Machine Design

A generation of pessimists

John Horgan has done it innumerable times. The noted science journalist teaches college classes at Stevens Institute of Technology ranging from the history of science and technology to science writing and the great works of western civilization. At some point during his lectures, he covers John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, in which Kennedy asked his fellow Americans to join him in a quest to end poverty, disease, tyranny, and war. Horgan then polls students about whether these four goals are attainable or are merely utopian fantasies.

He says he always gets the same answer: College kids generally think these goals are pipe dreams. “All my students are extraordinarily pessimistic,” he says.

Horgan first tried this exercise in 2005 and has repeated it periodically ever since. The responses he receives are the same regardless of whether the kids in the classroom are freshman humanities students or upperclass science writers.

It is fair to ask how we have come to the point where kids who are college material seem to be universally downbeat about prospects for improving the human condition. Insights into this state of affairs may come from the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who blames media coverage of apocalyptic environmentalism and the spread of apocalyptic literature for promoting a fear of the future and a dismal view of humankind’s chances. “The fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the press reporting, as though it were a surprise, that young people are haunted by the very concerns about global warming that the media continually broadcast. As in an echo chamber, opinion polls reflect the views promulgated by the media,” he says.

Bruckner doesn’t highlight this phenomenon to denigrate globalwarming science. He merely points out that radical environmentalism is just the latest movement to make modern society, and the abundance it provides, a scapegoat for the world’s woes. Bruckner says all such movements have a single message: Man has committed the sin of pride; he must atone! But the purveyors of this message have an axe to grind and it isn’t one that promotes optimistic thinking. “These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy. It is a short distance from lucidity to bitterness, from prediction to anathema,” he says.

It is not a great leap to think that gloom about global warming has colored the thinking of young people about the general prospects for improving humankind. That brings us back to John Horgan and his college classes full of pessimists. “I feel it is my responsibility to get them to be a little more cheerful in a constructive way,” Horgan says. “I try to get them to believe that they can make the world a better place. Not that they can necessarily get rid of poverty, war, or disease, but that they can make progress toward those goals.”

For himself, Horgan says he is not pessimistic but realistic about scientific progress, and optimistic about large social goals, simply because, “we have already come so far.” That is certainly a viewpoint that young people need to hear.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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