The people who thought up the question probably didn’t realize that the concept could be used to argue for design in nature. After all, a mortal world cannot by definition be perfect, so if this is the best one, well …
From Oliver Burkeman at the Guardian:
“Once upon a time, it was of great survival value to be worried about everything that could go wrong,” says Johan Norberg, a Swedish historian and self-declared New Optimist whose book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future was published just before Trump won the presidency last year. This is what makes bad news especially compelling: in our evolutionary past, it was a very good thing that your attention could be easily seized by negative information, since it might well indicate an imminent risk to your own survival. (The cave-dweller who always assumed there was a lion behind the next rock would usually be wrong – but he’d be much more likely to survive and reproduce than one who always assumed the opposite.) But that was all before newspapers, television and the internet: in these hyper-connected times, our addiction to bad news just leads us to vacuum up depressing or enraging stories from across the globe, whether they threaten us or not, and therefore to conclude that things are much worse than they are.
Really good news, on the other hand, can be a lot harder to spot – partly because it tends to occur gradually. Max Roser, an Oxford economist who spreads the New Optimist gospel via his Twitter feed, pointed out recently that a newspaper could legitimately have run the headline “NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY” every day for the last 25 years. But none would have done so, because predictable daily events, by definition, aren’t newsworthy. And you’ll rarely see a headline about a bad event that failed to occur. But surely any judicious assessment of our situation ought to take into account all the wars, pandemics and natural disasters that might hypothetically have happened but didn’t?
Many people would not consider it good news that today is as good as it gets for them. Also, the New Optimists’ arguments can get a bit convoluted and conspiratorial:
“I think it might be that in a couple of years’ time, we’ll think it was a great thing that Trump won,” he says. “Because if he’d lost, and Hillary had won, she’d have been the most hated president of modern times, and then Trump and Bannon would have used that to build an alt-right media empire, create an avalanche of hatred, and then there might have been a more disciplined candidate the next time round – a real fascist, rather than someone impersonating … Trump may prove to have been the incompetent, self-absorbed person who ruins the populist brand in the United States.” This sort of counterfactual argument suffers from not being falsifiable, and in any case, it’s a long way from a position of straightforward positivity about the direction in which the world is moving. But perhaps it is the one genuinely indisputable truth on which the New Optimists and the more pessimistically minded can agree: that whatever happens, things could always, in principle, have been worse. More.
When one is six or seven steps into a counterfactual history, one should relabel the file Fiction.
See also: What becomes of science when the evidence does not matter?