Heaven or Hell

Discussion of Whether We're Headed for Heaven or Hell

The Ridley-Pinker optimists argue, with some force, that the benign impact of globalisation has not received the recognition it is due and that the argument has been contaminated by the left’s sour grapes. In a pointed example of historical cross-dressing, the right has inherited the Enlightenment tradition of optimism: the belief that reason will invariably conquer its enemies, and that history therefore has an underlying direction as greater prosperity gradually reduces crime, indigence and ill health. Implicit in this position is an impatience with the left for refusing to acknowledge the reams of statistics deployed by the right and the role of trade in making the world a safer, healthier, less violent place.

Yet that is not the end of the matter; patently not. If everything is getting better, why doesn’t it feel that way?
- Matthew d'Ancona, If everything is getting better, why doesn’t it feel that way?, The Guardian, 28 Dec 2015

The Rational Optimist is riddled with excruciating errors and distortions. Ridley claims, for instance, that "every country that tried protectionism" after the second world war suffered as a result. He cites South Korea and Taiwan as "countries that went the other way", and experienced miraculous growth. In reality, the governments of both nations subsidised key industries, actively promoted exports, and used tariffs and laws to shut out competing imports. In both countries the state owned all the major commercial banks, allowing it to make decisions about investment (all references are on my website).

He maintains that "Enron funded climate alarmism". The reference he gives demonstrates nothing of the sort, nor can I find evidence for this claim elsewhere. He says that "no significant error has come to light" in Bjørn Lomborg's book The Sceptical Environmentalist. In fact, it contains so many significant errors that an entire book – The Lomborg Deception by Howard Friel – was required to document them.

Ridley asserts that average temperature changes over "the last three decades" have been "relatively slow". In reality, the rise over this period has been the most rapid since instrumental records began. He maintains that "11 of 13 populations" of polar bears are "growing or steady". There are in fact 19 populations of polar bears. Of those whose fluctuations have been measured, one is increasing, three are stable, and eight are declining.
- George Monbiot, This state-hating free marketeer ignores his own failed experiment, The Guardian, 31 May 2010

What Ridley glosses over is that before he wrote this book he had an opportunity to put his theories into practice. As chairman of Northern Rock, he was responsible, according to parliament's Treasury select committee, for a "high-risk, reckless business strategy". Northern Rock was able to pursue this strategy as a result of a "substantial failure of regulation" by the state. The wonderful outcome of this experiment was the first run on a British bank since 1878, and a £27bn government bail-out.

But it's not just Ridley who doesn't mention the inconvenient disjunction between theory and practice: hardly anyone does. His book has now been reviewed dozens of times, and almost all the reviewers have either been unaware of his demonstration of what happens when his philosophy is applied or too polite to mention it. The reason, as far as I can see, is that Ridley is telling people – especially rich, powerful people – what they want to hear.

He tells them that they needn't worry about social or environmental issues, because these will sort themselves out if the market is liberated from government control. He tells them that they are right to assert that government should get off their backs and stop interfering with its pettifogging rules and regulations: they should be left alone to make as much money as they like, however they like. ...
I also pointed out that Ridley had made a series of shocking errors and distortions in his book. I showed how he had misrepresented economic history, made claims that bore no relation to the references he gave, and reeled off facts about the environment which were just plain wrong. Again, none of this has been picked up by Ridley's reviewers.

Ridley himself has claimed that his shocking mistakes aren't mistakes at all, then proceeds to compound them with a series of spurious justifications. Here are a few examples: ...
If Ridley really believes that this passage isn't designed to suggest that the general trend is positive, his intellectual dishonesty runs deeper than I had imagined. And if he can't see that his selective treatment of the subject is blatant cherry-picking, it says more than he would care to about his standards of objectivity.
- George Monbiot, Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist is telling the rich what they want to hear, The Guardian, 18 Jun 2010

In the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley has made yet another attempt to convince the public that global warming won’t be that bad. ... The facts just don’t align with Ridley’s portrayal.
- Climate Science Watch, In WSJ, Ridley presents medley of long-debunked climate claims, September 14, 2013

Matt Ridley defends himself by appealing to testimony by Roger Pielke:

Every time I argue for a lukewarm “third way” — that climate change is real but slow, partly man-made but also susceptible to natural factors, and might be dangerous but more likely will not be — I am attacked from both sides. ...
This is what Roger Pielke Jr said in recent testimony to Congress:

