Wednesday, October 19, 2016

'The people have spoken,'

I saw a satirical report about the US presidential election of 2000 that had been printed in the satirical magazine The Onion given in Critical Mass:
In one of the narrowest presidential votes in US history, either George W. Bush or Al Gore was elected the 43rd president of the United States Tuesday, proclaiming the win 'a victory for the American people and the dawn of a bold new era in this great nation.'
'My fellow Americans,' a triumphant Bush or Gore told throngs of jubilant, flag-waving supporters at his campaign headquarters, 'tonight, we as a nation stand on the brink of many new challenges. And I stand here before you to say that I am ready to meet those challenges.'
'The people have spoken,' Bush or Gore continued, 'and with their vote they have sent the message, loud and clear, that we are the true party of the people.'
With these words, the crowd of Republicans or Democrats erupted.
The presidential elections may not be so close this time but what are the odds that you will not hear a similar speech in a few days time?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Animal violence

In the second book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi,  The Secret Of The Nagas , it is stated that animals kill for only two reasons - hunger and self-defence. This is a belief that many people seem to believe but it is not true. Here are a few instances where non-human animals (I presume that's what the novel is referring to)  kill for reasons other than hunger and self-defense.
  1. Lions kill cheetah cubs left and right. Studies from Serengeti indicate that lions may be responsible for up to 57% of cheetah cub mortality! And  they don't eat them. It is shown a number of times on the nature channels.
  2. Infanticide is a powerful tool in ensuring the survival of a species, researchers are increasingly finding. For many animal infants, the greatest threat to their survival is from their own kind. It has been recorded in a number of species including mammals such as rodents and primates, and fish, insects and amphibians. Among lions, male interlopers attempt to overthrow the fathers of the cubs in a pride. If they succeed, by hurting, chasing off or even killing the dominant male, and taking over the leadership of their group, then infants are suddenly placed at great risk. The mothers will come into heat only if the cubs are dead and if the males wait, they may be overthrown by other males which will mean that their genes will not be passed on.
  3. About 20 percent of younger blue-footed booby siblings die because of their elders’ attentions. The nearby brown boobies kill their younger siblings every time. Being born a second child in a brown booby household is nearly a death sentence (unless the elder dies of a disease or something). Probably the only reason the parents have two chicks is to have an insurance in case the elder one doesn't survive.
  4. Some species of birds thrive not by carefully rearing their own young, but by pawning that task off on adults of other species. The European Cuckoo is the bird in which this habit has been most thoroughly studied. Female European Cuckoos lay their eggs only in the nests of other species of birds. A cuckoo egg usually closely mimics the eggs of the host (one of whose eggs is often removed by the cuckoo). The host incubates and hatches the cuckoo egg. Shortly after hatching, the young European Cuckoo instinctively shoves over the edge of the nest any solid object that it contacts. With the disappearance of their eggs and rightful young, the foster parents are free to devote all of their care to the young cuckoo. The cuckoo chick often grows much larger than the host adults long before it can care for itself but the host doesn't seem to notice it. Here is a video of what is called brood parasitism.
  5. I saw a program (narrated by David Attenborough) in which a group of killer whales chase a gray whale and its calf across a vast expanse of ocean. The long chase made the calf tired and the killer whales managed to isolate it from the mother. They then tore the calf to shreds and swam away without eating anything. The killing had been for fun.
Note: When language suggesting intentionality is used like 'the animals try to ensure the survival of the species by...', it shouldn't be take to mean that the animals know what they are doing. What actually happens is that because of the variation of individuals in a population, some individuals will have certain characters (morphological, anatomical, physiological or behavioral) that will give them an advantage over individuals that don't have them.Thus more of these individuals will survive and reproduce on average and leave copies of their genes to future generations. By this process, that particular character becomes more common in that species over many generations. Instead of saying all this every time, biologists use the language of intentionality as a short cut.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


In the first book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi, The immortals of Meluha, a reason was given for the greatness of Meluha. Apparently, the greatest legacy of Lord Ram to the Meluhans was a system he created to make sure only merit determines a person's position and it has made Meluha the greatest nation in history. All children that are born in Meluha are compulsorily adopted by the empire. To ensure that this is done methodically, all pregnant women have to go to a great hospital city for delivery unaccompanied by anyone. Once the child is born, it is left behind and the mother travels back. The children are given common education and a comprehensive examination at 15 determines their trade. The children never learn the identity of their parents. Shiva says, 'The efficiency and fairness of this system is astounding.'

