Saturday, 10 April 2021

This is a golden moment for policy thinkers like Minouche Shafik

Minouche Shafik greets me with the kind of upbeat disposition that most Londoners lost months ago. She waves, she smiles, she seems delighted. Aha, I think, the director of the London School of Economics is one of these overachievers who thrive in lockdown — the type who advertise unfathomable morning regimes on LinkedIn. We’ll probably be having a lunch of vitamin powders.

Shafik puts my mind at ease. Yes, this is a golden moment for policy thinkers like her: she has spent the past year finalising her vision for a new social contract, full of ideas that society could emerge stronger from the coronavirus morass. But her other virtuous lockdown intentions — bread-baking, exercise-taking — have collapsed. Her family has tired of her Ottolenghi recipes: “They say, no more!” Worse still, despite living by London Bridge for years, she hasn’t adjusted to the railway noise. “My husband and I have sought out the world’s best ear plugs.” (Beeswax, apparently.)

So Shafik is not a pandemic Pangloss; her optimism is more deep-seated. It’s a belief in progress, in education, and in wise collective action. When she was four, her family moved from Egypt to the US after much of their property was nationalised by General Nasser. Her father told her that education was the one thing that they could never take from you, so she made sure she got a good one — culminating in a doctorate in economics.

“Sometimes when things go terribly wrong, it might take you on a different path which might in the end be better,” she says. “I think I would have had a very conventional life if I had stayed in Egypt, I’ve had a more interesting one as a result.” 

She became the youngest ever vice-president of the World Bank, the top official at the UK’s Department for International Development, deputy managing director of the IMF, and deputy governor of the Bank of England. It was the technocrat’s version of a full house. 

But the Brexit vote and the rise of populism shook her. “I’d seen so much progress myself . . . The paradox for me was, why are people so frustrated and yet we’ve made all this progress?”

It’s almost a cliché in Britain to want to emulate William Beveridge’s 1942 report, which led to the creation of the NHS. Yet Brexit and coronavirus provide a sense of historic opportunity to rethink the state.

Shafik’s conclusion, strengthened by the pandemic, is that society needs to share the risks that today fall on individuals. Our social contracts — the norms around the roles played by the state, individuals and employers — have “broken under the weight of technological and demographic changes”, she writes in her book, What We Owe Each Other.

Citizens should be given an allowance for life-long retraining, and guaranteed a minimum income (though not a universal basic income). Those who care for elderly relatives should be paid.

Noise aside, there are advantages to living by London Bridge. Shafik guides me from the main entrance of the 19th century Borough Market, past the queues, to the pick of the food stalls. We buy falafel wraps, and search for a scrap of concrete to sit on. 

 It’s early spring in London, so the sun fills the sky and delicate birdsong fills our ears. Only kidding, it’s 10°C, the smell is distinctly urban, and a steward soon appears with a loudspeaker. “IN ORDER TO KEEP CONGESTION DOWN, WE ARE ASKING THAT YOU DO NOT EAT OR DRINK IN THIS LOCATION TODAY. PLEASE LEAVE THIS LOCATION.” 

I try to ignore her, but when she insists, I realise my interview could soon be with the police. Shafik and I gather our wraps, and cross London Bridge to the north bank of the Thames and a cluster of deserted benches. 

In her book, Shafik argues that: “We are increasingly living in ‘you’re on your own’ societies, a situation which gets translated into the politics of anger, an epidemic of mental health issues and both young and old fearing for their futures.”

Shafik argues a social safety net is the efficient option. The alternative is wasted talent, “lost Einsteins”. Britain’s welfare state is also less divisive than assumed: it is only one-quarter Robin Hood, transferring wealth from rich to poor. Around three-quarters is Piggy Bank, shifting money over the course of people’s lives.

“In the UK, most people put in roughly as much as they take out. The typical middle-class person may pay more tax but they also tend to live longer, so they benefit more from the NHS and pensions,” she says.

Shafik, 58, tells two stories from her childhood. The first is watching girls playing when she visited her mother’s village in Egypt. “They looked exactly like me: the same kind of hair, the same skin colour. I could easily have been them.” It was a real-life version of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and it made her focus on “the architecture of opportunity”.

The second story is from the US, after her arrival from Egypt. “We weren’t poor but it was humble.” She was bussed to school in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, as districts dealt with desegregation. “I honestly can’t remember how many schools I went to. I think it was 10. You’d just get notified by the school district. It taught me to be very self-sufficient in my learning.”

(This was the late Sixties, so teachers were experimenting too. When her class in Miami studied Inuits, “they turned up the air conditioning so we could experience what it was like to be really cold. It was completely mad!”

At school, Shafik was asked if she was black or white, and she replied: “I’m brown.” She refused to tick a box. Ideologically, she’s the same. She led DfID under both Labour and Conservative ministers. On universal basic income, she is nuanced. Automation will change work, not eliminate it. 