"• It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally. It is further incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases. ...
• Drought has “for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century.” Globally, “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.” ... "
- Matt Ridley, GLOBAL LUKEWARMING NEED NOT BE CATASTROPHIC, Matt Ridley Blog, 01 October, 2013

Pielke, however, is not a trustworthy source. For instance:

Why has there been such a buzz about FiveThirtyEight and Roger Pielke Jr.? Likely because Pielke has a history of climate claims which have been criticized by scientists — not the type of hire many of us expected by the FiveThirtyEight team. Dr. Pielke, a political scientist (not a climate scientist), was recently called out by Dr. John Holdren for statements he made to congress on droughts. ...
Unfortunately, Roger Pielke’s views are at odds with many peer-reviewed studies that look at this, and they are at odds with some of the studies he cites in his article. ...
These inexact phrases, extensions of his own work beyond their application, and inclusion of non-weather-related disasters are some of the reasons his conclusions are not taken seriously by myself and other climate scientists.
- John P. Abraham, Statistics and Climate Science: Roger Pielke Missed the Mark, THE BLOG, Huffington Post, 03/27/2014, Updated May 27, 2014

More than four centuries later, there are many who need to be reassured of their significance in the world. The Elizabethans found in divination support for their belief that history contained a hidden design that would culminate in a new world order. Obeying the same need for meaning, modern thinkers look to numbers for signs that show the emergence of a world founded on rational and moral principles. They believe that improvement in ethics and politics is incremental and accretive: one advance is followed by another in a process that stabilises and strengthens the advances that have already taken place. Now and then regress may occur, but when this happens it does so against a background in which the greater part of what has been achieved so far does not pass away. Slowly, over time, the world is becoming a better place.

The ancient world, along with all the major religions and pre-modern philosophies, had a different and truer view. Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible.

Unable to tolerate the prospect that the cycles of conflict will continue, many are anxious to find continuing improvement in the human lot. Who can fail to sympathise with them?
- John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war, The Guardian, March 13, 2015

The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah – but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us.

“Once upon a time, it was of great survival value to be worried about everything that could go wrong,” says Johan Norberg, a Swedish historian and self-declared New Optimist whose book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future was published just before Trump won the presidency last year. This is what makes bad news especially compelling: in our evolutionary past, it was a very good thing that your attention could be easily seized by negative information, since it might well indicate an imminent risk to your own survival.
- Oliver Burkeman, Is the world really better than ever?, The Guardian, 28 Jul 2017 [good overview with lots of references]

[SP:] But reason is not a powerful part of human nature. Innately, we favor family over strangers, our tribe over other tribes. ...
[BG:] So, when you consider a radical change, like “Hey, let’s tear up the global trade agreements; they’re a disaster,” you’re more likely to implement it if you think things are getting worse. “Let’s tear up the treaties. Let’s try a nondemocratic approach.” Your willingness to go off the current path is much, much higher. But you can hardly be serious about government — or society as a whole — unless you say: What are the measures that count, and how are we doing on those measures? ...
[SP:] We should appreciate how much better off we are and try to improve our institutions guided by what works and what doesn’t. ...
[BG:] There’s a paradox in letting yourself be very, very upset about what remains to be done. What indicator improves even faster than reduction in violence? Our distaste for violence. We’re more upset about it today. ... But to read Steven’s book and think it says, “Don’t worry, be happy,” is to misread it. ...
[SP:] You can say the same fact two ways. Extreme global poverty has been reduced from 90 percent 200 years ago to 10 percent today. That’s great! Or you can say: More than 700 million people in the world live in extreme poverty today. They’re the same fact.... ...
[BG:] And, yes, I embrace more risk. Most philanthropists don’t take huge, 10-to-15-years-type risks. ...
[BG:] There are different time frames. Take the #MeToo movement. We’re in a period of awakening now. It is not worse today than it was five years ago. We’re just more aware. And five years from now this outrage will have been a factor in making things better than five years ago, when it was hidden. ...
[SP:] When people subscribe to an ideology, they suck up evidence that supports their preconceptions and filter out evidence that goes against them. Contrary to the belief of most scientists that denial of climate change is an effect of scientific illiteracy, it is not at all correlated with scientific literacy. People who believe in man-made climate change don’t know any more about climate or science than those who deny it. It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation. ...
[BG:] But I’m optimistic. I do think awareness of how things have worked is important to recreate a conservative center — that is, make us careful about what we change. ...
''[BG:] But the problem now is that innovation is not viewed as an unalloyed way to improve the human condition. And that’s fair, because it’s not pure. Does social media split us into tribes in a way that’s dangerous? Does it create, even in high school social circles, a channel for bullying, or a desire to look perfect in photos? Is A.I. going to proceed so quickly that work, which is something people worship, will suffer bad distributional effects, and people won’t know what to do? This is an unfortunate time for saying, “Take all your damn negative thoughts, and I’ll innovate away from them.” People are seeing difficulty with that argument. ...
[SP:] There’s also a dichotomy between the roles of innovation and policy. There are certain things that governments are always going to do better than private innovators.
- PHILIP GALANES, The Mind Meld of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker, NYT, JAN. 27, 2018

