Thursday, September 13, 2012

Optimism vs Pessimism

As I mentioned at the end of my post yesterday, many of the comments on my recent Bloomberg column chided me for being overly optimistic about the future of humanity, and especially about our capacity to create a sustainable future, especially through the intelligent use of technology to help us control and manage a complex world. The criticism was elegantly put by David Johnson:
I just saw your piece on Bloomberg on augmenting our decision making skills artificially, and I am sorry to say, based on quite a bit of painful experience, that this doesn't actually work as one might hope.

I'm retired now, but I spent nearly thirty years as a computer software designer, and I can't tell you how many times I have seen people flatly refuse to believe counter-intuitive results coming from some sophisticated program. 

Indeed, even simple instruments, such as pressure gauges can present results that cause system operators to dismiss the data as the output of a defective sensor. 

For example, the accident at Three Mile Island was the direct result of operators misjudging the meaning of two gauges that were apparently giving contradictory readings.  One gauge implied that the level of cooling water was getting too high, while the other implied that it was dangerously low.  The operators could not envision any scenario in which both could be correct, so they decided (arbitrarily and without ANY cross-checking!) that the low reading was invalid, and they shut down the emergency cooling water, which was precisely the wrong thing to do.

In that case, it turned out that there was a vapor lock in the plumbing connecting the two parts of the system that the two gauges were monitoring, so, indeed, the pressure in the cooling water supply was rising, even as the water level in the reactor vessel itself was dropping dangerously.  However, as simple as this problem really was, it was totally outside the experience of the operators, so they never considered the possibility.  Moreover, the system designers had not recognized the possibility either, or they would have designed the plumbing differently in the first place.

My point here is that a problem of this sort is stupidly simple compared to the complexities of systems like the global climate, yet even trained professionals cannot handle the level of weirdness that can result from one unanticipated discrepancy.

In other words, we are generally stupid enough that we cannot understand, much less accept, how stupid we really are, so there is no way that the average person will casually defer to the judgment of an artificial system like a computer program.
I received many comments making similar points, and I'd like to say that I agree completely and absolutely.

The way I look at the argument of Sander van der Leeuw is that he has identified a weak point in the nature of our relationship with the world. Our brains individually and collectively simply cannot match up to the complexity of the world in which we live (especially as our own technology has made it much more complex in recent decades). It's this mismatch that lies behind the pervasive tendency for our actions and innovations to have unanticipated consequences, many of which have led us to very big problems. Hence, he's suggesting that IF WE HAVE ANY HOPE of finding some solutions to our problems through further innovation it will be by finding ways to help our brains cope more effectively. He suggests information technology as the one kind of technology that might be useful in this regard, and which might help -- again, if used properly -- to heal the divide between the real complexity of the world and our pictures and models of it.

I think this makes a lot of sense, and it ought to inform our future use of technology and the way we use it to innovate. But I certainly wouldn't want to go any further and predict that we will actually be able to act in this way, or learn from this insight. If asked to bet on it, I would actually bet that humanity will have to suffer dearly and catastrophically before we ever change our ways.

Even more than stupid, we are stubborn. On this point I also could not agree more with David Johnson:
Seriously, the Arctic ice cap has been more or less stable, within a few percent, for about three million years, but now, in just thirty years, about 75% of the mass of ice has disappeared.  Yet, millions of people simply ignore this massive and extremely dangerous change.  Instead, they chalk up the reports as evidence of a conspiracy by climate scientists to frighten taxpayers into supporting more fictitious make-work for those self-same scientists.  That is a lethal level of stupidity, but it still passes easily for "common-sense" among a very large fraction of the general population.


  1. The reasons of the ice caps that are melting are many, nonlinear, and chaotic. The earth's climate is not as simple (comparatively speaking) as a nuclear plant with two malfunctioning gauges, and the solutions are not as simple.

    David Johnson may think the world needs to be cured from lethal stupidity. But hasn't suggested any solutions, only a problem (that the ice caps are melting! but only compare it to data 3 million years ago, not 10 or 50 million years ago.)

    What's his solution? Reduce greenhouse gases? How about the two biggest greenhouse gases, CO2 and water vapor, how are we going to reduce that? What if we drastically reduce our greenhouse gas and we find another nonlinear variable that affects the Arctic ice cap?

    Questioning the motivations of scientists is a lame argument against climate change, but to support David Johnson's implicit alarmism is unnecessarily eccentric.

  2. Dave Johnson here.

    Strictly speaking, I didn't say that the world needs to be "cured" of lethal stupidity. In fact, I assume that, by definition, lethal stupidity is a self-limiting problem.

    As for the melting of the Arctic sea ice, I have no proposals.

    My point is rather that simply ignoring such a monumental and explosively fast change in our global climate is probably a dangerously stupid thing to do.

    After all, regardless of why the ice is melting, such a massive change is probably going to have equally massive effects on the rest of the globe.

    Moreover, the amount of energy involved is probably right up there with a good-sized nuclear war, if not considerably bigger.

