The Myth of Knowledge

14 Apr

People frequently overestimate how much they know. They also confidently share things they don’t know.

But why?

One reason is social desirability—the motivation to appear knowledgeable in front of others, and perhaps yourself (our ability to fool ourselves deserves closer inspection). Another is that conversations are typically not carried out for any epistemological purpose, but for emotional and social purposes. So we make up things because the truth is unimportant, at times even a hindrance. For example, envision a conversation where both parties profess their ignorance. The conversation will be pretty short. Fencing yourself within what you know means you can’t ‘discuss’ various salient topics.

For two, lay conjecture often suffices when the audience is ignorant. More generally, propensity to make up something depends on the speaker’s assessment of chances of getting caught, which is a function of audience’s knowledge, sympathies—towards the speaker or the topic being spoken about, and volubility, which in itself may depend on the status difference, among other things. But as any professor will tell you — students happily make things up even when they are in the presence of ‘experts.’ So the rate of decline in propensity to make up stuff as the chance of getting caught increases is low, and the absolute level of propensity to make up stuff, high. It is also likely that the confidence with which people typically say such ‘lies’ is an attempt to cover up their ignorance as confidence is taken by others at its face value: as a sign of surety about facts. Thus, never seriously threatened by their ignorance, people build a somewhat more positive assessment of how much they know.

But can it also be that people think that lying about their ignorance is only a minor transgression? Do people have this innate belief (which rarely gets challenged) that somehow when they speak, they will be able to be right; some sort of a ‘God bias’ — that they will be the exception to making sense without knowing?


The modern era of knowledge production has brought its own challenges. First, the rate of production of knowledge has exploded. And as the rate of production of knowledge accelerates, and the rate of learning stagnates, relative ignorance increases, which I take is the case. But not only has the rate of knowledge production has exploded, so has the complexity. Increasingly substantive discussions about important areas of human activity (public policy more broadly but say health, fiscal policy etc.) need more sophisticated thought and deeper immersion in the wealth of knowledge that has been produced.


It is often said, often without a whoop of surprise, ‘the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.’ But why would that be? Are limits of knowledge so obscure that they cannot be known by the proverbial (and now the literal) average Joe? In fact, it is easy to deduce one’s ignorance. For example, we are surrounded by phenomena that we can’t describe well, much less explain. To infer our mean level of knowledge, we may want to do the following: recognize the fact that even in areas where we claim expertise we often fall short, hence we must really know very little about the things we don’t spend time learning.

The point about limits of our knowledge is broader, and not there to malign the average Joe. There are real limits to what humans can achieve. Think about the following: If one were to read a book a week for the next 50 years, one would end up reading 2500 books. If the smallness of the number surprises you, then let that be a lesson. The point allows me to segue into the next one — ‘the myth of being well-read.’

The Myth of Being Well-Read

Often, people confuse being well-read to mean reading a few bad books poorly. To be well-read, one must satisfy three criteria: 1) have read at least 100-150 books; 2) a substantial majority, if not all, of which ought to be ‘good’ — literature or non-fiction; 3) and they ought to ‘read well.’

The 7 step program for correctly classifying yourself as ‘well-read’ or not ‘well-read’

  • Only a few people (<< 1%) are well-read. Do you think you are in such elite company? And then again, do you want to be in the company of 'nerds' and 'geeks'?
  • Force yourself to list as many books that you have read in the past year (or life). If that number is less than 10, you may not be well-read. Apply this to specific areas as needed. For example, you may ask yourself whether you are well read in political science.
  • Alternately, think hard about how many books you bought or checked out from the library last year. If you haven’t spent more than $100 on books in the past year, and/or haven’t checked out more than 10 books from the library, you are unlikely to be well-read.
  • If you catch yourself citing one book repeatedly, whenever the topic of books comes up during conversations, you are unlikely to be well-read. In the US, it is typically The Catcher in the Rye, though that may be changing — Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Twilight series, etc. may be the new ‘go to’ books. For a colleague of mine, it is White Noise. In some circles, it may be some Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman book.
  • Relatedly, if Harry Potter, Blink, Atlas Shrugged, Catcher in the Rye, etc., are among your favorite books, it is unlikely that you are well-read.
  • If you are younger than 21 (or typically 25), you couldn’t have read much. There are few exceptions. They help make the rule.
  • Count the books you own. If you don’t own more than 50 books, you are unlikely to have read much.