Some 1.3 billion people still live in extreme poverty....
- LANDON THOMAS Jr., The World Bank Is Remaking Itself as a Creature of Wall Street, NYT, JAN. 25, 2018 [This is on p. 4 of the Sunday January 28th Business section. On p. 5 of the same section, Steven Pinker is quoted as saying "You can say the same fact two ways. Extreme global poverty has been reduced from 90 percent 200 years ago to 10 percent today. That’s great! Or you can say: More than 700 million people in the world live in extreme poverty today. They’re the same fact...." As of Dec. 2017 the world population was said to be 7.6 billion, so 10% would be 760 million in extreme poverty, quite a discrepancy from 1.3 billion.]

“So many positive things going on for the U.S.A. and the Fake News Media just doesn’t want to go there,” [https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/962753552824365056|he [Donald Trump] wrote] on Twitter. “Same negative stories over and over again! No wonder the People no longer trust the media, whose approval ratings are correctly at their lowest levels in history!”
- PETER BAKER and MAGGIE HABERMAN, Abuse Case Exposes Fissures in a White House in Turmoil, NYT, FEB. 11, 2018

Once we had eaten, we asked one of the waitresses if we could talk to her. She nodded uncertainly and dried her hands on her apron. ...
“Things are better in Russia now,” she said. “The economy is improving, our lives are getting better and better.”

“What are you saying?” said a man over at the cash register, looking at us. “Things are worse in Russia! It’s all going downhill! Worse and worse!”
- KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD, A Literary Road Trip Into the Heart of Russia, NYT, FEB. 14, 2018

These days almost everyone has the (justified) sense that America is coming apart at the seams. But this isn’t a new story, or just about politics. Things have been falling apart on multiple fronts since the 1970s: Political polarization has marched side by side with economic polarization, as income inequality has soared.
- Paul Krugman, What’s the Matter With Trumpland?, NYT, April 2, 2018

But... any institution that assumes that past success guarantees the future is being foolish.”
- Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, quoted in ERICA L. GREEN, With Changing Students and Times, Colleges Are Going Back to School, NYT, APRIL 5, 2018

ROME, the Maya, Bronze Age Greece: every complex society in history has collapsed. Will our industrial civilisation be any different?

Probably not.
- Debora MacKenzie, John Horgan and Richard Webb, What happens when society crumbles and progress stops, New Scientist, 1 June 2016

There’s a mountain of evidence suggesting that the quality of our relationships has been in steady decline for decades. In the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40 percent. Suicide rates are now at a 30-year high. Depression rates have increased tenfold since 1960, which is not only a result of greater reporting. Most children born to mothers under 30 are born outside of marriage. There’s been a steady 30-year decline in Americans’ satisfaction with the peer-to-peer relationships at work.

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy summarized his experience as a doctor in an article in September in The Harvard Business Review: “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” ...

Weak social connections have health effects similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and a greater negative effect than obesity, he said.

Over the past five years, such trends have abruptly gotten worse. In 2012, 5.9 percent of young people suffered from severe mental health issues. By 2015 it was 8.2 percent.

Last year, Jean Twenge wrote a much-discussed article for The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” charting the accelerating social collapse. Teenagers are suddenly less likely to date, less likely to leave the home without their parents, more likely to put off the activities of adulthood. They are spending more time alone with their digital screens, and the greater the screen time, the greater the unhappiness. Eighth graders who are heavy users of social media are 27 percent more likely to be depressed. ...
But the big issue surrounding Facebook is not privacy. It’s that Facebook and other social media companies are feeding this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.
- David Brooks, The Blindness of Social Wealth, NYT, April 16, 2018

