Friday, January 20, 2017

Don't believe what people say - II

Note: For some reason, I am unable to indent the paragraphs in italic which are extracted from a book.

Those who sing praises of new technologies making censorship impossible forget that they can also be used by established powers to spread their own propaganda. The dissenting opinion can get drowned in this swirl of misinformation spread by the existing powers. Jefferson said, 'Every government deteriorates when left to the rulers of the people alone.' Gandhi along with Thoreau believed that ‘that government is best which governs the least’. Gandhi had said that he anticipated having to continue his program of satyagraha for social justice even after India had attained independence.

A trial balloon is sometimes floated of the idea that the central and state elections should be synchronized. The reason given is that this would give elected leaders and officials more time to implement their  policies. This is not a good idea nor is it possible under the present Constitution.  It seems to me that ordinary people will be able to lead more peaceful lives if highly educated and powerful people are not given a free hand. They are often too clever by half and labour under the delusion that text book scenarios closely mirror real life. The smart, powerful people at the top often take decisions which, as Taleb points out in Antifragile, have small, visible benefits but have side effects that are potentially severe and invisible. Having to face the people frequently during elections keeps them in check.  As Ashis Nandy says, 'Intelligence and knowledge are poor - even, dangerous - substitutes for intellect and wisdom.'

It is better to have strong States and a weak Centre than to have weak States and a strong Centre. Nassim Nicholas Taleb demonstrates convincingly in Antifragile that the first system is more stable while appearing disorderly and the second system is more fragile in the long run while giving the illusion of stability. The first system has a lot of disturbances none of which are consequential while the second system has few disturbances but those that take place have big consequences. The most insidious aspect of the second system is that the long period of calm before the storm lulls people into complacency. Preferring the second system is like, in the words of Taleb, 'saying that nuclear bombs are better because they explode less often'.

He brought to my attention the political system in Switzerland which is today the world's most stable democratic system offering a maximum of participation to citizens. It is a Confederation of 26 cantons which can exercise a lot of freedom so, for eg., there are 26 different systems of education. A majority of the electorate reaffirms this basic principle of Swiss politics consistently by rejecting centralist laws and accepting Federalist laws in referendums. The government is a team consisting of seven members with equal rights. There is no full-time president; the representational functions of a president are taken over by one (or all) of the government members. Being member of parliament is not a full-time job so they are closer to everyday life of their electorate.

Frequent referendums have a stabilizing influence on parliament, government, economy and society. Referendums increase the willingness to compromise (otherwise a party defeated in parliament will call for obstructive referendums). As extreme laws will mercilessly be blocked by the electorate in referendums, parties are less inclined to radical changes in laws. The resulting system must appear to be rather strange to foreigners, but though it is very complicated it does work astonishingly well and even more perfectly than in many other industrialized countries. The system doesn't seem to have the suffocating tendencies of a militarized nation-state which seems to be the model of choice in the modern world. Perhaps there is no other system in operation today that is closer to Gandhi's ideal of 'enlightened anarchy'. (It is to be noted that the best example of a democracy -  Switzerland makes a lot less noise than two much more flawed democracies - US and India.)

The Washington Post had an article about the psychology of believing news reports, even when they’ve been retracted. It suggests that if false information is presented early, it is more likely to be believed, while subsequent attempts to correct the information may, in fact, strengthen the false impression. Negating a statement seems just to emphasizes the initial point. The additional correction seems to get lost amid the noise. It is like asking you not to think of a black bear: the only thing you can then think of is a black bear.

Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it. We probably tend to think information is more likely to be true the more we hear it. This means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later. Goebbels knew the concept of the Big Lie, 'The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.' As George Marshall says in Don't Even Think About It (an interesting book on the psychological reactions to climate change):

People will maintain their belief in an engaging story even if they are told that it is a fiction. In one psychology experiment, people were invited to read stories that, they were clearly warned, were false. Later on, when they were given a general knowledge quiz, this incorrect information then reappeared in people's answers. They had internalized this information so effectively that some people could not remember that it had come from the stories they had first heard a few hours earlier.

For twenty-five years, psychologists have been repeating variations of another story-telling experiment. Participants are told the story of a warehouse fire in the style of live, rolling news coverage. First they hear of toxic smoke, then explosions, and then they are told that it may have been caused by gas cylinders and oil paints that were negligently stored in a closet.

The final story is so complete that many people resolutely refuse to accept any further variation that might weaken it. If they are subsequently told that there was no gas or paint in the closet, the repetition of the phrase leads some people to become even more convinced that gas and paint were responsible. Only if they are supplied with an even more compelling replacement story - for example, that arson materials were found in the closet - will they abandon the original version.

You will think that people will soon see through falsehoods but it often is not the case. Psychologists refer to 'cognitive ease'- something familiar, eg. a sentence that has been heard before, will be processed fluently by the brain without wasting more effort on a closer look. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says that even if part of a sentence sounds familiar, the whole sentence appears true. He gives an example: people who often heard the phrase 'the body temperature of  a chicken' were more likely to  regard as true the statement 'the body temperature of a chicken is 144 deg.', or some such arbitrary number. The familirity of one phrase makes the whole statement sound true because of the sense of cognitive ease.

