Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Education is not a panacea - III

There are gated communities all over India where the educated rich live cut off from the rest of the country and cribbing about everything that doesn't resemble Singapore. In Geek Nation, Angela Saini describes one such community in the making, Lavasa -  'a metropolis governed mainly by machines' being built in the middle of the Western Ghats, a region rich in bio-diversity and populated by a few tribal villages. It is a half-billion dollar project that is 'the biggest thing to happen to  the Western Ghats since the Cretaceous Period'.

It is a surreal place  having an American Diner with staff dancing to Elvis tunes, opulent villas, a state-of-art hospital that looks deserted, delicate fountains, a street that looks as if it was in Italy...It sounds as if the promoter has taken the most picturesque parts of Europe and built a collage in the middle of nowhere.The employees say that it 'will be a city that governs itself' using technology, that it can provide a role model for the rest of India.  I got a feeling similar to what Angela Saini had - a 'feeling as if I've arrived in Jurassic Park but the dinosaurs haven't escaped...yet.'

In the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson, the author says that Jobs often disappeared into a 'reality distortion field' which made him view the world in black and white terms with no shades of grey,an ability to convince himself and others about almost anything without any sense of proportion. Similarly many educated people seem to live in a reality distortion field.An article in The New Yorker about the Indian print media gives an idea of why this is so. The desired stereotype is also promoted by television serials.  Nehru's comment in The Discovery of India may not have been off the mark: "I have not discovered any special qualities in a literate or slightly educated person which would entitle his opinion to greater respect than that of a sturdy peasant..."

On average, the educated and uneducated don't seem to be very different when it comes to basic human values. Knowing more about protons or perfect markets doesn't seem to help in this regard. The decision to extend voting rights to everybody without putting any restrictions on the basis of educational qualification was perhaps the wisest thing that Nehru did. Most people were opposed to the idea of giving voting rights to large numbers of illiterate people. But Nehru over-ruled all objections and went ahead with his decision. And his instinct has been proved right in election after election over the decades.

As soon as Indira Gandhi held elections after the Emergency, she was promptly booted out. The Congress did well in the more literate states in the South who preferred to ignore the horrors of the Emergency. It was highly educated, successful people who were likely to overlook the excesses of the emergency and say that population needs to be controlled somehow. It is educated, rich people who are likely to say that a spell of military rule will bring much needed discipline. (I have heard this, I am not making this up.) Talk of short-sightedness!

Granted there are  problems of inducement and intimidation but unpopular governments have been shown the door at regular intervals. If buying votes was so easy, the ruling dispensation would have been able to hold on to power more easily. I have heard servants say that they will take the money offered by both the main political parties in Tamil Nadu and then vote for whoever they like! As Ramachandra  Guha says in India after Gandhi:
...the distance - intellectual or moral - between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, or between B.R. Ambedkar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, is not necessarily greater than between, say, Abraham Lincoln and George W.Bush. It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities.  In India, the sapling was planted by the nation's founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it to adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot or destroy it.
I remember seeing a video where it was stated that in the airport, the people in the queue for first class passengers look more agitated and prone to anger than the economy class passengers. I saw this video after my stroke so I couldn't check it for myself but it rings true. In India whichever party comes to power will have the majority of people voting against it. Every winning party claims that it has the mandate of the people which is far from the truth.Nehru at the height of his popularity got only 47% of the votes. So no government can risk moving too far away from the centre much to the chagrin of the better off sections of society, who seem impatient like the first class airline passengers.

Chetan Bhagat has written a book called Making India Awesome which I have not read. For all I know, I may  agree with most of its contents. My problem is with the title. In all probability the publisher would have thought (probably correctly) that a title that gives the impression of there being easy, clear-cut solutions to complex problems would result in better sales. It is similar to the BJP's penchant for coming up with MBA style mnemonics like 3 'C's, 4 'D's, ABCD etc.

A more humble title like 'Some Suggestions that May improve India's Prospects' may not sell as well. During sales training in Wipro, an advice was given which I thought was sensible: 'it is better to under promise and over deliver than to over promise and under deliver'. I am probably a misfit in a social ecosystem that encourages simplistic bombast. I heard a great line in a talk by Arun Shourie which illustrates the problem, 'Jo hyper-bole so nihal.'  As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in Fooled by Randomness:
I do not dispute that arguments should be simplified to their maximum potential; but people often confuse complex ideas that cannot be simplified into a media-friendly statement as symptomatic of a confused mind.  MBAs learn the concept of clarity and simplicity - the five-minute-manager take on things.  The concept may apply to the business plan for a fertilizer plant, but not to highly probabilistic arguments - which is the reason I have anecdotal evidence in my business that MBAs tend to blow up in financial markets, as they are trained to simplify matters a couple of steps beyond their requirement. (I beg the MBA reader not to take offense; I am myself the unhappy holder of the degree.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Education is not a panacea - II

