Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Seduction of Pessimism

A New York City possum vendor, just 100 years ago. 

Steve Case (of AOL fame) posted a link to this article by Morgan Housel, which I found illuminating:

Tell someone that everything will be great and they’re likely to either shrug you off or offer a skeptical eye. Tell someone they’re in danger and you have their undivided attention.

Hearing that the world is going to hell is more interesting than forecasting that things will gradually get better over time, even if the latter is accurate for most people most of the time. Pessimism can be hard to distinguish from critical thinking and is often taken more seriously than optimism, which can be hard to distinguish from salesmanship and aloofness.

Y2K got more media attention than any individual tech company.

SARS got more attention than the massive decline in HIV mortality.

Forecasting $250 a barrel oil in 2008 sparked immediate congressional hearings. Forecasting the bankruptcy of oil giants as electric cars proliferate sparks immediate giggles

I am a demographer by training, and have spent a few decades studying long data sets.  As a consequence I am pretty optimistic about most things dealing with the human condition.

Some years back, I won an optimistic 10-year bet about the long-term arc of the human condition.

Specifically, I bet that 10 years into the future five indices of global human welfare (Food, Water, Health, Education and Quality of Life, and Energy) will ALL show improvement. If any of the metrics had gone south, I would have lost the whole bet, and I  let my opponent pick the data sets..

The good news, for the world, is that won this bet.

And yet, if you go around and ask folks how the world is doing, they invariably say "to hell in a hand basket."

But follow up and ask these same folks if they want 1980 heart surgery or dentistry, and they recoil.  Never!

What about 1980 life expectancy?  1980 fruit and vegetable choice?  1936 gas prices?  The more they know, the happier they are with what we have now.

It's not that people are stupid; it's that we are amnesiacs.  


The difference between pessimism and optimism often comes down to time horizon. If a recession or downturn is the end of your show, you should be pessimistic. If it’s a bad commercial during an otherwise great episode, you should be optimistic.

Since short-term shocks are more frequent and recent than long-term gains, pessimism usually sounds smarter than optimism because it’s easier to recall.

Optimists are often ridiculed as being oblivious to how risky the world is. I’ve found this to be a bad reading. They’re often quite aware of risks, but equally aware of risks being the soil optimism eventually grows out of.

The basic point of the piece is that pessimism is so seductive. Or, as I like to remind folks, we actually pay money to be scared at amusement parks.

Preachers of Armageddon screaming Jeremiads get attention, collect money, and feel important.

Terror and trouble gives life meaning.

Folks who claim to have "secret knowledge" can both gain and give power by sharing that "knowledge," and what follows is a kind of cult-like following in which folks who have invested so much time and energy into believing their constructed fear, that they are loathe to accept fact or engage in critical thinking.

Back in 1995, Carl Sagan wrote The Demon-Haunted World, a book designed to encourage people to engage in critical thinking. He even provided what he called a "baloney detection kit," but he realized he was pushing skepticism uphill in sand, because the low-information gullible are always loathe to accept that they have been duped:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

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