An Appetizing Question: Why Don’t We Read Nutrition Labels?

24 Feb

A single wheat tortilla has 18% of the daily value of sodium. I discovered it just recently. The discovery followed my reading an article discussing serious negative consequences of excess sodium for heart health. In turn, the discovery was followed by two others: I realized that I insufficiently assimilated information from food labels in general and that I was curious to know why that was the case.

One benign way to understand this shift is the following: attention is a limited resource and only allocated to things deemed important. Once the importance was established, attention followed.


  1. Attention is not that limited a resource.
  2. The marginal attention cost is small given I generally do look at the calorie content.
  3. Given I encounter same or similar choice tasks repeatedly —cost per choice, invested once, is close to zero.

What are the reasons behind this seeming conundrum?

In the domain of food, we care about three things: price, taste, and health. Let’s leave out the price for now. This leaves us with taste and health. While making a choice, we recruit ‘relevant’ (more later) information to assess choices in a manner that maximize our utility.

Assume we have a strict preference for taste over health; more narrowly —taste always wins whatever the health information; health information comes into play only when the taste is equivalent. Health information in this scenario is immaterial, and one only needs to focus on information about taste to maximize his/her utility. So, one way to explain my inattention to relevant health information is just that.

Expanding upon the toy example, orderings of things we care about (utilities) dictate the way we seek information, and what information is sought. However, observation tells us that the ordinal structure of utilities is manipulable in the domain of food. For example, we prefer taste strongly but if health information were to be made salient, we would be liable to choose something healthy. One inference which we can draw from such manipulability of order is that the initial preference ordering must not have been strong. But that doesn’t seem right given our strong preference for taste ‘explains’ subdual of information seeking on health.

Rational choice assumes that if information acquisition costs are zero, more information should always be sought, and used in decision making. Rational Choice seems inadequate to the task of explaining, hide and not seek.

Let’s assume we have subconscious and conscious preferences (aside from assuming a subconscious). Subconsciously we greatly prefer taste more than health. Consciously we prefer the reverse. Taste wins if health information is not made salient at the time of purchase. Assuming subconscious controls behavior, health information is deliberately not sought.

Another way to think about underlying preference structure is the following— aside from preferring tastier food, we also prefer feeling good about our decision. Feelings about a decision are evaluative and emerge from whether we chose wisely given information. So one way to include good feelings is to choose healthy food but that sacrifices our preference for taste. Another way this is resolved is ignoring information about health, which is much more easily ignored than information about taste.

Given this, we suppress health information. Interestingly this suppression doesn’t extend to information seeking about health on all fronts but applies only during decision time about a food.

Another interesting psychological thing to note here is that we have negative affect associated with decisions that lead to negative long-term consequences, but we also have ways to prevent this negative affect pathway from being triggered at all. Additionally, the information suppression isn’t a one-time-only but long term because we want to repeatedly ”sin.” This, in turn, means that we firstly somehow ‘know’ that the food is unhealthy and hence not look at the health information, otherwise wouldn’t it just help boost one of the reasons for consuming something tasty, but don’t consciously acknowledge this information.

Yet another way to think about the problem is to assume that we have preferences for health but they are somewhat lower in order of priority. For lower order preferences (here health), information seeking becomes more passive and increasingly depends on how easy it is to acquire information, for example, how prominently it is displayed. Social desirability pressures may also play a larger role in moderating information acquisition when importance is low. For example, in US people frown upon those who look at labels in a supermarket. Thus cowed, people may be less likely to look up information. Though it was always possible to look up the information once home, and now given ease and convenience of anonymous information gathering (Internet), it is likely that social desirability issues are less of a factor (it is likely that social desirability pressures continue to apply when one is alone.) However in cases where other lower order preferences predict same choice information about them is likely highlighted. For example, if a tasty thing were healthy as well, it is likely that one reminds oneself of the health benefits while making the choice.

But why is taste implicitly prioritized over health? One explanation is that preference for taste is evolutionary – the positive immuno-response from eating calorie-rich food is biologically potent. Another is that consequences on health from choosing unhealthy food are long term while gratifications from taste are instantaneous. Given that, it allows us to more readily imagine the consequences of one which in turn is perhaps define one of the key ways we decide our preferences. Lastly, the preference for taste in matters of food has become likelier due to advertising and its constant valorization of taste over everything else.

It is still awe-inducing to see to what degree our brain is lazy and inhibits acquisition of reasonably readily available information.

