Reflections are only that, reflections, nothing more nothing less. Often these reflections are related to books I read, but occasionally also other things. These are often written very late, very fast,  using notes from my mobile phone, so the grammar and spelling is horrible.

A Science/Ethics-matrix for risks in the 21st century, or the problem with “optimism”, and the need for a risk perspective

Over the last few years the discussion about “optimism” and “pessimism” in relation to important issues, especially global challenges has become increasingly destructive. Old school mass media might be one of the biggest problems, as they tend to report a strange and dangerous polarization between groups/individuals who are “optimistic” and those who are “pessimistic” regarding different challenges. Especially journalists and pundits scared of the need for transformative change, and without scientific education, tend to talk about the need “to be optimistic” about current global challenges, like climate change and global pandemics. [Example] This simplified and artificial polarization is even more extreme when it comes to emerging technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology.

The main reason that optimism, or pessimism for that matter, is not a good concept to use when it comes to important issues is that it’s about being irrational. The definition of optimism from Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary: “a feeling or belief that good things will happen in the future : a feeling or belief that what you hope for will happen” [Italics added].

There is obviously nothing wrong with feelings, and ultimately we need transparent value judgments in our discussions about global challenges. However, we need to be very careful with feelings and beliefs when it comes to complex global challenges. What we need is to separate

  • A. Facts and transparent assumptions regarding methodologies for establish impacts, probabilities and uncertainties
  • B. Ethical assumptions for what impacts we find acceptable, not-acceptable, desirable, not-desirable, etc.

Most of today’s major challenges are difficult to understand and solutions might be counterintuitive, so feelings and beliefs can not be trusted to guide us towards strategic solutions. Even less we should confuse our own values with scientific facts.

The classical definition of an optimist and a pessimist, “the optimist is said to see the glass as half full and the pessimist sees the glass as half empty”, is exactly the kind of discussion we do not need. Two people looking at something and saying different things is seldom very helpful unless we know if this is due to the fact that they actually look at different things, or just have different ethical values. We need to discuss facts (what the level of liquid is in the glass is), separate from ethics (What consequences we think are desirable and why?).

Today those talking about the need for being optimistic in relation to global risks often do one, or both, of two things:

  1. Cherry picking Cherry picks different facts (usually fact where little disagreement exists) and then makes a big fuss about it. It can be facts like the global average temperatures, ice on the Antarctic, the emission reductions that different commitments will result in, etc. Often this approach to “facts” is similar to how other groups though history that did not want to see action approaches science (the most famous case is the pro-smoking lobby).The idea behind this approach is to create a culture where the public and decision makers think that there is so much disagreement that it is better to wait with any measures until more research has been conducted. Cherry picking certain studies that show that “deforestation is not happening”, “climate change is not real/serious”, etc. has nothing to do with being optimistic or not, it is about being scientifically illiterate. The need for action, or no action, should never be based on individual studies.A major problem here, again, is mainstream media as they struggle to report on the overall scientific agreement and the fact that uncertainty is part of all scientific findings. Instead they tend to report on individual studies, often the most spectacular, resulting in a situation where those who think action is needed try to find new extreme studies supporting their position. This opens up the door for fossil fuel companies, and others afraid of change, to cherry pick individual studies, or even parts of studies, and cover them as if there is a huge disagreement among scientists.
  2. The best of all possible worlds Start with the, not very controversial, general assumption that the world is better for humans today than ever before in most important aspects. Then, based on this assumption, say that no significant changes are needed as things are going well. Often adding something like “there has always been those who said that things earlier where very problematic, but they where wrong and things are better today”. This argument is just plain stupid. Some of those who complained helped draw attention to many major challenges, from the role of slavery in society to the unrestricted use of chemicals in society. If anything those who “complain” are optimistic as they see the same progress as everyone else, but they believe it is possible to have an even better society.

The reason that so many hide behind the term “optimism” might be that they do not have any scientific backing for their claims, or does not understand how science works. Most likely is however that they understand how media, politics and most companies works, and how simple messages can be used to challenge transformative solutions.

Much of the challenge with how “optimism” is used could be addressed if we agreed to approach global risks in a more structured way. Two things are of particular importance that tend to be forgotten when people frame the discussion in terms of optimism and pessimism.

1. A clarification of the probabilities and uncertainties assumed for different impacts E.g. for climate change we need to clarify if there is an agreement among those discussing the issue regarding the probability for different degrees of warming based on different emission levels, the uncertainty in the different steps and the impacts associated with this warming. For pandemics we need to clarify if there is an agreement regarding the probability for different outbreaks, the uncertainty in the different steps and impacts of different kind of outbreaks.

Compared with simple issues, like how much liquid there is in a glass, complex issues such as global catastrophic risks, does not have one clear answer. E.g. the possible impacts of such challenges are best described as a probability distributions that depends of a number of factors where different level of uncertainty exist. E.g. for a certain amount of emissions there are different probabilities for different levels of warming with different levels of impacts. For all these there are also uncertainties in each step.

To be transparent about the assumptions relating to probabilities and uncertainties for different impacts would help clarify if there is a disagreement about the science behind the challenge (e.g. do we agree about the probability of different impacts for different emissions levels or what uncertainty there is?) or if the disagreement is due to different ethical assumptions.

2. A clarification ethical assumptions and what risk that is seen as acceptable For all global risks it is important to clarify what kind of impacts that we are willing to accept at what probability and with what level of uncertainty. Further, what measures we see as acceptable to address different impacts. These are ethical questions and depend on many different things, such as how you balance your own welfare in relation to future generations welfare and what probabilities you think are acceptable to have for different negative impact on future generations.

Today the fundamental ethical aspects are seldom discussed in relation to global challenges. Most international processes just assume some level of danger that is unacceptable, e.g. 1.5 C° or 2 C° warming for climate change, without any real discussion about what is acceptable or not according to what ethical assumptions. In many cases there is not even a proper process for establishing acceptable/unacceptable risks, e.g. nuclear war and asteroid impacts. What we find unacceptable impacts – at certain probabilities and with different uncertainties – is not something that science can define, it is an ethical judgment. As a global community facing threats of unprecedented magnitudes there is an urgent need for a discussion about what ethical values that should guide our strategies for global challenges.

In order to clarify different approaches to global challenges the scientific and the ethical aspects could be presented together in a graph like the “science/ethics-matrix for different impacts” below.

In this different groups and individuals could plot themselves. Then it will be possible to see if the disagreements are due to scientific disagreement, or ethical judgments. If someone argues that there is no need for action to reduce emissions, the graph can help clarify if it is due to disagreement regarding the science, or due to different ethical values. E.g. do we agree about with what probability different impacts will happen due to different degrees of warming and what probability that different degrees of warming will happen due to different levels of emissions, or do we have different perspective on the value of existing and future lives and thereby different levels of risk tolerances? The first is a scientific argument; the second is an ethical argument.

Science/ethics-matrix for different impacts


With a “science/ethics-matrix for different impacts” it would be easier to have a constructive discussion about both existing challenges such as climate change, pandemics, asteroids and nuclear war as well as emerging issues such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and AI.