Arnold Kling  

Optimistic Prognoses

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Edge has a whole bunch of them. Jonathan Haidt says,


The Baby Boomers Will Soon Retire

I am optimistic about the future of social science research because the influence of the baby boom generation on the culture and agenda of the social sciences will soon decrease.

...I have no particular fondness for conservatives. But I do have a need for them. I study morality, and I have found that conservative ideas (about authority, respect, order, loyalty, purity, and sanctity) illuminate vast territories of moral psychology, territories that have hardly been noticed by psychologists who define morality as consisting exclusively of matters of harm, rights, and justice. If social psychology had been a morally diverse field, we would have done a much better job of studying the full expanse of human morality, and we'd be in a much better position right now to understand the morality of radical Islam.

Will younger social scientists be more morally diverse than the baby boom generation? Maybe not. But if they make it through their sensitive periods without seeing themselves as part of a revolution, they just might be more open to diverse ideas about the origins of mind, the scope of morals, and the workings of society.


While Haidt is eager for the Baby Boomers to cede the stage, many Boomers themselves are optimistic that, as one puts it, "ninety will be the new sixty." And many of them seem fixated on Global Warming, perhaps their last chance to engage in a great moral crusade.

Here are some other quotes culled from the optimistic prognoses:

[Chris Anderson of TED] Certain types of news — for example dramatic disasters and terrorist actions — are massively over-reported, others — such as scientific progress and meaningful statistical surveys of the state of the world — massively under-reported.

Although this leads to major problems such as distortion of rational public policy and a perpetual gnawing fear of apocalypse, it is also reason to be optimistic. Once you realize you're being inadvertently brainwashed to believe things are worse than they are, you can... with a little courage... step out into the sunshine.

[Alun Anderson] The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else.

...Here are just three of my favourites out of scores of great ideas. First, reprogramming the genetic make-up of simple organisms so that they directly produce useable fuels (hydrogen, for example). That will be much more efficient than today's fashionable new bioethanol programs because they will cut out all the energy wasted in growing a crop, then harvesting it and then converting its sugars into fuel. Second, self-organizing polymer solar cells. Silicon solar cells may be robust and efficient but they are inevitably small and need a lot of energy to make. Self-organizing polymer cells could be ink jetted onto plastics by the hectare, creating dirt cheap solar cells the size of advertising hoardings. Third, there's artificial photosynthesis. Nature uses a different trick from silicon solar cells to capture light energy, whipping away high-energy electrons from photo-pigments into a separate system in a few thousand millionths of a second. We are getting much closer to understanding how it's done, and even how to use the same principles in totally different nano-materials.

[Keith Devlin] the ubiquitous computing device that will soon be in every home on the planet is the mobile phone. Despite the obvious limitations of a small screen and minimal input capability, with well-crafted instructional materials it will provide the developing world with accessible education in the basic numerical and quantitative reasoning skills that will enable them to escape from the poverty trap by becoming economically self-sufficient.

...the persistent, immersive, three-dimensional virtual worlds developed by the gaming industry make it possible to provide basic mathematical education in a form that practically everyone can benefit from.

[John Gottman] Peggy Sanday's study of 186 hunter-gatherer cultures found that when men are involved in the care of their own infants the cultures do not make war. This greater involvement of men with their babies may eventually contribute to a more peaceful world. That thought makes me optimistic.

[Stephen M. Kosslyn] I am optimistic that human intelligence can be increased, and can be increased dramatically in the near future.

...training involves having people perform tasks that are designed to exercise very specific abilities, which grow out of distinct neural networks. Just as a body builder can do curls to build up biceps and dips on parallel bars to build up triceps, we can design computer-game-like tasks that exercise specific parts of the brain—mental muscles, if you will.

[Roger C. Schank] Today print media is being challenged by on line material, but it is still prestigious to publish a book and newspapers still exist. More importantly, schools still exist. But they are all going away soon. There is no need to buy knowledge when it available for free, as newspapers are learning. When everyone has a blog and a website, the question will be whose information is reliable and how to find it. No one will pay a dime. Knowledge will cease to be a commodity.

