Matt Ridley: The Rational Optimist

Mar 19, 2016

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley is one of the books that should come with a punching bag with the author painted on it. I’ve heard about the book on CZ Podcast (I believe it was episode #134), but there were mentions of it earlier as well, so I decided to pick it up in the library.

If you scroll through the GoodReads reviews, you’ll see dozens of scathing reviews, sometimes with links to more unfavorable articles. I’ve read through many of them, and while I don’t agree with any of them completely, I, too, think this is a terrible book. Ridley’s key idea is that humanity is improving all the time as a whole — living standards are going up, work conditions are better and better, more people have access to health care etc. There are local (geographical or temporal) lows, but the overall trend is positive, despite what the media say. That’s a good point worth remembering, and the author illustrates it on numerous statistics and apocalypses which were foretold and never came to fruition.

The fact that none has come to pass is, however, not a guarantee that a future one won’t. That’s a logic of a gambler on a lucky streak. Ridley argues that our innate ability to invent things and figure out the way out of problems will outpace any mistakes we might make along the way. Contact of ideas from various fields gives rise to opportunities for more such ideas and thus creating a self-propelling spiral of innovation, a positive sum game. The growing interconnectedness of the world helps to spread ideas and accelerates this process, he believes.

While that might very well be true, he omits several problems. Ideas are hindered by institutions, governments, large companies, ideologies, religions and many other factors either out of fear of losing one’s position, or out of fear of change itself. Personally, I’d rather err on the side of freedom, but there’s no point in denying that it is a source of friction. Some fields suffer from it more, some less, but it is there all time.

Another problem is, that the interconnectedness which accelerates this process also creates points which would bring down everything if compromised. Corporations with privileged positions and governments naturally try to seize control of those points, which ultimately gives an immense power to few people. Everything might be going well and peachy as long as one of those pressure points doesn’t get squeezed hard enough by someone acting in their own best interest. It is quite possible that humanity would cope with it, but I don’t really want to test the limits. Decentralization and independence might not be as effective in the best-of scenario, but it gives a better chance of the average outcome. Nice discussion of this is in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (Diamond gets mocked in Ridley’s book quite heavily even though Ridley describes the same period of Chinese history with wildly different conclusions).

The third problem is the assumption, that everything will be handled in time. This is related especially to global warming. Apparently, Ridley’s science on this has been debunked all over the Internet, and I am just a layman, but his assumption that everything is reversible and the time-scale will work itself out grates on me. Of course, he makes good arguments against biofuels and many green policies, but his conviction seems unfounded to me.

These are just a few problems with The Rational Optimist. While he makes sense for a few paragraphs, he slips into nonsense just a sentence later; his crazy ideas undermine the good points made on the way. On top of that, he feels as if he has all the wisdom of humanity for himself, argues that specialists of many fields are wrong while he’s the only one right, he’s hugely condescending throughout the book. Plus, he writes in the annoying American style reiterating everything all the time — where an example is necessary, two could nicely complement each other, he uses five just to hammer his point down, nevermind the reader gets hit more often than not.

To summarize, I could recommend this book only to people with low blood pressure who want a book-shamed stimulant to get their heart beating fast with anger.