Monday, August 7, 2017

The New Optimists

It must be something in the water. Last week, I opined at some length about the new prophets who are telling us that we have never had it so good and that life on this sorry excuse for a planet will continue to get better.

In all truthiness, I had not read very many of the learned tomes on this topic, but I did read an excellent article in the Weekly Standard. Today, I am happy to address the same issue through an equally excellent article from the Guardian. This one was written by Oliver Burkeman.

Pondering the reason behind the advent of a group that some have called The New Optimists, I lit on this thought. You might recall that psychologist Martin Seligman wrote a book called, Learned Optimism. In it he offered that learned optimism was the best way to treat depression, which he called: learned helplessness.

In truth, and to be fair, no one really treats depression by telling people to put on a pair of rose colored glasses. The brilliance of the learned optimism theory—first developed by Aaron Beck—lay in its recommendation that people balance their thoughts. If you are prey to self-deprecating thoughts, the cognitive psychologists said, you need to find evidence that affirms or refutes them. Treatment lay in balance, not in wild-eyed optimism.

So, the impetus behind the New Optimists seems to be therapeutic. They want us to see that the world is getting better and that we should overcome our despair over the fact that in some measure it's not. But, they also seem to want us to overcome our tendency to balance the good with the bad, the optimism with the pessimism.

As for Burkeman’s analysis of the movement, he begins thusly:

The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”…. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah – but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us.

The New Optimists pretend to be doing science. They are in fact doing a mix of therapy and prophecy. Be that as it may, they pretend that their theories derive from empirical data. And yet, they ignore the simple psychological observation that confirmation bias often causes true believers to select out the fact that prove them right while ignoring those that prove them wrong.

Burkeman explains:

The New Optimists invite us to forget our partisan biases and tribal loyalties; to dispense with our cherished theories about what is wrong with the world and what should be done about it, and breathe, instead, the refreshing air of objective fact. The data doesn’t lie. Just look at the numbers!

But numbers, it turns out, can be as political as anything else.

Burkeman argues, quite rightly, for perspective:

People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher. The average European or American enjoys luxuries medieval potentates literally couldn’t have imagined. The essential finding of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a key reference text for the New Optimists, seems also to have been largely accepted: that we are living in history’s most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds – from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying – in steep decline.

He adds this:

Nestled inside that essentially indisputable claim, there are several more controversial implications. For example: that since things have so clearly been improving, we have good reason to assume they will continue to improve. And further – though this is a claim only sometimes made explicit in the work of the New Optimists – that whatever we’ve been doing these past decades, it’s clearly working, and so the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here are the ones we ought to stick with. Optimism, after all, means more than just believing that things aren’t as bad as you imagined: it means having justified confidence that they will be getting even better soon.

But, he notes, the New Optimists also believe that the arc of progress must continue in one direction. They say that because things have been getting better they will continue to get better. Explain that to the stock market, if you like, but predictions of this sort are prophecy. They are not science.

Burkeman writes:

… even if it’s true that everything really is so much better than ever, why assume things will continue to improve? Improvements in sanitation and life expectancy can’t prevent rising sea levels destroying your country. And it’s dangerous, more generally, to predict future results by past performance: view things on a sufficiently long timescale, and it becomes impossible to tell whether the progress the New Optimists celebrate is evidence of history’s steady upward trajectory, or just a blip.

He adds a point that I made myself:

Steven Pinker may be absolutely correct that fewer and fewer people are resorting to violence to settle their disagreements, but (as he would concede) it only takes a single angry narcissist in possession of the nuclear codes to spark a global disaster. Digital technology has unquestionably helped fuel a worldwide surge in economic growth, but if cyberterrorists use it to bring down the planet’s financial infrastructure next month, that growth might rather swiftly become moot….

When you live in a world where everything seems to be getting better, yet it could all collapse tomorrow, “it’s perfectly rational to be freaked out.”

Finally, Burkeman introduces the “so what” argument. It’s one thing to consider life on the planet. It’s one thing, he adds to limit your perspective to the last two hundred years. But, we judge our own happiness in terms of our own situation, not on how many people are living in extreme poverty in China.

Burkeman concludes:

The argument that we should be feeling happier than we are because life on the planet as a whole is getting better, on average, also misunderstands a fundamental truth about how happiness works: our judgments of the world result from making specific comparisons that feel relevant to us, not on adopting what David Runciman refers to as “the view from outer space”. If people in your small American town are far less economically secure than they were in living memory, or if you’re a young British person facing the prospect that you might never own a home, it’s not particularly consoling to be told that more and more Chinese people are entering the middle classes….

And I would say, ‘Yes, but this isn’t the whole world! Are you not even a little bit cheered by the fact that really poor Africans are getting a bit less poor?’” There is a sense in which this is a fair point. But there’s another sense in which it’s a completely irrelevant one.


Richard Quigley said...

trigger warning said...

Americans who have not experienced the incomparable pleasures of wilderness camping using minimal equipment cannot know the visceral gratitude we should all feel when we turn on an electric light.

The link below analyzes the cost of light over the centuries. "The people of Babylon, in 1750 B.C., who used sesame oil to light the lamps, had to work for 400 hours to produce [a mere 100 Watt-hours] of light."

Light was a perquisite of kings.

James said...

"collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives" That in itself is self explanatory, but I will ignore it for the moment. What escapes these people is that humans are of a minimum of 2 parts. The physical and the spiritual, soul, anima or what ever title you prefer. You can put the body in whatever environment you want, clothe as you like, and give it riches beyond measure and it can be miserable. Satisfy the spiritual side and oddly enough none of the physical matters one whit. I'm not saying a single thing original, people have been shouting this from the roof tops for millennia.

Ares Olympus said...

I'd be proud to be a new optimist, if only I believed exponentially increasing collective debt at all levels solves all problems forever.

Without that faith, it looks to me that that boomer retirement is going to be our final bust. It was a good ride while it lasted.

James is right that wealth and material abundance isn't everything. And real wealth comes more from learning how to live below your means, and avoiding becoming enslaved by our possessions.