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Weekend Ponderance

I hope one day many of you will have the pleasure of visiting a college class. And not just any college class, but one in which students are about to hear good news about some particular topic.

I mean it. Good news.

Why do I wish for you to see this episode? Because if I muted the “audio” of the class and showed you an image of the video, what you would conclude was that the professor just told them all that Santa Claus was dead, that their favorite restaurant was closing down forever. that they were rejected by the favorite graduate school and for some it would appear that I just told them they would be failing the course.

That’s right. Never in my life have I stumbled into a more surprising response than when we have the chance to show some positive economic or environmental information to students, it’s as if I told them the opposite. I mentioned this one the other day in passing, but you should imagine the look on students faces when they do research to confirm that global warming isn’t really going to kill very many people. Tears almost well up in their eyes – and not tears of joy. Or what if you show students the temperature record of flat temps over the last 15 years? Or the fact that extreme hurricanes seem to be less likely now, not more? Or that our air is cleaner now than at any point in our modern history. Or that our living standards are unconscionably better than they were 100 years ago or beyond. And so on.

Can someone take a shot at explaining why this reaction is so common? Are we all really so programmed to think the world is going to end that it is depressing to bear the thought of living safer and healthier on it in the future? Does it really say something bad about you and your values if man has done some good for himself and the planet? What is it? Really. I don’t even show this stuff in class too, too much anymore, but have them research it themselves – the looks spooked me.

You’d think that this generation of kids would be super-charged with optimism. I don’t see it.

5 Responses to “Weekend Ponderance”

  1. Roger says:

    I think people thrive off the power of leading (or playing a valued role within) the rest of the tribe to address a threat. Thus there is a dependency between this type of status and the existence of problems. Added to this is the moral or intellectual superiority you get by recognizing a problem that everyone else misses.

    “I am superior to my peers because I see the danger they all miss, I care about battling it more than they do and am better at fighting it.”

    This is actually healthy as long as the threats are real. People should earn status recognizing and battling real threats. It misfires easily though in complex society.

  2. Harry says:

    I would have paid some serious money to be there, WC. I would have brought a box of good cigars and a few cold cases of bottled water, to celebrate at the solar picnic table after class.

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    There’s probably 2 reasons why students, or virtually any human, would have that reaction.

    1) You’ve introduced uncertainty. Prior to that, they had in on good authority, that there was very little uncertainty. Even if the authority concluded a negative outcome, at least it was clear and likely.

    2) Of course, as everyone above has said, its the hero complex. Everyone wants to have some meaning and purpose to their life, and if that purpose is to undo some likely and clear future negative outcome, that’s a good purpose! By introducing the uncertainty in 1, you’e just taken away their purpose in life.

    3) This phenomenon is common among all humans of whatever ideology. You can repeat this same experiment with “libertarians” (it’s even more fun with hardcore big-L libertarians!). Go in and say “things aren’t so bad. The government is not really out to create 1984. They’re not really spying on every word you say, and they’re not really trying to get you into every war in the world. Inflation is not going to come, the monetary system we have actually works pretty good, and the economy is not going to come crashing down any minute now!”.

    They will be just as disappointed and angry with you as these kids, even though libertarians should be saying “that’s good news!”

    I suspect this is a problem that has become more acute in the past few decades as people have been trained to think that caring about “the issues” is more important than caring about “the paradigm”. Issues, of course, are not as important, as they can be interpreted in many different ways, and solved in many different ways. Ways of thinking, or paradigms, are more important precisely because they allow you to not be so invested in “the issues”.

    • Wintercow20 says:

      Thanks all – I learned a good deal here. I’ve experimented with the suggestion from RIT_Rich and indeed have had the exact same response.

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