The neural response patterns evoked by the videos — on subjects as diverse as the dangers of college football, the behavior of water in outer space, and Liam Neeson trying his hand at improv comedy — proved so congruent among friends, compared to patterns seen among people who were not friends, that the researchers could predict the strength of two people’s social bond based on their brain scans alone. ...
The new study is part of a surge of scientific interest in the nature, structure and evolution of friendship. Behind the enthusiasm is a virtual Kilimanjaro of demographic evidence that friendlessness can be poisonous, exacting a physical and emotional toll comparable to that of more familiar risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure, unemployment, lack of exercise, smoking cigarettes. ...
Dr. Christakis and his co-workers recently demonstrated that people with strong social ties had comparatively low concentrations of fibrinogen, a protein associated with the kind of chronic inflammation thought to be the source of many diseases.
- NATALIE ANGIER, You Share Everything With Your Bestie. Even Brain Waves., NYT, APRIL 16, 2018

Even liberal economists such as Nouriel Roubini agree that Marx’s conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself remains as prescient as ever.
- Jason Barker, Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!, NYT, April 30, 2018

Similarly, when the film World War Z premiered in the summer of 2013, the end of the world was also captured in at least five other films: Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s This Is the End, and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. By the summer of 2014, Entertainment Weekly had to release an “Apocalypse Issue” in order to cover all of the salient new summer blockbusters set in a postapocalyctic era. It is not merely zombies that have crested culturally—it is the end of the world. ...
In other words, if citizens think that we’re teetering on the brink of chaos, the apocalyptic mindset can, in and of itself, help bring about the very disaster it fears. ...
The rise of the zombie metaphor both reflects and reifies collective perceptions of societal breakdown. Communications scholar Brian Anse Patrick (2014, 25) explicitly argues that “the zombie phenomenon represents a profound disturbance in the Western collective unconscious caused by anxieties over the decline of Western civilization.” ...
Consider the observations of a survivalist instructor (Bowser 2014):
The “defend what’s mine” mentality states that the moment “shit goes down,” every other human in the world instantly becomes either a resource to be used or a threat to be eliminated. Whomever you designate as “your tribe” are the only people with any value—all others are simply mindless sheep to be picked off with your shiny new AR-15.
- Daniel W. Drezner, Metaphor of the Living Dead: Or, the Effect of the Zombie Apocalypse on Public Policy Discourse, Social Research: An International Quarterly, Volume 81, Number 4, Winter 2014, pp. 825-849

The next panel asks us to consider whether the West will survive. In recent years, this question would invite accusations of hyperbole and alarmism. Not this year. If ever there were a time to treat this question with a deadly seriousness, it is now.

This question was real, half a century ago, for Ewald von Kleist and the founders of this conference. Indeed, it is why they first started coming to Munich. They did not assume the West would survive, because they had seen its near annihilation. They saw open markets give way to beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism, and the poverty that imposed. They saw a world order fracture into clashing ethnic and nationalist passions, and the misery that wrought. They saw the rise of hostile great powers, and the failure of deterrence, and the wars that followed.

We've lost hope for the future in all these different ways. ...
We should not let our ideological biases obscure the sort of objective decline that has happened. ... I think the universities have played a big role in this decline.... The real scientists have been replaced by people who are nimble in the art of government grants....''
You never really push the envelope, you never ask tough questions. ... It's always easiest for us to see a lot of the conformity and political correctness in the humanities.... ...
There are all these things you could no longer do. ... The history about the stagnation, sclerosis of the United States — the conservative versus liberal debate is always when did this start. ... The liberals always say it started in the eighties with Reagan. The conservatives say it started in the seventies. And I think the conservatives are really right about that. ...
We landed on the moon in July of 1969. Woodstock started three weeks later. And I think with the benefit of hindsight we can say that that's when the hippies took over the country and when the true sort of cultural war — this question of progress — was somehow lost and the stagnation of the seventies really set in.

- Peter Thiel, The Reasons for the Decline of Western Civilization and Science, PhilosophyInsights, published on Sep 17, 2017 [excerpt from Peter Thiel Speech at ISI's 2014 Dinner for Western Civilization]

