Opinion 38: Be Skeptical of Skeptics and be Optimistic about Optimism (and Don't Tacitly Assume that ONLY the OTHER Guy Tacitly Assumes)

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: May 6, 1999

One of my all times heroes is Noam Chomsky, whose attempt at explaining how Natural Languages are generated lead to even more important insights into how to create and understand new artificial languages. These formed the foundation of much of computer science.

That's why I was very excited when, on April 29, 1999, he delivered a talk at Temple University. I was vaguely aware that he was not just a linguist, but wore many other hats, but nothing prepared me to the surprises.

First came a very pleasant surprise. Chomsky is a brilliant speaker. I made a reasonable attempt at reading some of his books, and found them rather tough-going. Hence I was delighted that his lecture-style was very captivating, in addition to the default excitement of hearing a guru live.

But the talk itself was fascinating and disappointing at the same time. It was fascinating because we heard profound insights into deep and mysterious questions, that seem to be, (and that was one of Chomsky's main points), out of reach for present-day science.

It was disappointing because the style was very polemical, even adversative, and it was a little embarrassing to witness such a great man engaging in polemic that sounds like name-calling.

More specifically, he called his scientific/philosophical opponents IRRATIONAL, and (naively) OPTIMISTIC. Also, according to Chomsky, whatever they claim to be a REVOLUTION (the so-called cognitive revolution, I guess) is old-hat, that existed hundreds of years ago and was abandoned then. Also they TACITLY ASSUME lots of stuff that, according to Chomsky, contradicts their main thesis, hence making it self-contradicting.

By contrast, Chomsky took pride in being a SKEPTIC, and implied that it is a good thing, and (over-)optimism is bad.

I am not qualified to make judgment on this particular issue, whatever it is, and I am definitely not going to take sides in someone else's family feud. BUT, this got me thinking that being OPTIMISTIC and even IRRATIONAL could be a good thing.

But first, be skeptical about (self-proclaimed) skeptics. The fearless crusaders against superstition and religion are very often `religious fanatics' themselves. For example, the magazine `The skeptical Inquirer' reads like a propaganda pamphlet to a religious or political sect. So these skeptics have their own pet world-view, and they usually do not apply their skepticism towards themselves, which is perhaps just as well, because it would weaken their zeal.

Also, DO NOT BE PESSIMISTIC ABOUT OPTIMISM. Optimism, even naive and unfounded, is the driving force behind any progress, especially in science. If you are too skeptical, and learn the lessons of history too well, you would know that whatever `ultimate truth' you are about to arrive at, would become either false or trivial or both in the future. Also, if you are too critical about what is feasible to do today, you won't go very far. The greatest discoveries belong to irrational and naive optimists, who just go ahead foolhardily.

I just finished reading a fascinating and gripping book called `the Elegant Universe' by Brian Greene, about String Theory. While he pays lip-service to the disclaimer: `there is no way of knowing whether this is the ultimate and final theory', it is clear that Greene, and all his string-theorists buddies, actually believe that this is it, and the Theory of Everything is already here, it just needs some elaboration. Without this, probably naive, optimism, there would not have been such great progress, that even if it will turn out to be completely false, nevertheless has already revolutionized several branches of mathematics.

Admittedly, we also need skeptics, to get some balance, so one should also be optimistic about pessimists.

While I am at it, here are some variations on the theme.