Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is intelligence overrated?

“Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.” George Bernard Shaw, the famous British playwright once made a sweeping indictment of how much we utilize our mental faculties.

In an era of high stakes testing in India today where children are preparing for IIT-JEE and AIIMS from 6th grade, sacrificing many pleasures of growing up with levity, it is a good time to ask the question, “What do we understand about intelligence and is the way we know it overrated?”

Indeed, when two dozen prominent intelligence theorists were asked to define intelligence in the late 1990s; they gave two dozen somewhat different definitions. Several current theorists argue that there are many different “intelligences” (systems of abilities), only a few of which can be captured by standard psychometric tests.

Obvious examples include creativity, wisdom, practical sense, and social sensitivity. Others emphasize the role of culture, both in establishing different conceptions of intelligence and in influencing the acquisition of intellectual skills.

Robert Sternberg’s (1985) triarchic theory proposes fundamental aspects of intelligence – analytic, creative, and practical – of which only the first is measured to any significant extent by mainstream tests. His investigations suggest the need for balance between analytic intelligence, on one hand, and creative and practical intelligence on the other.

He argues that our traditional tests tend to test for analytic intelligence, in which problems have been formulated and clearly defined by other people. Whereas, practical problems require problem recognition, formulation and are more likely to be poorly defined.

In addition, analytical problems that all of us get trained for in tests and at schools/universities come with all the information needed to solve them and usually having a single right answer. Practical problems in contrast at workplace and in life require information seeking and have various acceptable solutions.

Patricia Greenfield (1997) found for example, that children in Mayan cultures were puzzled when they were not allowed to collaborate with parents or others on test questions. What we consider universal mode of testing, is not so much across all cultures.

Not all cultures value equally the kinds of expertise measured by conventional IQ tests. In a study comparing Latino, Asian, and Anglo subcultures in California, for example, they found that Latino parents valued social kinds of expertise as more important to intelligence than did Asian and Anglo parents, who more valued cognitive kinds of expertise (Okagaki & Sternberg, 1993). Cognitive expertise matters in school and in life, but so does social expertise. 

Infact, most of us who have been at workplaces long enough would argue that intelligence is not necessarily a predictor of job success. To state the obvious, personality traits like conscientiousness and emotional stability have proven to have strong correlation with intrinsic and extrinsic job success in a meta analyses of empirical studies between personality traits and job performance.

So, what narrow mindsets might our children grow up with if they detach from literature and social sciences as early as 6th grade? Maybe, GB Shaw was right. We need to redefine what intelligence and thinking means. Maybe, we valued practical, creative and social intelligence as well. What use is our analytical intelligence and our degrees, if we cannot think and engage with the practical problems of our society?

What have you chosen to think - Is intelligence overrated?

A story of our times: The Paradox of choice

Noted Psychologist Barry Schwartz highlights the paradox of choice of our times. He cites that modernity has provided an explosion of choice in two different respects. First, in areas of life in which people have always had choice, the number of options available to them have exploded. Second, in areas of life in which there was little or no choice, significant options have now appeared.

Consider this example from the U.S from a large super market store – 165 varieties of “juice drinks”, 360 types of shampoos, 275 varieties of cereals! A typical American supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. More than 20,000 items hit the shelf every new year. It is safe to assume that we in India are getting there and our hyper markets would have items surely in the order of magnitude of thousands.
In areas where our parents had little choice for e.g. like mobile communications, insurance and medical care, choice has grown to significant proportions.

We have more choice, and presumably more freedom and autonomy, and self-determination, than ever before. You would assume that this increased choice must improve well-being. This is, in fact, the standard line among social scientists who study choice.They argue that increased choice makes the society better off. Those who want them will benefit, and those who don’t always have the choice of ignoring. Though this seems logically compelling, it is empirically not true as proved by many studies.

What assessments of well-being suggest is that close social relations are the main determinant of happiness. There seems to be this underlying transition at work in our cities as well. We are slowing moving from the personalized mom-and-pop store in which the bhaiyya or chacha/chachi or didi always knew what your family wanted. And they would invariably keep you posted about the best offers up for grabs. Choice was much simpler. You picked your core items and any indecision on the margin, you had some reliable to seek information from a person you trusted.

Contrast that with our hyper markets. Sure they provide you a wonderful shopping experience for your family. The hyper malls have got bigger, swankier and all encompassing. They also offer you cheap shopping days or bumper bonanzas on all items from salt to software. But do we really know what we want amidst the plethora of choices the super markets offer us? During my levers experience, it was found that a super market shopper took on average 5 seconds to make a shopping choice. Think about it for a second, do we really flip the product and care to read the nutrition or other bylines at the back of the packaging in 5 seconds?

