What’s deadlier: HIV or Smallpox?

The annals of history are strewn with smallpox-infested corpses. The idealist thinks, “Ah, the past. What a barbaric era!” The cynic thinks, “Open your eyes. We have traded smallpox for the horrors of HIV/AIDs.”

To which we respond, as always, show me the numbers: smallpox killed an estimated one-third to one-half a billion people, while AIDs has killed 30 million people, a tenth as many. Terrible-future proponents would be better off scaring children with scenarios where tobacco use doesn’t peak and fall off in the developing world (India, China, and others) like it has in the USA, in which case we could see staggering death tolls, with one WHO report projecting as many as a billion tobacco-related deaths by the end of the century.

Further Reading

  • If you find this kind of reasoning compelling, you’ll probably enjoy Peter Singer’s talk here.
  • If you actually want to do something about it, check out GiveWell.
  • In the vein of preventing a terrible future, Nick Bostrom has a neat paper here.

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