Just about every way you can measure, the world is a better place today than it was before. Life expectancy is up, poverty down, even most environmental indicators aside from greenhouse gases have improved.
Yet this is never the story. The story is always how the world, despite the nearly consistent progress over the last millennia, will deteriorate in our lifetimes.
Why Is Pessimism Fashionable?
My hypothesis is that pessimism is the safe, easy stance for most beliefs. If you are optimistic, and wrong, you’re a fool. If you foresee doom that never occurs, nobody bothers to correct your errors.
It’s easier to see why pessimism is fashionable, if you think in terms of game theory. The pessimist, if wrong, suffers little public humiliation. He may even be praised for alerting society to possible danger. The optimist is a fool when wrong and receives little praise for correct predictions.
Given these uneven outcomes, it benefits people to appear overly pessimistic. After all, better to seem overly cautious than to be later made a fool.
The Danger in Pessimism
The problem is that pessimism isn’t without costs. Being overly cautious about some risks exposes us to other dangers. This was the case in Africa, where hysteria over GMO foods resulted in more people starving.
The safest thinking is the most rational thinking. Optimism can be dangerous, but so can pessimism—in causing us to choose “safe” options, which cause more problems than uncertain choices.
Riskless, Cynical Attitude
There’s a parallel between pessimism, believing bad things will happen, and cynicism, or general distrust and jadedness. Once again, there’s a lop-sided risk to the publicly stating your beliefs.
Being enthusiastic about a goal or project is risky. If your goal fails, or your hopes dashed, you are naïve and foolish. Before I started this venture, I tried making a computer game (and failed) in high-school. People around me still like to joke about how precocious and naïve that was.
But whether I had the skills or ability to become a computer games developer is beside the point. This business required 5 years of unsupported enthusiasm before it became successful. The same cynics don’t take back their original skepticism, they just pretend they knew it would have worked all along.
Shut Up and Do The Math
The solution isn’t to always be optimistic and never look for the possible downside. Just because you can believe it, doesn’t mean you can achieve it and phony systems like the Law of Attraction are completely divorced from reality.
Unwarranted enthusiasm and optimism have dangers. But so do pessimism and cynicism. The ideal is to be rational about the future, not to be knowingly biased in one direction.
I can already imagine the objections. “Knowledge is impossible!” you say, “we can never escape bias or make accurate decisions.” This is complete garbage. Yes, perfect rationality is impossible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a realistic assessment.
Let’s say you’re starting a new business venture. You could follow societal cynicism and say that 80% of businesses fail. Or you could follow self-help charlatan’s optimism and believe that faith and persistence alone will make you a success.
OR—you could do some research. You could figure out what the path to success typically requires. You could calculate what the start-up costs would be, and see if there is any way you can make small calculated experiments to gain more knowledge of future success. At the very least, you could determine the worst-case scenarios in both decisions and try to minimize potential future regret.
Yes—the future is unknowable. No—predictions will never account for all uncertainties. But this doesn’t mean that cynicism is the default rational choice, simply because you’ll never look foolish.
The Guts to Be Optimistic
Sometimes the math does make cynicism the best guess. I think people getting mortgages they can barely afford for investment properties are idiots. The math doesn’t support their enthusiasm.
But in other cases, the math makes enthusiasm a better choice. When I first started this business, the chance of success was probably low. However the worst case wasn’t bad at all. At the very least, I’d learn something and maybe become a better writer. In the best case, I have a career as a writer. Even if success is unlikely, that’s a gamble I’d like to take.
If your goal is to never look foolish or naïve, cynicism is a good strategy. If you’d rather have an awesome life, shut up, do the math, and ignore the dire prognostications and hype of people around you.