Sweet Science


Matt "Genome" Ridley delivers a paean to science–a bitch slap to European pessimists–in The Guardian (courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily):

For the past century the world has got steadily better for most people. You do not believe that? I am not surprised. You are fed such a strong diet of news about how bad things are that it must be hard to believe they were once worse. But choose any statistic you like and it will show that the lot of even the poorest is better today than it was in 1903. Longevity is increasing faster in the poor south than in the rich north. Infant mortality is lower in Asia than ever before. Decade by decade per-capita food production is rising.

Here at home, we are healthier, wealthier and wiser than ever before. Pollution has declined; prosperity increased; options opened.

All this has been achieved primarily by that most hated of tricks, the technical fix. By invention, not legislation.

My point? Simply this: if you asked intellectuals at almost any time since Malthus to talk about the future, they would have been pessimistic and they would have been wrong. The future (actual) has consistently proved better than the future (forecast).

Want more reasons to be cheerful? Check out Reason's own Ron Bailey on the 30th anniversary of Earth Day.


NEXT: Chemical Weapons

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  1. there’s a more fundamental point i think! that people pay more attention to doom sayers and bad news sells, regardless of whether it’s intellectual or political, etc. it’s generally in the interest of any authoritative personhood or institution to paint a worse scenario to garner sympathy for your cause. ‘the boy who cried wolf’ and ‘chicken little’ are an enduring testament to human nature and rhetoric precisely because it remains the case that objectivity remains a scarce commodity in a world where the future is not set. there is no fate but what we make for ourselves 😀

  2. “All this has been achieved primarily by that most hated of tricks, the technical fix. By invention, not legislation.”

    This is manifestly wrong. Legislation has been key in enforcing environmental improvements. The major problems – discharges of toxins into the air and water – have almost exclusively been controlled by legislation.

    In other areas, the strict enforcement of property rights has been sufficient, but only when backed up by the power of the state.

    One of the effects of the legislation is to drive the technical fix. An obvious one is the replacement of lead as a gasoline additive.

  3. I would disagree with the above poster. True, much has been driven by legislation and regulation, but the L&R has been driven by what people wanted, i.e. “The Market”. I might postulate that, in the United States, ONLY “The Market” exists. At least over the long term. In the short term, government may go against “The Market”, but over the long term either a) The market decides it’s “good” or the government decision is overturned.

  4. The reason we have had legislation is that the “market” is blind and deaf to the public good.

    What incentive does the “market” provide to industrialist to implement expensive filtering on his manufacturing plant? Absolutely none.

    We, the people, legislate that he should spend the money to prevent the toxic discharge, since, we the people, are the ones who will suffer.

    (This is not to say that some industrialists may not regulate themselves, but this was not and will never be enough.)

    Alternatively, we can sue the industrialist until he sees that the legal penalties are greater than his profit.

    Either way, it is not the “market”.

  5. Simply astounding.

    Who is this “public”, what does it consider to be “good”, and why?

    Moreover, why is the industrialist not considered just as much “we the people” as the snarky little commentor?


  6. To “”: “Legislation has been key in enforcing environmental improvements.” Yes, but are you claiming that that’s what’s improved living conditions around the world over the past century? Child mortality is lower in Asia and life expectancy longer in Africa because of…legislation-driven environmental improvements? (Note that I’m not claiming I know exactly what it is myself.)

  7. I am curious. What is astounding about our elected representatives enacting a regulation to restrict the discharge of toxic waste into our rivers?

    We assume that some industrialists (a minority historically) will take care not to poison our drinking water.

    We assume that some industrialists (the majority perhaps) would rather not poison the water but don’t know how to or can’t afford to in the current market conditions.

    We assume that some simply don’t care.

    Either way, we pass a law. One of the benefits is that all the industries are now on the same footing, and no manufacturer suffers as a result of being more careful than others.

    Finally, if you are unable to get your mind round the concept of the “public good”, go and dump some engine oil on your local beach and study the consequences. You will find it really quite easy to discover who the “public” is and what “good” is being damaged.

  8. Hey Nick,

    Nice article. But why are the europeans the only ones bieing slapped with a glove ? Dont the neo-cons, who are so busy fighting the future, need to be called out as well ?

  9. I think its rather funny that Europeans are labelled “anti-science” when they are now in the forefront in stem cell research, and will likely leave the US in the dust because of American government’s desire to ban the field of research.

    Quite frankly, at lease in France, you simply do not get the anti-scientific attitudes that you get in the US, especially when it comes to an issue like evolution.

    Furthermore, need I remind you that Europeans have largely gotten past the nuclear bugaboo, which is why a country like France produces 77% of its electricity via nuclear power?

    Yeah, yeah, many Europeans have problems with GMOs, etc., but there are many Americans who do to (trust me, I live in Vermont where the negative attitude them is rampant, and surveys have shown a deep fear of the stuff amognst singificant portions of the population), and there are many Americans (perhaps the majority?) who question such scientific certitudes as evolution and the big bang, and who also believe in spirit mediums, perpetual motion machines, refrigerator magnets that can cure, magnetic braclets that can cure (ever see that commercial?), super dilutions (to the point that the dilution is only water) of substances that can cure, etc. Hell, mesmerism is likely more popular today in the US than it ever was in France.

    Europeans aren’t anywhere near as anti-science in some ways as Americans are.

  10. What good is a beach, if nobody can visit it, because they live too far away to ride their horse to it, or if they have no free time to visit it, because all they have are hand tools, without the benefit of industrial machinery?

  11. Steven Crane,

    One of the great paradoxes of industrialization and the like is that it doesn’t really create more free time for people. People (generally) just tend to shift their time to other tasks that are created by the social environment the new tools that are adopted are in (SEE “More Work For Mother”). Notice I eschew technological determinism. Now, what industrialization does has tended to create is a more regimented work environment, where being on time, etc., is more important. Now, whether a regimented work schedule of a factory worker (or a lawyer) vs. the more fluid work schedule of a peasant or artisan (they tended to have more control over their time, and their work schedule was rather seasonal in nature) is better or worse is probably largely up to the individual. Of course, the post-industrial age keeps on promising that the more fluid patterns of the peasant will return, or at least some futurists keep on claiming this, but I don’t know if that will be the case.

    You might want to check this out: http://shot.press.jhu.edu/

  12. More fluid patterns of the peasant? LOL. Only someone who has never farmed before would say that.

  13. Unknown Poster,

    Modern farmers aren’t peasants and peasants aren’t modern farmers. *duh* Actually, I grew up on a modern farm, and the workday patterns are clearly different from a 9 to 5 job. You wake up earlier and you have a lot more flex time in the middle of the day. You can make your own schedule in other words. One of the basic projects of industrialization was to turn peasants into people who clocked in and out according to a pre-determined schedule. I am not saying that this process was bad, but it certainly created a different sort of working day culture, and was radically different from the peasant’s non-clock driven schedule.

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