An Urgent Defense of Optimism
By Bryan Caplan
At the most general level, Tyler’s recent posts on what he calls the “Fallacy of Mood Affiliation” are excellent. Except… I know from lunch that he sees me as a great example of the Fallacy. When he speaks of…
People who see a lot of net environmental progress (air and water
are cleaner, for instance) and thus dismiss or downgrade well-grounded
accounts of particular environmental problems. There’s simply an
urgent feeling that any “pessimistic” view needs to be countered.
… he’s got me in mind.
Tyler’s right, I confess, that I often get an “urgent feeling” that pessimism must be countered. I have such a feeling right now. But if we accept the premise that there has been “a lot of net environment progress,” BETTER THAN PEOPLE THINK deserves to be the headline until the fact of net progress is common knowledge. Until that day, even well-grounded problems should be “downgraded” in the sense that they’re framed as exceptions. This is basic pedagogy: First teach the Big Picture, then – if there’s time – point out leading counter-examples. If Tyler had followed this approach when he wrote The Great Stagnation, he wouldn’t have to complain about being “misunderstood.”
Tyler also neglects the possibility that an optimistic presumption might be empirically grounded. As I’ve explained before:
I’m skeptical about all predictions of disaster. I’m predictably
skeptical about doom-and-gloom predictions used to rationalize big
expansions of government power: global warming, overpopulation, avian
flu, resource depletion, terrorism, nuclear proliferation,
“Mexifornia,” etc. But I’ve also long raised my eyebrow when
libertarians predicted a Clintonian coup, hyper-inflation, or an
American re-run of the Weimar republic.
There’s not enough time in the day for me to know enough about all
of these disasters to doubt them on their specific merits. But I do it
anyway. How do I justify it?
…The fact that we’ve gotten as far as we have shows that true disaster must be extremely rare.
Unless fears almost always failed to materialize, we’d already be back
in the Stone Age, or plain extinct. It’s overwhelmingly unlikely that
we’ve gotten lucky a million times in a row. Thus, unlike my co-blogger,
I think there is a good reason to expect global warming models to be
milder than models predict. Namely: As a rule, disasters are milder
One last point: Tyler conveniently overlooks the moods that tie most of his views together: love of ambiguity and sheer contrarianism. I’d like to see him argue that a presumption in favor of these moods has the facts on its side.