March 21, 2007

Doomsaying: It's a 'status' thing

According to Freeman Dyson, the prevalence of doom-and-gloom prognosticators at Cambridge University (a group that would include Sir Martin Rees) is a consequence of the English class system. He says,
Has rising status for commercial middle and upper classes made academics feel slighted and lower in status? Have some of them responded by generating more arguments about looming disasters as a way to boost their own importance and status in the eyes of government leaders and general public?

I find the argument plausible because the desire to raise one's status seems an obvious basic human instinct. The desire for higher status can be seen as a motivation for everything from the drive for wealth, political power, and fame, The desire for higher status may well be the biggest driver of large scale philanthropy by the famous and wealthy.
Gee, and here I thought all the doomsaying was on account of academic due diligence and responsible foresight. Oh, and all those nasty apocalyptic technologies we're about to unleash....

3 comments:

n8o said...

Let's try the fact that commercial classes wouldn't be able to succeed if they were more cynical?

Michael Anissimov said...

Freeman Dyson has contributed tremendously to science and futurism in his lifetime. But oh, *checks clock*, it seems to be 2007. Sorry, there's other people to pay attention to now.

Peter S. Jenkins said...

So according to Dyson, both wealthy U.S. industrialists and British academics are prone to seeking higher status, but the former do it through philanthropy and the latter do it through doomsaying. Where does Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems and the ironically named mother of all doomsayers, fit into this theory? What about Martin Rees, a Cambridge Professor who has received a Knighthood and has a list of honours and awards as long as one's arm? Why would he be worried about his status? Dyson is on the Board which sets the time of the "Doomsday Clock". Since he is neither a British academic nor a wealthy industrialist, it would be revealing to see how he voted on the setting of the clock forward by 2 minutes on January 17. I think Dyson is out to lunch here. He is guilty of the very attention grabbing ploy of which he is accusing others.