Categories
Analysis Science

Poverty, psychology and pseudoscience

From the abstract of ‘Why Do People Stay Poor? Evidence on Poverty Traps from Rural Bangladesh’, November 24, 2020:

There are two broad views as to why people stay poor. One emphasizes differences in fundamentals, such as ability, talent or motivation. The other, poverty traps view, differences in opportunities stemming from differences in wealth. We exploit a large-scale, randomized asset transfer and panel data on 6000 households over an 11 year period to test between these two views. The data supports the poverty traps view — we identify a threshold level of initial assets above which households accumulate assets, take on better occupations and grow out of poverty. The reverse happens for those below the threshold.

In the resulting worldview this ‘condition’ imposes on people, it’s tempting to see justification for the existence of pseudoscientific enterprises like astrology. Actually, a faith-based binary like ‘requiring faith’ v. ‘not requiring faith’ may be more appropriate here than a science-based binary (‘scientific’ v. ‘unscientific’), if only to emphasise the presence of faith here over the absence of scientific reasoning. So that is, while I can’t ascertain a causal relationship between conditions like the poverty trap and opaque practices like astrology, there’s enough of a correlation here to understand astrology et al as the means by which people rationalise their shared predicament – a predicament that refuses to be allayed by their own efforts.

For example, astrology could provide social, mental and moral incentives for individuals to believe – without having to know – that they were denied any opportunities because ‘their time isn’t right’ and/or that they will continue to luck out, while social realities instead of the alignment of their stars will ensure this is true in some measure. Such faith could also subdue or redirect individuals’ anger or sense of wrongdoing at forces beyond their control, creating ground for social conditions that tolerate oppression more than it ought to be.

Another observation this paper brings to mind is from the work of Sendhil Mullainathan, among others. Researchers from various fields have reported differences in the way poor people make decisions, compared to those who aren’t poor – as if they were less intelligent. However, this perception arises from a sort of cognitive John-Henryism: that is, just as disadvantaged members of society – like Black people in the US – can incur a physical toll imposed by the need to fight for their rights, poor people incur a cognitive toll brought on by the limited availability of resources and the short-lived nature of good fortune.

This doesn’t mean poor people become or are less intelligent, or anything nonsensical like that. Instead, it means poor people’s priorities are different – for example the need for discounts on products, and to maximise absolute savings over percentage savings – in a way that those who aren’t poor may not find optimal for their needs, and that more tasks compete for their attention when they are short on the resources required to execute all of them. As Alice Walton wrote for the Chicago Booth Review in 2018,

In the Wheel of Fortune–style game, the researchers [including Mullainathan] measured how cognitively fatigued the players became. Logic would predict that rich players would be more fatigued, since they were allowed more turns to make more guesses. Instead, the researchers observed that poor players, having received fewer tries to guess at the answers, were more fatigued, having put more effort into each guess.

In an Angry Birds–style game in which people tried to shoot targets, rich players were given more chances to train a virtual slingshot on a target. Poor players, given fewer attempts, spent longer lining up their shots, and many scored more points per shot than rich players. For all the extra shots rich players had, they didn’t do as well, proportionally. “It seems that to understand the psychology of scarcity, we must also appreciate the psychology of abundance. If scarcity can engage us too much, abundance might engage us too little,” the researchers write.

This toll subsequently compromises future choices, and effectively installs another barrier, or trap, in front of people trying to go from being poor in one resource – money, in poverty’s case – to being rich. Walton offers a few examples of policymakers building on these findings to devise better schemes and improve uptake.

In India, where sugarcane farmers are paid annually after the harvest, farmers’ attention scores were the equivalent of 10 IQ points higher than just before the harvest, when farmers were relatively poor, according to data from the 2013 Science study

Offering subsidies or other incentives when people are more receptive to and have the spare capacity to consider them, such as after a harvest or a payday, may make a difference over the long run. One effort, in Tanzania, asked people to sign up for health insurance at cashpoint locations right after payday, and the timing led to a 20 percentage point increase in health-insurance use.

Introducing cognitive aids can help address the limited capacity for attention that may constrain people in poverty. In one study, it helped to show farmers research regarding the most productive ways to plant their crops. When poor, stressed, and in a scarcity mind-set, farmers had a harder time taking in the information. “This result has nothing to do with the intelligence of the farmers,” writes Bryan’s team. “A fact is only obvious if the observer has the spare attentional capacity to notice it.”

