Scientists find reasons to be cheerful [1]

[ Sun. Dec. 31. 2006 ]

Scientists often find themselves accused of pessimism. From the gravity of their public warnings about the dangers of climate change or bird flu, they have earned a reputation as Jeremiahs with a bleak view of human nature and humanity’s future.

It is a charge most researchers contest vigorously: science, they say, is a profoundly optimistic pursuit. The idea that the world can be understood by gathering evidence, to the ultimate benefit of its citizens, lies at its heart. It is not just about problems, but about finding the solutions.

The breadth of this optimism is revealed today by the discussion website — often likened to an online scientific “salon” — which marks every new year by inviting dozens of the world’s best scientific minds to answer a single question. For 2007, it is: “What are you optimistic about?” The answers show that even in the face of such threats as global warming and religious fundamentalism, scientists remain positive about the future.

Steven Pinker

Psychologist, Harvard University, author of The Blank Slate

In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat hoisted on a stage was slowly lowered into a fire.

As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence.

My optimism lies in the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, that it is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate, and that we can identify those forces and perhaps concentrate and bottle them.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Director of the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge

I remain optimistic that for a good proportion of them [people with autism], it has never been a better time to have autism. Why? Because there is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age.For this new generation of children with autism, I anticipate that many of them will find ways to blossom, using their skills with digital technology to find employment, to find friends, and in some cases to innovate.

Daniel Dennett

Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University, author of Breaking the Spell

I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena . . . With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervour of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working.

Jared Diamond

Biologist and geographer, UCLA, and author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse

I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world, because: 1. Big businesses sometimes conclude that what is good for the long-term future of humanity is also good for their bottom line (cf Wal-Mart’s recent decision to shift their seafood purchases entirely to certified sustainable fisheries within the next three to five years). 2. Voters in democracy sometimes make good choices and avoid bad choices (cf some recent elections in a major First World country).