Science and optimism

Whilst our libraries and adult education services are being demolished around us, we must seek our enlightenment where we can.  The internet is a splendid source, with sites like TED offering challenging and expert views across a wide range of topics.  The good old radio is also still providing magnificent programming: every episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time is available for downloading.  I brushed my teeth this morning to an explanation of why Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematics was so important to the development of modern philosophy.  And then there’s Frontiers and The Infinite Monkey Cage and Material World.   It’s wonderful how radio can inform us whilst we’re doing something else.  Most of my understanding of modern science has come from Radio 4 whilst I’m painting the spare room or raking leaves.

TV is also pretty honourable in explaining how the world works – just think of David Attenborough’s lifetime of work. I also liked Brian Cox’s explanation of the universe – despite silly reviews, having a regional accent doesn’t disqualify you from being a serious scientist (see Priestley, Maxwell, Thomson and probably Newton).  So I had a look at Dara O’Briain’s Science Club on BBCtv last night, and learned that life goes better for optimists.  At first I thought – well, is this a sampling error ?  Of course people are upbeat if life goes well for them.  But that was allowed for in the surveys – the researchers identified glass half-full people in their youth, and stood back to see what happened, and they did better than matching glass half-empty people.  Now, this does fit with what we know about performance psychology – sports people are trained to visualize success, which helps them to attain it.  My problem is that I am a congenital and extreme pessimist.  Glass half-full ? Not only is it half-empty, the wine is probably sour, and I’m going to have to wash it up, and then I’ll drop it and break it, and it will be turn out to be of my wife’s favourite glasses.  And irreplaceable.  My daughter works in mental health, and describes this as ‘catastrophising’, and I’m world class at it.  I worry about tuning in to an England sports performance, because I know that a wicket will fall or a goal conceded as soon as the TV warms up.  And there’s nothing I can do about it. I think.

Talking of pessimism and optimism and sports psychology, I stand back in open-mouthed admiration at athletes who can overcome enormous odds or ‘unbeatable’ opponents.  When Muhammad Ali first fought Sonny Liston, he was a 7-1 outsider: 46 out of 43 boxing experts predicted an early knock-out, and some expected serious physical harm.  But Ali went in with enormous confidence, and won well.  In 1990, Buster Douglas faced the undefeated heavyweight champion Mike Tyson at odds of 42-1.  And he won.  Mr. Douglas was obviously a powerful and fit man, but how on earth did he get the mental strength to face up to – and beat – the ‘baddest man on the planet’, who had won all his previous 37 fights, 34 by knock-out ?  And last weekend, the England rugby union team faced the New Zealand All Blacks – the world champion XV who were unbeaten in their previous 20 matches, and thrashed them.  People often perform as they are predicted to, which is why teachers are urged to have high expectations of pupils.  But the sort of mental strength needed to face up to the apparently unbeatable – and, in rugby and boxing, physically intimidating – and win, that requires quite exceptional confidence and toughness.  Not sure I’ve got it (translation: I know I haven’t).

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