I wonder if the converse could also be true: that when homeopaths, phytotherapists, many Ayurveda practitioners and other quack healers offer dubious ways out of difficult healthcare situations, people who are short on attentional space could be likelier to buy into them in order to free up space for other tasks. If so, governments and activists may also need to consider fighting superstition and pseudoscience in healthcare by ensuring more legitimate outcomes – like visiting the local clinic or being able to procure a given drug – require as little cognitive bandwidth as possible.

Categories
Op-eds

What's common to #yesallwomen, scripta manent, good journalism and poka-yoke?

Featured image credit: renaissancechambara/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’m a big fan of poka-yoke (“po-kuh yo-kay”), a Japanese quality control technique founded on a simple principle: if you don’t want mistakes to happen, don’t allow opportunities for them to happen. It’s evidently dictatorial and not fit for use with most human things, but it is quite useful when performing simple tasks, for setting up routines and, of course, when writing (i.e. “If you don’t want the reader to misinterpret a sentence, don’t give her an opportunity to misinterpret it”). However, I do wish something poka-yoke-ish was done with the concept of good journalism.

The industry of journalism is hinged on handling information and knowledge responsibly. While Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution protects every Indian citizen’s right to free speech (even if multiple amendments since 1951 have affected its conditionality), good journalists can’t – at least ought not to – get away with making dubious or easily falsifiable claims. Journalism, in one sense, is free speech plus a solid dose of poka-yoke that doesn’t allow its practitioners to be stupid or endorse stupidity, at least of the obvious kind. It must not indulge in the dissemination of doltishness irrespective of Article 19(1)(a)’s safeguarding of the expression of it. While John/Jane Doe can say silly things, a journalist must at least qualify them as such while discussing them.

Not doing that would be to fall prey to false balance: to assume that, in the pursuit of objectivity, one is presenting the Other Side of a debate that has, in fact, become outmoded. With that established: On January 5, The Quint published an opinion piece titled ‘Bengaluru Shame: You Can Choose to Be Safe, So Don’t Blame the Mob’. It was with reference to rampant molestation on the streets of Bengaluru of women on the night of December 31 despite the presence of the police. Its author first writes,

Being out on the streets exposes one to anti-social elements, like a mob. A mob is the most insensitive group of people imaginable and breeds unruly behaviour. As responsibilities are distributed within the group, accountability vanishes and inhibitions are shed.

… and then,

When you step out onto the street, you are fraught with an incumbent risk. You may meet with an accident. That’s why there are footpaths and zebra crossings. You may slip on the road if it is wet! Will you then blame the road because it is wet? This is the point I’m making: Precautions and rights are different things. I have a right to be on the roads. And I can also take the precaution to walk sensibly and not run in front of the oncoming traffic.

Because traffic and the mob are the same, yes? The author’s point is that the women who were molested should have known that there was going to be an unruly mob on the streets at some point and that the women – and not the mob or the police – should have taken precautions to, you know, avoid a molestation. The article brings to mind the uncomfortable Rowan Atkinson skit ‘Fatal Beatings’, where the voice of authority is so self-righteous that the humour is almost slapstick.

The article’s publication promptly revived the silly #notallmen trend on Twitter, admirably and effectively panned by many (of the people I follow, at least; if you aren’t yet on the #yesallwomen side, this by Annie Zaidi might change your mind). But my bigger problem was with a caveat that appeared atop the article on The Quint some time later. Here it is:

It has been brought to our attention by readers that the following “endorses” opinions that The Quint should not be carrying. While we understand your sentiments, and wish to reiterate that our own editorial stand is at complete variance with the views in this blog, … we also believe that we have a duty of care towards a full body of readers, some among whom may have very different points of view than ours. Since The Quint is an open, liberal platform, which believes in healthy debate among a rainbow of opinions (which saves us from becoming an echo chamber that is the exact opposite of an open, liberal platform), we do allow individual bloggers to publish their pieces. We would be happy to publish your criticism or opposition to any piece that is published on The Quint. Come and create a lively, intelligent, even confrontational, conversation with us. Even if we do not agree with a contributor’s view, we cannot not defend her right to express it.

(Emphasis added.) Does The Quint want us to celebrate its publishing opinions contrary to its own, or to highlight the possibility that The Quint isn’t really paying attention to the opinions it holds, or to notice that it is irresponsibly publishing opinions that don’t deserve an audience of thousands? It’s baffling.