If we were unsure, are we really confident of getting trustworthy advice? What is in it for an electronic executive to give you the best deal when he/she is unlikely to have repeated exchange with you once again?       In our quest for the best option, we are more likely to be prone to regret. We are more likely to discover someone in our network who made a better choice. With nobody personal to blame, we shoulder the blame for the choices we make. In a world of increased choice, we have engineered ourselves more emotional instability or if I dare say, neuroticism.

Many centuries after Buddha and a few decades after Gandhiji, the messages they left us with are becoming even more relevant. A fulfilling life is one of moderation – filled with simple living and higher order thinking. Anyone listening?

The hypocrisy of geopolitics

Remi Kanazi, an acclaimed poet, editor and activist was quoted as saying, “A million dead Iraqis is collateral damage. A smashed window is terrorism. -- Love, the West”.  It is hard to discount it as poetic exaggeration in light of the evidence which exists in favor of the statement.

In an academic study done by Einsensee and Stornberg in 2007 on how much influential media was in inducing bias in the U.S. relief to natural disasters over the last 5 decades, they show that newsworthy disasters are crowded out by other news unless a certain threshold death ratio is met. For example, the death ratio between a volcano and drought is 1:2395. It means that the US network news covered one volcano death for every 2395 deaths through a drought. All of us know well enough where the drought prone areas in the world are in the last five decades. Also, the death ratio of coverage between Europe and Africa was 1:45. Once again, a single European death was considered newsworthy whereas it required at least 45 African to die to make it to the network news and catch U.S media’s attention.

Iraq war was clearly a case of the imperial overreach that former US senator William Fulbright once called the “arrogance of power”. After 10 years, 1 trillion $ of expenditure, the US leaves behind an Iraq that is neither democratic or secure. Sadly enough, it has come at the cost of several civilian lives. In an attempt to justify its investment and pursuit of democratic order in the Middle East, U.S showed more path dependence to a bad decision than sensitivity to loss of human lives in Iraq. Whereas the sensitivity to terrorism post 9/11 through its home security processes and procedures cannot be understated.

While it is understandable that the U.S government will go any extent to protect the lives of its own citizens and the sovereignty of its state, it is disheartening that it does not reciprocate the same fundamental value on foreign soil. That is clearly at the core of Remi’s heartburn.

It is not just Iraq that has highlighted U.S or West’s hypocrisy in the way it has pursued geopolitics. To cite another example, the end of war in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers by the army was met with little of the celebratory tone that had marked some of the reporting of the death of Muammar Qadaffi in October 2011. While there was immediate condemnation of tactics used the Sri Lankan army and cries for war-crimes enquiries, there is little condemnation of the last phase of conduct in Libya, by the same governments of human-rights watchdogs.

It doesn’t require a political science or international affairs degree to see clearly the contradiction in West’s position arising because of its direct involvement in Libya versus its direct condemnation of local state endorsed war in Sri Lanka. Even in the case of Libya, it is not hard to forget the years of cozying up the same countries had done with Libya for its natural resources.

Many such examples highlight that there are different standards which apply when you take on a superpower. What causes a lot of heart burn for liberal voices like Remi who articulate the sentiments of their people is that super powers and their allies seek to assert their standards and values as universal.

It has to be pointed out that the hypocrisy of the Western superpowers is far from absolute and there have been many times where they have been willing to face the mirror. For example, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary at the time, eventually took responsibility for American mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, calling it “inconsistent with the values of our nation”.

However, such candid reflection is few and far between. Certainly not enough to silence the voice of those whose lives have been intervened by a war endorsed by a coalition of super power and its allies.

A human life is worth the same level of rights, dignity and compassion irrespective of the identity of nation state. It is time that the world raises to this obvious moral order. And it is time that the West showed us the lead.

P for positive and politics

YES, you read that right. ‘Politics’ can go together with the word ‘positive’ instead of its infamous cousin ‘perverse’. Politics can after all be and must be a noble endeavor. It is not an argument based on bubble headed idealism. It is also not an argument based on a few counterfactual case studies. So, I will not remind you on why politics was central to the creation of the idea of ‘India’ itself. I will also not remind you that politics during emergencies rose from the profane or mundane to rediscover the spirit of India.

Instead, let me make a case for why it is a moral imperative that each one of us engages in politics. Politics by definition is managing society’s infinite needs with limited resources through a process of representation, dialogue, discussion and debate. Therefore, by definition it involves participation of an individual in the ordering and running of his/her life and a collective spirit of community.