Educated people have caused untold miseries to large numbers of people through their fancy ideas like social Darwinism or medical procedures like frontal lobotomy. The iatrogenic effects of the medical profession are long and make for sorry reading. Educated people have often destroyed the environment and show scant regard for unintended consequences of actions like deforestation, over-exploitation of natural resources, introducing alien species into new habitats, etc., often driven by greed, arrogance and over-confidence. While speculating about the collapse of Easter Island society, which appears to have been cased by self inflicted environmental damage, Jared Diamond writes in Collapse:
I have often asked myself, 'What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?' Like modern loggers, did he shout, 'Jobs, not trees!'? Or: 'Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood'? Or: 'We don't have proof that there aren't palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is pre-mature and driven by fear-mongering'?
Well, perhaps it was, 'Cut, baby, cut.' Is it a smart idea in the long run to ignore environmental norms for achieving development goals? Many educated people seem to think so. They seem to suffer from what Nassim Taleb calls 'epistemic arrogance' - what they think they know far exceeds what they actually know. As Kahneman says in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: 'Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore the extent of our ignorance.'(If you are going to read only one book in the rest of the year and the whole of next year, I would recommend this book. I think it should be required reading in business schools.)

Paul Slovic is one of the leading experts in the world in studying how people decide about risk. He thinks that the public has major limitations like over-reliance on emotions and trivial details while experts are are much better in dealing with numbers and amounts. But the issue is not so cut and dried. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his splendid book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
...but Slovic draws attention to situations in which the differences reflect a genuine conflict of values.He points out that experts often measure risks by the number of lives (or life-years) lost, while the public draws finer distinctions, for example between "good deaths" and "bad deaths", or between random accidental fatalities and deaths that occur in the course of voluntary activities such as skiing. These legitimate distinctions are often ignored in statistics that merely count cases. Slovic argues from such observations that the public has a richer conception of risks than the experts do. Consequently, he strongly resists the view that the experts should rule, and that their opinions should be accepted without question when they conflict with the opinions and wishes of other citizens. When experts and the public disagree on their priorities, he says, "Each side must respect the insights and intelligence of the other."
The arrogance of ignorance is often in evidence but what cannot be ignored at times is the arrogance of the educated. It cannot be that if you are highly educated, only your views should count. It cannot be that only those views that benefit me are the sensible ones. Economists and businessmen lead the way in saying that people with viewpoints opposed to theirs are being 'misled'.When the poorest and the most defenceless are brushed aside in the name of development, one should at least pause and think. Democracy involves taking every group's point  of view even if the 'educated' think some views don't make sense.

It is hard to believe that real people on ground decide like economists in TV studios do. In The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about the harm caused by economists due to their physics envy which makes them think that the behaviour of human beings can be approximated to the behaviour of billiard balls.  Economists as a tribe are too confident about their projections. (I have become wary of people who sound very certain.)  There is also the saying that if you put 10 economists together you will get 11 opinions. George Bernard Shaw said, 'If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.'So where they get their confidence from is a mystery.Andre Beteille, probably the foremost sociologist in India, says in Chronicles of Our Time, 'To be sure, there is a large body of social science literature on modernization, development etc., but that part of it which claims to deal with scientifically established laws of social and economic change is mainly bluff and verbiage.'

Take for instance the land Bill. (I have not read the different versions and don't know the nuances.I am just commenting on the basis of a few talk shows that I have heard.) It seems that economists are looking at the issue from the angle of an intellectual problem to be solved - they don't have any skin in the game. On the other hand, the land-owners are looking at it from the angle of livelihood, social status and prestige, sentimental attachment etc., not just monetary compensation. Maybe the endowment effect is playing a role - not everything can be reduced to monetary terms.The image that comes to mind is of the farmer with small plot of land in the Hindi movie Do Bigha Zameen.

It is a question of differential motivation of the different groups involved, similar to the life/dinner principle in biology: ‘The rabbit runs faster than the fox, because the rabbit is running for his life while the fox is only running for his dinner’. As Andre Beteille says in an article A Right for Every Season:
There is widespread desire for change and betterment among all sections of society, all communities and all professions. Everybody wants to get to the end of the rainbow, but not many worry about how to get there. Economists seek to create their utopias through planning, politicians by legislations, and social activists through empowerment. They all can give detailed and eloquent accounts of  what that utopia will be like once it has been created. But they find it tiresome to dwell too closely on the obstacles the lie on the way. Perhaps in our social environment these obstacles are so pervasive and so oppressive that the mind naturally turns away from them. In the event, people tend to alternate between being utopian and being fatalistic, or fluctuate between a moralizing and a cynical perception of the world.