Look at the language: “Lively” is fine, as is “confrontational” – but the editors may have tripped up in their parsing of the meaning of ‘intelligent’. They are indeed right to invite an intelligent conversation but the intent should have been accompanied by an ability to distinguish between intelligence and whatever else; without this, it’s simply a case of a misleading advertisement. Moreover, I’m also irked by their persistence with the misguided caveat, which, upon rereading, reinforces a wrong message. I’m reminded here of the German existentialist Franz Rosenzweig’s thoughts on the persistence of the written word, excerpted from a biography titled Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators:

Permanence depends more upon whether a word reaches reception or not, and less upon whether it is spoken or written. But the written word, because captured in a visible physicality, does offer a type of permanence that is denied to the spoken word. The written word can be read by those outside the “intimacy” of two speakers, such as letter writers; or of the “one-way intimacy” that arises between one speaker, such as the bookwriter and many readers. The permanence inherent in the written word is framed within boldness and daring on the part of the speaker: translated or not, there is a thereness to the written word, and this thereness is conducive to replay for the hearer through rereading.

TL;DR: Verba volant, scripta manent.

The Quint article was ‘engaged with’ at least 10,300-times at the time this post was written. Every time it was read, there will have been a (darkly) healthy chance of convincing a reader to abdicate from the decidedly anti-patriarchic #yesallwomen camp and move to the dispassionate and insensitive #notallmen camp. A professing of intelligence without continuous practice will every now and then legitimise immature thinking; a good example of one such trip-up is false balance. This post itself was pretty easy to write because it used to happen oh-so-regularly with climate change (and less regularly now): in both cases today, there is an Other Side – but it is not in denying climate change or refuting #yesallwomen but, for example, debating what the best measure could be to mitigate their adverse consequences.

Categories
Op-eds

What’s common to #yesallwomen, scripta manent, good journalism and poka-yoke?

Featured image credit: renaissancechambara/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’m a big fan of poka-yoke (“po-kuh yo-kay”), a Japanese quality control technique founded on a simple principle: if you don’t want mistakes to happen, don’t allow opportunities for them to happen. It’s evidently dictatorial and not fit for use with most human things, but it is quite useful when performing simple tasks, for setting up routines and, of course, when writing (i.e. “If you don’t want the reader to misinterpret a sentence, don’t give her an opportunity to misinterpret it”). However, I do wish something poka-yoke-ish was done with the concept of good journalism.

The industry of journalism is hinged on handling information and knowledge responsibly. While Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution protects every Indian citizen’s right to free speech (even if multiple amendments since 1951 have affected its conditionality), good journalists can’t – at least ought not to – get away with making dubious or easily falsifiable claims. Journalism, in one sense, is free speech plus a solid dose of poka-yoke that doesn’t allow its practitioners to be stupid or endorse stupidity, at least of the obvious kind. It must not indulge in the dissemination of doltishness irrespective of Article 19(1)(a)’s safeguarding of the expression of it. While John/Jane Doe can say silly things, a journalist must at least qualify them as such while discussing them.

Not doing that would be to fall prey to false balance: to assume that, in the pursuit of objectivity, one is presenting the Other Side of a debate that has, in fact, become outmoded. With that established: On January 5, The Quint published an opinion piece titled ‘Bengaluru Shame: You Can Choose to Be Safe, So Don’t Blame the Mob’. It was with reference to rampant molestation on the streets of Bengaluru of women on the night of December 31 despite the presence of the police. Its author first writes,

Being out on the streets exposes one to anti-social elements, like a mob. A mob is the most insensitive group of people imaginable and breeds unruly behaviour. As responsibilities are distributed within the group, accountability vanishes and inhibitions are shed.

… and then,

When you step out onto the street, you are fraught with an incumbent risk. You may meet with an accident. That’s why there are footpaths and zebra crossings. You may slip on the road if it is wet! Will you then blame the road because it is wet? This is the point I’m making: Precautions and rights are different things. I have a right to be on the roads. And I can also take the precaution to walk sensibly and not run in front of the oncoming traffic.

Because traffic and the mob are the same, yes? The author’s point is that the women who were molested should have known that there was going to be an unruly mob on the streets at some point and that the women – and not the mob or the police – should have taken precautions to, you know, avoid a molestation. The article brings to mind the uncomfortable Rowan Atkinson skit ‘Fatal Beatings’, where the voice of authority is so self-righteous that the humour is almost slapstick.