  “In very low-income countries, delivering cash to everyone — especially when most people are poor so what’s the point of targeting — is a good thing. But in a country that has a welfare state and is able to target, you either end up giving people small amounts that don’t make any difference, or you have to raise the tax rate by 20 per cent to cycle all this money through the state, and give it to people who don’t need it.” 

Overall her proposed social contract would require the tax take in the UK to increase by a few percentage points of GDP. That puts her on the left, doesn’t it? “You want to put me in a box, I can feel it!” she objects, with a sharp laugh.

Countries don’t just pick left or right — they make sets of choices, Shafik argues. “Take Singapore. Everyone holds up Singapore as this free-market nirvana. Eighty per cent of the population lives in public housing! And you get assigned so that each building has an ethnic mix!”

 The UK could fund social care through insurance, like Germany and Japan, or state funding, preferred by the left. “But at the moment, we haven’t made any choice and we’re in this horrible position where a lot of elderly people are not being cared for adequately.”

Where does she depart from consensus? “On corporate social responsibility, I think the voluntary approach isn’t good enough . . . We need a carbon tax! It’s so much simpler, it’s so much more efficient.”

I have romped through my wrap: falafel tastes so healthy when you haven’t seen it being fried. Shafik is mid-mouthful when I see a stream of the “velvety” tahini roll down her black coat. I promise that the FT’s hospitality extends to dry cleaning, with the same confidence that Boris Johnson promises that he has a social care plan. 

I ask how Shafik views the prime minister’s plans for “levelling up” the UK. Infrastructure projects are good, she says, but “if you really care about levelling up, you would also look at things like early years. The first 1,000 days for a child — if they don’t get good nutrition and good mental stimulation, they’ll never catch up.” Decentralising spending powers, as Germany does, would also help more than relocating central government offices. “Local people will know where their comparative advantage is.”

Good policy is not necessarily good politics. “Particularly in advanced economies, old people are a problem because they block reforms to things like pension ages,” Shafik says. 

Her first response is to use grand bargains — for example, raise the pension age at the same time you fix social care. But she also wants changes to democracy. “There is a need for renewal. I’d start by looking at digital voting, so you get more participation by young people. Estonia has done it now for years, and it seems to work . . . We have to do something to redress the gerontocracy of our political system . . . I say this because I consider myself an old person!”

Another idea is citizens’ assemblies, as used in Ireland before its abortion referendum. “Before having a Scottish referendum, wouldn’t you want to have a citizens’ assembly where all the evidence was brought forward?”

This goes against Dominic Cummings’ view that the real problems are the civil servants, who aren’t accountable or specialised. “I was bloody specialised! . . . I had to go through many, many parliamentary committees. I was being held to account all the time.” She would encourage the “permeability” of the civil service — “people going in and out” — but keep its promotion by merit: “I don’t believe we need more political appointees.” 

Shafik tidies her rubbish into the bin. Those who have worked with her praise her ability to keep people onside. One compares her to “a really good conjurer — you can’t see how she does it.” How would she describe her management style? “I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. And I do make a big effort to listen.” Later she emails a favourite quote attributed to Taoist thinker Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists . . . [O]f a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” 

Shafik’s book laments the child penalty: in Germany, 10 years after having her first child, a woman’s income will be 61 per cent lower on average than it was before; a man’s will be virtually unaffected. Even in progressive Denmark, the drop in women’s income is 21 per cent. “Isn’t it amazing?”

How did she avoid paying this child penalty, after having twins while working at the World Bank? “I don’t know if I didn’t pay one, because I don’t know what my male colleagues were paid.” When she looked to move jobs, she was told she “could just work part-time because of your husband”.

Her husband, Raffael, is a scientist, pioneering algae as food. (The taste is like sushi wrappers, she says.) Did they agree whose career mattered more? “No . . . Part of the social contract is within the family . . . I do the cooking, he does the laundry, because he’s better at the laundry than I am. He followed me to Washington, I came back to London partly for him.” 

Her preferred metaphor is not the glass ceiling, which suggests you only need to smash it once, but a sticky door. “I found the doors were stickier when I was younger. I had more sexist comments, being talked over . . . The more power you have, the less of a problem it is.” 

Economics remains very male. “The IMF, the Bank of England: mainly economists, very male. When I was at the IMF, it helped that Christine [Lagarde] was there.” The FT reported that Shafik had a difficult time with her boss at the Bank, then governor Mark Carney. Is that why she left after just half her five-year term? “No, no. I got a fantastic offer from the LSE.” She didn’t get this far without diplomacy.

She was tipped to be the Bank’s first female governor last year, but either her politics or her perceived lack of monetary policy experience ruled her out. She insists she didn’t apply. 

The cold is biting, and we walk back over London Bridge. Shafik is also a trustee of the British Museum. Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests raised the issue of returning artefacts taken in the colonial era. Will the Benin Bronzes go back to Nigeria? “I think there are active discussions about how to support the exhibition of Benin’s history in [Nigeria].” But she insists: “The British Museum is a museum of the world for the world. It also lends more than any other museum in the world.” 