“This is always a problem with élites, they’re always skewed in an optimistic direction,” he said. “It may be true to an even greater extent at present. If you were born in 1950, and you were in the top-tenth percentile economically, everything got better for twenty years automatically. Then, after the late sixties, you went to a good grad school, and you got a good job on Wall Street in the late seventies, and then you hit the boom. Your story has been one of incredible, unrelenting progress for sixty-one years. Most people who are sixty-one years old in the U.S.? Not their story at all.” ...
“I actually think it is a big step just to ask the question ‘What does one need to do to make the U.S. a better place?’ That’s where I’m weirdly hopeful, in spite of the fact that a lot of things aren’t going perfectly these days. There is a very cathartic crisis that’s gone on, and it’s not clear where it’s going to go. But at least everyone knows things are rotten. We’re in a much better place than when things were rotten and everyone thought things were great.”
- Peter Thiel, quoted in George Packer, No Death, No Taxes: The libertarian futurism of a Silicon Valley billionaire., The New Yorker, November 28, 2011

The real question is whether digital technology can produce the enduring changes in the brain that addictive drugs do. There is little evidence that this is the case. And while an alcoholic deprived of his drink can go into life-threatening withdrawal, I have yet to see an adolescent in the emergency room with smartphone withdrawal — just a sullen teenager who wants his device back.

Considering all this, why do so many parents still insist that their teenager has a problem with anxiety? I fear that it reflects a cultural shift toward pathologizing everyday levels of distress.

There is a difference between an anxiety disorder and everyday anxiety. The first impairs people’s ability to function because they suffer from excessive anxiety even when there is little or nothing to be anxious about. The second is a perfectly normal and rational response to real stress. Teenagers — and people of all ages — will and should feel anxious occasionally.

Some would argue that young people today are more worried because the world is now in a more parlous state, what with intense competition for college and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, among other factors. Sure, but then that anxiety is an appropriate response to life’s challenges — not a disorder.
Of course this is anecdotal, but as a psychiatrist, I haven’t seen an increase in the number of patients suffering from true anxiety disorders, who need therapy and often medication to keep their affliction in check. What I have noticed is that more of my young patients worry a lot about things that don’t seem so serious, and then worry about their worry. ...
It’s good to keep in mind that the advent of new technology typically provokes medical and moral panic. Remember all those warnings that TV would cause brain rot? Never happened.
- Richard A. Friedman, The Big Myth About Teenage Anxiety, NYT, Sept. 7, 2018

The worry that “today’s young people are reading less books” seems to be a theme for each successive generation. One can imagine a similar adult worry about the decline of college student book reading in the 1980s (when I went to school) or the 1880s.

Each generation of older people seems to be convinced that today’s young folks are succumbing to the latest distraction. Smart phones are the new rock and roll. Social media is the new comic book.

I suspect that today’s college students are just fine. That they read books today, and will read books in ever greater numbers long into the future.
- Joshua Kim, Is NYTimes Correct That College Students Don't Read Books?, Inside Higher Ed, September 3, 2018

After hearing conflicting opinions about the matters of the day, Mrs. Lee sighs and wonders: “Who, then, is right? How can we all be right? Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right.”
- Madeleine Lee ["who is young, rich and beautiful"], in Henry Adams ["Great-grandson and grandson of presidents, historian, professor and journalist, Adams had left Boston in 1877 for Washington."], Democracy: an American Novel ["created a sensation and was a best seller in the United States and England"], published in 1880, quoted in Jon Meacham, Henry Adams’s 1880 Novel, ‘Democracy,’ Resonates Now More Than Ever, NYT, Sept. 11, 2018

Every year since 1999, more Americans have killed themselves than the year before, making suicide the nation’s greatest untamed cause of death. In much of the world, it’s among the only major threats to get significantly worse in this century than in the last.

The result is an accelerating paradox. Over the last five decades, millions of lives have been remade for the better. Yet within this brighter tomorrow, we suffer unprecedented despair. In a time defined by ever more social progress and astounding innovations, we have never been more burdened by sadness or more consumed by self-harm. And this may be only the beginning. ...
The trends in suicide in both America and abroad are mirrored by devastating changes in behavior and mental health. In the last two decades, for example, there’s been a 37 percent increase in the years of life lost to clinical depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, and other disorders of the mind, according to the batch of previously unpublished GBD data provided to Newsweek. As a group, these disorders are the leading cause of disability in the world, vexing developing countries in particular, and the United States most of all. ...
“The strength of the association between media violence and aggressive behavior,” the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 2009, “is greater than the association between calcium intake and bone mass, lead ingestion and lower IQ, and condom nonuse and sexually acquired HIV infection, and is nearly as strong as the association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.”
- TONY DOKOUPIL, Why Suicide Has Become an Epidemic--and What We Can Do to Help, Newsweek, 5/23/13

(See also Heaven on Earth and Going to Hell.)

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