Science Really Works: A Prize for A Careful Optimist

In The Great Escape, Angus Deaton concludes by saying that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the future. In his review of the book, David Leonhardt captured its real spirit: “Deaton’s central message is deeply positive, almost gloriously so.”

Deaton has made many contributions that make him such a great choice for today’s prize. (See here, here, and here.) I take special satisfaction from the validation it provides to Deaton’s optimism, which I would describe as careful, not cautious. It is an optimism that is grounded in careful attention to data and careful consideration of what measurements mean.

For example, from the end of the book:

Although the rate of improvement of life expectancy is slowing down, that is a good thing, not a bad thing; death is aging, and saving lives at older ages has a smaller effect on life expectancy than saving the lives of children. Once again, the problem is the measure, not the substance. Life expectancy is not always the right measure of how well a society is doing, and there is nothing that says that saving the lives of the middle-aged and elderly is inherently less valuable than saving the lives of children.

From there, he goes on to give a give a clear-eyed but unyielding characterization productivity of resources devoted to science and the endogeneity of the decisions that people make about which lines of inquiry to pursue:

The ultimate reason that health will continue to improve is that people want it to improve and are prepared to pay for the basic science, behavioral research, drugs, procedures, and devices that support it. Innovations cannot be bought off the shelf, nor do they always come along when they are needed. But there is no doubt that well-funded needs bring results.

Even the HIV/ AIDS pandemic, in spite of its horrendous toll, contains a success story about how new basic knowledge and new treatments can respond to needs, and can do so on a time scale that, while too short for those who died, is fast by the standards of other historical epidemics. Science really works.

Then he goes on to note other signs of progress, a word that elsewhere, he is not afraid to use:

There are many other continuing improvements that I have not discussed in this book. Violence has fallen; people today have a much lower chance of being murdered than once was the case. Democracy is more widespread in the world than was the case fifty years ago. Oppression of one social group by another is less usual, and becoming more unusual. People have greater opportunities to participate in society than has ever been the case.

People are growing taller throughout the world, and likely smarter too.

The book pays equally careful attention to inequality and the harm that it causes. After all, an argument by an economist, and a Scot no less, has to invoke “the other hand.” But as Leonhardt notes, it is the progress that is so stunning. Deaton’s work, backed by the recognition it has now received, means that the biggest fact about life on earth can no longer be disputed or dismissed:

Life has been getting better, and getting better at a pace that is increasing over time.