Does she query why so many Egyptian works are housed in Bloomsbury? She dead-bats. “Egypt is very blessed to have a lot of treasures. I actually think that people who see the Egyptian collection at the British Museum — it makes them want to go to Egypt.”

At LSE, the problem is donations. Her predecessor-but-one, Howard Davies, resigned after accepting money from a Gaddafi family foundation. Does Shafik say no to shady donors? “Sure.” States or rich individuals? “It can be both.” How easy is it? “It’s very easy . . . You deal with it early, before conversations get advanced. So you don’t ever have to say ‘no’, you don’t pursue.” Even so, in 2019 the university suspended a China programme backed by a pro-Beijing investor, after staff complaints.

Meanwhile students are accused of not supporting free speech. “We’ve had controversial speakers and it’s been fine.” Could Jordan Peterson speak at LSE? “Remind me who he is?” she replies. It’s a long story, I say. 

A few politicians argue too many people are going to university; one 2010 study said that “overproduction” of graduates might produce political unrest in the west. “I don’t buy that . . . The rate of return to education is still incredibly high.” The demand is too: LSE’s admissions for next year are up, despite coronavirus.

What hope is there for young people like her children, whose mental health has been hit hardest by lockdown, and who, if past experience of crashes holds true, face a life-long hit to their earnings? Education, of course. “They’re going to pay our pensions and healthcare bills, and unless they’re super-educated and super-productive, we’re all going to be worse off. We also need to sort out the environment.”

Like all Shafik’s opinions, it comes firmly, but calmly. Is she the last person left who doesn’t do outrage? How does she stay so measured? 

“Policy matters so much,” she laughs. “One of my first jobs, we were working on how could Egypt ever export fresh fruit and vegetables to Europe. It seemed an impossible problem, because Europeans want their fruit and veg in a certain way, and you needed a cold chain, and you had to deliver in these very specific seasonal windows. 

“Before I came here to meet you, I opened up my fridge, because I was checking if I needed anything from the market. The mangetout and the broccoli had come from Egypt. They did it!” 

 She disappears into the crowd, smiling. On my bike ride home, I run into a protest against lockdown. A man wears a T-shirt inviting doctors to stick his vaccine up his backside. And I remember that sometimes it doesn’t matter how good your policies are: politics gets in the way.

Monday, 5 April 2021

We are not quite as rational as we think

Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University

To say that facts are less important than feelings in shaping our beliefs about empirical matters seems new, at least in American politics. In the past we have faced serious challenges — even to the notion of truth itself — but never before have such challenges been so openly embraced as a strategy for the political subordination of reality, which is how I define “post-truth.” Here, “post” is meant to indicate not so much the idea that we are “past” truth in a temporal sense (as in “postwar”) but in the sense that truth has been eclipsed by less important matters like ideology.

One of the deepest roots of post-truth has been with us the longest, for it has been wired into our brains over the history of human evolution: cognitive bias. Psychologists for decades have been performing experiments that show that we are not quite as rational as we think. Some of this work bears directly on how we react in the face of unexpected or uncomfortable truths.

A central concept of human psychology is that we strive to avoid psychic discomfort. It is not a pleasant thing to think badly of oneself. Some psychologists call this “ego defense” (after Freudian theory), but whether we frame it within this paradigm or not, the concept is clear. It just feels better for us to think that we are smart, well-informed, capable people than that we are not. What happens when we are confronted with information that suggests that something we believe is untrue? It creates psychological tension. How could I be an intelligent person yet believe a falsehood? Only the strongest egos can stand up very long under a withering assault of self-criticism: “What a fool I was! The answer was right there in front of me the whole time, but I never bothered to look. I must be an idiot.” So the tension is often resolved by changing one of one’s beliefs.

It matters a great deal, however, which beliefs change. One would like to think that it should always be the belief that was shown to be mistaken. If we are wrong about a question of empirical reality — and we are finally confronted by the evidence — it would seem easiest to bring our beliefs back into harmony by changing the one that we now have good reason to doubt. But this is not always what happens. There are many ways to adjust a belief set, some rational and some not.

Three Classic Findings from Social Psychology

In 1957, Leon Festinger published his pioneering book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” in which he offered the idea that we seek harmony between our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, and experience psychic discomfort when they are out of balance. In seeking resolution, our primary goal is to preserve our sense of self-value.

In a typical experiment, Festinger gave subjects an extremely boring task, for which some were paid $1 and some were paid $20. After completing the task, subjects were requested to tell the person who would perform the task after them that it was enjoyable. Festinger found that subjects who had been paid $1 reported the task to be much more enjoyable than those who had been paid $20. Why? Because their ego was at stake. What kind of person would do a meaningless, useless task for just a dollar unless it was actually enjoyable? To reduce the dissonance, they altered their belief that the task had been boring (whereas those who were paid $20 were under no illusion as to why they had done it). In another experiment, Festinger had subjects hold protest signs for causes they did not actually believe in. Surprise! After doing so, subjects began to feel that the cause was actually a bit more worthy than they had initially thought.