The above analysis assumed considerations dictating choice at the point of purchase. Once we have bought something, however, another consideration applies — we have invested in x, so now enjoy it. What is the point of reading information now that I have already spent money?

A few straight forward policy proposals emerge, given what we know about how people behave,

  1. Front of package labeling
  2. Prominent, easy to read, comprehend, labeling
  3. Priming aim — be healthy
  4. Priming habit — look for information when buying food
  5. Priming consequences


The word ‘we’ is in quotes in the title because I do not have data to show how widespread the tendency is.

You Got (Fraudulent) Mail!

22 Jan

Republican [Con-]census

The party that dislikes the census, put a hold on the nominee for census bureau, is now sending out fraudulent mail surveys that seem as if they were from the census bureau. Read here, here, and here. Accusation for being ‘fraudulent’ stems, not only from the use of `census’, but also from it being an attempt at “frugging”, the practice of cloaking a fund raising appeal in what appears to be a research. (“Suggers” sell using surveys.)

Who Knew
One of the people who has benefited the most from Macaulay’s reforms recently sent an email, part of a larger email chain that now generally implies some travesty, which quoted Macaulay as having spoken the following (on Feb 2nd, 1835 in India, the same day his gave his Minute on Education in Britain) –

I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation?

Of course, Lord Macaulay never said such a thing. He said many other tawdry things but never did he eulogize the absolutely hokum positive images of India. While we all want glorious histories, past isn’t as glorious. Neither are confessions of colonial rapacity generally so naked.

Suggestion: For greater imagined glories one must go further back than just 1835, when the ‘Muggles’ had had their way (as Hindus may point out), writing had been invented, into the mists of more obscure pre-history where one can have his way with the truth. How about the crowning glories of Lord Rama and his return on an airplane like ‘pushpak’ vahan?

Prospect Theory in Retrospect

6 Jun

Tversky and Kahneman, in “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice”, “describe decision problems in which people systematically violate the requirements of consistency and coherence, and […] trace these violations to the psychological principles that govern the perception of decision problems and the evaluation of options.”

They start with the following example,

Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows:

[one set of respondents, condition 1]
If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. [72 percent]
If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. [28 percent]

[second set of respondents, condition 2]
If Program C is adopted 400 people will die. [22 percent]
If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. [78 percent]

They add:
“[I]t is easy to see that the two problems are effectively identical. The only difference between them is that the outcomes are described in problem 1 by the number of lives saved and in problem 2 by the number of lives lost. The change is accompanied by a pronounced shift from risk aversion to risk taking.”

Given the empirical result, they propose “prospect theory” which we can summarize as people exhibit risk aversion when faced with gains, and risk-seeking when faced with losses.

Why is Program A less “risky” than Program B?

Expected utility of A can be seen as equal to that of B over repeated draws. However, over the next draw – which we can assume to the question’s intent, Program A provides a certain outcome of 200, while Program B is a toss-up between 0 or 600. Hence, Program B can be seen as risky.

Looked at more closely, however, the interpretation of Program B is still harder –
Probability is commonly understood as over repeated draws. Here – Given infinite draws – 1/3 of the times it will yield a 600, and the rest of the 2/3 of times a 0. (~ Frequentist) Tversky and Kahneman share the frequentist take on probability (though they frame it differently) – “The utility of a risky prospect is equal to the expected utility of its outcomes, obtained by weighting the utility of each possible outcome by its probability.” (This takes directly from statistical decision theory that defines risk as integral of the loss function. The calculation is inapplicable for any one draw.)

What is the meaning of probability for the next draw? If it is a random event, then we have no knowledge of the next toss. The way it is used here however is different – we know that it isn’t a ‘random event’ and that we have some knowledge of the outcome of the next toss, and we are expressing ‘confidence’ in the outcome of the next toss. (~ Bayesian) Transcribing Program B’s description in Bayesian framework, we are 33% confident that all 600 will be saved, while 66% confident that we will fail utterly. (N.B. The probability distribution for the predicted event emanates likely from a threshold process – all or nothing kind of gambling event. Alternate processes may entail that the counterfactual to utter failure is a slightly less than utter failure, and so on and so forth on a continuum.) Two-third confidence in utter failure (all die), makes the decision task ‘risky’.