    So, if we would not ignore a nuclear war, why is it any smarter to ignore the melting of the Arctic ice?

    I hope that clarifies the point for everyone.

  3. That is idiotic, ice caps have been reliably observed for less than 50 years, proxies maybe go 150 yrs back with reasonable signal to noise ratio at most (very optimistic), and their reliability is questionable, beyond that we have some historic and anecdotal evidence (i.e. irregularly space point estimates). It's absurd to say the Artic ice cap has been stable within few percent for millions of years, no one has observed it. This is just like in finance where various idiots claim 5,10,20 sigma events and call then once in a universe lifetime events. There is clearly much confusion about confidence and probabilities.

    1. Okay, let's take your initial premiss, and see where we wind up.

      A) Effectively, we have no previous experience with the abrupt melting of the entire Arctic ice cap.

      B) Such melting is apparently happening.

      C) But there is no cause for worry, because we have never seen this turn into a problem before.

      My point is not that I know what is going to happen, but only that it looks stupid not to investigate this event very carefully.

      Plus, the sheer size of the event strikes me as cause for worry in that our whole physical economy is rather delicately balanced, and any big jolt in the climate might unhinge things badly.

      So, let me ask you a simple question: are you telling us all that we have nothing to worry about, even though a gigantic and unprecedented change is occurring?

      Yes or no?

      In any case, my original comment, in the email to Mark Buchanan quoted above, was simply that people tend strongly to shy away from weird news, and here you are, apparently demonstrating the point right off the bat.

      You sound like someone who would rather he hadn't heard this news in the first place.

      And, frankly, I'm very sympathetic. I would rather this were not happening either, but apparently it is, so I guess I will have to deal with it, whether or not I want to.

      And, since I have children and others that I care about, I feel duty-bound to take an honest look at the situation, and not sweep things under the rug simply because I don't happen to enjoy dealing with them.

      Thus, if you have convincing evidence that these climate changes are not a threat, I would be thrilled to see it. I really would.

      The only catch is that it needs to be really solid, comprehensive data, and the logic of the analysis needs to be rock solid as well.

      Nevertheless, that being said, I would really love to learn that there is no reason to worry after all.

  4. Very nice article, Generally, optimism is connected to higher achievement. However, amongst those undertaking legal studies, optimism is connected to lower grades and pessimism to higher grades . Pessimists have an underlying attitude that their experiences will usually be negative and they also believe failures are their own fault. Unfortunately, pessimistic thinking is linked to depression. Optimism appears to have a strong beneficial effect on physical and mental health. Optimists are positive thinkers. There are several ways of "thinking positively". Pessimism is also bad for health. Pessimism makes people more liable to die of heart disease once they have it as well as more likely to get cancer in the first place. Business Research

  5. Thanks for sharing such a nice article with us .optimism is the positive attitude of peoples while doing a particular work on the other hand pessimism is the negative attitude of the person ,this is the shortest meaning i know about it.
    My Property Stores

  6. Thank you for your article, I have been looking for this for a long time

  7. This blog having the great reference regarding the actual difference of Optimism and pessimism.Its really interesting.
    Web Development Company | Web Design Companies

  8. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to came here! Thanks for sharing the such information with | | | | | |

  9. Think of optimism and pessimism as a wonderful dinner with a beautifully complimenting glass of wine. Web Design Bangalore

  10. Really a great post. Appreciate the effort in educating us. We are also same service provides in Bangalore.
    Web Design Company in Bangalore
    Website Designers in Bangalore
    Website Development Company in Bangalore

  11. Great blog that guiding many people.
    Mobile app development company

  12. We are the best writing company providing Buy College Papers Online to students across the globe.We are a UK based company and have been operational since 2005 where we have assisted thousands of students in attaining high marks in Custom College Essay Writing Service.

  13. Nice information. Thanks for sharing such an amazing article. For Latest Telugu News and updates please visit our website: TV9 Telugu Media News

  14. Nice information. Thanks for sharing such an amazing article. For Latest News and updates please visit our website: TV9 Marathi Media News

  15. Nice information. Thanks for sharing such an amazing article. For Latest Hindi News and updates please visit our website: TV9 Bharatvarsh Media News

  16. Great post I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this interesting and knowledgeable article. We are top CRM Software | CRM Software Mumbai | CRM Software Provider | CRM Software Pune | Field Management Software | CRM Software India

  17. Great post I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this interesting and knowledgeable article. We are top CRM Software | CRM Software Mumbai | CRM Software Provider | CRM Software Pune | Field Management Software | CRM Software India

  18. Great Article.If your looking to revamp or optimize your blog, Quikks is the best Seo Consultant Bangalore and leading SEO firm Bangalore. We help startups and small businesses with simplified and creative marketing.

  19. Thank you for sharing your information i like that your content and your writing way. keep sharing your content and also write a blog about the invest in startups. Keep posting!

