Shit happens, really

Jenny Diski

I'm not sure if I've got my miserablist head round this exactly, but it seems that not only do pessimists generally have a much more realistic view of the world than optimists, but optimists maintain their unrealistic position by ignoring bad news. Tell someone that the 40 per cent chance they thought they had of getting cancer is actually 30 per cent and they'll revise their estimate to a realistic 31 per cent. Those who believed that their chances were just 10 per cent 'only marginally' increased their odds of getting the disease. MRI scans showed that the frontal lobes of the happy-go-lucky 80 per cent of the population just weren't letting any mopey facts change their upbeat, can-do, won't-die minds.

Chris Chambers, a neuroscientist from Cardiff University, told the BBC this is a 'cool' piece of research:

For me, this work highlights something that is becoming increasingly apparent in neuroscience, that a major part of brain function in decision-making is the testing of predictions against reality – in essence all people are 'scientists'. And despite how sophisticated these neural networks are, it is illuminating to see how the brain sometimes comes up with wrong and overly optimistic answers despite the evidence.

Illuminating maybe, but definitely worrying because if 80 per cent of the civilian population are bad scientists, as Chambers seems to suggest, then presumably 80 per cent of the actual scientist population are also bad scientists whose frontal lobes will want nothing to do with negative results or even the gloomier sort of theory. I think, pace Chambers, that the findings are not so much illuminating as catastrophic and that we must be very wary of cheery biologists, psychologists and physicists.

Yes, optimists may be happier and healthier than pessimists, but they are also more often wrong. No wonder pessimists are so pessimistic, we have to bear the burden of reality on ourselves while most people are diddling about in cloud-cuckoo land. Listen: there really is a financial problem, the planet is strangling, human beings are incorrigible and we're all going to die. No – listen, will you? – all of us. However, although I don't want to be too positive, there are two great advantages of pessimism: we hardly ever get taken by surprise and disappointment is an unknown emotion to the 20 per cent who know shit happens and that it actually happens to them.


  • 10 October 2011 at 3:00pm
    alex says:
    Doesn't actually seem to surprising or contradictory to me. 80% of people are stupid dreamers; but it's from these stupid dreamers, not from the minority of rational risk-assessing pessimists, that one person in a thousand works out something hitherto considered impossible, like how to fly or to make bread (from which the rational pessimists derive undeserved benefit). It's like the person who taught me how to bone a chicken put it: "you've got to want to do it". Most days, I don't; but when i'm in the mood, I learn something.

  • 10 October 2011 at 10:35pm
    Bolbol says:
    Surely there is no need to choose between being either an optimist or a pessimist? The watchword in this regard should be Gramsci's "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".

  • 11 October 2011 at 6:07am
    MAx says:
    Both the post itself and Alex's comment seem to presume that pessimism translates to nihilism or defeatism and/or that optimism translates into an inability to take problems as they in fact are. I agree that unthinking cheeriness or gloom are both barriers to some sorts of endeavour: the inanely happy don't make for good revolutionaries and the irrationally despondent don't make for good anything much.

    But erring in one's perception of risk does not dictate either of these outcomes: one can be a pessimist and very motivated and careful, or an optimist and highly motivated and hopeful - these, surely, are matters of approach (or, in the case of non-amateur scientists, professional training and praxis), not perspective.

    • 11 October 2011 at 5:21pm
      alex says: @ MAx
      You're perfectly right. Actually I don't use the concepts much, I just try to decide what to do and what not to do. but I do compare my decision-making processes with those of people around me, and inevitably seem to produce a scale of preparedness-to-do-stuff.

  • 11 October 2011 at 7:55am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Years ago, in preparation for a team-building exercise which I had passionately wanted to avoid, I did a personality test using the Belbin Team Inventory. I scored highest in the group for the "Plant" role (creative, unorthodox and a generator of ideas ... bears a strong resemblance to the popular caricature of the absent-minded professor). I also got the highest score for the "Monitor Evaluator" role ([they] see all available options with the greatest clarity and impartiality ... they can become very critical, damping enthusiasm for anything without logical grounds, and they have a hard time inspiring themselves or others to be passionate about their work).

    "Ideas? You want ideas, I'll give you ideas. Not that they'll work, but look, you could... Yes, and if you... No, no, no, you don't have to do that, that's what I'm saying, you can... Oh, never mind, it probably wouldn't work anyway."