PS: The Backfire Effect – When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Don't believe what people say - I

post-truth (adjective) - Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief

When I had gone to NIT, Trichy for the reunion, a friend told me that I had once told him, 'Don't believe what people say. Check the books.' Apparently this advice was given to me by a school teacher. I couldn't recall anything about the episode so I don't recall in what context I made the statement. Whoever that schoolteacher was, he or she had given me a useful piece of advice. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes, "Part of the duty of citizenship is not to be intimidated into conformity. I wish that the oath of citizenship taken by recent immigrants, and the pledge that students routinely recite, include something like 'I promise to question everything my leaders tell me'".

I became aware of the distortions that can happen when information is transmitted by word of mouth when a school-teacher made us play a variant of the game 'Chinese whispers'. She asked some people to go out of the room. She then dictated to one person in the classroom a small incident consisting of 4-5 sentences. She asked him to take as long as he wanted to memorize every aspect of the story. When he felt ready, she took back the piece of paper on which the story was written and asked him to relate it to a student she called from outside the room.

A few mistakes crept into the retelling. The same procedure was followed again - the person was asked to listen to the story till he was sure that he had got all the facts right and then he was asked to relate it to another person she called  from outside the classroom. A few more mistakes crept into the retelling. By the time a few such iterations  were completed, the story had completely changed from the original version. 

If someone says that he is very confident that a certain outcome will happen or if he says that he can remember some incident as if 'it happened yesterday', it is better to be skeptical. Historical figures are fitted into rigid compartments and used as political footballs by various parties. In these days of SMS, Twitter, WhatsApp etc, false information gets repeated so often that they soon acquire the ring of truth. In propaganda, what matters is not what people think but what people can be made to think. The information explosion mostly increases the hay making it more difficult to find the needle. 

In Gandhi before India, Ramachandra Guha mentions the work he did for writing the book. He consulted the Collected Works of Gandhi which has 100 volumes of which the first 12 relate to his days in Kathiawar, London, Bombay and South Africa and run to 5000 pages in print. He visited the archives that held the private papers of Gandhi's contemporaries, examined the letters to and from Gandhi by the people who had worked with him as also the published and unpublished works of his four children.

He also studied the perceptions of those who opposed Gandhi like the officials of the British Empire, reading the letters, telegrams, reports and dispatches in national and provincial archives in India, England and South Africa. He also read Jinnah, Tagore and others who had opposed him on various issues. He read contemporary newspapers like Kathiawar Times, Natal Mercury, Johannesburg Star, The Times of London and The New York Times to know what was written about him at the time.

He studied 10,000 pages of microfilms of records from Natal Government House which give an idea of the lives of Indians in SA and of the role played therein by Gandhi. He read the 500 odd issues of Indian Opinion, the newspaper started by Gandhi in SA as well as copies of African Chronicle, the newspaper of Gandhi's rival. He also read many books and pamphlets printed at the time to get an idea of how Gandhi's views were understood at the time.

All the sources are listed in the notes for each chapter so that any interested person can the check the veracity of the information in the book. With so much work having gone into writing the book, the information contained therein has a high degree of reliability. Of course, any material that is written by a human being and not by a machine will have some personal biases. (There is no such thing as an unbiased opinion. If the biases are in the same direction as yours, the material will be called unbiased, otherwise it will be called biased.) Reading a well researched book is the next best thing to reading the original sources which most of us cannot do.

I heard the actor Kamal Hasan say that in his younger days, he used to be unimpressed with Gandhi like many of his friends. He then decided to do his own exploration of Gandhi out of curiosity and gradually developed great respect for him. This prompted me to do some reading since my knowledge about Gandhi was quite sketchy and the  more I read (and listen to YouTube lectures, eg. this lecture series by Vinay Lal) the more impressed I am with him. Despite his faults, ambiguities and eccentricities (you don't have to take everything he said seriously), he is far bigger than what his skeletal histories or simplistic slogans like those in the Swatch Bharat campaign will tell you. Such slogans are just meant to corral his subversive legacy into bland, easily manageable soundbites.

Among the leaders of the national movement, Gandhi was the one who had the courage to think differently and take the road less travelled. Being aware of the  power of conformity in humans, I was  astonished at how relaxed and comfortable he was in being totally different in appearance and thought from those around him.  Rajagopalachari made the pertinent point that while others were thinking of the short-term, Gandhi thought of the long-term. His critique of colonialism, violence, history,  modernity, masculinity and the nation-state are thought provoking. He was thinking about issues that others were grappling with decades later.

He often magnified his faults and minimized his achievements which is the exact opposite of what is popular today. It is a commentary on our times that the giants of yesterday are sought to be painted as pygmies while the pygmies of today are projected as giants.(Look at résumés: you will think that geniuses are more common than house-flies. Modi and Rahul Gandhi have never made any mistakes: they seem to have been born perfect.) I am sure that if he was alive now, he would be called ‘anti-national’ for a number of reasons. For eg. David Hardiman writes about Gandhi's nationalism in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:

Gandhi's nationalism was...broad and catholic. He hardly regarded India as a nation in a narrow sense; rather it was a civilization with its own particular qualities.  He did not condemn Europe in any blanket fashion - in contrast to those demagogic nationalists who whip up support by preying on popular ethnic and racial antagonisms. Too often, the critique of the latter of Europe and 'eurocentricity' is deployed to condemn anything which they dislike in the modern world - eg. human rights, women's assertion, democracy, socialism, secularism and religious toleration - while modern technologies of organization and disciplinary control which are of use to them - eg. the authoritarian state,  new forms of surveillance, policing, torture and armaments - are all absolved from being eurocentric or anti national...He was not interested in chauvinistic nationalism - he aspired to a universalism that soared above narrow political goals.