To one degree or another, all of us suffer from cognitive dissonance.

But what happens when we have much more invested than just performing a boring task or holding a sign? What if we have taken a public stand on something, or even devoted our life to it, only to find out later that we’ve been duped? Festinger analyzed just this phenomenon in a book called “The Doomsday Cult,” in which he reported on the activities of a group called The Seekers, who believed that their leader, Dorothy Martin, could transcribe messages from space aliens who were coming to rescue them before the world ended on December 21, 1954. After selling all of their possessions, they waited on top of a mountain, only to find that the aliens never showed up (and of course the world never ended). The cognitive dissonance must have been tremendous. How did they resolve it? Dorothy Martin soon greeted them with a new message: Their faith and prayers had been so powerful that the aliens had decided to call off their plans. The Seekers had saved the world!

From the outside, it is easy to dismiss these as the beliefs of gullible fools, yet in further experimental work by Festinger and others it was shown that — to one degree or another — all of us suffer from cognitive dissonance. When we join a health club that is too far away, we may justify the purchase by telling our friends that the workouts are so intense we only need to go once a week; when we fail to get the grade we’d like in organic chemistry, we tell ourselves that we didn’t really didn’t want to go to medical school anyway. But there is another aspect of cognitive dissonance that should not be underestimated, which is that such “irrational” tendencies tend to be reinforced when we are surrounded by others who believe the same thing we do. If just one person had believed in the “doomsday cult” perhaps he or she would have committed suicide or gone into hiding. But when a mistaken belief is shared by others, sometimes even the most incredible errors can be rationalized.

In his path-breaking 1955 paper “Opinions and Social Pressure,” Solomon Asch demonstrated that there is a social aspect to belief, such that we may discount even the evidence of our own senses if we think that our beliefs are not in harmony with those around us. In short, peer pressure works. Just as we seek to have harmony within our own beliefs, we also seek harmony with the beliefs of those around us.

In his experiment, Asch assembled seven to nine subjects, all of whom but one were “confederates” (i.e., they were “in on” the deception that would occur in the experiment). The one who was not “in on it” was the sole experimental subject, who was always placed at the last seat at the table. The experiment involved showing the subjects a card with a line on it, then another card with three lines on it, one of which was identical in length to the one on the other card. The other two lines on the second card were “substantially different” in length. The experimenter then went around the group and asked each subject to report aloud which of the three lines on the second card were equal in length to the line on the first card. For the first few trials, the confederates reported accurately and the experimental subject of course agreed with them. But then things got interesting. The confederates began to unanimously report that one of the obviously false choices was in fact equal to the length of the line on the first card. By the time the question came to the experimental subject, there was obvious psychic tension. As Asch describes it:

He is placed in a position in which, while he is actually giving the correct answers, he finds himself unexpectedly in a minority of one, opposed by a unanimous and arbitrary majority with respect to a clear and simple fact. Upon him we have brought to bear two opposed forces: the evidence of his senses and the unanimous opinion of a group of his peers.

Before announcing their answer, virtually all dissonance-primed subjects looked surprised, even incredulous. But then a funny thing happened. Thirty-seven percent of them yielded to the majority opinion. They discounted what they could see right in front of them in order to remain in conformity with the group.

Another piece of key experimental work on human irrationality was done in 1960 by Peter Cathcart Wason. In his paper “On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task,” Wason took the first in a number of steps to identify logical and other conceptual mistakes that humans routinely make in reasoning. In this first paper, he introduced (and later named) an idea that nearly everyone in the post-truth debate has likely heard of: confirmation bias.

Wason’s experimental design was elegant. He gave 29 college students a cognitive task whereby they would be called on to “discover a rule” based on empirical evidence. Wason presented the subjects with a three-number series such as 2, 4, 6, and said that their task would be to try to discover the rule that had been used in generating it. Subjects were requested to write down their own set of three numbers, after which the experimenter would say whether their numbers conformed to the rule or not. Subjects could repeat this task as many times as they wished, but were instructed to try to discover the rule in as few trials as possible. No restrictions were placed on the sorts of numbers that could be proposed. When they felt ready, subjects could propose their rule.

The results were shocking. Out of 29 very intelligent subjects, only six of them proposed the correct rule without any previous incorrect guesses. Thirteen proposed one incorrect rule and nine proposed two or more incorrect rules. One subject was unable to propose any rule at all. What happened?

