Thursday, December 29, 2016

Some optimism at the end of 2016

When the news is filled with bleak items, like:
it's easy to become pessimistic.   Bear in mind that modern communications plus the tendency for bad news to get attention plus the size of the population can really distort perception.  To put that another way, 56 million people die every year (!), but now you are able to hear about far more of them than ever before.  

Let me make a push for optimism, or at least try to put some things in perspective.  There are some reasons to be hopeful.  Specifically, look here, at a site called "Our World in Data", produced at Oxford University.  These folks use actual numbers to point out that this is actually, in many ways, the best time in human history to be alive:
  • The percentage of the world's population living in extreme poverty is at an all-time low (9.6%).
  • The percentage of the population that is literate is at an all-time high (85%), as is the overall global education level.
  • Child mortality is at an all-time low.
  • The percentage of people enjoying at least some political freedom is at an all-time high.
That may not be much comfort to, say, an unemployed coal miner in West Virginia, or an underemployed former factory worker in Missouri, but it's better than the alternative.   We face many challenges, and nothing is going to be easy or simple, but collectively we can do amazing things, like put more computing power in your hand than existed in all of human history before 1950, set up a world-spanning communications network, feed 7B people, detect colliding black holes billions of lightyears away by their ripples in spacetime, etc.  As long as we don't do really stupid things, like make nuclear threats over twitter based on idiots on the internet, we will get through this.   It may not seem like it all the time, but compared to the past we live in an age of wonders.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. We all need it.

Do you see any similar optimism in the future of science funding, particularly for basic research with no immediate foreseeable payoff? I think we would all like some hope going forward...

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, that's a tough one. I assume you're asking regarding the US in particular. NIH is probably safe - it's so easy to explain to Congress, and even anti-central-government people like medical research. NASA manned spaceflight might do better, though possibly at the expense of other programs, and certainly it looks like there could be very tough times ahead for all earth-observing, climate-related, NOAA-related work. DOD could be in for a boost. NIST and DOE are huge question marks; Commerce and Energy are departments that have been discussed as expendable during political rhetoric in recent campaigns, and it's not clear that basic research into new energy technologies are going to have any political support. I would hope that the NIST director and the leadership of the DOE Office of Science have pithy, one-sentence explanations for their missions and how those are critically important. Both parties profess to like NSF (at least not the social sciences), but one scenario that seems depressingly likely is that there will be a ramp up of other spending (defense is something the incoming administration has talked up), tax cuts that will eat into federal intake, and pressure from fiscal conservatives to slash non-defense discretionary spending, and that combination could really hurt NSF, DOE, and NIST. It's all going to come down to the new Congress and its relationship with the executive.