On optimism

My good buddy Jeremy Tolbert has a searching and honest post about optimism, both within the context of science fiction storytelling and the wider context of the world itself:

… I used to believe in the power of sci­ence to make the world bet­ter.  And I’ve spent my entire life watch­ing peo­ple in power reduce the public’s opin­ion of sci­ence to the point where more peo­ple in the U.S. ques­tion evo­lu­tion than believe in it, which to me is basi­cally on par with dis­be­liev­ing grav­ity. The wealthy have attacked the public’s faith in sci­ence because it would have cost them money for us to believe that the planet’s cli­mate is being changed by their indus­tries.  An entire polit­i­cal arm of this coun­try dis­trusts the notion of experts.  The only sci­ence they care about is that which allows them to wring more money from the world.


Where’s my opti­mism?  Where’s my abil­ity to write sci­ence fic­tion like “The Kansas Jayhawk vs. The Midwest Monster Squad?”  Where did I leave it?  And would it be delu­sional of me to even try and adopt it again?  That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re a pes­simist and your pes­simism doesn’t come true, you get to be happy along with the opti­mists.  But if you’re an opti­mist whose pre­dic­tions prove false, then there’s lit­tle to be happy about.  The pes­simist at least gets the grim sat­is­fac­tion of being right. Even if they’re no hap­pier about the out­come than the optimist.

Jeremy mentions a video (clipped from a rather good documentary on stats from the BBC which I watched late last year) which was linked to in the comments thread of another post by Mike Brotherton; it covers (in a flamboyant data visualisation style) the sort of points I try to make a point of repeating to myself like a mantra on a regular basis: yes, on a day-to-day level, life seems pretty tough and the world looks to be high-tailing it to hell in the proverbial handbasket, but when you look at the aggregate experience of the human species over a comparatively short span of time, things have consistently improved, and show every sign of continuing to do so (paradigm-breaking Outside Context Problems or existential risk events notwithstanding). Indeed, sometimes I think our capacity to worry about the future is the strongest indicator that the here-and-now isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could be.

[ To pre-empt the rejoinder that life hasn’t improved for everyone to the same degree, and that there are still places that progress – however defined – has yet to make much of a showing, and that we in the Anglophone West have by far the best deal of them all: this I understand, and I’m not trying to downplay the suffering of others. On the contrary, I’m trying to show why we should push forwards with hope and aspirations of a better life for everyone. ]

These things are observable, measurable. Why, then, as Jeremy asks, is it such a struggle to be optimistic? Is it as difficult for everyone? (As shocking as regular readers may find it, my peacenik globalist optimism is something I have to work at rather hard, and sits very much at odds with a lengthy history of depression; I know other people who seem to just bubble over with optimism, but I have no idea what effort – if any – they expend to achieve such a state.)

And the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that optimism isn’t just hard work, it’s scary: it invites disillusionment, it openly courts the up-ending and down-throwing of one’s conceptions of the world. To maintain optimism, one must keep picking oneself up after the arrival of a disappointment, rebuild a new theory of the world, adjust and amend it as new data comes to light. By comparison, pessimism is easy: sit back, shake your head stoically as you predict bad things to come, and then just open a newspaper or web-browser and pick out the evidence to prove you were right. People are a lot like electricity, in that we tend to follow the path of least resistance. Pessimism has a nice fat copper cable strapped straight to the psychological earth-point; the gratification of being proved right, gained with minimum emotional expenditure.

As a result of that, pessimism seems to be the more popular stance, at least at present; it therefore follows that optimism is unfashionable, not to mention easily undermined by pointing to all the short-term badness in the world. Hence optimism becomes harder still to maintain: you’re flying in the face of popular opinion, and that’s rarely a fast route to popularity and choruses of agreement.

