10 July 2009


Ah, the good old days. Remember those? That's the time when just about everything was better than it is today: music, movies, food, the environment, people, culture, life generally. We didn't have the imminent destruction of the planet looming over our heads, caused by the excesses of modern living. We didn't have to worry about greedy corporations poisoning our food supply, hoarding all our wealth, and dumbing down our culture. Government was kinder and gentler, with leaders that we respected and admired. Family values weren't under constant threat, as they are today. People led happier lives, untainted by the decay brought on by today's societal ills.

Most of us, at one time or another, succumb to the fallacy of nostalgia, that longing for a better time which we either remember from our own past or conjure up from reading, watching TV and movies, or experiencing a Renaissance Faire. However, the good old days probably weren't as good as we think they were. Penn & Teller had an episode on The Good Ol' Days last year, which I just watched again recently. In it, they showed people who were convinced that "Leave It to Beaver" and Renaissance Faires were accurate representations of days gone by. Those were easy targets, though — ordinary people who fantasize about simpler times to escape their present-day struggles. It's easy to laugh at them and think they're just stupid or uneducated. But nostalgia afflicts the intelligent and educated, too.

Cultural critics are often nostalgic, even those in the skeptical community. For example, the late Steve Allen, in his book Dumbth (published in 1991), saw the deterioration of popular culture as a symptom of the decline of American society. He specifically called out how music had worsened from its "golden age" in the early part of the 20th century to the then-current rise of punk rock, as an example of this deterioration. And Susan Jacoby, in her recent book, The Age of American Unreason, also bewails how popular culture has worsened over the years. Even Mrs. A.S. and I catch ourselves at it sometimes. As movie fans, we have a large collection of DVDs, the majority of which are older movies. We often ask ourselves, why don't they make as many good movies as they used to?

What we forget is that when we look at the artifacts of popular culture, what we see today covers the entire range, from bad to good, of what is available. In contrast, what we remember and what gets preserved from the past tends to be only those artifacts that many people consider good. In addition, with the explosion of entertainment choices brought on by the advent of modern technology, there are far more creators of music, film, etc., than there ever were before. Just by the law of large numbers, that means there is going to be far more crap than good stuff, too, on an absolute basis. As time passes, the crap will be relegated to the dustbin of history, while the good stuff will survive. The filter of natural selection misleads us into thinking that everything was better back then.

Beyond pop culture, nostalgia can be seen in criticism and commentary about society, technology, and science. Here are a few examples:

  • Social conservatives pine for the days when religion was valued and families that prayed together stayed together. What they seem to forget, however, is that not everyone had the same religion, and much oppression and even bloodshed occurred among the various religious factions. Nor did all families stay together, and those that did stay together, because their religion told them they had to, weren't necessarily happy.
  • Organic farming proponents fantasize about a time when food was better because it was grown locally and without poisonous chemicals and genetic modification. But is "organic" food really better? Would we have enough of it to feed us all if we didn't use technology to improve crop yields, or truck food in from remote locations so our diets aren't subject to the whims of the local weather?
  • Alt-med proponents detest the sterility of modern scientific health care and want us to go back to the more natural and more spiritual healing ways of yore. They forget that people who have access to modern medical technology live longer and either don't contract, or are able to survive, diseases and conditions that would easily have killed us before the advent of vaccines, antibiotics, MRI scans, and the plethora of other medical advances that have been developed over the last hundred years.
  • Environmentalists practically lynched Bjorn Lomborg for suggesting in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, that by many measures, living conditions have actually improved, rather than worsened, in modern times. Their nostalgia for pre-industrial times, when we weren't polluting the planet, encroaching on wildlife habitats, and increasing global warming, blinded them to the fact that in both the developed and developing nations, people are generally living longer and struggling less to survive.

So don't fall into the nostalgia trap. Just because we see more bad stuff today doesn't mean there's no good stuff out there. And just because we don't remember the bad stuff doesn't mean there wasn't any back in the "good old days."


  1. Being skeptical of the siren song of nostalgia is good advice.

    To clarify though, you're not suggesting that nostalgia is never justified, right? To put it another way, would you agree that there are some (perhaps many) situations where technology or the modern world has had, on balance, a net negative effect?

    For example, compare the situations of some native american communities between today and two or three hundred years ago. Some would call it naive nostalgia to romanticize their way of life before european contact, and undoubtably, back then their lives were subject to early termination from inter-tribal warfare and common medical problems that would have been easily cured by modern medicine. On the other hand, many modern-day native american reservations suffer from high rates of alcoholism and poverty and the disintegration of their culture.

    What some belittle as mere "nostalgia" is often rational and justified.

    (And just to suggest a correction, I think it's not accurate to say that environmentalists were outraged with Lomborg for "suggesting" that living conditions have improved over time. I know many environmentalists and none would be apoplectic over ANY suggestion, however outrageous. And most would agree that living standards have improved, and then say, "However, . . ." Their beef with Lomborg is that his scholarship was sloppy and selective (and perhaps even intellectually dishonest).

    Nice blog though, I'll keep reading.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris. I'm not saying that there are never cases where things were, in fact, better in the past in some way or for some people.

    However, just dreaming about that better past (if it was), and thinking it can be returned to, rather than looking at ways to improve things as they stand now, doesn't sound very rational.

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