Review: Rational Optimist

On Thursday Matt Ridley presented his new book The Rational Optimist at CATO, and I commented (vid available).  Here’s roughly what I said:

The formula for a successful popular non-fiction book these days is a sandwich: meat between bread slices. The bread is a general thesis that can be explained in a paragraph, with both a normative part to let readers take sides, and a positive part to let readers display sophistication. The meat is 400 pages of entertaining and vaguely-related but mostly unnecessary detail. Most readers would be overwhelmed if all this material were actually required to understand the thesis, but would also be insulted by a 40 page book.

Ridley achieves this formula well, and his meat is unusually dense and informative; I learned lots. But since reviews are supposed to focus on the bread, so let’s go there.

Ridley’s positive thesis is that specialization and trade among non-relatives was the key driver of innovation that let humans advance far beyond other animals. We have good evidence of trade over 100 mile distances about 80,000 years ago, and it may go back much further.  I completely agree with Matt here; trade was a key. And since people tend to think that whatever made humans unique must be great, since we humans are of course great, this should lead folks to think trade is great.

Ridley attributes the farming and industry growth speedups to humans recruiting more living species via domestication, and then recruiting dead species via fossil fuels.  I instead attribute those speedups to percolation transitions that increased network scales, first for trade and then for expert talk.

Ridley’s normative thesis is optimism, that things have long been getting better, and this will long continue. While I mostly agree, Ridley overstates his case. For example:

Knowledge … is genuinely limitless. There is not even a theoretical possibility of exhausting the supply of ideas, discoveries, and inventions. This is the biggest cause of all for my optimism. … The combinatorial vastness of the universe of possible ideas dwarfs the puny universe of physical things. (p.276)

Well possibilities may be inexhaustible, but their value is not. Within a million years we’ll find pretty much all combos that give value to creatures like us, and for trillions of years thereafter they’ll be little net gain.  Balking at paying large costs to avoid small risks of climate change catastrophe, Ridley says:

The trouble with this reasoning is that it applies to all risks, not just climate change …. Why are we not spending large sums stockpiling food caches in cities so that people can survive the risks from North Korean missiles, rogue robots, alien invaders, nuclear war, pandemics, super-volcanos? (p. 333)

But we should spend such sums. Just as we get more careful with our kids as we live longer, the more optimistic we are about our long term future, the more we should spend now to safeguard it.

Ridley is also too tempted to conflate optimism about the total power of our civilization with about optimism about individual quality of life.   While he accepts that totalitarian governments have at times reduced quality of life, and may do so again, he doesn’t directly acknowledge that farming reduced life quality, via wars, slavery, nutrition constraints, etc. And I envision that, within a century or so, new em tech will allow far more rapid population growth, reducing per capita wealth.

Overall though, Ridley is right: optimism is rational, even if uncool.

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  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Overall brilliant meta-review (reminds me of how Penn does illusions), though that last line reads a little like a cop out.

    “Overall though, Ridley is right: optimism is rational, even if uncool.”

    Probably not optimism that the reader won’t be dead in 100 years and forgotten in 200 years. I’ll take my cool points.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Re: “Within a million years we’ll find pretty much all combos that give value to creatures like us”

    …but – if true – that seems totally irrelevant – since in a million years time, the dominant organisms will likely be much bigger and more complex than we are.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Re: “but we should spend such sums” – you can’t pay large sums to avoid every small chance of catastrophe. There is not enough wealth for that.

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      Tim,
      True, but I don’t think Prof Hanson was making such a broad claim -I think his claim was that we’re underspending to prevent and survive small risk catastrophes, including global warming and attack by North Korea.

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        i don’t think we are under-spending on preventing global warming. Global warming is good – partly since is is likely to help to avert – or at least delay – the real threat of reglaciation.

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        This isn’t about global warming.

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        We would need more context from Ridley to see *exactly* what he is complaining about – but IMO, people devote *far* too much time and attention to the “threat” of climate change. That is mostly fluff. There are *much* more significant issues facing humanity. If Ridley is saying that people are dealing with climate change in a manner that is out of proportion to its merits as a cause, then IMO, he is right.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        How is this not clear? The quote is about a single way we can spend, refuges, that simultaneously prepares us for many possible disasters, and I’m saying we spend that way.

      • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

        The Ridley quote doesn’t specify what the the “reasoning” is – or exactly what he is objecting to.

  • http://www.rationaloptimist.wordpress.com Frank S. Robinson

    Those interested in Ridley’s very good book might wish to know about my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a broader range of subject areas. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

  • http://modeledbehavior.com Karl Smith

    Knowledge … is genuinely limitless. There is not even a theoretical possibility of exhausting the supply of ideas, discoveries, and inventions. This is the biggest cause of all for my optimism. … The combinatorial vastness of the universe of possible ideas dwarfs the puny universe of physical things

    I am not exactly sure what Ridley means here because he uses the phrase “genuinely limitless” and then “combinatorial vastness” which are of course contradictory.

    There are obviously not a limitless supply of ideas if not for the simple fact that there are a finite number of atoms in the human brain and thus a finite arrangement. Even if you build a bigger brain you still, of course are dealing with finiteness.

    This might not be a problem accept that as Robin essentially points out – the vast vast vast majority of those ideas a crap. I had a dream once where I had a gun made out of skittles. That dream was crap yet it took up hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of the all the total possible ideas to create it.

    Now that’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of good ideas out there, but I don’t see a point in pretending that ideas are limitless or that the will undoubtedly save us from the problems that plague our future.

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      Prof. Smith,
      You’re obviously well-credentialed and must be smart, and I think you’re on the side of angels with your argument, but the way you’re making your point seems kind of off to me in these lines.

      “There are obviously not a limitless supply of ideas if not for the simple fact that there are a finite number of atoms in the human brain and thus a finite arrangement. Even if you build a bigger brain you still, of course are dealing with finiteness.”

      Idea production is an interesting topic, I don’t know who exact experts are, it seems to me to be measurable empirically. Idea production optimization is also an interesting topic -beyond posturing as an “optimist” or a “pessimist” to sell nonfiction books. Pre-“singularity” I think it has more to do with what social scientists study than what physicists study (in other words, I don’t think it has much to do at this stage with talking about the combinatorial potential of atoms in the brain).

      Prof. Smith, I sense you should increase your literacy in the areas of neuroscience at a fairly deep level, and in the basic hard sciences at a university undergraduate level. My apologies if I’m reading your post and literacy levels incorrectly.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    I am not sure about the book’s title: surely: Pessimist / Optimist / REALIST.

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  • dave

    “…he doesn’t directly acknowledge that farming reduced life quality, via wars, slavery, nutrition constraints, etc…”

    He does, actually, but in proper fashion…which is to say, he reminds those of us who have bought into the theories of Sahlins et al. that warfare, slavery and nutrition constraints predate farming; he accurately cites the case of the native peoples of the northwest coast of north america, for instance, who had slavery, class structures and warfare without agriculture. Farming might have brought these things to a more acute state in regions where it emerged, but as Ridley notes, it brought far greater benefits, and it is those societies which eventually emerged from this agricultural backdrop which eliminated slavery, endemic warfare and overcame nutritional constraints…in short, you’re critique is wrong on this point. Indeed, it misses one of the main points of the book.