Sam's Blog

Twenty-four hours is like three weeks!

Optimism

Posted by samgr on January 11, 2007

On the eve of the new year, the website edge.org invited over 100 scientists to contribute essays answering the question: “What are you optimistic about?” On January 3rd, NPR’s Radio Open Source aired a show on the subject, asking a few of the thinkers who contributed their essays to talk about their reasons for optimism. Here are some of my reactions to the show.

One of the guests was Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who argued that we can be grateful for the gradual decline of violence over human history. I found his argument convincing, although not necessarily as cheering as it might have been. When asked about the incredible levels of modern violence that we see in the news every day, Professor Pinker pointed out there was even more violence in past eras of history, just that people were less aware of it. Fair point, but that’s some awfully depressing optimism. I also noticed a parallel between the reasons that Professor Pinker suggests for the decline of violence, and the writings of modern philosopher Richard Rorty. In his essay, Professor Pinker suggests that the trend could be caused by the increasingly inescapable logic of the golden rule, and adds:

“Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that ‘there but for fortune go I.'”

Steven Pinker, The Decline of Violence, Edge.org

This sounds a lot like the expanding “circle of the we” that Rorty describes in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, where people become more aware of the feelings of others and more invested in preventing cruelty when they are exposed to descriptions of more and subtler kinds of cruelty, which can be found in novels and other types of literature.

Another guest was Chris DiBona, who works at Google, and predicts that the increasing availability of high definition online maps and images “will end conflict and ecological devastation as we know it.” The idea is that when we can all see all of the nasty instances of rapine and murder that are going on, we will work harder to stop them. I certainly hope this is the case, but Mr. DiBona didn’t really have much in the way of evidence to support his prediction, which was more noticable than it would have been otherwise, since his segment of the show followed another segment in which Clay Shirky talked about the increasing importance of evidence-based reasoning in human history. Oh well.

My favorite guest was Paul Steinhardt, who talked about some of the exciting technology-driven innovations in physics and cosmology that he expected to come about within the next five years. His optimism was very easy to get caught up in, since he offered up potential discoveries and answers to nagging questions that it was reasonable to assume might come in the near future. I want to know why we haven’t heard more about some of this stuff in the news, and I look forward to following some of the described projects in the next few years.

Finally, all of this reminded me of the best-written explanation of the fundamental optimism of scientific progress that I’ve ever read — the short story “No News, or What Killed the Dog,” by Ray Bradbury, who is also known for his dystopias. Can’t find this on the internet, but everyone should try to read it if they have a chance.

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