 Jayaprakash Narayan(JP), architect of the Sarvodaya and Sampoorna Kranthi movements, in an essay on reconstruction of Indian polity said, “The heart of the problem is to create the ‘spirit of community’, without which the whole body politic would be without life and soul. This is a task of moral regeneration to be brought about by example, service, sacrifice and love.”

He ends the essay with an evocative plea, “The task also is one of social engineering. It is a task of dedication; of creation; of self-discovery. It is a task that defines India’s destiny. It spells a challenge to India’s sons and daughters. Will they accept the challenge?”

 It is a plea and question which continues to haunt me on a daily basis. As a leader at school who led the assemblies, I mindlessly repeated the words of our nation’s pledge. Little did I reflect or ask myself deeply what it meant when I promised that all Indians are my brothers and sisters. Nor did it sink in beyond the scope of my social science exams, why I should be proud of our rich and varied cultural heritage. Least of all, I did not know what it meant to pledge my devotion to my country and my people. And why my happiness must lie only in their prosperity and well-being.

It shames me immensely to think that what I am today has been by a lucky turn of a coin. I could have been the 9 out of 10 children who never graduate out of high school. Much before that, I could have been that 1 out of 2 kids who are malnourished. Even worse, I could easily have not had a living chance like almost half a million children who die for avoidable reasons. It is only by pure luck that I have come this far in our country and I am grateful for that.

But I feel sinful that 65 years after independence, a child’s destiny is still not determined by the content of his/her character but by virtue of his/her birth. If you are still not convinced, imagine being a Dalit Muslim girl for a moment. The odds against your survival and social mobility are close to insurmountable. If have you seen such suffering in person before, I am sure you must have gone back home and cried. That is indeed the right response. Inspite of my two years work in a low income community with TeachforIndia as a fellow, I still get shaken up. For those of you who get angry, it is also the right response. I am angry and impatient about the status quo every single day.

But it is just NOT enough. Our tears and anger are only self-fulfilling. Our charity and volunteerism might be a tiny value adding on the margin and sometimes inconsequential as well. I believe like JP that we need a moral regeneration. It does entail sacrifice. It might entail fruitless years of service and love. But more importantly for me, it means staying true to the pledge I took. It means being engaged in politics and believing that it can be a noble endeavor. That in my pursuit of self-discovery through dedication to public service I will contribute to India’s tryst with destiny.

I will end by quoting sociologist Max Weber from his seminal essay ‘Politics as a vocation’, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.”

It surely spells a challenge to India’s fortunate sons and daughters. Are we ready to accept it?

The raging bull called unemployement

The troubles just keep mounting for Spain. After GDP growth shrank in the first quarter of 2012, it formally pushed Spain into recession for the second time in two years.  Another 366,000 lost their jobs, increasing the tally to 5.6 million, unemployment rate reached close to 25%. Spain along with rest of Europe and the US are discovering that economy after all comes first. Though the linkage between economic conditions and social unrest is complex, even the first world citizens are no less tolerant or immune to shocks in economy. Some of the protests in Spain unlike Occupy movements have been more violent in nature. Why is unemployment such a key determinant of peace and well-being?

Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother and former Attorney General in an often quoted speech said that, “GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”

While it is hard to disagree with the eloquence of such rhetoric, Spain is another pointer as to why GDP growth is after all the foundational basis upon which we seek things in life which are worthwhile. Yes, GDP does not measure the joy of our children’s play. But having almost 1 out every 4 young graduate unemployed reverses the private returns to pursuing education, making neither the pursuit nor use of such an education of whatever quality worthwhile. Yes, GDP growth does not capture the virtues of our poetry, marriages, social intelligence and public officials. Sadly, when you can’t be productively engaged and feed yourselves, let alone your family, there is no wisdom or courage in pursuing beauty instead of the beastly.  It is hard not to side with angry protestors in the age of increasing austerity in Spain.

A recent paper by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth of Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra presents data to validate such a theory. They put together chaotic episodes in Europe between 1919 and 2009 – a mix of protests, strikes, assassinations and attempted revolution – and in fact find a strong correlation between fiscal austerity and social unrest. Episodes of social unrest occur twice as often when spending cuts reach 5% of GDP.

Protests induced by austerity attract far more participants than demonstrations sparked by other causes. Think climate change for example. In 2010 the International Labour Organisation warned that high levels of joblessness and of youth unemployment especially, were likely to trigger above-normal levels of social unrest. Other research also points to strong correlation between income inequality and social instability.