Argument about Rationality and Equality of utility (between A, B, C, and D)

According to Tversky and Kahneman, utility of Program A is same as Program B. As we can infer from above, if we constrain estimation of utility to the next draw – which is in line with the way the question is put forth, Program A is superior to Program B. An alternate way to put the question could have been – “over the next 100,000 draws, programs provide these outcomes. Which one would you prefer?” Looked at in that light, the significant majority who choose Program A over B can be seen as rational.

However, the central finding of Tversky and Kahneman is “preference reversal” between battery 1 (gains story) and battery 2 (losses story). We see a reversal from majority preferring ‘risk aversion’ to a majority preferring ‘risk taking’ between the two ‘conditions’. Looked independently, the majority’s support in each condition seems logical, but why is that the case? We have already made a case for battery 1, and for battery 2 the case would run something like this – given overwhelming number of fatalities, one would want to try a risky option. Except of course, mortality figures in A and C, and B and D, are the same, and so is the risk calculus.

For Tversky and Kahneman’s findings to be seen as a testimony of human irrationality, Program A should basically be seen as equivalent to Program C, and Program B to Program D. And the lack of ‘consistency’ between choices an indicator of irrationality. In condition 1, our attention is selectively moored towards the positive, while in condition 2, towards the negative, and respondents evaluate risk based on different DVs (even though they are the same). The findings are unequivocally normatively problematic, and provide a manuscript for strategic actors for how to “frame” policy choices in ways that will garner support.

Brief points about measurement and experiment design

1) There is no “control” group. One imagines that the rational split would be one gotten in condition A, or condition B, or as the authors indicate some version of 50-50 split. There is reason to believe that 50-50 split is not the rational split in either of the conditions (with perhaps 100-0 split in either conditions being ‘rational’. This doesn’t overturn the findings but merely provides an interpretation of the control. Definitions of control are important as they allow us to see the direction of bias. Here – it allows us to see that condition 1 allows for more people to reach the ‘correct decision’ than condition 2.)
2) To what extent is the finding an artifact of the way the question is posed? It is hard to tell.

  • A 50-50 split response condition would be achieved if respondents think that both choices are equivalent, and hence pick one choice randomly. But given respondents are liable to imagine that a ‘unique’ solution exists, given they have been brought into a university laboratory and asked a question, people are likely to try to read the tea leaves. Of course, people systematically reading tea-leaves in one way means something else is perhaps going on, but still it is very likely that deviations from 50-50 split would be much less if one were to provide a response option that both choices are equivalent. This is so because some number will choose 3, and then you can either eliminate that sub-sample, and calculate new percentages of deviations from 50-50 by constraining to the two choices (which will likely yield a larger percentage swing) or include everyone, and find a smaller percentage swing.
  • The stump for condition B (that offers Program C or Program D) is the same as stump for condition A – the disease is ‘expected to kill 600 people’. In light of that, description of Program C (“If Program C is adopted 400 people will die”) offers no information about the other 200. Respondent can imagine that 200 will be saved, but isn’t particularly sure of their fate. On the other hand, with the same stump, information about ‘200 will be saved’ allows us to weakly infer that 400 people will die. This biases the swing in favor of the results that we see.
  • If we are to imagine that results are driven entirely differential risk aversion in losses and profits, and not some other cognitive malaise, then it would have been nice to see clearer enunciation of the outcomes. For example, description of Program A could have reworded as ‘If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved, and 400 people will not. Or only 200 out of the 600 people will be saved’. This would have likely attenuated the swing that we see, though it is open to empirical investigation. The larger point perhaps is that there are multiple ‘manipulations’, and that the results we see may be artifactual, coming instead from another source. For example – Kuhberger (1995) noted that outcomes in the Asian disease problem are inadequately specified. When Kuhberger made the outcomes explicit (e.g. stating that 200 will be saved and 400 will die), ‘‘framing’’ effects vanish[ed].”

Further Reading

Bless, H., Betsch, T. & Franzen, A. (1998). Framing the framing effect: The impact of context cues on solutions to the ‘Asian disease’ problem. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 287–291.

Druckman, J. N. (2001). Evaluating framing effects. Journal of Economic Psychology, 22, 91–101.

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263–291.

Kühberger, A. (1995). The framing of decisions: A new look at old problems. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 62, 230–240.

Levin, I. P., Schneider, S. L. & Gaeth, G. J. (1998). All frames are not created equal: A typology and critical analysis of framing effects. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Making Processes, 76, 149–188.

