Data-driven optimism

Post title - LIONblog

Figure: Matte Ridley during TEDGlobal 2010, July 2010 in Oxford, England. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Bad news are way more popular than good news. They sell more newspapers, they get more attention, they spread faster as cultural memes. While reading the book "The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves" by British journalist Matt Ridley, I could not help but thinking about the countless predictions of doom I encountered in my life.

As an example, for people of my age, "acid rain" was a big issue in the public opinion and, of course, at school. What could be better to show the evil nature of man against nature?

Citing from the book: In 1984, acid rain was the environmental scare of the day. As the science correspondent of The Economist, Matt wrote: `Forests are beginning to die at a catastrophic rate. One year ago, West Germany estimated that 8% of its trees were in trouble. Now 34% are...that forests are in trouble is now indisputable.' Experts told all Germany's conifers would be gone by 1990 and the Federal Ministry of the Interior predicted all forests would be gone by 2002.

Bunk. Acid rain (though a real phenomenon) did not kill forests. It did not even damage them. Scientists eventually admitted that forests thrived in Germany, Scandinavia and North America during the 1980s and 1990s, despite acid rain. The conventional wisdom fed by those with vested interests in alarm was 100% wrong.

I am happy to recommend this book to people interested in supporting discussions and decisions with measured data. Wrong predictions of doom are not only a cultural problem and a waste of time, but they can lead to sub-optimal decisions with huge costs for the community.
A take-home homework for the reader: Which are the most popular predictions of doom in 2014? How many of them will be demonstrated to be wrong by 2024?

According to the author, "The Rational Optimist" is a counterblast to the prevailing pessimism of our age, and proves, however much we like to think to the contrary, that things are getting better. Over 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion, 99 per cent of whom are better fed, better sheltered, better entertained and better protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout. Yet, bizarrely, however much things improve from the way they were before, people still cling to the belief that the future will be nothing but disastrous. In this original, optimistic book, Matt Ridley puts forward his surprisingly simple answer to how humans progress, arguing that we progress when we trade and we only really trade productively when we trust each other.

My personal gist to take home: do not be afraid of being a data-driven optimist. In most cases from the past it is the pessimists who should feel ashamed about how they misinterpreted the data.

  • BOOK: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
    Published: May 2010.
  • Biography of Matt Ridley (source: wikipedia)
    Ridley is best known for his writings on science, the environment, and economics. He has written several science books including The Red Queen (1994), Genome (1999) and The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010). In 2011, he won the Hayek Prize, which "honors the book published within the past two years that best reflects Hayek’s vision of economic and individual liberty." Matt Ridley's books have been shortlisted for six literary awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His most recent book, The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture, won the award for the best science book published in 2003 from the National Academies of Science.