Dangerous Times?

David Ropiek at Big Think responds to the recent “The World Is Not Falling Apart” essay in the left-leaning Slate magazine, with his own article “Do We Really Live In Dangerous Times, or Does It Just Feel That Way?”

“[Slate‘s] blaming the media [for amplifying bad news] is simplistic and insufficient. The broader explanation for our excessive fears is the inherently subjective, emotional, instinctive nature of risk perception itself. … No one should know better than Professor of Psychology Pinker [author of the Slate article] that careful conscious rational calculation is not principally what our brains do.”

‘Blame the media’ is a classic leftist tactic: identify a topical trend that threatens the leftist world-view, and throw the blame for it back onto the media — and by association smear all ‘big business, which is seeking to Corrupt Our Minds!’ There are countless examples of such tactics used throughout the 20th Century.

But then Ropiek’s article responds with an equally fatalistic and wrong-headed conservative pessimism, about the impossibility of changing the deep-seated human nature that leads to pessimism

“Faith that we can overcome our instincts and emotions with reason traps us into believing that with a little more careful thinking we can SOLVE all the problems of [our inherent psychology]. WE CAN’T.”

A certain level of caution is perhaps warranted on the ramifications of ‘rational optimism’, though Ropiek is too blunt in this. I do worry that ‘rational optimism’ might start to evolve into being an ideological buttress for an aloof technocratic elite, bio-engineered and augmented, an elite that alone claims to hold the ‘rational’ future of humanity in its hands. Those who read the likes of New Scientist, Scientific American, Wired and similar will be aware of the risk of such an elite emerging in the future, and of a de facto species bifurcation due to extreme divisions of social class. On the other hand, I’m optimistic that that threat will be strongly offset by other bottom-up and lateral forces.

Ropiek’s article doesn’t, however, even begin to consider all the ways our civilisation organises to compensate for unsavoury and unwanted aspects of human nature. Outside of the family we mostly do this through small organisations in civil society, operating at all levels. How might these organisations be carefully improved on by those who run them, with the help of our now vastly-improved knowledge about what worked in the past? And with the aid of our powerful new tools, such as crowd-funding, social media and all kinds of new algorithm based technologies? What then might 100 years of turbo-charged ‘rational optimist’ organisations achieve, in the battle against our ingrained pessimism? I refuse to believe that our dynamic civilisation is incapable of developing better and more effective grass-roots and other useful organisations and associations. Organisations changed for the better in the past, some even developing wholly new methods, so on what evidence do we now expect them to stop dead in their tracks?

Forced evolution is another possibility, of course, and is another hot trend that we need to be wary of sending in the wrong direction. Unlike organisations, it would actually change rather than mitigate human nature. Imagine humans radically bio-engineered, embryo selected, augmented with technology implants, pumped with smart drugs, and rigorously trained from the age of four in rational optimism and much else. Meeting such a person might just succeed in changing Ropiek’s mind about the ‘unchangeable’ human tendency toward pessimism. Or Ropiek might just be standing face-to-face with a basket-case Boy Scout, a person in whom an immutable human nature had been unable to bear the weight of the techno-borg wrapped around them. In which case, Ropiek would be proved correct. But I’m optimistic that we’ll find a very human middle path through such awesome possibilities.

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