As Wason reports, the subjects who failed at the task seemed unwilling to propose any set of numbers that tested the accuracy of their hypothesized rule and instead proposed only those that would confirm it. For instance, given the series 2, 4, 6, many subjects first wrote down 8, 10, 12, and were told “yes, this follows the rule.” But then some just kept going with even numbers in ascending order by two. Rather than use their chance to see whether their intuitive rule of “increase by intervals of two” was incorrect, they continued to propose only confirming instances. When these subjects announced their rule they were shocked to learn that it was incorrect, even though they had never tested it with any disconfirming instances.

When a mistaken belief is shared by others, sometimes even the most incredible errors can be rationalized.

After this, 13 subjects began to test their hypotheses and eventually arrived at the correct answer, which was “any three numbers in ascending order.” Once they had broken out of their “confirming” mindset, they were willing to entertain the idea that there might be more than one way to get the original series of numbers. This cannot explain, however, the nine subjects who gave two or more incorrect rules, for they were given ample evidence that their proposal was incorrect, but still could not find the right answer. Why didn’t they guess 9, 7, 5? Here Wason speculates that “they might not have known how to attempt to falsify a rule by themselves; or they might have known how to do it, but still found it simpler, more certain or more reassuring to get a straight answer from the experimenter.” In other words, at this point their cognitive bias had a firm hold on them, and they could only flail for the right answer.

All three of these experimental results — (1) cognitive dissonance, (2) social conformity, and (3) confirmation bias — are obviously relevant to post-truth, whereby so many people seem prone to form their beliefs outside the norms of reason and good standards of evidence, in favor of accommodating their own intuitions or those of their peers.

Yet post-truth did not arise in the 1950s or even the 1960s. It awaited the perfect storm of a few other factors like extreme partisan bias and social media “silos” that arose in the early 2000s. And in the meantime, further stunning evidence of cognitive bias — in particular the “backfire effect” and the “Dunning–Kruger effect,” both of which are rooted in the idea that what we hope to be true may color our perception of what actually is true — continued to come to light.

Implications for Post-Truth

In the past, perhaps our cognitive biases were ameliorated by our interactions with others. It is ironic to think that in today’s media deluge, we could perhaps be more isolated from contrary opinion than when our ancestors were forced to live and work among other members of their tribe, village, or community, who had to interact with one another to get information. When we are talking to one another, we can’t help but be exposed to a diversity of views. And there is even empirical work that shows the value that this can have for our reasoning.

In his book “Infotopia,” Cass Sunstein has discussed the idea that when individuals interact they can sometimes reach a result that would have eluded them if each had acted alone. Call this the “whole is more than the sum of its parts” effect. Sunstein calls it the “interactive group effect.”

When we open our ideas up to group scrutiny, this affords us the best chance of finding the right answer.

In one study, J. C. Wason and colleagues brought a group of subjects together to solve a logic puzzle. It was a hard one, and few of the subjects could do it on their own. But when the problem was later turned over to a group to solve, an interesting thing happened. People began to question one another’s reasoning and think of things that were wrong with their hypotheses, to a degree they seemed incapable of doing with their own ideas. As a result, researchers found that in a significant number of cases a group could solve the problem even when none of its members alone could do so. (It is important to note that this was not due to the “smartest person in the room” phenomenon, where one person figured it out and told the group the answer. Also, it was not the mere “wisdom of crowds” effect, which relies on passive majority opinion. The effect was found only when group members interacted with one another.)

For Sunstein, this is key. Groups outperform individuals. And interactive, deliberative groups outperform passive ones. When we open our ideas up to group scrutiny, this affords us the best chance of finding the right answer. And when we are looking for the truth, critical thinking, skepticism, and subjecting our ideas to the scrutiny of others works better than anything else.

Yet these days we have the luxury of choosing our own selective interactions. Whatever our political persuasion, we can live in a “news silo” if we care to. If we don’t like someone’s comments, we can unfriend him or hide him on Facebook. If we want to gorge on conspiracy theories, there is probably a radio station for us. These days more than ever, we can surround ourselves with people who already agree with us. And once we have done this, isn’t there going to be further pressure to trim our opinions to fit the group?

Solomon Asch’s work has already shown that this is possible. If we are a liberal we will probably feel uncomfortable if we agree with most of our friends on immigration, gay marriage, and taxes, but are not so sure about gun control. If so, we will probably pay a social price that may alter our opinions. To the extent that this occurs not as a result of critical interaction but rather a desire not to offend our friends, this is likely not to be a good thing. Call it the dark side of the interactive group effect, which any of us who has ever served on a jury can probably describe: we just feel more comfortable when our views are in step with those of our compatriots. But what happens when our compatriots are wrong? Whether liberal or conservative, none of us has a monopoly on the truth.