Vague Apprehensions

18 Jul

“There is a possibility of a terrorist attack.” Or, “There is a heightened possibility of a terrorist attack.”

These statements are often interpreted as, “There is a high (or very high) probability of a terrorist attack.” These are not sensible interpretations. Of course, news media do plenty to encourage such interpretations. Footage of prior attacks, police sirens, SWAT teams, helicopters, all encourage the sense of dread, which likely encourages such interpretations. On the flip side, few news reports spend any length of time on elucidating the probability of winning the ‘Megamillion Jackpot.’

Like the news media, in everyday life, people also tend to speak in terms of possibilities than probabilities. And often enough possibilities are used to denote high probabilities. And often enough incorrectly so. Sometimes because individuals are mistakenly convinced that probabilities are actually higher (most people often do not remember numbers, replacing them with impressionistic accounts consistent with imagery or their own biases) and sometimes because people are interested in heightening the drama.

Speaking in terms of possibilities also allows one the advantage of never being technically wrong, while all the time encouraging incorrect interpretations. It allows people to casually exaggerate the threat of crime, or indeed any threat they feel like exaggerating. And it allows people to underestimate the frequency of things they would rather deny: for instance, dangers of driving faster than the speed limit, or when drunk, or both. The same benefits are afforded to strategic elite actors. It allows policymakers to sound logically coherent without being so. And to sell less rational courses of action.

By possibility, we mean that something that has a chance of occurring. It doesn’t give us information as to how probable the scenario is. A little information or thinking on probabilities that can go a long way. So aim for precision. Vagueness can be a cover for insidious reasoning (including your own). Avoidable vagueness ought to be avoided.

The Economy of Everyday Conversation

11 Apr

Communication comes from the Latin word communicare, which means “to make common.” We communicate not only to transfer information, but also to establish and reaffirm identities, mores, and meanings. The two major localities of communication are the consumption of mass media and everyday conversation. While both inform how we view the world, and what is considered important, scant attention has been paid to understanding the nature and shape of everyday communication and charting its impact.

In the entire realm of human communication, arguably the most important part is the everyday conversation — the repeated mundane conversation. Everyday conversation isn’t the most important because it occupies the most time, for admittedly consuming mass media does that, but because the everyday conversation is still the primary site where people seek approval. While the motivations for entering into a conversation have remained largely the same, the nature of everyday conversation has changed dramatically over the last century.

Firstly, today the conversation is carried out between socially competitive peers rather than empathetic family members, and secondly the things that provide value, or things that people seek approval on, have changed from “being a good son or daughter or some other social relation” to fickle, competitive identity markets based on consumption of commercial products (or related training like cooking shows, home improvement shows, travel shows) and entertainment. In other words, with increasing atomization and resulting heightened anxieties about identity, for we no longer get most of our identity from family or some other archaic system, but through consuming the right kind of entertainment and consuming appropriate products, everyday conversations have effectively become negotiations of cultural identity among social or (generally “and”) economic equals.

The negotiation of commercialized cultural identities is done via issues like sports, movies, and other cultural products while contentious topics like politics, religion, and race with little or no commercial value are frowned upon as conversation topics. The key ideal in conversation is politeness (and conformity) and it is just not polite to bring in contentious topics except to mention harmonious approval, cues for which may have been exchanged before.

Given that the motivation for everyday conversation is garnering social approval, attention is paid to storytelling, artful handling of anecdotes, sarcasm etc. and not on “accurate” objective reasons. Additionally, the exchange of product preferences is liable to be subjective, and hence not eligible for closer scrutiny, and anchored to some accepted commercial shtick or parameters of “coolness” or “hipness.” This ineligibility for closer scrutiny is there for a reason for it is in the protection of that kernel of ‘irrationality’ and some vague notion of ‘individuality’ can one sell absolutely anything. The fact is that trillions of dollars in this economy rides on the fact that tomorrow millions of people will wake up and make a suboptimal decision, or perhaps more accurately, be convinced about their economically sub-optimal decisions.

