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.

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