Furthermore, I think optimism contains a component of agency – a feeling that things can be changed, and changed for the better, by doing stuff. Pessimism is predominantly fatalist, as the responses to my post about the Giffords shooting demonstrate very clearly: thinking that we can change the tone of political discourse is naive and condescending! The corporations and politicos have got it all sewn up, and there’s nothing we can do but ride it out and hope the powers that be fix it so we come out a bit better than Those People Over There (whether Over There is the next neighbourhood along, North Korea, or any other strawman enemy-of-the-moment; doesn’t matter, really, so long as there’s some way to make it look like you deserve better than they do).

But just look at history: we have changed the tone of politics, many many times over, and we will do so again. And those who change it will be the ones who didn’t just sit back and sigh, imagining the inevitable dystopia just around the corner. This is not a partisan point, either: activism works. But it’s also work. I’m reminded of the apocryphal slogan of Generation X (the source of which escapes me): “Can’t win, so why try?” Maybe that’s why being optimistic is a struggle; perhaps it’s just generationally out of fashion.

Of course, this is all easily portrayed as conjecture and hypothesis on my part, mixed with a generous handful of self-justification… and maybe that’s what it is. Perhaps pessimism really is the more rationally valid and sustainable attitude: after all, the universe is a machine for creating entropy. But I’m going to struggle on being optimistic as best I can, regardless: for one thing, my mind needs the exercise.

And for another, I’ve never been one for following the herd. 🙂

9 thoughts on “On optimism”

  1. Shortly, there may very well be *much more* to say about optimism/pessimism & dystopia/utopia in a different venue, but I’m not yet at liberty to say.

    Stay tuned!

  2. Optimism is difficult for a generation who came to adolescence in the early 1980s, with high unemployment and the constant threat of nuclear armageddon. I remember crossing off the days on my 1983 calendar in case the bomb dropped, so that future archaeologists could find it and work out the exact date of the holocaust. I remember ‘Protect And Survive’ leaflets in the school library. As a youngster in my early teens, there seemed a real possibility that I’d have to face the end of the world instead of my O Levels.

  3. I like your thoughts about the importance of agency, Paul, but something about the world-modelling doesn’t ring quite right. Surely both optimists and pessimists cherry-pick evidence to support their worldview?

  4. Gareth: the Cold war paranoia was fading as I grew up, but it was still there. My parents let me watch Threads at an early age, which may have been an error on their part… certainly marked me for life.

    Justin: Oh, sure, everyone cherrypicks. My point is that evidence for progress is harder to find in the easily available channels; bad news sells newspapers. Looking for fuel for optimism is harder work… or it certainly feels so for me. 🙂

  5. Good article, but it does miss the opportunity to take a third option.

    In my opinion you can be a pessimist or an optimist which are generally considered diametrically opposed states, or you can be a realist which is a mixture of both stances. That means always hoping for the best, working at it, but accepting that most of your well-laid plans and good intentions (or indeed the similars of those around you) will most likely come to nothing. But continuing regardless.

    Ever heard the phrase “down, but not out”? Well, to me that’s a realist mantra that says you don’t need to be at one or the other bipolar extreme, that in a way both can exist concurrently. The old yin-yang theory, I suppose, that both exist and react/relate to each other, perhaps even within the same person.

  6. Don’t get me wrong. I suppose I’m an optimist, in that I think humanity will muddle through somehow; it’s just the Cold War upbringing left me with a fear of imminent personal jeopardy that’s hard to shake off.

  7. If pessimism requires action or change, it’s likely to be rejected just as firmly as optimism which demands action. It seems that a big part of the bias is an anti-action, or just plain laziness bias.

    Certain kinds of pessimism, criticism, and doubt require a good deal of emotional expenditure as well. If it’s worthwhile and balanced, it will allow for other plans. Otherwise, it will descend into fatalism, as you say.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with the attitude encapsualted in the phrase: “Can’t win, so why try?” However, this attitude must be coupled with the response “This is why we have to invent a new game.”
    In other words, I think its total folly to think you can make significant changes in the world playing along with the status quo. The only real way to change the world is by creating completely new ways of doing things.

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