    • 11 October 2011 at 11:41am
      Richard says: @ Phil Edwards

  • 11 October 2011 at 12:00pm
    Guernican says:
    I find it somewhat reassuring that so many people are optimists. Presumably they dno't have the same reaction that I do when they read, say, the ongoing details of the Berezovsky / Abramovich lawsuit, and fantasise about buying a shotgun and a chainsaw.

    But I like your correlation between bad science by general population and bad science within the actual scientific community. There's certainly a hell of a lot of dreadful science in the science journalism community, as the following illustrates quite neatly:

  • 11 October 2011 at 12:53pm
    Leo says:
    "Illuminating maybe, but definitely worrying because if 80 per cent of the civilian population are bad scientists, as Chambers seems to suggest, then presumably 80 per cent of the actual scientist population are also bad scientists whose frontal lobes will want nothing to do with negative results or even the gloomier sort of theory."

    This strikes me as an odd bit of reasoning, since we might expect there to be all kinds of effects that make scientists precisely *less* likely, and *much* less likely, to have what you might call that cognitive failing, since there are presumably selection effects of various kinds, training effects (part of your training to be a scientist probably involves somehow reducing your propensity to ignore depressing but true results), different incentives for believing what's true rather than what's nice to think, etc. etc.

  • 11 October 2011 at 12:54pm
    Jake Bharier says:
    ", there are two great advantages of pessimism: we hardly ever get taken by surprise and disappointment is an unknown emotion to the 20 per cent who know shit happens and that it actually happens to them."

    There is another view, on the grounds that pessimists expect failure and plan for it. It's a quote that has been attributed to wide variety of business leaders but source seems unknown: "The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, and is not preceded by a period of worry and depression."

  • 12 October 2011 at 10:47am
    ander says:
    Marquise de Sévigné precedes Jenny Diski by 340 years when she says: "Je suis au désespoir quand je vois des gens heureux sans raison."

    Ben, moi aussi.

  • 13 October 2011 at 1:56am
    outofdate says:
    'Do you really think you can outwit the resourceful malevolence of nature? God is not mocked, as St. Paul long ago warned the Galatians. When man gets rid of a great trouble he is easier for a little while, but not for long: Nature immediately sets to work to weaken his power of sustaining trouble, and very soon seven pounds is as heavy as 14 pounds used to be. Last Easter Monday a woman threw herself into the Lea because her dress looked so shabby amongst the holiday crowd: in other times and countries women have been ravished by half-a-dozen dragoons and taken it less to heart. It looks to me as if the state of mankind always had been and always would be a state of just tolerable discomfort.'

    • 13 October 2011 at 2:46pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ outofdate
      What comes around goes around. But aren't you all being rather pessimistic? My favourite fictional character is, yes, Mary Poppins, closely followed by Mr Micawber. Now analyse the hell out of that combination.

    • 13 October 2011 at 2:46pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ outofdate
      I presume you mean 'ravished by half a dozen dragons'?

    • 13 October 2011 at 9:07pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Either way: God will save her, fear you not.

    • 15 October 2011 at 1:44am
      outofdate says: @ Bob Beck
      Well, provided you get the sons your fathers got, and what are the chances of that?

    • 15 October 2011 at 1:57am
      outofdate says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Whoever heard of a woman being ravished by half a dozen dragons? Mauled maybe. Severely singed. But it says here the word is indeed derived from 'dragon', which was a kind of firearm. Not a lot of people know that.

    • 15 October 2011 at 2:30pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      Pretty slim, I grant. Unless of course you're that guy in Heinlein's "All You Zombies." A consummation devoutly not to be wished.

  • 16 October 2011 at 2:16pm
    Stephen Cahaly says:
    The point of this post is not about the optimist pessimist divide but about what lousy scientists we are. Yesterday at the Boston Book Festival a packed house at our Trinity Sanctuary listened to Stephen Greenblatt speak about resurrection myths and forgotten writers; Lisa Randall about needing to know everything from the microscopic to the very large so that we can frame our theories about where we live; Siddartha Mukherjee about the facts Jenny Diski is adddressing here about cancer rates. All under the title "The Future of Science." I get confused too: everytime I hear a scientist talking about the importance of future understanding, I'm not sure how that would be an improvement as it had been for George Orwell when watching a man trying to skip past a puddle on his way to the gallows. What advancements as compared to the medieval era, as far as understanding goes, but that man is still going to get hanged, and humanity is still sending him there. Hey Jenny! Your novel "Only Human" made it all the way to a small used bookstore in Pompano Beach, Florida. Loved it.

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