Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Sum of All Frustration

The inspiration behind this essay manifested from this poster here. This is not to undermine virtue the poster is encouraging. Rather, it's about the healthiness of the information presented here. 
The story claims that Bill Gates's son: Rory John (Gates has only one son and two daughters.) paid a fairly unusual tip to the waiter, who blamed Gates for his 'despicable tip' to which Gates replied: "He's the son of a billionaire, I'm the son of a farmer.The author of this 'story' has committed two fallibilities: the first one is that Gates's father was a prominent lawyer, not a farmer. The second fallibility is the fact that Gates's son, Rory John, was born in 1999, meaning he's 13 years old now (assuming the poster was fabricated in 2012, and not earlier), which makes me doubt he goes around giving $ 100 tips to waiters. The mentioned above makes one wonder: how often are we deceived by presented information? The problem is we became too passive to question a given content.

This issue of blind acceptance has escalated in the past century that economist John K. Galbraith coined a term to describe it: Conventional Wisdom. And what is conventional wisdom? Well, to quote Galbraith:
"We associate truth with convenience with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem."      From the upper essay, one observes how dangerous conventional wisdom could be. And over the past 50 years or so, economists dedicated an extraordinary amount of time combating it. 
Professor Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the groundbreaking book: Freakonomics, has tackled the issue of conventional wisdom and produced several conclusions. For the purposes of this essay, I'll borrow two of them: conventional wisdom explanations that are generally accepted as true, is not necessarily true. The other conclusion is about its roots; Levitt holds journalists responsible for the infectiousness of conventional wisdom.

But is that a fair declaration? Are we really that susceptible to media? Let's examine this claim.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels believed in two perceptions . To quote him properly: "Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play."  And he believed as well that "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth."

And who was Dr. Joseph Goebbels? He was the 'propaganda minister' to Adolf Hitler's regime. At his era, Goebbels controlled every possible form of publications, ranging from newspaper, book, novel, play, film, broadcast and concert, and from the level of nationally-known publishers and orchestras to local newspapers and village choirs.Gobbles managed a tight censorship of what people read and watched. And no one can deny the devastating success of his endeavors. 

But returning to our modern media dilemma, are we much more alert to these kinds of modern deceptions? Or we just as susceptible as our predecessors were? My overwhelming conclusion says we are victims. 

Let's microscope down on a very recent example: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or, to use its more common name: the mad cow disease. If you were an adult born somewhere in the mid 80s, chances of you being familiar with the disease are high. And chances are higher that you stopped eating cow-related products for a long while.
There was a terror spreading around the globe regarding this topic. But let's read the accounts of Nassim Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan:

"In that sense the depiction coming from journalism is certainly not just an unrealistic representation of the world but rather the one that can fool you the most by grabbing your attention via your emotional apparatus – the cheapest to deliver sensation. Take the mad cow “threat” for example: Over a decade of hype, it only killed people (in the highest estimates) in the hundreds as compared to car accidents (several hundred thousands!) — except that the journalistic description of the latter would not be commercially fruitful. (Note that the risk of dying from food poisoning or in a car accident on the way to a restaurant is greater than dying from mad cow disease.) This sensationalism can divert empathy toward wrong causes: cancer and malnutrition being the ones that suffer the most from the lack of such attention. Malnutrition in Africa and Southeast Asia no longer causes the emotional impact — so it literally dropped out of the picture. In that sense the mental probabilistic map in one’s mind is so geared toward the sensational that one would realize informational gains by dispensing with the news." 

But why we, and by 'we' I mean: mankind, befell vulnerable to conventional wisdoms and almost defenseless in the face media? The answers to this question might be countless and I defiantly can't claim I have them all. But I'll pinpoint what I deem to be the main culprit: Formal Education. 

Is this an exaggerated allegation? I think not. We as a society, place an enormous faith in education. And throughout our childhood and most of our adulthood, education has ruthlessly stripped us of intellectual prowess. It told us what it believed is important and usually undermined what we felt passionate for. It governed us with control rather than engagement, compliance rather than autonomy. 
And the outcome of this? We lost curiosity.We lost the value of questioning, testing and experimenting. We confirmed to superior institutions; even when they were/are wrong. And gradually we lost faith in ourselves and submitted it to something else.  
Is it any wonder that we can blindly be shepherded? I think not. The real trick is to force ourselves from this zone we've been confined to and seek knowledge and enlightenment elsewhere. We ought to push ourselves out of the comfort zone into the learning zone. 
We need to entangle ourselves with different cultures. 
After all, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), globally proclaimed entity famed for its innovation, has no major ethnicity among its students, and it hosts students from over 115 countries. It's an institution that realized the importance of diversity. We need to accept the fact that our inherited principles aren't always right. We need to examine our intellectual legacies, and this can't be done when our minds are shut to the outside worlds. We're not forever enslaved by passivity. This is an invitation to combat mental conformity. And it can be accomplished through diversity, curiosity and true enlightenment.