A bit more growth and bit less austerity is after all not a bad recipe. A study at University of Sussex which examined inequality and unrest in India found that redistribution can improve social stability. That may well be the underlying message that Spain’s unemployed youth are giving the government through their protests.
I would certainly not judge the compassion nor the devotion of Spain’s youth towards their country which national income accounts do fail to measure until GDP growth first becomes a valid and worthwhile measure in Spain. To expect anything less than concerned protest from their unemployed is akin to expecting the raging bull not to chase the red flagged matador!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The art of lobbying_4th estate: How gullible are you?

“Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide”
A newspaper story in India three and half years ago, presented a success story of genetically modified seeds. This was a time when the debate was raging about the merits of the new technology. Interesting enough, the article got republished 9 months back in the same newspaper word to word.

As P Sainath, argues in detail in an opinion article on May 10th 2012 that the true story is shockingly different. Take for example, the truth that there have been 14 suicides as revealed by the villages to the Parliamentary committee.  The original newspaper article claims a benefit of additional earnings of almost Rs.20,000 per acre. The reality of a farmer’s gross income according to him is Rs.1400 per acre.           
The articles fall broadly in the category of a market driven print media phenomena called “paid news”.  The euphemisms for such covert lobbying by the print media are “consumer connect initiative” or “marketing feature”.

The taped conversations of lobbyist Niira Radia published by Outlook and Open in December 2010 made us confront the new reality of a happy nexus between the 3 pillars, 4th estate and business. These transcripts — which involved conversations between Niira and a range of renowned and commonly respected journalists and editors like Prabhu Chawla, Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Senthil Chengalvarayan, MK Venu, Navika Kumar, Ganapathy Subramaniam et al — ridiculed the common person’s naiveté. Even the most discerning readers (if I can include myself here) were shocked to realize that they were gullible after all.

Elsewhere, Mcmillan and Zoido(2004) in an academic paper  present a case on how Fujimori’s government in Peru appropriated about US$ 600 million(~300 crores) and were able to do this by restraining the whistleblowers through a bribe economy. The police chief ran the secret economy methodically buying out judges, opposition politicians and the media. While these parts of the findings are not surprising, what is interesting is that the price of loyalty was differential. The politicians averaged $300k per month(~ 1.5 crore) and judges $250k per month(~1.25 crore), the media buy out cost over $3 million per month(~15 crore).

Why was the media so expensive to buy out relative to politicians and judges? It is a power balance which hangs delicately between the private interests of politicians/businessmen and the public reputation, information dissemination power of media outlets. The day the agreement falls apart, the media in a free press country has all the power to bring down a political or business empire. Murdoch family discovered the taste of their own medicine when News of World had to be pulled out of publication because of the vigor with which the other media outlets went after them for the telephone hacking scadal.

The closed door economy has created a new job market for ‘professional lobbyists’ in India. It is a disconcerting trend and we seem to be destined following the route of the US where lobbyists exert a lot of political and media influence.

Max Weber, the German sociologist is nuanced in his articulation of power dynamics. “The modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory. To this end the state has combined the material means of organization in the hands of its leaders, and it has expropriated all autonomous functionaries of estates who formerly controlled these means in their own right.”

It is disturbing to note that his words are even more relevant today. The day when the state completely expropriates the autonomous function of 4th estate, as is already happening in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with political parties owning the media, lobbying might be a null and void profession. It is all going to be brazen and naked. The only question then is if there will be kernel of truth left amidst all the noise and will readers like us be discerning enough to see through the gullibility trap?

Will Satyameva Jayate(Truth alone triumph)? 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A teacher who couldn't live up to his own values - I

The first value out of the five we tried practiced(first imposed by me and later  in "Happy Harvard Class" was Happiness, in that Happiness must be our ultimate goal.
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. ~ Theodore

It is this mindset that Theodore articulates which has been extremely hard to cultivate. It has made me unhappy at times. My close friend Yin Chen says that it is not as perfect as you hope or even as bad you fear. She is right. I struggled to moderate between the extremes of idealism and cynicism during the last one year.

15 things you should give up to be happy  What is coincidental is that this article shows up on the same day I am contemplating the topic. It is as if the Universe has conspired to save me a reflection. A lot of things in the article speak to my inability to let go. 

It was so easy being a benevolent dictator with a group of children and having a commons which revolved around practice of such values. Having the responsibility of being a role model to scrupulous but malleable children was a powerful motivator during the two years at TeachforIndia. Being out on my own with distant images of them and being a peer in a student community has been a different equation. There is no pretence of trying to be a role model for your classmates and doing it for myself for self fulfilling reasons has never come naturally to me.