Monday 14 March 2011

Is it Wrong to be Optimistic?

By Patrick Redmond

One of the common accusations or misconceptions levelled against people that call themselves sceptical is that they are necessarily cynical or pessimistic. Now any evidence that I have to the contrary is purely anecdotal but of the many people that I meet at Skeptics in the Pub I generally come away with a very positive feeling. However, when I first read the title of Mark Stevenson’s book “An Optimists Tour of the Future” I had reservations because of that word “Optimist”. Is this because I have been jaded by over exposure to the negative forces of scepticism?

The book looks at the current horizons of some of the most cutting edge and exciting developments in science and technology and asks “what comes next?” But, and it’s a big but, if the author has an optimistic view before he’s begun the journey, before he’s looked at the evidence, can we take him seriously?

I decided not to judge the reading material by the outer wrapping and waded in; I was glad that I did. Mark explores those areas of science that push the boundaries of imagination and challenge our preconceptions of what is achievable. He somehow managed to swing a ticket to travel the globe and spend time with some of science’s biggest characters who straddle such fields as robotics, space exploration, genome sequencing, and nanotechnology amongst others. In themselves any one of the subjects that he looks at would be worthy of a book, but here they’re placed into a context; what role if any will they have in shaping society? In fact, what are the ethical and social implications of these emerging and converging technologies for humanity as whole?

I spoke to Mark about his incredible tour and you can listen to the interview here. The question “what comes next?” is so big that I don’t think that any one book would be able to address it. In fact to say that there is a simple answer would be ridiculous. You could also look at the famine, poverty and disease that encumber such a huge proportion of the human race and feel that all the advances in the world count for nought and that pessimism should in fact be the logical default stance of the human race.

Listen to the podcast though and read the book, Mark is certainly no fool and he’s not looking at the future through rose tinted glasses. All these resources that we have, that are being born into existence and are developing exponentially are opportunities; tools to be used. As a race, if we channel our intelligence, if we cooperate, if we share the resources at our disposal how much could we achieve? Yes, I know that this does indeed sound like idealistic twaddle and as far from reality as you can get but this is where the optimism in the title creeps in. It’s a conditional optimism. We have a chance to make things better, there is a hope for the future but it’s dependent on us, what we do and how we do it. It won’t happen if those that are interested and able sit around doing nothing, it’s going to take work and a lot of it. Perhaps Mark has founded a new philosophical system, functional conditional optimism.

If you want to see Mark, talk to him about his ideas and maybe even get him to sign your copy of his book there is plenty of opportunity. He’s already being booked up by Skeptics in the Pub groups around the country. He’s due in Newcastle on April 6th, Winchester on May 26th, here at Birmingham on August 10th and I’m sure many more soon. One of his other guises is as a stand up comedian and so I’m willing to bet that any talk he gives will be interesting and amusing. However, don’t take my unsubstantiated assumptions on this matter, turn up and gather your own evidence.

Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) was Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub and presents the Birmingham Skeptics podcast.

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