John Carey said, 'The aim of all utopias, to a greater or lesser extent, is to eliminate real people' and this 'astounding' system is another one in which humans don't figure.I will just look at one element of this 'greatest legacy of Lord Ram' - adoption of children by the empire. Is it a good idea to separate children from their parents? I read about a pediatric disease called hospitalism in Monkeyluv by Robert Sapolsky. It is now mostly a disease of the past but illustrates the problem involved in separating children from their parents.

In some parts of the US in the early part of the 20th century, a typical child hospitalized for more than 2 weeks would start to show signs of hospitalism which involved a listless wasting away despite adequate food intake. There was a weakening of muscles and loss of reflexes, and greatly increased risk of gastro-intestinal and lung infections. With the onset of hospitalism, mortality rates had gone up almost tenfold.

The guess was that with kids crammed in pediatric wards, something infectious would be contracted. But this explanation was at odds with a strange pattern in the statistics: kids seemed to be less likely to succumb to hospitalism in the poorer hospitals, the ones that couldn't afford the state-of-the-art mechanical isolation wards for the supposedly infected kids.

By 1942, enough research had been done on developmental psychology for the correct explanation to emerge. A New York University physician deemed it to have been caused by 'emotional deprivation'. It was caused by two ideas prevalent at the time - the belief that sterile, aseptic conditions have to be maintained at all costs and the belief among pediatricians that touching, holding and nurturing infants was sentimental maternal nonsense.

Parental guides at the time used to warn parents of the adverse effects of using a cradle, picking up a child that cried or handling the baby too often. If parents were being advised like this, one can imagine how a nurse or attendant will interact with a child in a ward full of them. By today's standards, this sort of child rearing would be considered cold and austere.

Sapolsky mentions some animal studies that have been done in this regard. When an infant rat is licked and groomed by its mother, the pup secretes growth hormones, which triggers cell division - mother's touch is essential for growth. Experiments have shown that when a mother rat does a lot of licking and grooming, many changes happen in the developing brain of the pup which have lifelong effects - fewer stress hormones secreted as an adult, better learning under duress, etc. He writes:
Similar themes have emerged from primate studies, beginning with the classic work of Harry Harlow, who showed that infant monkeys understood development better than did the average pediatrician battling hospitalism - given a choice, the monkeys preferred maternal touch to maternal nutrition. And it was not sheer tactile stimulation that was essential. Harlow dared to inject into the modern scientific literature the word love when discussing normal primate development and what was essential. And in humans, a disorder of dramatically, even fatally disrupted development due to emotional deprivation can be found in every endocrine textbook on growth. It is called psychosocial dwarfism.
During the first couple of years of life, that part of a baby's brain develops which allows it to maintain human relationships and regulate its emotions. These circuits are constantly reinforced by regular interaction with the mother. Children need to have these interactions many hundreds of times in their growing years for these areas to develop properly. In The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes:
During World War II, Rene Spitz studied infants reared by their own mothers in prison, comparing them with those reared in a foundling house, where one nurse was responsible for  seven infants. The foundling infants stopped developing intellectually, were unable to control their emotions, and instead rocked back and forth, or made strange hand movements. They also entered 'turned-off' states and were indifferent to the world, unresponsive to people who tried to hold and comfort them. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The romanticization of war - II

The Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar links the presumed lack of respect for the Indian Army to it not having fought a war for 40-50 years. As evidence, he cited the relatively less attention 'an IAS or any other authority' accords to a letter from a military commanding officer than before. It is not the soldier on the ground (who is close to the horrors of war) but the backroom strategist (for whom war is a video game) who itches for war. Evidently,  an IIT degree is not an inoculation against this disease.

Parrikar doesn't seem to realize (or perhaps realizes but doesn't agonize over it since he won't suffer) that War is no picnic – it kills and maims soldiers, deprives families of those they love, magnifying their tragedy in case the dead was also their bread-winner. It strains the nation's resources and throws the normal life of the nation into chaos. Once I was told that there was a report in some magazine that India had the resources to destroy the whole of Pakistan while Pakistan had the resources to destroy 'only' half of India so in the event of a full fledged conflict India's victory was assured. It doesn't seem to occur to war-mongers that it would be a Pyrrhic victory.

