High school students remind negotiators at COP 24 that there are only 12 years left to limit the devastating impacts of climate change. Photo credit: Kiara Worth/IISD/ENB

2018 was the year I realised that scientists are optimists

But what I’m grappling with, writes Nicola Gaston, is how optimistic we can afford to be about human behaviour

For more 2018 revelations from New Zealanders in science and technology go here

It’s been a slow realisation; I think it may have been creeping up on me for a while. But somewhere in late 2018 the revelation crystallised in my brain: scientists are optimists.

I’m not talking so much about perseverance in the face of diminishing opportunities to get scientific research funded (as outlined lucidly by Siouxsie Wiles recently) nor even of the optimism required of our students these days, to even consider the precarity of a research career as the outcome of graduate study (and I’m certainly not saying they all should, there are heaps of good things you can do with a research degree). These kinds of optimism, grounded in individual aspiration and ambition, are all very human, and necessary.

There’s a quote, which I first came across in the late Sir Paul Callaghan’s book Wool to Weta, originally from David S Landes:

“In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right.”

If there is a single way on which being a scientist has made my own life better, it is just this: in teaching me to be positive about being wrong. But it was in reading the IPCC report on climate change that nailed this for me, a couple of months ago: scientists perhaps need to be more honest with the public about the inherent optimism of scientific culture.

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Far from being the doomsayers of some forms of public opinion, scientists have, for the most part, been deeply inculcated with the idea that scientific progress is good, and technological solutions will arise as needed, and that this is (to a large extent) inevitable.

And certainly, there are issues with this world view. Serious issues, based on (perhaps) an unwillingness to admit the ways in which that progress has not always been positive. But it is almost a cultural requirement, in science, to be an optimist about the ways in which people will use scientific knowledge: of course people will choose the best course of action, right?

But it’s this last point – or my recent recognition of it – that forces me to acknowledge my own accompanying cynicism. The latest IPCC report compared two scenarios for the future of Earth: warming of 1.5 or 2.0 degrees Celsius. In order to even frame the report in this way, the scientists concerned had to rely on the future provision of technologies that would remove carbon from the atmosphere.  That’s hard enough, although as a scientist, I’ll admit that I am really optimistic about affordable and practical technologies coming on board.

But it’s worse than that, eh? The authors of the IPCC report had to base their projections on the assumption that people are willing to take political and economic action, to implement such technologies. And that’s the really hard part, that I am now struggling to get my head around: to what extent, as scientists, can we afford to be optimistic about human behaviour?


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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