Don’t Be an Irrational Pessimist

by Nicholas Vardy

"Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we've managed to create a tiny bit more than we've destroyed each year... That few percent positive difference is compounded over decades into what we might call civilization ... [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect."

- The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly

Dr. Pangloss is a fictional character in the 1759 satirical novel Candide by the French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire.

In Candide, Voltaire mocked Dr. Pangloss for his belief that humans were living in the "best of all possible worlds."

Dr. Pangloss represents the naive optimism that sardonic intellectuals like Voltaire loved to mock.

Among politicians, policymakers and the intellectual elite at the world's top universities and think tanks, pessimism is both a requirement and badge of honor.

Put another way, if you're smart, you have to be pessimistic.

I don't share that view.

Instead, I believe in the idea of progress.

I believe that things are better today than they were yesterday.

Progress may be slow and subtle and seen only in retrospect.

But it is very real...

The Media Can't Help Itself

Scan any newspaper in any part of the world, and you will always see disaster looming on the horizon.

Whether it's the rise of political populism, a natural disaster that confirms global warming or a conflict in some far away place, the world is always coming apart at the seams.

This relentless onslaught of bad news gives us a distorted view of reality.

It deludes us into thinking that the world has never been more chaotic, uncertain and unsafe.

The state of the world seems to have gotten worse over the past 10 years simply because we carry the world's bad news in our pockets on our smartphones.

Today, a quick dopamine hit of bad news is literally at our fingertips.

As it turns out, our addiction to bad news is natural.

Psychologists have found that we humans have a natural cognitive bias to focus on the negative.

Evolutionary psychologists offer this explanation...

Humans who paid attention to negative information lived longer than those who looked only at the positive.

After all, one incorrect assumption ("no, that isn't a bear behind the bushes") could have cost you your life.

As a result, the human brain has evolved to sniff out danger.

That's not a personality flaw. Humans are just wired that way.

Of course, the media didn't need newfangled evolutionary psychologists to tell them this...

Bad news always sells.

Newsstand magazine sales increase by roughly 30% when the cover is negative rather than positive.

On the internet, negative headlines have a 63% higher average click-through rate than positive ones.

Or, as every journalist knows...

"If it bleeds, it leads."

Why 2017 Should Bring You Hope...

Trying to balance out the bad news with the good is a thankless task.

Nevertheless, I'm going to give it a shot...

Here are five pieces of good news from 2017 focused on just one area - medicine - that made it one of the best years ever...

1. Average worldwide life expectancy has soared.

In 1900, the average life expectancy in the world was 31 years. Today, it is 71.

In 1928, U.S. life expectancy was 57 years - the age when both of my paternal grandparents died of cancer.

Today, an average American can expect to live to 79 - an additional 22 years.

By 2030, average life expectancy in at least one country - South Korea - will break 90.

And, if you live in the right parts of London, average life expectancy has hit a whopping 97.

2. A cure for cancer is near.

Cancer has been a scourge of human health for centuries. After many false starts, scientists are on the verge of curing the disease by cracking its genetic code.

Groundbreaking gene therapy treatments that alter a patient's blood cells to target cancer cells have produced some remarkable results.

I know one EU diplomat receiving similar treatment. His results have been astonishing.

3. HIV/AIDS life span is almost normal.

Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS was the world's top health concern. In 1987, President Reagan's AIDS Commission found that by 2001 there could, hypothetically, be 10 billion people infected - a number far higher than the world's population.

Today, a young person taking the latest HIV drugs now has a near-normal life expectancy because of improvements in treatments. Newer drugs have fewer side effects and prevent the virus from replicating in the body.

4. We can 3-D print human body parts.

The technology to print human body parts sounds like it's straight out of a science fiction novel.

A Swedish startup has already successfully bioprinted a human nose. The company's founder believes that within 20 years, bioprinted organs will be fit for human implantation.

Scientists at Harvard, MIT and University College London are already working to integrate 3-D printers into clinical practice.

5. We've hit a breakthrough in treating neurodegenerative diseases.

The Alzheimer's epidemic grabs all the headlines.

But Huntington's disease (HD) is even worse.

Children born to a parent with HD have a 50-50 chance of getting the disease. And those who have it describe it as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and a motor neuron disease rolled into one.

But a research team at University College London says that it can now stop HD's progression.

The team recently injected an experimental drug into HD sufferers' spinal fluid and safely lowered levels of toxic proteins in the brain.

Experts say it could be the most significant breakthrough in neurodegenerative diseases for 50 years.

Be Rational

Not all of these experiments will pan out...

But some of them inevitably will...

And the exponential growth of this progress will transform the way humans live their ever longer lives.

What, if anything, does this have to do with investing?

Understand that most top investors are optimists.

Warren Buffett and Sir John Templeton never credited their intrinsic brilliance, education or ability to analyze a balance sheet for their remarkable investment track records.

Instead, they owed it to their calm, measured and optimistic temperament... and to what British author Matt Ridley dubbed "rational optimism."

You don't need to be like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss and naively believe that we are living in "the best of all possible worlds."

But be on guard against your natural inclination to become an "irrational pessimist."

Conquer that tendency, and you'll live a healthier, happier and wealthier life.

Good investing,


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