Scientific optimism!

Edge has this annual question, where they ask a lot of smart people something general and provocative, and collect the essays into a webpage. This year, the question is "What are you optimistic about? And why?"

There are a lot of answers, many of them very specific—people are optimistic about the new supercollider, or climate change, or something specific to their discipline—while others are so general that they don't say much (Humans will survive, somehow!). What I thought interesting, though, is that there was a bit of a trend to one particular kind of answer. Some of the people who answered in this particular way are:

In short, what all of these writers have in common is that they all believe people are going to WAKE UP. They're going to appreciate evidence and rational thinking and skepticism and generally, science more — they're going to develop more demanding standards for truth, and they're going to look at what people tell them more critically.

What a splendid hope! It's about time we had a new Enlightenment.

I'm not quite so optimistic about the possibility of it actually happening, but I can join in the wishful thinking — yes, these would all be grand changes to see occur. Let's all work towards making it happen.

More like this

I don't think it is going to happen.

You in the USA, especially, should be making preparations to flee, should "Gilead" result, probably at the 2016 election

By G. Tingey (not verified) on 02 Jan 2007 #permalink

Yes, that would be nice.

These writers should probably be put in touch with a travel agent some time soon. The transition towards reason they envision is is a geographical one!

We are a nation of traditional morals and ethics in a rapidly modernizing world. Get on a plane and fly pretty much in any direction and it is not only the time zone that changes. A randomly selected flight will probably move you into the 21st century.


I think it will happen. I'm just not sure it will happen in my lifetime, at least not to any appreciable level. However, barring a man-made or natural disaster that wipes us off the planet, I think we will continue to lurch back and forth but always with a net positive increase towards rationalism. It's a long, slow, staggering approach but I think we are getting there in the long run.

I expect we're going to see more rationality and sane approaches to the world - it's just we're going to have to cope with the inevitable backlash against it. I am taking a cautiously optimistic approach.

When I first read the words "science more" I thought you were using science as a verb. Though I realize I was in error, maybe that's what we need - Science as a verb. "I'm going to go SCIENCE now!"

By DragonScholar (not verified) on 02 Jan 2007 #permalink

I think the spectacle of the US government doing everything it can, of late, to discredit science has awakened the rest of the world to its folly. So one might imagine that, if for no other reason than self-preservation, the day will come when the US will see itself disappearing behind the rest of the world and come to its collective senses. So yeah: I think it conceivable that things will get bad enough around here that the pendulum will eventually swing. And in a weird way, the anti-scientific leanings of the right will have been the catalyst. Or so one might hope.

I'm not terribly optimistic about it either, but on the other hand I have an obstinate tendency to think one might as well keep working to (try to) make it happen, all the same.

This isn't a random group of people, or even a random group of smart people, so I'm not sure we can conclude anything about the world (only about the selection process) from their convergent opinions. If their arguments make sense, fine. One suggested that we must be making progress because nobody chooses to go "back in time" by moving to the Amazon, Amish communities, etc. Those places aren't what they once were, but argument may be valid anyway. I remember seeing the same point somewhere else. Would you choose to go back to some time in the past, if you had to give up all our modern advances (antibiotics, email) to escape from modern problems (overpopulation, email)? If not, we must be making progress.

I think it's more of a "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" happening again. Followed by another thousand years of superstitious dark ages.

But we mustn't live thinking that'll happen. Also, the people of China at least learned their lesson from 19th century imperialism. Textbooks there still blame their ignorance of science for their defeat and subsequent abuse from the colonists. So at least someone in the world might carry on the spirit of science and secularism.

I think that there is cause for optimism. Those who talk about a backlash against science and rationality by religion seem to forget that such has already happened several times. In American during the late 19th. century, there was a huge religious "revivalist" movement that was spawned by reaction to the civil war. This was followed by what some historians (including Susan Jacoby in her magnificent opus, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) often call the "golden age of freethought". It was the era that gave us the time when Robert Green Ingersoll and Thomas Edison and many others could openly say things about religion and superstition that people wouldn't have dreamed about just a little earlier.

The pendulum swings back and forth. I don't think that it is possible for society to abandon science and technology at this point. All that has happened since the Enlightenment has been brief periods of ubiquitous wooery.

For those who are interested, I've also commented on a couple of Edge question-center responses on my blog here.

Actually, I was impressed by Steven Pinker's essay about the relative decline in violence.

In the aftermath of twentieth century history, one could be forgiven for thinking the exact opposite. Yet Pinker makes a good case for thinking that there is indeed a long-term trend away from gross and casual violence as an acceptable form of political discourse. He makes no easy explanations for why this is happening, but wouldn't it be nice if we could bottle it?

By Tony Jackson (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink