By W A Wijewardena –
Enemies of Democracy -6
Going after social proof
Swiss writer and novelist, Rolf Dobelli, in one of the essays in his 2013 book ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’, has given a fine warning to his readers. He has warned against going by ‘social proof’ or ‘majority view’ if one is interested in making logical and constructive decisions.
Social proof simply means searching for truth and correctness by looking at the number of people who subscribe to a particular view. If the number is large, then, it is taken as the barometer of truth and accuracy. That is because the social proof followers are guided by the notion that ‘not so many people can be wrong at the same time’. Or, in its mirror image, it means that if the herd says something, that is infallibly correct.
Thus, by accepting social proof as the guide, they elevate themselves to the ‘lazy man’s (or lazy woman’s) paradise’ where one does not have to labour to find truth. That is because searching for truth by oneself is costly in terms of both time and money. It also involves a laborious exercise in which one has to expend one’s intellectual energy, a stressful act which one would choose to avoid if a chance is given.
Hence, if others make the choice for him, it is considered the easiest way to find truth. What they do not realise is that this laziness on their part make them easy prey to others who are bent on exploiting their ignorance. But the reality is, as the English novelist W. Somerset Maugham has said and Dobelli has liberally quoted, ‘if fifty million people have said something foolish, it is still foolish’.
Maugham’s masterpiece ‘Of Human Bondage’, a title borrowed from the 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, connotes that when people are unable to control their emotions, they get bonded to views which are coloured by what they believe to be good or bad in terms of what they have been told by others. But, it deprives them of the chance to develop their brains to arrive at logical and rational choices by themselves.
Common sense should be the master
What is being killed by social proof is the ability of people to master and use common sense. When common sense is absent, a few crafty people can change one’s perceptions and goals. A good example is provided by a fable which has been presented in different forms in different cultures but can be traced back to the 13th century Arab writer Ibn Said for its modern version.
In this fable titled ‘The Miller, His Son and Donkey’, a father and a son go on a journey with their donkey. They meet criticisms of passers-by who have their own opinion on how they should travel. When the father and the son walk on either side of the donkey, one blames them for not riding it. When the son gets on to the back of the donkey, another passer-by blames the son that he is cruel and does not care for the father who has to walk. When the father gets on to the back of the donkey, they are blamed again that they do not use the donkey fully. When both of them get on to the back of the donkey, they are blamed again by another passer-by that they are cruel to the donkey. Then, both of them get down and carry the donkey on their backs.
Thus, by listening to everyone who has different opinions on an issue, one cannot make a correct choice. It also causes him to deviate from his goals. The moral of the fable is that one should use one’s common sense rather than listening to others who have different views of their own on an issue.
If peers are wrong, the followers are also wrong
Dobelli presents the results of an experiment done in the 1950s by psychologist Solomon Asch in support of his point. Says, Dobelli: ‘A subject is shown a line drawn on paper, and next to it three lines – numbered 1, 2 and 3 – one shorter, one longer and one the same length as the original one. He or she must indicate which of the lines corresponds to the original one. If the person is alone in the room, he gives the correct answers because the task is really quite simple. Now five other people enter the room; they are all actors, which the subject does not know. One after another, they give the wrong answers, saying “number 1”, although it is very clear that number 3 is the correct answer. Then, it is the subject’s turn again. In one third of cases, he will answer incorrectly to match the other people’s responses’. Thus, when one follows the peers, one’s choice set is warped.
Follow the herd only if it moves in the right direction
The reason why people behave in this illogical manner is that they are hard-wired to follow the others for survival. Thousands of years ago, when a group of people walk in Savannah looking for foods, if one suddenly starts running, all others would run after him without bothering to inquire why the first one has done so. Any time spent on that exercise would be quite risky. Hence, the easy way for survival is to follow the herd, without bothering to find out whether the herd is rational and logical or not. When this gets imbedded in the system, even after thousands of years, people still follow the herd, thinking that it is the best way to survive in a risky world.
But whether they would survive depends on whether the herd moves in the correct direction or not. In the case of the Central Bank bomb blast of 1996, those, including this writer, who followed the herd to the middle of the hall and ducked themselves under tables survived. In the opposite, those who followed the herd to the windows to see the spectacle below in the street perished. It is therefore important to know, before one follows the herd, whether the herd moves in the correct direction or not.
Buddha’s message in Kalama Sutta
This offers the crafty people – politicians, religious leaders, media men, marketers and civil society activists – to create a herd and get the unsuspecting people to contribute to their cause. In this instance, people temporarily lose their common sense and logic when they hear the concocted news. Falsely believing that the majority is correct and it pays them too to follow the majority, they start following the fake lead created by the crafters. This need not be the case in a country like Sri Lanka where the majority of the people – about 70% – are followers of the Buddha.
The Buddha had advised a section from the Kalama clan that they should not ‘go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskilful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them’. But the behaviour of the majority of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka in the past shows that the wisdom of the Buddha enshrined in Kalama Sutta has not changed the hard-wired illogical system in them.