War-mongers don't think about the fact that the consequences of war don’t end at the trumpeting of victory or ceasefire, but continue to unfold many years thereafter. In The Palace of Illusions, which is the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view, a dying Duryodana tells Yudhishtira, 'I am going to heaven to enjoy all its pleasures with my friends. You'll rule a kingdom peopled with widows and orphans and wake each morning to the grief of loss. Who's the real winner, then, and who the loser?'

In Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, Sergius is the epitome of what every romantic hero should be: He is dashing, handsome, idealistic, wealthy, aristocratic, brave, and the acclaimed hero of a recent crushing victory in a cavalry raid which he led. He is possessed of only the loftiest and most noble ideals concerning war, romance, and chivalry, and he represents the quintessence of what a noble Bulgarian aristocrat should be.

Captain Bluntschli is a realist who sees through the absurd romanticism of war. Unlike the aristocratic volunteers who are untrained, amateurish idealists, Captain Bluntschli is a professional soldier, trained in waging a war in a highly efficient, businesslike manner. At one point, he tells Sergius. 'I'm a professional soldier. I fight when I have to, and am very glad to get out of it when I haven't to. You're only an amateur: you think fighting's an amusement.'

Justice by Michael Sandel gives an idea of the class composition of the American army. Young people from middle-income neighbourhoods are disproportionately represented in the army. The least represented are the most affluent 20% and the poorest 10% (who may lack the necessary education). Politicians also have a poor representation. I am reasonably sure that a similar class composition exists in the the Indian army also. If the decision makers had more of their relatives in the army they would be less eager for war. Those who most urge others to make sacrifices have to sacrifice the least in case of war. Sandel writes about the historian David M Kennedy's views:
He argues that "the US armed forces today have many of the attributes of a mercenary army," by which he means a paid  professional army that is separated to a significant degree from the society on whose behalf it fights.He doesn't mean to disparage the motives of those who enlist. His worry is that hiring a relatively small number of our fellow citizens to fight our wars lets the rest of us off the hook. It severs the link between the majority of democratic citizens and the soldiers who fight in their name.
Kennedy observes that, 'proportionate to the population, today's active-duty military establishment is about 4 percent of the size of the force that won World War II." This makes it relatively easy for policy-makers to commit the country to war without having to secure the broad and deep consent of the society as a whole. "History's most powerful military force can now be sent into battle in the name of a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so." The volunteer army absolves most Americans of the responsibility to fight and die for their country. While some see this as an advantage, this exemption from shared sacrifice comes at the price of eroding political accountability:
A hugely preponderant majority of Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.
Quite often, the spin is given that the nation functions because there are soldiers on the border which is unfair on other members of the society. The nation functions as much because of farmers, labourers, doctors, engineers, etc., as soldiers.  No one section is more important than the other. If push comes to shove and I have to choose one section, I guess it has to be farmers: one has to eat before doing other things. (Retd.) Colonel L Misra says, 'Even army cannot march on an empty stomach.'

In different parts of the world, the war memorials and the elaborate rituals attending the war dead/military casualities (which are often telecast live) or the breathless display of destructive toys during military parades are reminiscent of how religions inspire awe among the masses through elaborate rituals and magnificent places of worship. In the respect of the worship of modern methods of destruction, North Korea and the countries not on the 'axis of evil' differ only in degrees. Susan Sontag writes in her essay Aids and its Metaphors:
Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society, a society that increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to ethical principle, in which it is thought foolish not to subject one's actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability. War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view 'realistically'; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome.In all-out war, expenditure is all-out, unprudent - war being defined as an emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The romanticization of war - I

Aristotle wrote, 'Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.' People in power get to impose their metaphors on us - political, business and religious leaders, media, advertisers, etc. War metaphors are in common use with everything conceived as a battle, as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. We talk of various things in terms of a war because we conceive of them that way, and we act according to how we conceive of things. And as George Lakoff wrote in his paper 'Metaphor and War , '...metaphors backed up by bombs can kill.'

You can see war metaphors used often in cricket. After the chest beating talk at beginning of a cricket series, it will be said that 'the battle lines have been drawn', the star player in the side will be called the 'lone warrior' or 'the hit-man'; there will be 'attack' index, twitter 'battle', 'clash' of titans, 'final frontier', 'revenge' series, 'seek vengeance'. A West Indies-SA cricket series was advertised as - 'a war cry resounds as the Caribbean crew lands on the hostile African shores'; a cricket match between India and Australia is called 'a battle without guns' (aggression on the cricket field is not about cricketing skills but about how boorish you can be); there will be 'General Kohli leads his soldiers through fielding drills'; Sehwag 'blitzkrieg' flattens England, 'Do or die' game for India, Sachin's 'blasters' vs Warne's 'warriors'.

