Carl Sagan and Cosmological, Anthropological & Ecological Optimism

It can be pretty depressing to think about the world these days. The rate of new destructive and unpleasant events is increasing all the time. There seems to be more and more vivid accounts of conflict and the effects of the declining state of the environment coming at us from every angle.

So you can imagine my surprise when I heard these words being uttered

For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger, but our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise.

Admittedly, these passed the lips of the late scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan on Cosmos back in 1980, so perhaps Sagan’s analysis should come with some more nuance in the present day. Cosmos was the most watched American show on public television for 10 years and if you’ve never seen it definitely has more charm than its 2014 reboot.

I found this level-headed optimism at odds with my prevailing memory of reading Sagan’s book, upon which the TV show was based as a teenager; an estimate of the cost of a human from the perspective of raw materials. His conclusion was quite blunt

You are worth about 3 dollars worth in chemicals.

Enough to bring you down to earth with a bump. Perhaps Sagan was simply intoxicated by too much California sunshine and other chemicals popular with his generation that are generally priced above 3 dollars. Do we have reason to be optimistic as a race? Are things getting better?

A recent high profile argument between Steven Pinker and Nasim Taleb has shed light on this point. Pinker claims in his book The Better Angels of our Nature that violence is decreasing globally over time despite our general perception to the contrary. This is a great example of the clash of empiricism vs. intuition that others such as Duncan Watts have excelled in articulating. Although Taleb provides some excellent (and technical) analysis to the contrary using Extreme Value Theory, this argument has played out rather publicly and childishly prompting seemingly endless rebuttals and counter-narratives (see here for example).

Another example that even the questions with clear quantitative metrics cannot be provided clear answers, even by extremely smart people.

Data, science, data science and trace amounts of the Middle East and the UN

Data, science, data science and trace amounts of the Middle East and the UN