I am not here suggesting that we embrace false equivalence, or that the truth probably lies somewhere between political ideologies. The halfway point between truth and error is still error. But I am suggesting that at some level all ideologies are an enemy of the process by which truth is discovered. Perhaps researchers are right that liberals have a greater “need for cognition” than conservatives, but that does not mean liberals should be smug or believe that their political instincts are a proxy for factual evidence. In the work of Festinger, Asch, and others, we can see the dangers of ideological conformity. The result is that we all have a built-in cognitive bias to agree with what others around us believe, even if the evidence before our eyes tells us otherwise. At some level we all value group acceptance, sometimes even over reality itself. But if we care about truth, we must fight against this. Why? Because cognitive biases are the perfect precursor for post-truth.

If we are already motivated to want to believe certain things, it doesn’t take much to tip us over to believing them, especially if others we care about already do so. Our inherent cognitive biases make us ripe for manipulation and exploitation by those who have an agenda to push, especially if they can discredit all other sources of information. Just as there is no escape from cognitive bias, a news silo is no defense against post-truth. For the danger is that at some level they are connected. We are all beholden to our sources of information. But we are especially vulnerable when they tell us exactly what we want to hear.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Namit Arora explores the Indian civilisation in all its splendour and “complex shades”


Seema Chishti

Indians: A Brief History of A Civilization — mind you, Indians, not India — appears at first to be a fool’s errand, but that is only till you jump on, dig in and take the full ride. Namit Arora started thinking about a large canvas of a book like this 17 years ago while ruminating about how cities just disappear — Machu Pichhu, Memphis, Mohenjo-daro among others. His bid to reflect on all that is lost but also that which remains, waiting to be rediscovered and unpacked, led to this book. The author’s skills and the choice of technique allow such a mega-ambitious project to take shape and flow.

There are chapters on six places: Dholavira (2600-1900 BCE), Nagarjunakonda (220-320 CE), Nalanda (425-1350 CE), Khajuraho (950-1250 CE), Hampi (1336-1565 CE) and Varanasi (from 800 BCE), and five chapters on travellers: Megasthenes, Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing, Alberuni, Marco Polo and Francois Bernier — all fitting in to convey the broader picture of the way Indians lived, ate, loved, built, fought, were governed and made sense of the material, rational and the spiritual down the ages.

Visible coexistence

It’s a technique surprisingly used less by writers of popular Indian history. India does lend itself to it, the history and the present coexist very visibly, even if uneasily sometimes and often hiding in plain sight. A travelogue could easily involve not just visiting them as they stand, but connect the places with the people who live there and travel across time through them. It is something Michael Wood deploys very successfully in his eminently readable (and watchable) The Story of India, or John Keay in his masterful work on India. Arora similarly makes his modern-day journeys central to the history story. Sometimes the past lingers in stories he hears and in practices that persist, but more often, in the sheer contrast with the past, as in Dholavira where Harappan forefathers did more to worry about water conservation than the present-day inhabitants.

The book’s treatment of Khajuraho’s erotic sculptures, the fusing of erotic with the religious and the snapping of the link later, typifies his style which makes this a comprehensive, informative and engaging account about India in just 258 pages. He tackles the philosophical questions posed between different schools of thought, those that emphasised the renunciatory and others that saw “spiritual growth as compatible and intertwined with success in love rather than opposites.” He draws in philosophy, competing themes and ideas making the book as much about beads, pottery and food as it is about how Indians might have thought in times past. This ability to compress a complex discussion on people, places, things across thousands of years and yet never let the reader once think of it as a shallow journey is a hallmark of the book.

Arora’s work assumes added significance as it comes at a time when so much about India’s present, politics and everyday conversations is an angry shouting match about its history. It is more important when so much attention of mass-media and the state is about identifying all those it does not belong to. At a time like this, just sweeping in all and being attentive to all manners of Indians today is an act of defiance. The author is clearly not shy of discussing contentious issues.

Complex shades

His work gets right into the heart of many flaming debates. He examines if Aryans are home-grown (no, he concludes citing new research in genetics, science and languages), on differing ideas which had play here, of many forms of contemplation down the ages, of times when dark skin was sought after and even why modern India ended up building Nagarjuna Sagar over the ruins of Nagarjunakonda.

Observations by Chinese travellers and others from West Asia and Europe leaven the text, and they enhance the ‘arc of the story’. The sense of wonder that was India (to steal from Basham) is a balm to those of us living in 2021 as it drives home all that we could be. “The lives of our ancestors”, the book surmises, “were far more varied than what their material remains indicate”, and that “history belongs to those whose creative works survive and vibrate in the minds of later historians.”

Among the things that this book accomplishes is to drag the reader out of ancient, medieval and modern silos, and keep her away from just talk of conquests and invasions. All in all, Indians manages to escape what historian Johan Elverskog (quoted in the book) has termed the seduction of “a clear-cut narrative with good guys and bad”, which “avoids entirely the complex shades of grey that most often colour the messy fabric of history.”

On the contrary, the book goes straight for the messiness and is able to arrange it in all its splendour and “complex shades” which are far from “grey”.

