The Need for Optimism In Science

Blake Elias
4 min readSep 15, 2020


Strikingly absent from the present scientific discourse, is the role of attitude and optimism in creating solutions.

Taking the example of COVID-19, the main thing preventing us from eliminating this disease is a shared belief that elimination is impossible. As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”

A positive, “we can solve it” approach, enables us to ask the right questions. We ask if we can eliminate COVID-19, and see that we can. We ask how this can be realized, and see that each person just needs to make a small sacrifice. We ask how much it would cost, and realize the collective cost is quite affordable (compared to the losses we otherwise incur). We ask what’s the smallest number of people who need to lose their life, and realize it can be quite small.

But in a self-defeating, “we can’t solve it” approach, we give up any hope of actually solving the problem, and redirect resources exclusively to band-aid solutions. We ask less ambitious questions; we set more conservative goals. Rather than “how can we prevent as many infections as possible?”, we ask, “given we’ll have many infections, how do at least avoid overwhelming hospitals?” “Given that people won’t cooperate toward rapid elimination, how do we make the drawn-out pandemic a bit less painful?” We consider every alternative except the one that would actually work.

We don’t need “better” science. We need bolder science.

The problem with these questions is they sound well-framed and scientific — and so we put our trust in the answers. In reality, these questions assume very particular things. In this case, the assumption is our inability to cooperate with one another, and our unwillingness to make personal sacrifices for the common good. These are understandable concerns (i.e. “will people do this?”), but not something that should be ruled out from the beginning (“people will never do this”).

Wanting to follow “the science”, we do what it says we should do — and we act how it assumed we would act. Assumptions get turned into reality, and the lack of cooperation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What there’s a real need and opportunity for, is visionary science. Science that pushes optimism, inspiration and leadership, with bold calls to action from all citizens. Such an approach would rally policy-makers and the public around more ambitious goals, and strive to achieve better outcomes.

We don’t need “better” science. We need bolder science.

Have We Asked Too Much of Science?

Paradoxically, one reason that “the science” hasn’t been bold enough, could be that we expect too much from it — while offering too little of our own effort.

Our scientists are being asked to design full solutions. We expect them to solve the problem for us — with no reciprocal commitment or sacrifice on our end. Any wonder their models assume we’re unwilling to take the right actions. Is that not the context in which we’ve approached them? With an attitude that they (scientists) should somehow figure this all out, while I proceed with minimal disruption to my life? Rather than “help us understand what we should do and why”, we ask scientists, “Can you please fix this for us? Invent a pill, or some other minimally disruptive solution? Thank you!”

Our transactional relationship with science causes science to have a transactional relationship with us.

One might argue that I have portrayed the public in an unfair, ignorant light. Isn’t that what we’re paying scientists for: to think about these technical, complex problems, so the average citizen doesn’t have to? Could this actually a reasonable way to view the role of science?

We view science as a thing we pour tax dollars into, and new drugs and cures come out. Science then models us as static actors who won’t change behavior… at best we’ll take a pill or wear a mask.

But I claim it is our transactional relationship with science, that causes science to have a transactional relationship with us. We view science as the thing we pour tax dollars into, and new drugs and cures come out. Science then models us as static actors, sticking to our old habits. The most they can hope to change our behavior is to get us to take a pill or wear a mask.

But this doesn’t have to be what science is all about…

Science as a Central Forum

Science could tell us that there’s a real need — and opportunity — for neighbors and citizens to collaborate and take care of each other. It can help us understand the economic benefits of collaboration — how it’s in everyone’s best interest to come together — and point us toward particularly effective types of collaboration that will yield maximum savings (of both lives and dollars). It could call on us to be the best version of our selves, to take on some personal sacrifice in solving a collective problem.

Science could push bolder, more optimistic, visionary plans. It could help politicians and the public alike to make sense of complex situations, and point us toward what’s possible if everyone works together.

There’s a lot more that science can do for us — if only we’re ready to listen.