26 December 2010

Optimism vs Pessimism: Which is More Rational?

Matt Ridley's latest book, "The Rational Optimist," highlights the deep vein of pessimism flowing through the modern human heart. The video above is from a May, 2010, presentation at Cato. More recently, David Boaz takes a brief look at The Rational Optimist, and how its main themes are viewed by various persons.

One of the most striking images from the video above is a graphic image comparing the areas of land required to support a single human under various regimes of food production. Hunter gatherers, for example, required about 1,000 hectares of land to feed each person. The use of slash and burn agriculture reduced that area to roughly 10 hectares of land per person. Agricultural methods of the 1950s reduced the area further to about 4,000 sq metres (0.4 ha) per person. Modern agriculture of the 2000s needs only 1250 sq metres to feed each person. And so it goes.

Ridley also looks closely at the marvelous economies that are possible from both trade, and division of labour. It is clear that over the long run, the plight of most living persons on Earth has gotten "better." More quantity and variety of foods to eat, longer lives, better treatments for disease, etc.

But life does not proceed along a monotonic curve. No doubt life was getting better in many ways in Pompei, just before Vesuvius uncorked itself. Not long before the eruption of Hitler's wehrmacht in Europe, there were many reasons for Europeans to believe that things were getting better, in recovering from economic devastation.

The point being that there are trends of varying duration. If you see that a short term trend appears to be aligned with a long-term trend, you may feel that you understand how things are going. But between the short and the long terms, the medium term trend can be a killer.

The actual texture of most trends is more like a fractal curve -- like the shoreline of Britain, rough and uneven at any scale of observation. Step back far enough and you can "fuzz out" most of the detail, leaving something like a simple trend. Zoom in closely enough at the right point and you may achieve the appearance of a simple trend -- perhaps in alignment with the long-term view, by chance.

We see this phenomenon of selective focus in various extrapolative dooms such as peak oil DOOM! and carbon hysteria DOOM!. Predictions of climate catastrophe depend upon the timescale selected, and selective omission of important details and uncertainties. Predictions of peak oil DOOM! depend upon timescale, ignorance of actual resource (see recent shock of shale oil bonanza) and a strict avoidance of the reality that the debate is not at its essence about oil, but is about useful energy.

Recent trends of debt and demography in Europe and the Anglosphere suggest that an economic retrenchment of very serious proportions is likely to occur within the next 1 or 2 decades. Such economic retrenchments have often been accompanied by wars, historically. I am not certain how to phrase an optimistic viewpoint of that reality.

But long-term trends in technology suggest that even cyclic problems which derive directly from innate human stupidity may be soluble within a century or two. Al Fin cognitive scientists and cognitive sociologists believe that correcting human stupidity itself would be a worthy goal.

It is important to maintain an open mind toward possible catastrophes, golden ages, and utopias. Many would-be utopians are not afraid to crack a large number of eggs to cook their golden omelettes. Likewise, many doomers are quite willing to be the instruments of the doom and dieoff which they so loudly predict.

Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

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Blogger kurt9 said...


Sunday, 26 December, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

The reason that modern humans tend to worry so much, is that our ancestors tended to worry. These ancestors survived long enough to pass those worry genes along.

"Letting go" can be an orgasmic experience, particularly for females. But also pleasant for males.

Tuesday, 28 December, 2010  
Blogger Silvertide said...

As far as personal finances go, I've been pessimistic on the economy for the past three years now, and my pessimism has brought me enormous profits in investing. (Shorting the dollar, going long on commodities) This comes at a time when most people (who were still optimistic about the economy) were losing half of their wealth in the housing crash and 401k crashes.

Being pessimistic certainly does have its rewards.

I'm going to continue being pessimistic as long as I'm being rewarded financially for it.

Sunday, 02 January, 2011  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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