The other important facet of everyday conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is that it now happens primarily between economic and social equals. Conversation between classes has altogether dried up. This drying up can be seen as a result of drying up of places where these interactions used to take place. Cross-class interaction or conversations always took place when the person from a lower class offered a service to the person from the higher class. The fora for these exchanges of anecdotes and stories between economic classes have almost dried up under the current economic regime. For example, the mom and pop stores manned by neighborhood people have been replaced by chain stores that hire salaried employees with high turnover and whose only focus is to provide an efficient economic transaction and offer an empty courtesy. These routine commercial interpersonal transactions not only keep us from learning the difficulties across classes and hence possibly build empathy, but also have a profound impact on our everyday interaction with other people- even of similar social status. Let me weave in another anecdote here to illustrate the point. When I first came into this country, I was often asked some variation of “how I was doing?” at the beginning of each conversation. I frequently responded by providing full descriptions of how I was doing. It was only after many months and after receiving numerous impatient glances that it dawned on me that people expected nothing but empty curtsies.

The normative point is that our everyday conversation affects the nature and extent of our knowledge and style of argumentation. For example, it affects whether one is interested in politics or not, and the political proclivities one may have. The site of “everyday conversation” needs to be reclaimed to build a healthy body politic. Specifically for politics, we may need a revival of public conversational spaces what Habermas writes about and what Tocqueville observed.

Why Not to Think Like a Lawyer

30 Jan

The following article is by Chaste. The article was written as a response to the following two reviews in the New York Review of Books:

I respond to two articles by Ronald Dworkin to illustrate the pitfalls of using lawyerly thinking in our role as citizens. Lawyerly thinking focuses on the controversy as presented, it relies on opinion rather than facts, and it misunderstands the nature of contemporary government and market actions. NYRB published the first a year ago at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy (March); in September, it published a second, which discussed the issue of same-sex marriages among others.

Why not to think like a lawyer

As we remember the Danish cartoons controversy that erupted a year ago, and as the issue of same-sex marriages takes its course, I offer this reflection on the way we often approach marginalization of minorities by markets and by governments. I will frame my reflection as a response to two of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s pieces published in the New York Review of Books. In his March article on the Danish cartoons, he approved the discretion of Anglo-American media, defended the European press’ right to ridicule, and urged an acceptance of the right to ridicule even when constrained by holocaust related exceptions. In the second article published in September, he argues in favor of the legalizing of gay marriages on dignitary and cultural grounds. He declares that these grounds make the issue different from say religious prayer, and make civil unions an inadequate alternative.

I am disturbed by several aspects of Dworkin’s reasoning, which I will characterize as ‘lawyerly’:

  • Dworkin, as in his Danish cartoons piece, is more interested in addressing the problem as offered to him than in framing the problem adequately. This is analogous to the role of an adjudicator who tries to settle only the controversy presented before him. Yet the needs of a fuller understanding and of justice often demand the examination of additional parties and issues.
  • Dworkin at times relies more on opinion than on fact. This tends to produce principled rather than well-informed pragmatic choices. Judges and by corollary, lawyers rely on legal principle and opinion. Even common law judges seldom see themselves as making laws to address the facts. Yet making pragmatic choices informed by facts is precisely the function of citizens. Unfortunately, most of Dworkin’s stands are principled rather than pragmatic; even his pragmatic stand on religion in the pledge of allegiances couched as an exception to principled choices. Principled stands are particularly unfortunate in humanitarian matters: given the scale of injustice in the world and our tacit acceptance of those injustices, principled choices are likely to project hypocrisy rather than conviction.
  • Dworkin’s solutions are sometimes mal-formed because of an unfortunate understanding of markets and of the government as expressions of common intent. With notable exceptions like antitrust, markets appear before the legal system largely as a series of contracts between consenting parties for securing mutual advantages. The government, on the other hand, appears as an instrument of the majority that is capable of imposing constraints on any and all. Such a view prompts a heightened legal scrutiny of government regulations relative to market practices. Yet the consequences of market constraints are no less serious from the market unavailability of abortion facilities to the effects of inane media on the information level of Americans. Therefore, we need to focus on the nature and effect of the constraints themselves, and not overemphasize their source.

Danish Cartoons of the Prophet

Dworkin’s piece on the Danish cartoons shows up the pitfalls of such ‘lawyerly’ thinking. I will begin by laying out the main free speech issues in the order of their priority to the Danish press and government:

  • Holocaust sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten’s cultural editor who commissioned the prophet cartoons was sent on immediate indefinite leave after saying that he might, after review, print Iranian cartoons of the Holocaust. The editor-in-chief said that the paper would in no circumstances publish the holocaust cartoons, and the cultural editor recanted with “I am 100% with the newspaper’s line.”
  • Christian / market sensitivities: The editor of the Sunday edition of Jyllands-Posten turned down cartoons about Jesus’ resurrection, saying that readers would not enjoy the drawings because they would “provoke an outcry.”
  • Danish dairy exports: Within five days of the dramatically successful boycott of Danish dairy exports, Jyllands-Posten apologized. The apology preceded most of the violent protests and was not a response to them.
  • Freedom of expression: Speech affecting the three preceding drew from Jyllands-Posten, suppression and retaliation, suppression, and an apology respectively. Speech affecting the last proved to be no such encumbrance.
  • Muslim sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten made no apology for 3-4 months after Danish Muslims and Muslim nations protested the publication.

