January 2, 2007

Reasons for Being Cheerful

Science book superagent John Brockman asks his stable of scientific authors: WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT? WHY?

Artificial Intelligence co-inventor John McCarthy is optimistic about:

World Peace

I'm optimistic about the sustainability of material progress, but since I'm known for that, I'll refrain.

Instead I want to express optimism about world politics, especially about world peace. World peace is what we have. There are only minor wars and no present prospect of a major war threatening western civilization and its present extensions to the actually developing countries. Only Africa and the Arab world are in bad shape.

Contrast this with the time between 1914 and 1989, when there were serious attempts at world domination accompanied by at least three genocides.

... As for Arab jihadism, I think they'll get over it as soon as a new generation matures to oppose their parents' slogans.

If not Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.

— Hilaire Belloc, 1898, The Modern Traveller, part 6.

It is important that the political causes of the 20th century disasters, virulent and militaristic nationalism accompanied by letting one man take power, do not exist in major countries today. Communism is dead as a motivator of violence. The green movement is accompanied by occasional minor violence, but a green Hitler or Stalin seems unlikely.

Still, it's hard to predict 100 years ahead. As Stephen Hawking advocates, humanity would be safer if it expanded beyond the earth.

Meanwhile, JONATHAN HAIDT, psychologist, University of Virginia is happy that:

The Baby Boomers Will Soon Retire

I am optimistic about the future of social science research because the influence of the baby boom generation on the culture and agenda of the social sciences will soon decrease.

Don't get me wrong, many of my best friends are boomers, and technically I'm one too (born in 1963). I am grateful for the freedom and justice that the activists of the 1960s and 1970s helped bring to the United States. But if there is a sensitive period for acquiring a moral and political orientation, it is the late teens and early 20s, and most of those whose sensitive periods included the Vietnam war and the struggles for civil rights seem to have been permanently marked by those times. Many young people who entered Ph.D. programs in the social sciences during the 1970s did so with the hope of using their research to reduce oppression and inequality. This moral imprinting of a generation of researchers may have had a few detrimental effects on the (otherwise excellent) science they produced.

Here are two: 1) Moralistic antinativism. The deep and politicized antipathy to 1970s sociobiology produced a generation of social scientists wary of nativism in general and of evolutionary thinking in particular. Nobody these days admits to believing that the mind is a blank slate at birth, but in practice I have noticed that social scientists older than me generally begin with a social learning explanation of everything (especially sex differences), and then act as though it is "conservative" (scientifically) or "liberal" (politically) to stick with social learning unless the evidence against it is overwhelming, p<.05, which it rarely is. But shouldn't we use p<.5 here? Shouldn't we always let nativist and empiricist explanations both have a go at each question and then pick the one that has the better fit, overall, with the evidence? I look forward to the day when most social scientists learned about the astonishing findings of twin studies in their twenties, and very few know who Stephen Jay Gould was. 2) Moral Conformity Pressure. Imagine an industry in which 90% of the people are men, male values and maleness are extolled publicly while feminine values are ridiculed, and men routinely make jokes, publicly and privately, about how dumb women are, even when women are present. Sounds like a definition of hostile climate” run wild? Now replace the words male” and female” with liberal” and conservative,” and we have a pretty good description of my field —social psychology—and, I suspect, many other areas of the social sciences. I have no particular fondness for conservatives. But I do have a need for them. I study morality, and I have found that conservative ideas (about authority, respect, order, loyalty, purity, and sanctity) illuminate vast territories of moral psychology, territories that have hardly been noticed by psychologists who define morality as consisting exclusively of matters of harm, rights, and justice. If social psychology had been a morally diverse field, we would have done a much better job of studying the full expanse of human morality, and we'd be in a much better position right now to understand the morality of radical Islam. Will younger social scientists be more morally diverse than the baby boom generation? Maybe not. But if they make it through their sensitive periods without seeing themselves as part of a revolution, they just might be more open to diverse ideas about the origins of mind, the scope of morals, and the workings of society.

And Greg Cochran wants to unleash on the world (and solar system):

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"—it has always been that way. Most men have been slaves of necessity, while the few who were not lived by exploiting others who were. Although mechanization has eased that burden in the advanced countries, it is still the case for the majority of the human race. Limited resources (mainly fossil fuels), as well as negative consequences of industrialization such as global warming, have made some people question whether American living standards can ever be extended to most of the human race. They're pessimists, and they're wrong. Hardly anyone seems to realize it, but we're on the threshold of an era of unbelievable abundance.

Within a generation—sooner if we want it enough—we will be able to make a self-replicating machine, first seriously suggested by John von Neumann. Such a machine would absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself. Numbers would grow geometrically, and if we manage to design one with a reasonably short replication time—say six months—we could have trillions working for humanity in another generation.

You might compare this process to a single cell of blue-green algae, which replicates over the summer until it covers the entire pond. But unlike algae, a self-replicating machine would be programmed and controlled by us. If it could make it its own mechanical and electronic parts, it would also be able to make toasters, refrigerators, and Lamborghinis, as well as the electricity to power them. We could make the deserts bloom, put two cars in every pot, and end world poverty, while simultaneously fighting global warming. It's closer than you think, since the key technologies are already being developed for use in rapid prototyping and desktop manufacturing. Aristotle thought that slavery would only end when looms weave by themselves: we're almost there.

Right now the human race uses about 13 trillion watts: the solar cells required to produce that much power would take up less than a fifth of one percent of the Earth's land surface—remember that the Earth intercepts more solar energy in an hour than the human race uses in a year. That's a lot of solar cell acreage, but it's affordable as long as they make themselves. We could put them in deserts—in fact, they'd all fit inside the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. As I understand it, we like depending on the Saudis for energy. [More]

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

The last guy is optimistic about self-replicating machines that reproduce by eating rocks and absorbing sunlight. Wouldn't they be subject to natural selection, just like any organism? Wouldn't they simply cover the entire planet, to the detriment of everything else?

Geez, I'd hate to see what he's pessimistic about!

Steve Sailer said...

Hey, self-replicating machines worked out great for Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, so I don't know what you are worried about...

reno said...

A little ways down from Cochran's essay is one by someone named Thomas Metzinger, who says at one point: "Now that America is not a Western country any more..."

Later he says "America is gone for good."

He doesn't give any explanation or context. Does anyone know what this guy is talking about?

Anonymous said...

JONATHAN HAIDT, psychologist, University of Virginia is happy that:

The Baby Boomers Will Soon Retire

My daughter had this guy last year in an introductory course and I was amazed at what she said he said. It was her first year and I expected her to be wildly propagandized but I remember thinking "Wow this guy tells the truth" I contributed to the school.

Freudian Slip said...

But its good to be optimistic right!?!
We do live in a world full of overwhelming negativity...