  20. Thanks for your post! Really interesting blogs. Here is the some more interesting and most related links.

    Best digital marketing company in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Brandstory is one of the top and best digital marketing companies in Dubai UAE. As a leading digital marketing agency in Dubai, We offer search engine optimization services, online marketing services, UI UX design services, search engine marketing services, email marketing services, Google / Facebook / Bing pay per click services, Internet marketing services, website design services and website development services, social media marketing services. Hire ROI based digital marketing services company in dubai to get digital leads for your business.

    Digital marketing company in Dubai | Digital Marketing Agency in Dubai | SEO Company in Dubai | SEO Agency in Dubai | Best Digital Marketing Companies in Dubai | Top Digital Marketing Agencies in Dubai | Best SEO Companies in Dubai | SEO Agencies in Dubai | Online Marketing Company in Dubai | SEO Services Company in Dubai | PPC Company in Dubai | PPC Agency in Dubai | | PPC Services in Dubai | Social Media Marketing Company in Dubai | Social Media Marketing Services in Dubai | Social Media Marketing Agencies in Dubai | Web Design Company in Dubai | Website Designers in Dubai | Website Development Services Company in Dubai | Web Design Companies in Dubai

  21. I am searching for an article like this for the last 4 hours on the net, but I couldn't. Suddenly I read this one. Thanks a lot for this Article. I really appreciate your writing skills. we are the cryptocurrency expert if you want to know about cryptocurrency ETF fund or cryptocurrency etc. please visit our website to read the full articles about the topic.


  22. Very Useful blog. Thanks for sharing.

    If anyone have to boost their website in google.please connect with the leading SEO Expert Kerala. Get an Afforadable SEO Services from the SEO Freelancer Kerala.

  23. Very Useful blog. Thanks for sharing.

    SIAUAE is one of the top audit firms in UAE with highly experienced professionals. As a leading tax consultant uae , we achieved the label of best tax consultant in UAE.Our CA services Will help you.

    We providing the best VAT consultancy services in UAE .As a leading vat consultancy services in uae, we achieved the label of best VAT consultant in UAE.

    Looking for the top accounting firms in UAE? SIAUAE is the best accounting companies in uae , we offer comprehensive professional services in UAE.

    SIAUAE management consultancy is a professional Management Consultancy UAE , Helping clients achieve their business goals. For more details call us now

  24. Nice Blog, thanks for sharing

    everybody want digital marketing company Kerala to have their organization on the highest point of the pursuit list and engage your business. We Provide Best Digital Services, Efficiently total start to finish center abilities without viable thoughts. Powerfully cultivate strategic arrangements without empowered worth. Interfacing your business to the clients who are keen on your administration, and make a chain of best digital marketing in Kochi.
    digital marketing company Kerala

  25. Nice Blog, thanks for sharing

    Today the companies are continually being challenged to reduce the expenses, most of working expenditures and other requirements. The main costs include the salary of employees like HR professional, accountant, auditors and administration. These problem can be overcome by best expert business outsourcing company. They provide quality and valuable services at low cost for the business enterprises. In UAE most of accounts payable outsourcing companies offers cost effective accounting services that will help the companies effectively in the current situation.
    Audit firms in UAE

  26. Nice Blog, thanks for sharing

    The intensity of smells can't be exaggerated. Smell has such a solid association with one's passionate express that it revives the recollections that went with our experience, in a few occasions, returning over numerous years. A deliberately built fragrance can lift one's state of mind, and places one out of a positive and innovative outlook. Our fragrance arrangements give you a chance to make the ideal experience for your customers and associates – one in which they remain drew in and associated.
    Aroma diffuser

  27. Searching for an article for so long, suddenly found your blog. Thanks a lot for this Article. I really appreciate your writing skills. we are the best advertising agency based in Bangalore, India if you want to know more about our services visit our website.

  28. I really enjoyed reading this blog. It was explained and structured with perfection; Best Digital Marketing Company in Delhi

  29. Nice post it is really an interesting article we are also providing the web design services in bangalore. We are the leading
    Website Designers in Bangalore
    Web Design Companies in Bangalore

  30. Decent article, thankful for more information Activated carbon manufacturers in tamilnadu The information you gave about has been valuable while analyzing the subject.Activated carbon manufacturing companies in India

  31. We are well established IT and outsourcing firm working in the market since 2013. We are providing training to the people ,
    like- Web Design , Graphics Design , SEO, CPA Marketing & YouTube Marketing.Call us Now whatsapp: +(88) 01537587949
    : Digital Marketing Training
    Free bangla sex video:careful
    good post outsourcing institute in bangladesh

  32. It is amazing and wonderful to visit your Blog.Thanks for sharing this information,this is useful to us. Keep posting lateset telugu news

  33. Nice post really useful information. We are the leading website development company in dubai. Hire our web design company in dubai today for web design services in dubai

  34. Thanks for your great post.We are the leading website development company in mumbai. Visit our web design company in mumbai today for web design services in mumbai

  35. Thank you very much for sharing this useful information. Thanks for sharing how you're doing it; I'm sure the resource you provided would be useful to a lot of others.

    digital marketing training in hyderabad
    digital marketing course in ameerpet
    digital marketing course training in hyderabad ameerpet
    digital marketing online training in hyderabad