Dworkin allows the parties before him to frame the issue rather than framing it himself. The consequence is that he focuses primarily on Muslim sensitivities as a threat to free speech even though it was the only one of the four to be no encumbrance. As for the three that did trump freedom of speech, Dworkin mentions only the one specifically raised by one of the parties, namely, holocaust related sensitivities. This inattention to facts leads Dworkin to the misleading framing of the problem and to the inappropriate principled solution mentioned above.

A fuller attention to facts reveals the problem to be not whether there should be a right to ridicule; rather it is the extent to which large commercial entities can ridicule marginalized groups to seek commercial gain. Recall that Jyllands-Posten was the largest selling Danish newspaper at the time, and had experienced sharper circulation drops in recent years than its competitors. This is not speech that can claim freedom from regulation that it may speak truth to power; such speech is itself an exercise of power. For the minority that constitutes an insignificant market segment, it does not help to know that it is the market and not the government, which has generated the demeaning images swirling around them. There is no good reason why the law should not limit such an exercise of power, much as it limits the actions of other players like the government or of large commercial players in other markets. Such limits on speech would naturally be narrow, and limited to large commercial players. The size requirement will ensure that expression which is not a major exercise of power would stay regulated; the commercial purpose requirement will ensure that such expression is not effectively suppressed by limiting it to minor fringe players. It will safeguard against the abuse of free speech as a commodity to generate profit: a commodity that can evade the usual social cost-benefit analysis based regulations. Dworkin’s tired adherence to a principled position on free speech mixed with calls to marginalized groups to endure unequal legal limits on free speech is as inadequate a solution as his articulation of the problem is misleading. Indeed the only context for which Dworkin’s analysis is appropriate is that of the publication of the cartoons in Muslim countries, a context that he fails to mention.

Same Sex Marriages

Dworkin’s reasoning about same-sex marriages in “Three Questions for America” is similarly unfortunate. After a brilliant discussion of the teaching of evolution controversy, he argues on dignitary grounds for a principled position in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples, and for an understanding (not a justification) of the exception of including religion in the pledge of allegiance on materiality grounds.

I will assume civil unions with full rights as the pragmatic alternative to same-sex marriages. They are politically viable in several states, yet proponents of same-sex marriages like Dworkin dismiss them as inadequate. The assumption also clarifies that Dworkin and other advocates of same-sex marriages object to the law’s embodiment of a cultural detriment even when there is no corresponding legal detriment. This is both startling and impractical. It is startling because the law is not the best arena for renegotiating cultural detriment or privilege. It is impractical because cultural inequities are generally too embedded even in law for such an effort to be little more than picking favorites. Consider the example of July 4th. Americans undertake legally favored celebrations for an event that was to perpetuate slavery for 30 years after the mother country abolished it. Blacks can justly view such legally favored celebrations as a cultural detriment, but there are few moves afoot to replace July 4th with the day that civil rights became effective.

Dworkin’s habits of view regarding the government and the market prevent him from realizing that in the absence of legal detriment, the different unions on offer resemble cultural products on a market, and hence are more akin to a market rather than government constraints. His refusal to view a fuller picture makes him appear oblivious to the fact that his principled position constitutes picking favorites. Indeed civil unions may become a new and more inclusive cultural product: one without the historical advantages/baggage of marriage, but /one capable of adequately competing with it in due course.

Any regulation for mitigating the market constraints imposed by a cultural product should follow the usual social cost-benefit analysis. Unlike the inclusion of religion in the pledge, which mandates expression that may be antithetical to a group’s beliefs, marriage laws only deny a cultural product to particular groups. Whereas an unregulated media may inflict countless fresh detriments on insignificant market segments (minorities), marriage laws only preserve an existing cultural detriment. Therefore, it is not clear to me that same-sex marriages have a compelling case in the current divided and polarized environment.

