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.

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