by Sasha Alyson
With the publication of his latest book, Bill Gates now adds climate change to the many topics – including technology, business, education, global health, and development – on which he presents himself as a visionary expert, and much of the West accepts his self-appraisal.
But Bill Gates is no visionary. If this were just another billionaire with a giant ego, we could look for other fish to fry. But Gates commands enormous media attention for his opinions, which are often treated as gospel. He is widely considered to have more influence over global health than anyone else on the planet.
This fish needs to be fried.
Predicting the pandemic
A gushing New York Times column introduced Bill Gates as “the polymath who predicted the pandemic in a TED Talk.”(1) We’ve heard similar claims many times in the past year:
It’s not true.
In that 2015 TED talk, Gates made the point that the world was not ready for the next epidemic. He, countless epidemiologists, and pretty much anyone else paying attention, assumed that there would be more epidemics. Already in the 21st century we’d had SARS, swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. No one doubted there would be more.
Neither Gates nor the others predicted this pandemic. Not even close, in the case of Gates. He is vague (“in the next few decades”) about timeframe, and wrong about location (“poor countries…. [are] where we’ll see the outbreak very early on.”)
He doesn’t even use the word pandemic in his TED talk.(2) He envisions an epidemic in which developing regions will need help from the West to get it under control because their health systems are too weak. He is obviously clueless that the West will be the basket case. Every comment he made indicates that he is looking backwards, expecting the next epidemic to be basically like the last four.(3)
All he did was use a widely shared assumption – there will be more epidemics – as a starting point for his real message, that the world wasn’t prepared. Pretty much everybody agreed about that, as well.
His TED talk doesn’t appear to have gotten wide attention at the time. In fact, after the epidemic started, it was Gates himself who told people to go back and look it up.(4) Given how badly they misreported the content of what he said, I don’t think they even looked. They took his (and each other’s) word for it.
Meanwhile, had they wanted to cover the predictions of Bill Gates, they missed a more amusing story. In December 2016 he suggested that Donald Trump could be the next John F. Kennedy and establish “American leadership through innovation.”(5) But Gates did not, a few years later, remind reporters to go back and look up that interview.
Catch-up on the internet
There are many other instances of Gates’s lack of vision. A single example should suffice. When the internet arrived, he didn’t realize it was important.
I’m not making this up. In a few years’ time, from 1993 to 1995, the internet went from being an esoteric geek thing, into… well, you know. But as the internet train pulled out of the station, Bill Gates was looking backwards.
Microsoft Windows didn’t even provide a way to connect to the internet until business executives complained about this shortcoming. In his book The Road Ahead, published late in 1995, Gates discussed the internet only briefly – largely to suggest that he didn’t see much potential for it. “Mr. Gates has been caught flat-footed” wrote the New York Times. Microsoft “failed to notice the internet,” said The Guardian. A revised edition of the book was rushed to press.
Once he had grabbed the caboose and hauled his company aboard, Gates moved with remarkable speed and power. Netscape had already captured 90% of the browser market. Microsoft rushed to build its Internet Explorer. It was much worse than Netscape but Gates wasn’t competing on quality. The Microsoft Windows operating system came pre-installed on nearly every PC sold, and Microsoft Explorer became part of the bundle. Soon Microsoft had 95% of the browser market, and Netscape was wiped out. This brought a new danger: Anti-trust suits in both the U.S. and Europe. Again, money and power proved decisive. Able to afford the best lobbyists, lawyers, and image-makers, Microsoft escaped any serious consequences.
How did Gates miss the internet’s significance so badly? The same way that Kodak missed the significance of digital cameras. Gates was already the richest person on earth because his company owned the software used by most of the world’s desktop computers. The free-for-all internet was a threat to his monopoly. The past model worked fine for him, he felt no incentive to imagine a radically different future.
We humans are rarely objective when we have strong personal biases and self-interest at work. That’s why so many large organizations have a conflict-of-interest policy. But Bill Gates can do as he pleases. His fortune was built on Microsoft’s intellectual property, and fiercely defends global patent laws. Billions of people will face delays in getting a Covid vaccine, however, not because the world lacks the capacity to make the vaccines, but because Western drug companies, often using public subsidies, use those patent laws to prevent it.
We could save those lives. Laws are regularly suspended to meet life-threatening crises and a group of third-world nations has asked the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections in this case. The U.S. and Europe blocked the proposal.(6) Or the World Health Organization could expedite approval of vaccines developed by India, China, and Russia which are ready to move fast to make them more widely available in developing regions. Thus far, the W.H.O. has not done so.(7)
We need better leadership here. We could use a visionary who doesn’t put his own interests first. That will not be Bill Gates. His foundation, along with the W.H.O., seeks donations to buy Western vaccines for developing regions.(8) That is yesterday’s approach. It keeps the money in the West, it keeps control in the West, it positions poorer countries to be dependent on charity from the West, rather clearing the way for them move toward real independence. By putting himself at the center of so much of the debate, by being the visionary expert on pandemics, Bill Gates makes it harder for those voices to be heard.