Dworkin may argue with some justification that principled positions can be useful in the pedagogical framework that his piece invokes. It is not clear to me that an American high school environment and the stage of maturation it represents is the best arena for forming self-defining opinions. Further, it is likely to exacerbate the American habit of forming opinions without much regard to evidence. When based on evidence of the effect of government recognition of same-sex relationships on religious beliefs and practices and on lifestyle choices, there may be some merit to such an experiment since high school is the last structured educational environment for many. Yet neither of Dworkin’s suggested readings, for all their eloquence and careful thinking, contain any evidence that addresses the real or imagined fears of same-sex marriage opponents.

Rational Ignorance: Celebrities or Politics

29 Nov

It is a commonly held belief that people are too busy to be informed about policy issues. The argument certainly seems reasonable given the oft-repeated assertion that people are leading increasingly hectic lives with little time for leisure, except that it doesn’t stand well to scrutiny. Americans, as I corroborate below, have ample leisure time and ample access to informational sources.

An average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 44.5 hours per week, or six and a half hours daily, consuming media, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. More than half of this time is spent in watching television programs, movies, and other videos. The figures are comparable for American adults, who watch more than four hours of television each day or twenty-eight hours each week on average, according to a Nielsen study. Even if we assume that Americans do other tasks, say cook or clean, simultaneously for part of the twenty-eight hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans do have a fair amount of leisure time which they spend primarily watching television.

Given that people have ample leisure time and access to information, why do people choose not to be informed about politics? Some researchers have argued that people don’t care about politics because they are rationally disinterested – they don’t feel that they can make a change hence they don’t care to be informed about it. Inarguably fan support is at best peripheral to whether a sports team will either win or lose, then why do people often times posses close to perfect information on the teams (or sport) they follow and argue passionately over the matters related to sports?

Americans are not information averse; they are surprisingly well informed about things they care to know about like celebrity gossip and football. They also spend a fair amount of time and energy collecting, regurgitating and discussing this information. While talking about sports people show a surprising amount of talent for remembering and accurately interpreting statistics. So why is it that Americans are willing to spend time and energy in collecting entertainment and sports while showing little interest in foreign or even domestic policy?

Admittedly policy issues are generally more complex than celebrity news and perhaps people’s interest in entertainment news is driven by the fact that consuming entertainment news is less cognitively demanding. The explanation seems inadequate given people (perhaps mainly men) do keep track of elaborate sports statistics and present well-articulated positions on why a certain team is better than the other. One can perhaps argue that given the general lack of morally divisive issues, people feel more comfortable discussing entertainment news than say abortion. But then certainly there are policy issues that are bereft of morally divisive issues. It seems though that most political information is presented in identity packets rather than ideational packets as in choices are explained and understood as liberal or conservative choices. Choices marked with identity dissuade analysis and reflection, as research has shown, and combined with the chronic lack of factual information on relevant policy topics on American television, there isn’t much hope that people will get to critically think about the problem.

End of Information Hierarchy

11 Nov

Today, people have a variety of ways to explore a collection via the Internet as opposed to carefully orchestrated explorations in a brick and mortar museum with a curated exhibition.

A curator comes up with a story along with other contextual information about the exhibit and arranges the exhibition so that the person exploring it has only a few chosen entry points and few ways of exploring the collection. Some of the impediments are put in deliberately while others are a result of hosting an exhibition in the real world where the design of building etc. still matter.

Cut to the online world and the user is untethered from most of the curated connivances. This, in turn, may be a result of the fact that people haven’t really understood how best to present a virtual museum but that is not the point I want to get into. The result of the untethered experience is that these cultural objects are seen in a twice removed setting -e.g. a pot taken from an archaeological site and then photographed and put on the Internet. So what is the result of all this? It is hard to give an objective listing but one can see that some of the “meaning” is lost in this journey of an artifact from the ground to the Internet.

What happens when information that was once tethered in a context or a story is made available virtually free of context over say Google. Is storing information in hierarchical networks or associations obsolete? How do you maintain the integrity of information when context-free snippets of information are freely available?

Say, for example, once upon a time people learned about history via a scholar who chose carefully the specific issues about history. Today, a teen gets his/her history by searching on the web often encountering a lot of miscellaneous information. I would argue that the person then can come away, from such a scattered exploration, with a bunch of miscellaneous trivia and no real understanding of the major issue at hand. The key idea here is that for transmission of “knowledge”, the integrity of information is of prime value.