The article’s publication promptly revived the silly #notallmen trend on Twitter, admirably and effectively panned by many (of the people I follow, at least; if you aren’t yet on the #yesallwomen side, this by Annie Zaidi might change your mind). But my bigger problem was with a caveat that appeared atop the article on The Quint some time later. Here it is:

It has been brought to our attention by readers that the following “endorses” opinions that The Quint should not be carrying. While we understand your sentiments, and wish to reiterate that our own editorial stand is at complete variance with the views in this blog, … we also believe that we have a duty of care towards a full body of readers, some among whom may have very different points of view than ours. Since The Quint is an open, liberal platform, which believes in healthy debate among a rainbow of opinions (which saves us from becoming an echo chamber that is the exact opposite of an open, liberal platform), we do allow individual bloggers to publish their pieces. We would be happy to publish your criticism or opposition to any piece that is published on The Quint. Come and create a lively, intelligent, even confrontational, conversation with us. Even if we do not agree with a contributor’s view, we cannot not defend her right to express it.

(Emphasis added.) Does The Quint want us to celebrate its publishing opinions contrary to its own, or to highlight the possibility that The Quint isn’t really paying attention to the opinions it holds, or to notice that it is irresponsibly publishing opinions that don’t deserve an audience of thousands? It’s baffling.

Look at the language: “Lively” is fine, as is “confrontational” – but the editors may have tripped up in their parsing of the meaning of ‘intelligent’. They are indeed right to invite an intelligent conversation but the intent should have been accompanied by an ability to distinguish between intelligence and whatever else; without this, it’s simply a case of a misleading advertisement. Moreover, I’m also irked by their persistence with the misguided caveat, which, upon rereading, reinforces a wrong message. I’m reminded here of the German existentialist Franz Rosenzweig’s thoughts on the persistence of the written word, excerpted from a biography titled Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators:

Permanence depends more upon whether a word reaches reception or not, and less upon whether it is spoken or written. But the written word, because captured in a visible physicality, does offer a type of permanence that is denied to the spoken word. The written word can be read by those outside the “intimacy” of two speakers, such as letter writers; or of the “one-way intimacy” that arises between one speaker, such as the bookwriter and many readers. The permanence inherent in the written word is framed within boldness and daring on the part of the speaker: translated or not, there is a thereness to the written word, and this thereness is conducive to replay for the hearer through rereading.

TL;DR: Verba volant, scripta manent.

The Quint article was ‘engaged with’ at least 10,300-times at the time this post was written. Every time it was read, there will have been a (darkly) healthy chance of convincing a reader to abdicate from the decidedly anti-patriarchic #yesallwomen camp and move to the dispassionate and insensitive #notallmen camp. A professing of intelligence without continuous practice will every now and then legitimise immature thinking; a good example of one such trip-up is false balance. This post itself was pretty easy to write because it used to happen oh-so-regularly with climate change (and less regularly now): in both cases today, there is an Other Side – but it is not in denying climate change or refuting #yesallwomen but, for example, debating what the best measure could be to mitigate their adverse consequences.

Categories
Op-eds

The capacity to notoriety of work

Why is it considered OK to flaunt hard work? Will there come a time when it might be more prudent to mask long hours of work behind a finished product and instead behave as if the object was conceived with less work and more skill and intelligence?

Is it because hard work is considered a fundamental opportunity given all humankind?

But just the possession of will and spirit deep within doesn’t mean it has to be used, to be exhausted in the pursuit of success, albeit its exhaustion be accompanied with praise. Why is that praise justified?

“He worked hard and long, I worked not half-as-hard and not for half-as-long, and I give you something better”: With this example in mind, is hard work considered a nullifier, a currency that translates all forms of luck, ill-luck, opportunity and accident into the form of perspiration and blood? Why should it be?

Moreover, the tendency exists, too, that recognizes, nay, yearns that, the capacity for honest work is somehow more innate than the capacity to fool, trick, spy on, defame, slander, and kill, that honest work is more human than the capacity for all these traits.

Is it really?

Who deigned that work would be that nullifier, a currency, and not intelligence? Is hard-work “more” fundamental than intelligence? Why is the flaunting of intelligence considered impudent while the flaunting of work a sign of the presence of humility? Is the capacity for work less volatile than the capacity to think smart? Is one acquired and the other only delivered at the time of birth?

Will a day come when the flaunting of hard-work is considered a sign of impudence and the flaunting of intelligence a sign of the presence of humility? Or – alas! – is it the implied notion of superiority that so scares us, that keeps us from acknowledging publicly that superior intelligence does imply a form of success, perhaps similar to the success implied by the capacity to work hard?

What sacrifice does one represent that the other, seemingly, rejects? Why does only intelligence suffer the curse of bigotry while honest work retains the privilege to socially unfettered use?