In politics, there will be battleground states, war room,  prestige battle, a ministerial communication is called 'twitter battle', 'battle bugle' for Bihar has been sounded, an election speech is described as 'a war cry', 'battle lines' are drawn, there is 'a war of words' between the candidates, the PM 'led the charge' during the campaign, Sushma makes 'frontal attack' on Congress, Rahul leads Congress 'counter attack', we won the 'land-bill battle', battle for Bihar, prestige battle, bitter battle.  The preparations are on a 'war-footing'; it is a straight 'fight' between Modi and Nitish Kumar in Bihar; sentences like 'X attacks Y' or 'X hits back at Y' are common, Congress 'guns' for Sushma, Kejriwal alleges 'pre-emptive strike' by BJP to save Jaitly.

In Metaphors we live by, George Lakoff gives some examples of the 'love is war' metaphor: He 'fled from' her 'advances'. She 'persued' him 'relentlessly'. He 'won' her hand in marriage. She is 'beseiged' by suitors. He 'made an ally' of her mother.He also gives examples of the 'arguement is war' metaphor used in everyday language: Your claims are 'indefensible'.I 'demolised' his argument. He 'shot down' all of my arguments. His criticisms were 'right on target'. He writes:
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments.We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and defend our own. We gain or lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war.Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument  - attack, defence, counterattack, etc. - reflects this.
The war metaphor is used in many other contexts: the court room became a 'battleground'; he was 'under fire' from the experts; the president was 'bombarded' with questions from the press; the organization works at the 'front lines' of the war on poverty; she didn't want to get caught in the 'crossfire' of her parent's divorce; there was an economic 'blockade' of Manipur; the model is a 'Blonde Bombshell'; the new policy is considered a political 'time bomb' for the government; ethical hackers are described as 'cyber warriors', He is an 'eco-warrior'.

Other high-profile examples include the War on Poverty, War on Cancer, War on Drugs, . The body is often viewed as a 'fortress' which protects us from 'invasion' by disease causing organisms. The immune system 'mobilises' antigens...Civilian causalities during military campaigns is called by the anaesthetic phrase 'collateral damage'. It conceals from people what is actually going on. It is an abstract euphemism which ensures that people don't get a sense of repulsion from what is essentially murder. The use of metaphor can be pernicious when it hides painful realities. These metaphors hide aspects of violence that would normally be seen as major crimes.  George Orwell shows this in an essay written in the 1940s, Politics and the English Language:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."
James Childress describes the use of war as a metaphor as a dilemma: "In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war." Their widespread use dulls the realisation that the brutality of war dehumanises us all. Childress observes, ' We are tempted by seedy realism, with its doctrine that might makes right, or we are tempted by an equally dangerous mentality of crusade or holy war, with its doctrine that right makes might of any kind acceptable.' 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The problems of conformity

In The Invisible Gorilla, there is an analysis of why the tiny nation of Georgia provoked a war with its big neighbor Russia over two provinces whose rebels were being helped by Russia. Georgia's leaders actually believed that they would quickly defeat the second largest army in the world. In the conflict that followed, they were overwhelmed by Russia in one week of fighting. How did they get this overconfidence?

Mikhail Sakashvili was elected president of Georgia in 2004 when he was only 36. He stocked the government with his loyalists who were also in their thirties and lacked military experience but agreed with him about containing Russian activities in the rebel provinces. Thus many like-minded people could 'take a set of opinions that none of them held with great confidence individually and aggregate them, by deliberating among themselves and reinforcing one another's public statements, into a high-confidence conclusion'.

The authors describe an experiment which shows confidence in groups. They gave 700 people true/false trivia tests.As usual, people thought they knew more than they did, having an average of 70% confidence in their answers while they actually averaged only 54% correct answers. Then 3 different types of 2-person groups were formed - groups with 2 high-confidence members, groups with 2 low-confidence members and groups with  1 high- and 1 low- confidence member.

You will think that groups will be more accurate and suffer less from the illusion of confidence. But the results showed that groups had similar results as individuals but they had become more confident. Confidence had increased most for groups with two low confidence people. This experiment showed how in the case of Georgia, though the decision-makers may not have been individually confident, when in a group 'their confidence could have inflated to the point where what were actually risky, uncertain actions seemed highly likely to succeed.'

