The future's so bright, we gotta wear shades

When Alexander Pope said, 'hope springs eternal in the human breast', he followed it with:

Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Unfortunately, most people never get past the first line. If they did, they would understand that Pope's message in this case was not exactly one of optimism, unless an optimist is someone who wins every argument with "hey, at least there's heaven!"

Now, I have no idea how many of the world's intellectual elite count themselves among the 70 odd million Americans who expect Jesus to make an appearance sometime in 2007, but if the blinkered view of humanity's future held by the members of the 'Edge Foundation Inc.' ("established in 1988, membership includes of some of the most interesting minds in the world") are anything to go by, one way or another, we are all in deep shit.
Edge Foundation 10th Anniversary Edition

Editor's Note:

Edge began the last week in December, 1996 as an email to about fifty people. In 2006, Edge, which celebrates "the third culture", had more than five million individual user sessions.

To celebrate our 10th anniversary we are pleased to present the 2007 Edge Annual Question[...]

What Are You Optimistic About? Why?

As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.

What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise us!
Optimism on Edge -- Stupid or Cointelpro?

I confess to being an optimistic kind of guy. I mean, if one is a thinking person these days and not fundamentally optimistic, then you've probably already jumped off a bridge.

Being optimistic, however, is one thing. Being stupid is another. And none of these 160 people gathered in The Edge 10th Anniversary Edition could ever, even remotely, be suspected of being stupid, not even on a bad day. And yet?...
Got Optimism?

The World's Leading Thinkers See Good News Ahead

While conventional wisdom tells us that things are bad and getting worse, scientists and the science-minded among us see good news in the coming years. That's the bottom line of an outburst of high-powered optimism gathered from the world-class scientists and thinkers who frequent the pages of Edge, in an ongoing conversation among third culture thinkers (i.e., those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.) [...]

The 160 responses to this year's Edge Question span topics such as string theory, intelligence, population growth, cancer, climate and much much more. Contributing their optimistic visions are a who's who of interesting and important world-class thinkers.
Note the Argument from authority: Big Brother's Modern Priesthood, The Scientists, All Say It's Goin' to Get Better!

Shades of Candide!

Member of Edge Foundation Inc.
and optimist, Bill Gates

As an optimist, I'm constitutionally inclined to let people be happy these days in spite of all the evidence against the inappropriateness of such behavior. After all, it is a free-will universe. It's like falling in love - if it happens, it happens - even as the burning buildings come crashing down around you in 1940 Blitz-London, and then you rush off to jump into your Spitfire and give one back to the Bosches. (Oops! Sorry, wrong war. I should have said "Nazis"; but what the heck - if you've seen one war you've seen 'em all...)

But when stuff like this is called "science", I draw the line.
Steven Pinker Psychologist, Harvard; Author, "The Blank Slate"

The Decline of Violence

"In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."
Now anyone who can even bring himself to talk about cat-burning is not going to do well in my book, but Pinker gets worse:
"As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world."
Where has he been the last 100 years?
"This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution - all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur."
Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the twentieth century, find this claim incredible.

Notice the setup: only common, pedestrian people think things are getting worse. Non-psychopaths. But he knows they're actually getting better:
"Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags)."
That's one mighty big 'cover your ass' zigzag! But it gets better:
[...] Anyone who doubts this by pointing to residues of force in America (capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, sex slavery in immigrant groups, and so on) misses two key points. One is that statistically, the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. [...]

In the past, they were no big deal. 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.
Ah, Statistics and the Numbers Game! Well, two can play at that, bucko!

There are no figures for the number of deaths from violence for the first 50,000 years of human history, so I am just going to make a reasonable guess as to what they might have been. The point is not the value of the figure but the statistical legerdemain involved in using the magic words: "a tiny fraction", a "smaller proportion" to make a bad situation seem like a bed of roses. I'll be using round numbers for ease of calculation.

"The Good Old Days"

Cumulative population, 50,000 BC to 1000 BC = 100,000,000.
Proportion of deaths due to human-human violence = 10%.
Body Count = 10,000,000.


"Modern Times"

Cumulative population, 1,000 BC to 2000 AD 10,000,000,000.
Proportion of deaths due to human-human violence = 1%.
Body Count = 100,000,000.


Again, the numbers are pure speculation on my part. But a reasonable speculation, I hope, and one made in order to counter what is either the high silliness or the deadly deception of Pinker's Pollyanna argument: the proportion of violence may have gone down, but this is not something to feel good about. You feel good when you live in a non-psychopathic civilization, and in one of those the total number of dead would also have decreased as well as the proportion, and both decrease in spite of the increase in population.

Is Pinker just plain stupid? A useful idiot? Cointelpro? I don't know.

Finally, Pinker clinches my dismay, and leaves me speechless:
"What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question - 'Why is there war?' instead of 'Why is there peace?' There have been some suggestions, all unproven. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan - 'a common power to keep [men] in awe' - has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us."
What a "beastly" remark.

Looking at it philosophically, I suppose it's all a matter of the Cosmic Balance being restored: Harvard wins one for Mearsheimer (even though they don't want the credit!) and now they lose one with Pinker.

In any case, there are 159 more optimists left on "Edge," many of them famous and some of them just as tasty as Pinker!

Bon Appetit, mes freres!