After this was posted, I came across another example of Bill Gates failing to grasp a great issue of the day. New York Times reviewer Bill McKibben found the new Gates book about climate change to be “a little underwhelming,” noting that: “[Gates] confesses that he completely missed the climate challenge until 2006, when he met with some scientists almost two decades after the problem emerged (previously ‘I had assumed there were cyclical variations or other factors that would naturally prevent a true climate disaster’).”
Comments from Twitter
We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.
Leon Kukkuk, @leonkukkuk: The importance of avoiding the overblown demonising of this guy does not mean we should avoid being critical of his initiatives. He is invading further and further into areas that should be lead by people, through civil society and governments.
Genesis Cush, @Genesis13815553: The question: did the myths come before or after Gates got into the position of influence? Another question: What evidence supports your assertion that Gates encourages such urban myths? Let’s not confuse random causality with premeditated causality.
[Sasha replies: Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Bill Gates had a thug-like image, and a reputation for ruthlessness in driving out any competition. Time magazine, referring to the mythical mafia godfather, asked in 1998: “Is Bill Gates the ’90s answer to Don Corleone?” He certainly had influence in the tech world and respect of a sort (you don’t diss the Godfather!) in that era. As for today: People want a savior; I’d say Gates and his foundation have fed an appetite that was eager for fuel, by recasting his image. After the pandemic started, he told people to go look at that TED talk. (My guess is that he probably remembered himself as having foreseen the pandemic. It’s a human tendency to remember ourselves as having predicted things better than we actually did.) He could correct the record in his many interviews; instead he nurtures it. In one report: “The Microsoft chief said he felt no satisfaction at all that his 2015 prophecy had come to pass.”
Nsamba taufeeq, @dirac_taufeeq: I don’t care if it’s all for his ego, there are a lot more billionaires who would rather keep their wealth.
[Sasha replies: More myth-making. In the years since he vowed to give away half his wealth, his wealth has increased by roughly 50%. He promised only to give it away before, or after, his death — the same choice we all get. Meanwhile, he has converted some money into a different kind of wealth, which he hadn’t had: high status and influence in any sector where he wants it.]
Aleksandar Bajkov, @abajkov: So what are those voices? Let us hear them. I don’t really care how much you hate Bill, or how much you want to discredit his contributions. It’s your own personal issue.
[Sasha replies: The next comment is a good example.]
Mühendis, @Mhendis70995557: Bill Gates did not predict the pandemic. Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant made a warning about this in 2006. Please watch. [See the TED talk.]
[Sasha replies: Good timing, thanks. Whereas Gates merely makes the widely-known point that the world is not ready for an epidemic, Larry Brilliant went into specifics about how to prepare. But the Gates TED talk has 40 million views; Brilliant has 1.6 million. When the super-celebrity-genius gets on stage, and says nothing new, it keeps true experts, with something to say, from being more widely heard.]
ET, @thielees1: You look behind the curtain with any of these billionaires, and you find a power-hungry vampire. Every single time.
Ambassador Dr. Muhammad Shahid Amin Khan, @DrMShahidAKhan: Money and vision are two opposite sides and I am sure money never gives vision to anyone.
glenn moore jr, @glennmoorejr1: Bill Gates planned the virus not just this one but many others as well.
[Sasha replies: I’m critical of Gates on several levels, but I’ve never seen the slightest reason to believe he has planned any viruses, nor is that consistent with other things he has done. It is foolish and irresponsible to spread baseless rumors.]
Notes and Sources
Top illustration: Train image by Rajat Jain, Pexels.com; Bill Gates image from the cover of The Road Ahead.
- “Bill Gates Is the Most Interesting Man in the World,” by Timothy Egan, The New York Times, 22 May 2020.
- “The next outbreak: We are not ready,” March 2015 TED Talk by Bill Gates. Quotations in this story are from the transcript.
- The only statement Gates made that might seem specific to the pandemic was a mention that any future epidemic will be worse if we get “a virus where people feel well enough [to travel] while they’re infectious,” but this is akin to predicting that if you add 2 plus 2, you’ll get 4. He didn’t predict that the next epidemic would be like this; even less did he anticipate the particularly lethal characteristic of Covid-19: That you can be contagious while looking and feeling entirely normal.
- “Fact check: Did Bill Gates predict the coronavirus in 2015?” USAToday, 22 March 2020. Curiously, USAToday reports that “Gates’ talk focuses on a potential epidemic, not an outbreak on the scale of a pandemic,” and that “He does not specifically call out the coronavirus but alludes to a future pathogen, likely a virus.” Are they not saying that he did not predict the pandemic? Yet USAToday then inserts a extra word and concludes: “Based on our research, we determine the claim that Bill Gates nominally predicted the coronavirus pandemic – and the world’s ability to respond to it – to be TRUE.” It seems to me they are stretching hard to reach that conclusion.
- “Bill Gates: Trump has a chance to lead through innovation,” CNBC Squawk Box, 13 Dec. 2016.
- “One Vaccine Side Effect: Global Economic Inequality,” by Peter S. Goodman, The New York Times, 25 Dec. 2020
- “It’s Time to Trust China’s and Russia’s Vaccines,” by Achal Prabhala and Chee Yoke Ling, The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2021.
- “One Vaccine Side Effect,” cited above, notes that: “The leading initiative [to purchase vaccines], the Act-Accelerator Partnership — an undertaking of the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others — has secured less than $5 billion of a targeted $38 billion.
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