Why optimism is a necessity

Blind optimism is a stance towards the future. It consists of proceeding as if one knows that the bad outcomes will not happen. The opposite approach, blind pessimism, often called the precautionary principle, seeks to ward off disaster by avoiding everything not known to be safe. No one seriously advocates either of these two as a universal policy, but their assumptions and their arguments are common, and often creep into people’s planning.

Blind optimism is also known as ‘overconfidence’ or ‘recklessness’. An often cited example, perhaps unfairly, is the judgement of the builders of the ocean liner Titanic that it was ‘practically unsinkable’. The largest ship of its day, it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. Designed to survive every foreseeable disaster, it collided with an iceberg in a manner that had not been foreseen. A blind pessimist argues that there is an inherent asymmetry between good and bad con­sequences: a successful maiden voyage cannot possibly do as much good as a disastrous one can do harm. As Rees points out, a single catastrophic consequence of an otherwise beneficial innovation could put an end to human pro­gress for ever. So the blindly pessimistic approach to building ocean liners is to stick with existing designs and refrain from attempting any records.

But blind pessimism is a blindly optimistic doctrine. It assumes that unforeseen disastrous consequences cannot follow from existing knowledge too (or, rather, from existing ignorance). Not all shipwrecks happen to record­-breaking ships. Not all unforeseen physical disasters need be caused by physics experiments or new technology. But one thing we do know is that protecting ourselves from any disaster, foreseeable or not, or recovering from it once it has happened, requires knowledge; and knowledge has to be created. The harm that can flow from innovation that does not destroy the growth of knowledge is always finite; the good can be unlimited. There would be no existing ship designs to stick with, nor records to stay within, if no one had ever violated the precautionary principle. [201-2]

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