A Case for Intelligent Optimism
Rohan Roberts | Co-founder, Intelligent Optimism
The last thing we need is blind, lazy, and uninformed optimism. It is absolutely imperative, and indeed, it is our moral obligation, to be optimistic based on reason and by facing facts. Intelligent optimism implies being excited about what science and technology have to offer. It means being optimistic about the future in an informed and rational way.
Intelligent Optimism is also the theme of SciFest Dubai – the first science festival of its kind in the city. One of the aims of this festival is to create an awareness of the benefits of science and the positive impact the scientific method has had on society. The hope is to inspire a sense of critical wonder and serious awe about the universe we live in and humanity’s attempt to makes sense of it.
So, why should we be optimistic about the future? Steven Pinker points out that we are now living longer, healthier wealthier safer lives than at any time in the history of our species. There will be those who will scoff at this notion. They will remind us of the terrible events of the 20th Century. 1918 influenza epidemic killed fifty million people, World War 2 killed another sixty million. There were tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, floods and plagues of locusts. Despite such unrest, this period also saw infant mortality decrease by 90%, maternal mortality decrease by 99%, and overall, human lifespan, increase by more than 100%. We have massively increased our access to goods and services, transportation, information, education, medicines, means of communication, human rights, and democratic institutions.
Huge strides in the Rights Revolution: Rights for women, for children and for animals. Slavery, Torture, and Human Sacrifice as state-sanctioned practices have almost disappeared.
The fact is we are now living in the safest, most peaceful era in the history of our species. Your chance of being murdered by another human being is at its lowest today than it’s ever been. In previous centuries there were 100 murders on average per 100,000 people. Today, in many parts of the world we have an average of 1 murder per 100,000 people. That’s a 100-fold decrease in the murder rate.
The United Nations describes a serious conflict as any conflict that involves more than 1,000 deaths on average per year. In 1990 there were dozens upon dozens of conflicts that would have been classified as “serious conflicts” by the United Nations. In 2013, there were only seven serious conflicts.
The fact is we have lost our appetite for war. Colonial wars have disappeared. The number of interstate wars has reduced and civil wars are at its lowest. In 1950 the average number of deaths per armed conflict was 37,000. Today the average number of deaths per conflict is 600. These are not statistics I’m pulling out of a hat. They’re based on United Nations reports.
We are now living in what’s known as the Long Peace. This is the longest period that has passed without the world powers going to war.
Intelligent Optimism isn’t about looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and pretending everything is ok. It’s not about having a Pollyanna approach to things. The aim of intelligent optimism is to make an appraisal of the state of the world based on facts – both good and bad. Yes, we acknowledge there are wars. Yes poverty exists. Yes, people kill each other. No one is saying the world is perfect. But what we are saying is that things are getting better. And advances in Science and Technology will continue to make the world a better place to live in.
World Literacy is at its highest.
The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved.
The successes of medical science beggar belief: we now have vaccines to protect us against: Hepatitis, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Polio, Rabies, Chicken Pox, Small Pox, Diphtheria, Anthrax, Tetanus, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Cholera, Yellow Fever and Whooping Cough– to name just a few.
Intelligent Optimism is a way to counter this negative bias in the media about our species. Our hope is to encourage people to be more proactive about making the world a better place. Our aim is to help people recognise the tremendous potential humans have to overcome problems, find solutions and solve problems using the scientific method. That’s what humans do best.
There are brilliant scientists out there achieving remarkable things. Tremendous advances are being made in the fields of Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics, Quantum Computing and Neuroscience. The future is incredibly exciting. And as we step into this exciting future, it is essential that we embrace the values of the age of enlightenment and foster a human society based on reason. We must teach our children to value the scientific method and cultivate a questioning spirit of inquiry. We must encourage our youth to be curious – because at heart, humans are explorers and dreamers.
The Imaginary Foundation says, “Think of an exciting, desirable future and pull the present to meet it.” That’s what we aim to do through Intelligent Optimism.