One of the authors once asked a US government official about how they made group decisions. The agent said that the members went around the room, each giving his or her opinion, in descending order of seniority.The authors write:
Imagine the false sense of consensus and confidence that cascades through a group when one person after another confirms the boss's original guess...The very process of putting individuals together to deliberate before they reach a conclusion almost guarantees that the group's decision will not be the product of independent opinions and contributions. Instead, it will be influenced by group dynamics, personality conflicts, and other social factors that have little to do with who knows what, and why they know it.
Till some years back, I had tended to agree with the conventional view that it is good to have a strong, stable government at the centre with a comfortable majority. But now I think a coalition government with its pulls and pressures, threats and sulks is better, especially in a diverse country like India. It may look chaotic but prevents build-up of pressure for long periods. Like in a pressure cooker, it is better to let off steam at regular intervals.

There was an attempted coup recently in Turkey which was thankfully put down by the civilian government. But then, quite predictably, the more dangerous course has been adopted. There have been large-scale purges and like-minded people have been appointed in various positions. But, as Karl Popper points out in The Poverty of Historicism, '...this attempt to exercise power over minds must destroy the last possibility of finding out what people really think.' So one shouldn't be surprised if something unexpected crops up somewhere down the line.

There is a story about Socrates where he is told that he is the wisest man in Athens to which he responds that it is not true because he doesn’t know many things. He then goes around the city interviewing people and finds that he is indeed the wisest man – he at least knew that he didn’t know many things; the others didn’t even know this.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - III

 “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”  -  John F. Kennedy

I came across an account of another experiment in Nudge in which the task was a bit more difficult than in Asch's experiment. Here people were kept in a dark room and a pinpoint of light was placed some way in front of them. The light was actually stationary but appeared to move because of an effect called the autokinetic effect. The people were then asked to estimate the distance the light has moved.

When asked individually, the answers varied significantly, which was not surprising since the light was stationary and the answers were random guesses. But when people were formed into groups and asked to give their answers in public, there were big conformity effects. The individual estimates converged to a group norm and over time this norm proved sticky and the individuals in a group were strongly committed to their group norm.

In some experiments, a confederate was planted unbeknownst to the other members of the group. This confederate could nudge the group estimate if he spoke confidently and firmly. If the confederate's assessment was much higher than the group norm, the group estimate was inflated and if the confederate's estimate was very low, the group's estimate would fall. Thus consistent and unwavering people, whether in the public or private sector, can move people in their preferred direction.

What is even more interesting is that the group's judgments became thoroughly internalized so that people would stick to them even when they were reporting on their own or when participating in other groups that gave different judgments. The initial judgement also had effects across 'generations'.Even when the group members changed and the person who was originally responsible for the decision was long gone, the judgement tended to stick. Different types of experiments have been conducted to determine conformity effects. The authors write:
Consider the following finding. People were asked, 'Which one of the following do you feel is the most important problem facing our country today?' Five alternatives were offered: economic recession, educational facilities, subversive activities, mental health and crime and corruption. Asked privately, a mere 12 percent chose subversive activities. But when exposed to an apparent group consensus unanimously selecting that option, 48 percent of people made the same choice!
In a similar finding, people were asked to consider this statement: 'Free speech being a privilege rather than a right, it is proper for a society to suspend free speech when it feels threatened.'Asked this question individually, only 19 percent of the control group agreed, but confronted with the shared opinion of only four others, 58 percent of people agreed. The results are closely connected with one of Asch's underlying interests, which was to understand how Nazism had been possible. Asch believed that 'conformity could produce a very persistent nudge, ultimately generating behaviour...that might seem unthinkable'.

As a species, we seem to be predisposed towards believing that the most confident are also the most knowledgeable.Decisive, aggressive, confident, assertive, strong, etc are adjectives to be viewed with caution when used to describe political leaders. A political candidate who 'looks Presidential' or 'looks Prime-Ministerial' will get votes irrespective of his level of knowledge.

Election time is about making tall promises and bringing large crowds who will cheer at the proper prompts. Colourless, boring politicians are safer than flamboyant ones. (See talk by Prof Apurvanand on 3Ds: Demagogues, Demigods and Democracy.The talk is in Hindi.) As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:
Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.