“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” –John Stuart Mill
I recently finished reading Matt Ridley’s excellent book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. The timing couldn’t have been better because just today I read this article. It estimates that by 2050 dementia could cost the U.S. healthcare system $1 trillion!
Needless to say $1 trillion is a lot of money and the prospect of millions of people suffering from the disease is a depressing one.
But do we really need to worry? History suggests not.
And why not?
For the same reason we can now smile at those early 20th Century worriers who fretted that America’s cities would sink under the weight of horse manure by 1950. Alas, the automobile came along and alleviated the threat.
In 1971, Paul Ehrlich estimated that “The U.S. life expectancy will drop to 42 years by 1980 due to cancer epidemics.” He was wrong.
In 1974, 1981, 1984, 1989 and 1994, Lester Brown predicted massive global famine. He, too, was wrong. (Paul Ehrlich also made similarly dire claims about this same threat).
In 1970, the Club of Rome predicted oil and natural gas would run out by 1994. Wrong, again! In fact, you may have noticed that there has recently been a massive upsurge in the production of natural gas.
In each case, yesterday’s dire threats and predictions were rendered obsolete by technological advances.
Is this to say with certainty that dementia and Alzheimer’s will definitely be alleviated as serious health threats by 2050? Of course not, but if a person follows the extraordinary advances being made in the medical sciences (biotechnology, nanotechnology, genomics, neuroscience, etc.) the diseases stand an excellent chance of being the recipient of significant progress.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with worrying about serious issues such as dementia. In fact, in some ways, the worry may help bring the issue to the attention of the innovative researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs who will ultimately solve the issue. My concern is only when people’s worries are followed by calls for massive governmental action.
Here’s my prediction: In the not-too-distant future, today’s gloom-mongers will have moved on from the “dementia plague” without either bothering to reflect on their “wrongness” or fully appreciating the skills of the people who delivered the breakthroughs that alleviated the “plague.” They will simply move on to tomorrow’s next worry. (And, believe me, they will have new worries).
Alas, like history’s long list of past crises (global famine, AIDs, acid rain, the depleted ozone layer, etc.) tomorrow’s future threats will also be addressed—just a little farther out in the future.
So now I have a question for you: Am I demented for being optimistic about the future or are pessimists demented for so consistently ignoring their own long, sad history of failed gloomy predictions?