Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The trouble with Pollyannaism

The NYTimes brings us word of a well-intended balm for our fears of the future, “The Rational Optimist,” by Matt Ridley.

The gist of Ridley's argument is that naysayers have been wrong in the past, that humans are endlessly adaptable, and we can look forward to a century in which:

Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.

Dr. Ridley, a former editor of the Economist (the only newsweekly in the English language worth the paper it's printed on) is no idiot, nor is the idea that things are going to get better an idiotic one. Hence, consideration of his thesis is a little OT for this blog, but we aren't going to let that stop us, especially as Mr. Ridley's thesis is a favorite canard of the most dangerous and savvy deniers, those that have given up attack the science of global warming and instead dedicate themselves to attacking the case for action. The endless adaptivity of humans figures prominently in this set of crackpot ideas.

While acknowledging the challenges posed by "politics, wars, plagues or climate change," Ridley proposes what is essentially one meta-argument -- one comeback to rule them all, as it were. And this is that people have always predicted the fall of civilization in the past, and have always been wrong: instead, things have gotten better and better. From the review:

The first school despairs because it foresees inevitable ruin. The second school is hopeful — but only because these intellectuals foresee ruin, too, and can hardly wait for the decadent modern world to be replaced by one more to their liking. Every now and then, someone comes along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list. . . .

Dr. Ridley argues that, as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses.

Arguing that the future is going to resemble the past is the cornerstone of rational thought. There's many a slip bitwixt the cup and the lip, however, and Ridley's thesis falls afoul of most of them.

The first problem is the straw man fallacy -- the idea that the discourse is monopolized by doomsayers who are always wrong. In fact, Utopian predictions are just as ubiquitous as catastrophic ones, and equally unreliable. Contrary to the reviewer's assertion, you most certainly can get on the bestseller list with predictions that the Dow will soon be at 30,000, or that we are on the verge of curing cancer, or that America will be the benign despot of the world for decades to come. Here in 2010 we have no flying cars, no sentient computers, and only an anemic little space station hardly worthy of the name. None of those predictions have come true in the past either. So rather than an unblemished record of failure by the opposing side, a more realistic picture of the history of populist prediction is that bold predictions get you on the bestseller list -- especially when they echo the zeitgeist, optimistic or pessimistic as the case may be.

It's also part of the straw man error to treat people who warn of disaster as generic prophets of doom. There are such people, as we have discussed on this blog before, who are unhappy with Western civilization and enjoy prophesying its demise. Yet the recognition of severe problems and the tireless campaigning for their redress are, just as much as the exchange of technology and resources which Ridley praises, a part of the power and resilience of open societies. It was doomsayers that ended slavery, that struggled unsuccessfully to avert the Holocaust, that pushed governments to act on acid rain.

If you are diving in a car, and your passenger screams at you to hit the brakes, it would be better not to turn to them and explain that you've never had a serious accident. And you probably would know better, anyway: part of staying out of accidents is slamming on the brakes when you need to. If you want to believe things will all come right in the end, more power to you. But for that to happen we as a society must listen to specific warnings of problems ahead and not lump them in with professional peddlers of gloom.

And bad things may come, despite Ridley's argument that in the past things have gotten better and better for our society. In fact, Ridley's reassurance is no reassurance at all, really. Consider some of the things that fall under Ridley's heading of constant progress. The Great Depression. World War II with its 50 million dead. The Black Plague, which killed a third of the population of Europe. Did society come back from those things? Yes, eventually. Does that mean we want to march straight into the jaws of comparable disasters, secure in the (supposed) knowledge that all will come right in the end? No, we do not. Many things that do not end our civilization are nevertheless better avoided, if one can.

We cannot even be assured on the narrow point that our civilization will not collapse, despite Ridley's assurances that it has survived every challenge to date. Bright man that he no doubt is, he has formulated a classic friendly dolphin paradox:

There are many anecdotal reports of dolphins finding sailors in the water and nudging them towards land and safety. Can we conclude that dolphins are friendly because they saved those sailors?

Give it a second, if you haven't been exposed to this thought experiment before, then read on:

No. Suppose the dolphins are merely playful, and pushing sailors in random directions. Those that randomly find land praise the dolphins' helpfulness. The others drown and are never heard from again.

In medicine this is called a reporting bias, and it decapitates any conclusions you might want to draw from the data. Here, it defeats Ridley. He argues All past predictions of the collapse of our civilization have been wrong. But of course they MUST be wrong, or there would be no civilization and Ridley would not be writing his book. To have a valid sample, Ridley needs to look at the predictions of societies that have collapsed: to see if the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenlanders did or did not predict the collapse of their civilizations before it happened.

It's a tall order, but there's no escape from it: we can't conclude anything from the non-collapse of a civilization that could not be collapsed, or the argument would not exist. A favorite novelist of mine once set a scene between a young man driving aggressively and carelessly and a matronly women who told him to shape up. "Don't worry!" the young man says, "I've never had a serious accident!"

"You won't have but one," the women replied.

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