...Religions have operated on this principle of knowing what is in the sacred scrolls for a very long time. Schools have acted similarly. Soon no one will be able to claim they know what is true because people will be able to create debates for themselves.

[Peter Schwartz, one of several who voice optimism about aging] ninety really will be the new sixty and there is a good chance that I will be among the vigorous new centenarians of mid century, with most of my faculties working fairly well. Vision, hearing, memory, cognition, bone and muscle strength, skin tone, hair and of course sexual vigor will all be remediable in the near future. Alzheimer's may be curable and most cancers are likely to be treatable if not curable...within a few decades we are likely to be able to slow aging itself, which could even lead to life beyond 120.

[John Horgan, one of several who point out a downward trend in organized violence and an upward trend in moral progress] Three years have passed since the last international war. (Israel's incursion into Lebanon last summer doesn't count, because the Lebanese army did not fight. ) This is "the longest episode of interstate peace in more than half a century," the scholars Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart point out in their recent essay "Welcome to World Peace. " Although they are dominating the headlines, civil wars have also declined since peaking in the early 1990s. We are dealing now with guerilla wars, insurgencies, terrorism—or what the political scientist John Mueller calls the "remnants of war. "

[Lisa Randall] people will increasingly value truth (over truthiness). After recent digressions into beliefs and images dominating current thought, I'm anticipating that society will increasingly recognize and understand the value of knowledge. People will want to make their own critical judgments, know more facts, and stop deferring to questionable authorities or visual media for their education. I don't necessarily think everyone will do so. But I'm optimistic that the ones who do won't remain a silent minority.

[William Calvin, among many who make global warming a priority] I think it likely that the leaders of the major religious groups will soon come to see climate change as a serious failure of stewardship. And once they see our present fossil fuel use as a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations, their arguments will trump the talk-endlessly-to-buy-time business objections

[Neil Gershenfeld] it's ironic that religion has had its Reformation but that the role of a research university would be recognizable to a medieval monk. The future that I'm optimistic about is one in which the creation as well as consumption of scientific knowledge is potentially accessible to anyone.

[Clay Shirky] 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?

...We will learn more about the human condition in the next two decades years than we did in the last two millennia, and we will then begin to apply what we learn, everywhere. Evidence-based treaties. Evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based industrial design. Evidence-based parenting.

[Nicholas Humphrey] If I had lived in the year 1007, and had been asked what I looked forward to for my descendants in the next millennium, I might have imagined many wonderful possibilities. But I would not — because I could not — have imagined the music of Mozart, the painting of Rothko, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the novels of Dostoyevsky

[Esther Dyson] Many of the venture capitalists I know are turning to environmental and energy investments; the more adventurous ones are looking at health care (not just drugs), low-end PCs, products for the masses. They are funding training schools in India — for-profit — rather than just donating to legacy universities in the US.

[Alex Pentland] Ten years ago, half of humanity had never made a phone call and only 20% of humanity had regular access to communications. Today 70% of humanity can place a telephone call or, more likely, send an SMS message

[Oliver Morton] New materials and new material-processing techniques should allow the cost of installed photovoltaic capacity to be halved in the next few years, and there is room for considerable further improvement after that: while wind power, nuclear power and dams are not going to become radically cheaper to install, solar power capacity is.


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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences



COMMENTS (2 to date)
Scott Carpenter writes:

Thanks for the pointer, Arnold. Great stuff. I ran across a quote from Marvin Minsky where he quotes Ben Franklin, who wanted to be put on ice and revived in a hundred years to see what had become of America. I've often thought about this, how I want to see where things are in 100, 500, or a thousand years. It's a great story and we only get to experience such a tiny fraction of it. Unless we keep going around and around, and in a former life I had the same desire which has now been fulfilled...

aaron writes:

As baby boomers look forward to the day that 90 is the new 60, I look forward to the day that I'm nastalgic for being 11 and jerking-off to scrambled cable porn, so that I too can get excited about global warming.

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