Only one thing rankles — why did Arora not pick a place with a distinctly Muslim or Christian imprint? Perhaps the reason is that there is no exclusive Muslim or Christian town that makes the point of the book, but the way the conversation is framed these days, and also in official commentary, priorities and new NCERT books, by picking Agra or travelling to Kodungallur, to the site of South Asia’s first mosque, the author could have tackled the trickiest bone of contention amongst readers of India’s history, and its present, head on.

Friday, 19 March 2021

The case for e-book sharing


Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In 1969, Jose Yglesias published In the Fist of the Revolution, a book about how Fidel Castro’s revolt affected the population of a small Cuban town. “It’s been out of print forever,” his grandson Matt Yglesias, an American political and economic writer, tells me over the phone. “It was well-reviewed at the time – it’s a good book, you’ll have to take my word for it – but it’s not valuable. Nobody makes any money off it. But it might be interesting if you were teaching a course on the Cuban revolution. You might want to assign a chapter to your students.” 

It would be fairly straightforward, Yglesias says, to have such permissions granted: his grandfather died in 1995, but he and his father, who is also a writer, retain Jose’s distinctive surname. If an academic or other party were interested in obtaining permission to reproduce the text – as would be required under US copyright law, which lifts 70 years after an author’s death (UK and European copyright law expires after the same amount of time) – they could fairly easily track down a living Yglesias. “But a similarly obscure book by someone named Smith – you’d never be able to find out who even owns this and you wouldn’t be able to legally print it. Now if you could get the rights, they would be trivial, they’d be cheap. You’d maybe even get them for free. But doing the work is really hard.”

Such an example is why Yglesias is a proponent of books existing in the public domain – free from copyright laws – sooner than they do currently. He isn’t “dogmatic” about the exact length of time – though he references the Copyright Act of 1790, the first such federal act in the United States, under which copyright expired after a total of 28 years. The current system, he says, is “a capitalist enclosure of the intellectual commons”. Our culture benefits hugely from adaptations and re-workings of Shakespeare plays, for example, which exist in the public domain, while access to other valuable stories has been made more difficult by large entertainment conglomerates such as Walt Disney, which allegedly pressured Congress to extend copyright laws retroactively to protect characters like Mickey Mouse.

When Yglesias tweeted his thoughts (he then wrote an article on the matter for his Substack newsletter) he was unsurprisingly met with a torrent of disagreement from authors who fear such a change would affect their already turbulent livelihoods. “I’m still alive and make royalties I earned on my books. My kids should inherit my work, not be given free to freeloaders”, wrote the author Joe Lansdale. Another Twitter user pointed out that The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986. When the TV adaptation aired 31 years later, it brought the book back onto bestseller lists. “So you’re saying Margaret Atwood shouldn’t have been allowed to collect all those royalties?”, they asked. 

Yglesias brushes such concerns aside, arguing that an author’s ability to earn money from their book is “overwhelmingly determined by its short-term sales”, and that it’s “extremely rare for a book that’s decades old to have meaningful commercial value”. “Trying to bolster writers’ living standards by extending the lifespan of the copyright,” he says, “is like increasing the winnings in a lottery instead of increasing the number of people who are able to enter it.” 

Authors who rely on future royalties from their work to fund their retirement in lieu of employee pension schemes might see things differently. The idea that they should be willing to forgo potential windfalls even within their own lifetimes in pursuit of literary egalitarianism does not reflect the financial reality for the majority of those who make a living through writing. But Yglesias is not the only one to make the case for free access to books.

Public accessibility to literature is fundamental to the work of Veruschka Selbach, the managing director of Pluto Press. The London-based progressive publisher regularly offers e-books totally free of charge to readers: the sharp rise in public interest in radical feminist theory following the murder of Sarah Everard led the publisher to make Lola Olufemi’s 2020 work Feminism, Interrupted free as an e-book this week. In just 24 hours, it had over 3,000 downloads, Selbach says. 

Every sale of a physical book on Pluto Press’s website also comes with a free e-book. “We know that our readers want to share,” Selbach says. “We don’t want to limit that. If you have a print book, you would share it with your friends – why not do that with an e-book? We trust our customers not to stick it up on a website for thousands of people to download, but you know what? If that happens, great! Our main aim is for people to read the books. And the more people who read the books, the more people will consider these options, and it might just change people’s mind.”

Pluto Press was, first and foremost, set up with a political mission to bring knowledge to readers, not to turn a profit. That is a lofty ideal, but Selbach accepts it needs to be balanced with an author’s right to be paid for the work they do.  

“I believe that an author must get paid and be able to make a living from their work,” she says, acknowledging the flaws in Yglesias’s blanket public domain proposal. She also recognises that copyright can be used in a progressive way too: some author trusts, for example, rather than simply holding onto a writer’s financial legacy, also work to reinvest royalties into younger authors, acting as forces for good off the back of money earned through copyright. 

