Dangerous Optimism

I never got around to commenting on responses to the 2006 Edge Annual Question — “What Is Your Dangerous Idea?” — as most were uninteresting, not dangerous, or simply lame.

It must’ve been the question, as this year’s responses — to “What Are You Optimistic About? Why?” — make for good reading. I’ll excerpt a few that resonate with themes I go on about.

Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence:

Even the mass murders of the twentieth century in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union probably killed a smaller proportion of the population than a typical hunter-gatherer feud or biblical conquest. The world’s population has exploded, and wars and killings are scrutinized and documented, so we are more aware of violence, even when it may be statistically less extensive.

My optimism lies in the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, that is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate, and that we can identify those forces and perhaps concentrate and bottle them.

James O’Donnell says Scientific Discoveries Are Surprisingly Durable:

But the study of the past and its follies and failures reveals one surprising ground for optimism. In the long run, the idiots are overthrown or at least they die. On the other hand, creativity and achievement are unique, exciting, liberating—and abiding. The discoveries of scientists, the inventions of engineers, the advances in the civility of human behavior are surprisingly durable.

Clay Shirky on Evidence:

We will see a gradual spread of things like evidence-based politics and law — what is the evidence that this expenditure, or that proposed bill, will have the predicted result? The expectation that evidence can answer questions about the structure of society will discomfit every form of government that relies on sacrosanct beliefs. Theocracy and communism are different in many ways, but they share the same central bug — they are based on some set of assertions that must remain beyond question.

Jamshed Bharucha on The Globalization of Higher Education:

We are all better off when talent is realized to its fullest—even if it crosses borders.

I didn’t count, but I think the subject mentioned most often was climate change, with solar power as the thing most were optimistic about. My favorite take on climate change was Gregory Benford on Save The Arctic:

So: despair? Not at all. Certainly we should accept the possibility that anthropogenic carbon emissions could trigger a climactic tripping point, such as interruption of the gulf stream in the Atlantic. But rather than urging only an all out effort to shrink the human atmospheric-carbon footprint, my collaborators and I propose relatively low tech and low expense experiments at changing the climate on purpose instead of by mistake.

If we understand climate well enough to predict that global warming will be a problem, then we understand it well enough to address the problem by direct means.

There are also several good entries on health, life extension, and also networks-will-change-publishing — but my, isn’t the last relatively boring?

One last favorite, on human enhancement, Andy Clark on The End Of The ‘Natural’:

Second, the biological brain is itself populated by a vast number of hidden ‘zombie processes’ that underpin the skills and capacities upon which successful behavior depends. There are, for example, a plethora of such unconscious processes involved in activities from grasping an object all the way to the flashes of insight that characterize much daily skilful problem-solving. Technology and drug based enhancements add, to that standard mix, still more processes whose basic operating principles are not available for conscious inspection and control. The patient using a brain-computer interface to control a wheelchair will not typically know just how it all works, or be able to reconfigure the interface or software at will. But in this respect too, the new equipment is simply on a par with much of the old.

In sum, I am optimistic that we will soon see the end of those over-used, and mostly ad hoc, appeals to the ‘natural’. May we all have a thoroughly unnatural New Year.

A highly agreeable toast.

Many of the responses contain very rough predictions, reminding me of prediction registries, an idea Robin Hanson has said would obtain 80% of the benefits of prediction markets (I doubt the number is that high) and also promoted by David Brin. I think prediction markets and registries are almost entirely complementary.

I like Brin’s point that “One advantage of registries is that they can be involuntary.” A pundit can only avoid inclusion by effectively not making predictions (which may include being wishy-washy and imprecise). I conjecture that DiscourseDB (I mentioned previously) is a model of what a prediction registry would look like — just imagine cataloging “will” rather than “should” opinions, and add evaluation.

I’m surprised that none of the responses (I could have missed one) took the (unintended?) bait offered by combining the 2006 and 2007 questions: Is optimisim dangerous?

That depends on the subject of optimism. I think people tend to be dangerously optimisic about the outcomes of authoritarian processes, including both obvious societywide authoritarianism and conscious decisions made by individuals, but dangerously pessimistic about decentralized processes, including listening to external advice at the individual level.

Via Boing Boing, Marginal Revolution, or EconLog, all of which appeared in one batch of feed updates.

One Response

  1. […] of the benefits of prediction markets? Smart *** Mike Linksvayer (who has an opinion on anything) doubts that the number is that high. (How does he know??? How dare of him to contredict Robin Hanson, the master of the Universe???) […]

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