Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Contra doomsayers, a bright future beckons?

Matt Ridley has a new book out, "The Rational Optimist", reviewed by John Tierney.  (Ridley is a very bright polymath, I recall he did a much better job than I did some ~15 years ago,  as a fellow contributor of several chapters of a standard introductory biology text book - a hack writing for pay gig).  Ridley argues in his grand theory that it was the invention of the exchange of one object for another,  rather than increasingly big brains or cooperation and reciprocity, that started the explosive growth of civilization. 
Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz,” Dr. Ridley writes. People traded goods, services and, most important, knowledge, creating a collective intelligence: “Ten individuals could know between them ten things, while each understanding one.”

Rulers like to take credit for the advances during their reigns, and scientists like to see their theories as the source of technological progress. But Dr. Ridley argues that they’ve both got it backward: traders’ wealth builds empires, and entrepreneurial tinkerers are more likely to inspire scientists than vice versa. From Stone Age seashells to the steam engine to the personal computer, innovation has mostly been a bottom-up process.
“Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment,” Dr. Ridley writes. “This is history’s greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange, specialization and the invention it has called forth, the ‘creation’ of time.”

Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues that, as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses....with new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”


  1. Anonymous7:29 AM

    He may be talented, but he has no credentials on climate change. On the basis of quick googling, he looks more like a classic climate denialist: strong prior, poor domain knowledge. (Note that being a denialist vs admitting the uncertainties and for some reason leanings towards the mild scenarios are different matters.)

    But people want to hear this message, that everything is fine, and it is well received.

  2. No, Ridley is not a "denialist." The true denialists are those who are so wedded to their catastrophism that they can't see the one big fact: climate change, while it is real, and bad, is by far not the gravest challenge facing humanity. Rather, it's the boring old problems of poverty, disease, poor sanitation, malnourishment, etc. The seriousness of those issues make climate change a minor peripheral concern.
    Those interested in Ridley's very good book might also wish to know about my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

  3. Frank, as I see it, you are half right about climate change. It's not as directly lethal as smallpox (yet). On the other hand, poverty and disease provide very strong and direct motivations for their own elimination. Climate change is proving difficult to fix because, despite the knowledge and resources being available, the problem requires group action rather that individuals acting in their personal interest. This class of problem are the toughest for people to grapple with. If you think about it, this is basically why it's such a poster issue for both the left and the right sides of politics. It's also why people with libertarian-inclined politics go into such crazed states of science denial.

    Certain arguments appeal to different people but from what I've read, optimism and pessimism are fairly basic personality traits that won't change fast, and shouldn't be used as a basis for public policy. In the end, optimism and pessimism provide motivational stories with their respective benefits and problems but it's facts not stories that we'd be better off using.

    I haven't read the book but from what I've seen quoted Ridley has come up with a narrative that is credible, especially to some types of people, but lacks empirical robustness. People have been actively trading for (at least) tens of thousands of years but until the last couple of hundred years people have lived in a Malthusian trap where any productive improvements from technology - and trade - have been swallowed up by population increases with zero net gain in individual wealth, life expectancy, etc. This is the old biological story. For example, the nutrition of farm labourers in England prior to the industrial revolution was worse than that of hunter gatherers on the other side of the world. Trade is present in places where living conditions are appalling.

    The industrial revolution actually improved living conditions and continues to do so, but for the same reason we can be clear that it wasn't trade that brought about the industrial revolution, ie, trade well and truly predates the industrial revolution. In An End to Alms, Gregory Clark argues that the industrial revolution was brought about by factors like growing universal education, the rule of law, reduced risk of violence, lowered birth rates and other cultural changes that brought about a situation where people were both willing and able to expand their productivity enormously. (They could then trade it!) I'd strongly recommend this book - based on actual analysis of historical records - over narrative explanations that claim to that the key to history is this or that because it "just makes sense".

  4. In the interest of balance, here is another review of Ridley's book.


    Personally, there's no time in my reading budget for a book where the science (and journalism) is compromised in favor of a dogmatic political view of the world.