YOU ARE WHAT YOU EXPECT

[ Sat. Jan. 20. 2007 ]

...You might think scientists would be the optimistic exception here. Science, after all, furnishes the model for progress, based as it is on the gradual and irreversible growth of knowledge. At the end of last year, Edge.org, an influential scientific salon, posed the questions "What are you optimistic about? Why?" to a wide range of thinkers. Some 160 responses have now been posted at the Web site. As you might expect, there is a certain amount of agenda-battling, and more than a whiff of optimism bias. A mathematician is optimistic that we will finally get mathematics education right, a psychiatrist is optimistic that we will find more effective drugs to block pessimism (although he is pessimistic that we will use the, wisely). But when the scientific thinkers look beyond their own specializations to the big picture, they continue to find cause for cheer - foreseeing an end to war, for example, or the simultaneous solution of our global warming and energy problems. The most general grounds for optimism offered by these thinkers, though, is that big-picture pessimism so often proves to be unfounded. The perennial belief that our best days are behind us is, it seems, perennially wrong.

Such reflections may or may not ease our tendency toward global pessimism. But what about our contrary tendency to be optimistic - indeed, excessively so - in our local outlook? Is that something we should, in the interests of cold reason, try to disabuse ourselves of? Optimism bias no doubt causes a good deal of mischief, leading us to underestimate the time and trouble of the projects we undertake. But the mere fact that it is so widespread in our species suggests it might have some adaptive value. perhaps if we calculated our odds in a more cleareyed way, we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. ...