A doctor convicted by the herd
This is pretty much evident in the episode relating to the alleged professional misbehaviour of a medical practitioner of Islamic faith attached to the General Hospital in Kurunegala. Some sensational news was created in the first instance by a leading Sinhala daily in its front page headlines that a medical doctor belonging to an Islamic organisation connected to ISIS had illegally sterilised 4,000 odd Sinhala Buddhist women. It was vague news and there was no mention of the hospital or the doctor in the report.
But, soon after the news was out, many Sinhala Buddhists got cold feet about the news and got instantly alerted to the imminent danger to their race. This was similar to the behaviour of the people in thousands of years ago in the Savannah when one person suddenly rose and bolted, the others too without inquiry bolted after him.
There was a general acceptance by people in other parts of the country that Muslim doctors are on a mission to annihilate the Sinhala Buddhist race in order to make them the minority and convert Sri Lanka to an Islamic state. This sensational news was spread via social media causing fear and fright among even the Sinhala Buddhists living in foreign countries. It was communicated to those who have no access to that media by word of mouth.
Within days, it became a national alert and no one bothered to examine whether such a thing could happen in reality in an operating theatre in a government hospital when several others were also present.
When some people started questioning the veracity of the news, they were put to silence by an academic attached to the Medical Faculty of the Rajarata University. He publicly opined that when caesarean operations are performed by a specialist gynaecologist, he could surreptitiously damage the fallopian tubes of the woman making her permanently sterile. This academic was a lecturer in pharmacology and not in gynaecology, but since he was a university don, his voice gave credence to the vague news already created for consumption of gullible people.
Witch-hunting a medical practitioner
Then, the hospital administrator attached to the Kurunegala General Hospital appeared before the press and named the medical doctor in question, one Dr. Mohamed Shafi, not a specialist gynaecologist but a general MBBS holder functioning as the Senior House Officer at the hospital on account of his seniority in the service.
The hospital administrator revealed that Shafi had admitted to him that he had performed 8,000 odd caesarean operations in the hospital, a number that was pretty much above the capacity of that hospital to handle within a period of 10 years. But, he did not reveal any illegal sterilisation of women by the medical doctor in question. Now, the apparently created news got its wings and spread like a wildfire igniting fire in the minds of all those who were vulnerable to such news. The pattern was that when several of your neighbours believed it, you also begin to believe it going by the social proof.
A few days later, Shafi was arrested by the Police not on the charge of conducting illegal sterilisation of women when he performed legal caesarean operations but on the charge of amassing wealth that was beyond his normal earning capacity. This is in fact a subject that should have been inquired into by the Bribery or Corruption Commission if illegal graft had been accepted by Shafi or by the Inland Revenue Department if he had not reported his income accurately in his annual income tax returns. But arresting him on either count would have been done only after a proper inquiry by the authority concerned.
Arrest first and then look for arrestable criminal charges
After his arrest, a window was opened at the General Hospital in Kurunegala for any woman who had been operated by Shafi to come forward and make a complaint. Several hundreds of women who also believed the story came forward and made a complaint. The Ministry of Health quickly appointed an investigative team of experts to inquire into the sterilisation acts alleged to have been performed by Shafi but it was soon objected to by the Government Medical Officers’ Association or GMOA on the ground that it was a ruse by the government to sweep it under the carpet.
It is strange on the part of GMOA to react in that manner because it is the credibility of its members that was at stake. Now the inquiry is going on but the final results are not yet known. However, in the meantime, most of the Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankans, guided by social proof, have accepted the news as correct.
All should develop the skills to convert news to wisdom
What this means is that interested parties can create news and herd people around it to attain their goals. Dobelli believes that it is the news and media at fault and recommends in a TED lecture that people should shut themselves completely from newspapers, TV and social media (Access it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-miTTiaqFlI ). But, that is a prescription worse than the ailment.
People today cannot keep themselves out of news that is floating around them all the time in the cyber space. However much you try to insulate yourself from news, fake or valid, you are not free from their influence since you live in a society that loves especially sensational news. The correct way to address the issue is not to shun news completely but to gain the skills to convert news into wisdom.
To learn that skill, the founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University of Ceylon – Ven Weliwitiye Sri Soratha – advised the undergraduates to challenge, probe and criticise the existing knowledge. A manual explaining how it should be done was published by two academics – A.M.G. Sirimanne and Wijayathunga Somapala – in early 1960s in Sinhala under the title ‘Kiyaweema Saha Vichakshanaya’ (Reading and Intelligent Learning). It explains in fine details how one should listen to news, read newspaper reports and respond to advertisements.
The manual is out of print today and old copies are worn out. But, its approach to intelligent reading is valid forever. If the Ministry of Education is interested in creating an intelligent nation in Sri Lanka, it should run a reprint of this book, take all the teachers through its methodology of intelligent reading and get them to coach students to practice the same. It is worthwhile making this subject mandatory in school as well as university curricula.
Democracy getting warped
Democracy gets warped when people lose common sense and ability to appraise news logically and intelligently. As long as people go by social proof, it gives opportunity for rulers to create herd news and get people to rally around it in a bid to win their support for their causes. Hence, people must master the art of logical and intelligent thinking to support democracy to work in the field.
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org