t have the evidence to know one way or the other.” But nonetheless, that was the version of this theory that took hold among a lot of scientists, and then even more strongly among the news media.

In late January, Senator Tom Cotton gave a talk in which he mentioned the possibility of a lab leak, it’s something that should be looked into. And that almost immediately caused this kind of antibody response in the media and in our political circles to condemn the idea of even looking into the lab leak, as if it was some kind of crazy, out there, Trumpy and conspiracy theory. The Washington Post called and said he was quote, “Fanning the empires of, excuse me, fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has already been debunked by experts.” And Slate called it “Good old fashioned racism was what explained this thinking.”

Very premature to say that this thing had been debunked. It had been questioned, there had been pushback from some scientists, but it certainly not been debunked. There was also some similar reaction from world health organizations, especially the WHO which, in the early days of the pandemic was, again and again, seemed dangerously deferential to the accounts of this, that China wanted to promote. It described the spread of these ideas as quote, “An info-demic.”

So it was widely assumed that this was all a reaction to Trump. But actually if you go back and you look at Trump’s statements regarding China in January and February, they were actually quite positive. Again and again, he said, well, I just got off the phone with Xi, they’re doing a great job. They’re working hard on this. It was only later that the Trump administration really began to politicize and go overboard on lot of these statements, as it did on so many different issues.

We later learned that Peter Daszak, who had organized the letter to the Lancet, that because he’s involved in distributing all these grants, he had a long history of funneling grant money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Nothing wrong with that, but it certainly put him in a compromised position, in terms of conflict of interest, to be poo-pooing the idea that the virus might’ve come from that from that institute.

What we see in the reaction to the reaction is a more positive story, where some independent scientists began to explore this outside of the mainstream channels of their fields, typically. Some reporters start kept working on this, and plugging away. And typically not, this wasn’t the New York Times or the Washington Post, typically. It was, Vanity Fair, did a really impressive big story. You wouldn’t think of a mostly entertainment magazine doing it, but they did an excellent story by a writer named Katherine Eban. Novelist Nicholson Baker looked into it in New York magazine.

And I think, most telling, in early 2021, Nicholas Wade, former New York Times Science writer, who’d been kind of pushed out for being sort of a crusty, not necessarily politically correct, force on the paper, he published a long, self published a long piece on Medium. A couple of weeks later Donald G. McNeil, another, the New York Times former top reporter on COVID, who had also been pushed out sort of for political reasons, wrote a piece called, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lab Leaks Theory, again, self published.

So the key point here is that there was, for well-intended political reasons perhaps, but political nonetheless, there was a really premature effort to prevent the discussion. To stigmatize the discussion of what should have been something that was certainly within the realm of things that we would want to explore as possible sources of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the fact that it took the mostly outsiders and people working slightly out of the mainstream, tells us that we have a culture, in science, in the media, in politics, that is not as open as it should be. And is too quick to try to close doors on information that might be perceived as helping the wrong side, or providing ammunition to the wrong side. And you still see people defending this reluctance to address the lab leak theory in that way. So my basic takeaway from this is we need to really fight for diversity and an open dialogue in our media, in the scientific establishment, certainly in our global institutions. Over the last few months, we’ve seen this discussion open back up, the Biden administration has demanded a more thorough investigation and more cooperation from China, which will not be forthcoming, but at least they are acknowledging that this is an important issue to look at.

Now, you’ll notice I haven’t answered the question, “Did the virus come from the Wuhan Lab?” I’m afraid we may never know. I am not a virologist myself, so I can’t say, “Oh, it’s 70% likely or 80% likely,” but certainly, in the months since this has come out, evidence in favor of a natural origin has not materialized. Whereas, provocative findings that suggest the strong possibility of a lab leak origin keep coming out. None of this is proof, but it certainly shows a direction that we should be investigating.

Questions for Meigs

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