Foundation Spotlight: These Are Tough Times for Us Optimists
Milton D. Hakel, PhD
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Here is the question that generated the brief essay below: "In your view, what is the value of psychological science and practice in the 21st Century?"
The question came from the editors of a volume commemorating the 75th anniversary of the International Council of Psychologists (ICP). ICP is committed to furthering world peace, promoting human rights, and collaborating with mental health professionals and social scientists globally.
Resources for International Psychology: 75 Years of the International Council of Psychologists will be published in December 2017. Twenty essays addressing the future, plus more essays addressing the past and present of international psychology—organizations, teaching, research, consulting, service, study abroad, teaching abroad, funding, and so on—will appear in it. Check it out at http://www.icpweb.org/publications. My essay appears in the Foundation Spotlight in this issue of TIP because SIOP and ICP members have many similar aims, celebrating ICP’s 75 years reminds us that psychological science is a global pursuit, and the fastest growing segment of SIOP’s professional membership is international.
For me, today’s world looks too much like the 1930s, with economic distress, rampant nationalism and ethnocentrism, and threats of economic and military conflict. Oh, yes, don’t forget about climate change, migration, rising sea levels, and increasing automation. Then too, consider instant global communication, coupled with high cynicism about political and civic affairs, all compounded by “universal omniscience”: the belief that every person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. Hmmm, maybe it’s worse than the 1930s. Tough times indeed. What’s a psychologist to do?
Well, first off, keep this in mind: All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.
David Deutsch presents this statement as the principle of optimism. He writes:
Optimism is, in the first instance, a way of explaining failure, not prophesying success. It says that there is no fundamental barrier, no law of nature or supernatural decree, preventing progress. Whenever we try to improve things and fail, it is not because the spiteful (or unfathomably benevolent) gods are thwarting us, or punishing us for trying, or because we have reached a limit on the capacity of reason to make improvements, or because it is best that we fail, but always because we did not know enough, in time. (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, 2011, p. 212)
Next: Lighten up and look at the big picture.
Examine current world-wide levels of long and healthy living, educational attainment, and standards of living, as documented in the United Nations Human Development Reports (http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-index-hdi). Or better yet, see the trends illustrated in Hans Rosling’s captivating data-visualization The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen (https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen/transcript?language=en).
Much remains to be done –the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals set out 17 challenges to be met by 2030. See them at http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html. These are soluble problems, and research will be needed to solve them. That said, the state of the world has never been better.
And last: Keep researching for better explanations.
I use the word “researching” because that is what we do to explain and improve the world. Psychologists have been refining and expanding reliable and usable knowledge for well over a century. Science in general and psychological science in particular claim neither infallibility nor finality. Yesterday’s practices and theories have been supplanted by today’s, and they will be supplanted by tomorrow’s. We have a long way to go.
Beware of universal omniscience, both as proclaimed in public media (e.g., fake news) and as asserted by expert authorities—all opinions are NOT equally good. Don’t let postmodernists and deconstructionists get you down with claims that all ideas, including scientific theories, are conjectures, nothing more than stories. David Deutsch again:
Mixing extreme cultural relativism with other forms of anti-realism, [postmodernism] regards objective truth and falsity, as well as reality and knowledge of reality, as mere conventional forms of words that stand for an idea’s being endorsed by a designated group of people such as an elite or consensus, or by a fashion or other arbitrary authority. (p. 314)
Evidence and rationality provide the basis for better opinions, both personal and scientific. So let's get on with improving psychological science.
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