But Selbach draws a distinction between full-time writers, like novelists who live solely off their writing, and the majority of Pluto authors, who work primarily as academics or as activists, meaning royalties are less financially critical to them.  

Pluto’s long-term goal is to have at least half of its books available for free digitally, an initiative it works on with Knowledge Unlatched, an organisation which uses academic library crowdfunding to make texts free for libraries (which would usually be required to pay a license fee) and the general public.  

Both Yglesias and Selbach agree that public libraries are a key resource for readers and writers alike. “The public domain to me is not an alternative to libraries; it’s a tool that libraries can use very, very powerfully,” says Yglesias. Libraries – institutions that have a non-commercial mission – benefit from having access to a non-commercial stockpile of works.  

“I don’t know of any writer who thinks of libraries as some kind of scam that cheats them out of a living,” Yglesias adds. “We all love libraries and appreciate that making reading accessible is not just the right thing to do, but it’s beneficial: it creates the market. I want people to have the same attitude towards the public domain. The librarian is not trying to pull a fast one on you, or deny you a living. We’re trying to have a culture here.” 

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Women’s health is better when women have more control in their society

 Siobhán Mattison, University of New Mexico, Adam Z. Reynolds, University of New Mexico, Katherine Wander, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Gender disparities in health are not a phenomenon unique to the pandemic. Long before COVID-19, women made less money than men, had more child care responsibilities and were at increased risk of gender-based violence. But now, the pandemic has made them, and their children, even more vulnerable.

Women typically live longer than men but experience generally worse health, including higher risk for many chronic diseases, a phenomenon often referred to as the health-survival paradox. Many see this as due to biological differences between women and men. Female reproductive hormones affect many tissues in the body; pregnancy and childbirth come with additional risks to health.

But a large body of research suggests human health is strongly influenced by social circumstances. Living in societies that are more unequal is associated with negative health outcomes. Preferences for sons can cause neglect of daughters, which can lead to poor health and even death. What role, then, do gender norms play in subtler gender health disparities?

Two of us are anthropologists, the other an epidemiologist. Together our team developed a study to investigate how male-biased versus female-biased gender norms impact health.

A unique comparison

That study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted in two farming communities in southwestern China. Both communities, part of the Mosuo ethnic minority, share a common language, religion and rites of passage. They differ, however, in one key way that made this unique study possible: kinship.

Some Mosuo pass land and other resources from mothers to daughters. Anthropologists call this system “matriliny.” The role of men in Mosuo families is de-emphasized, although some take active roles as fathers and husbands. About 30% are in “walking marriages”: men and women are together at night, but do not formally marry. Instead, the men remain part of their mother’s or sister’s household. The men in matrilineal communities often provide financial support to women, and the walking marriages, though easy to dissolve, are often monogamous.

Compare this with a smaller, less well-known population of “patrilineal” Mosuo, who typically marry monogamously and pass inheritances from fathers to sons. They are more similar to many Euro-American families, where gender norms typically empower men.

With that as background, we began to wonder if the Mosuo would show evidence of improved health for women in matrilineal communities, where women have greater autonomy and access to resources. This has proved very difficult to test, because communities differing in kinship and degree of women’s autonomy also differ in other ways.

Our team traveled to hundreds of households in both the patrilineal and matrilineal communities of Mosuo. We asked participants about their social, economic and household circumstances. We measured their blood pressure and collected small specimens of blood for other health assessments. From that, we could compare matrilineal and patrilineal communities, and found this: Gender disparities in health were completely reversed in matrilineal communities.

For women with greater autonomy, better health

Briefly, women’s health was poorer than men’s in patrilineal settings. But it was better than men’s in the matrilineal communities. There, women’s rates of chronic inflammation were roughly half of men’s, with rates of hypertension roughly 12% lower.

Both chronic inflammation and hypertension are early indicators of long-term chronic disease. Both put people at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and death. The poorer health that women experienced in the patrilineal Mosuo communities likely occurred due to differences in daily experiences, including stress that accumulated both in the short and long term.

Our findings challenge simplistic notions that biology is the only or primary determinant of gendered health differences. This is not a new revelation, but the study suggests an even stronger role for culture than previously evidenced.

This does not mean biology plays no role in the health differences between men and women. Virtually all diseases are biological at the cellular level. But emphasizing only biological differences assumes everything else between men and women is equal. This is rarely, if ever, the case.

Child care and household duties are easier when women have help and autonomy. Mosuo women in both matrilineal and patrilineal communities take on substantial responsibility for both. But those in matrilineal communities do so with greater autonomy and more support from relatives and childhood friends. Those in patrilineal communities are more isolated from their sisters and often take on household chores with less help.

These findings are relevant to women’s health, not just in Mosuo communities, but elsewhere. Everyone’s health is affected by their autonomy and access to support, even nonhumans. Now, with a better understanding of how kinship and gender norms can impact women’s health, we can work to lessen health disparities and decrease the ever-growing burden of chronic disease.