Categories
Op-eds Science

Building the researcher's best friend

One of the most pressing problems for someone conducting any research on personal initiative has to be information storage, access, and reproduction. Even if you’re someone who’s just going through interesting papers in pre-print servers and journals and want to quickly store text, excerpts, images, videos, diagrams, and/or graphs on the fly, you’ll notice that a multitude of storage options exist that are still not academically intelligent.

For instance, for starters, I could use an offline notepad that has a toggle-equipped LaTex-interpreter that I could use to quickly key in equations.

So, when I stumbled across this paper written by Joshi, et al, at Purdue University in 1994, I was glad someone had taken the time and trouble to think up the software-architecture of an all-encompassing system that would handle information in all media, provide options for cross-referencing, modality, multiple authors, subject-wise categorization, cataloguing, data mining, etc. Here’s an excerpt from the paper.

The electronic notebook concept is an attempt to emulate the physical notebook that we use ubiquitously. It provides an unrestricted editing environment where users can record their problem and solution specifications, computed solutions, results of various analyses, commentary text as well as handwritten comments.

The notebook interface is multimodal and synergetic, it integrates text, handwriting, graphics, audio and video in its input and output modes. It functions not only as a central recording mechanism, it also acts as the access mechanism for all the tools that support the user’s problem solving activities.

(I’d like to take a moment to stress on good data-mining because it plays an instrumental role in effecting serendipitous discoveries within my finite corpus of data, i.e. (and as a matter of definition) if the system is smart enough to show me something that it knows could be related to what I’m working on and something that I don’t know is related to what I’m working on, then it’s an awesome system.)

The Purdue team went on to implement a prototype, but you’ll see it was limited to being an interactive PDE-solver. If you’re looking for something along the same lines, then the Wolfram Mathematica framework has to be your best bet: its highly intuitive UI makes visualizing the task at hand a breeze, and lets you focus on designing practical mathematical/physical systems while it takes care of getting problems out of the way.

However, that misses the point. For every time I come across an interesting paper, some sections of which could fit well into a corpus of knowledge that I’m, at the time, assimilating, I currently use a fragile customization of the WordPress CMS that “works” with certain folders in my hard-drive. And by “works”, I mean I’m the go-between semantic interpreter – and that’s exactly what I need an automaton for. On one of my other blogs – unnamed here because it’s an online index of sorts for me – I have tagged and properly categorized posts that are actually bits and pieces of different research paths.

For products that offer such functionalities as the ones I’m looking for, I’m willing to pay, and I’m sure anyone will given how much more handy such tools are becoming by the day. Better yet if they’re hosted on the cloud: I don’t have to bother about backing up too much and can also enjoy the added benefit of “anywhere-access”.

For now, however, I’m going to get back to installing the California Digital Library’s eXtensible Text Framework (CDL-XTF) – a solution that seems to be a promising offline variant.

Categories
Op-eds Science

Building the researcher’s best friend

One of the most pressing problems for someone conducting any research on personal initiative has to be information storage, access, and reproduction. Even if you’re someone who’s just going through interesting papers in pre-print servers and journals and want to quickly store text, excerpts, images, videos, diagrams, and/or graphs on the fly, you’ll notice that a multitude of storage options exist that are still not academically intelligent.

For instance, for starters, I could use an offline notepad that has a toggle-equipped LaTex-interpreter that I could use to quickly key in equations.

So, when I stumbled across this paper written by Joshi, et al, at Purdue University in 1994, I was glad someone had taken the time and trouble to think up the software-architecture of an all-encompassing system that would handle information in all media, provide options for cross-referencing, modality, multiple authors, subject-wise categorization, cataloguing, data mining, etc. Here’s an excerpt from the paper.

The electronic notebook concept is an attempt to emulate the physical notebook that we use ubiquitously. It provides an unrestricted editing environment where users can record their problem and solution specifications, computed solutions, results of various analyses, commentary text as well as handwritten comments.

The notebook interface is multimodal and synergetic, it integrates text, handwriting, graphics, audio and video in its input and output modes. It functions not only as a central recording mechanism, it also acts as the access mechanism for all the tools that support the user’s problem solving activities.

(I’d like to take a moment to stress on good data-mining because it plays an instrumental role in effecting serendipitous discoveries within my finite corpus of data, i.e. (and as a matter of definition) if the system is smart enough to show me something that it knows could be related to what I’m working on and something that I don’t know is related to what I’m working on, then it’s an awesome system.)

The Purdue team went on to implement a prototype, but you’ll see it was limited to being an interactive PDE-solver. If you’re looking for something along the same lines, then the Wolfram Mathematica framework has to be your best bet: its highly intuitive UI makes visualizing the task at hand a breeze, and lets you focus on designing practical mathematical/physical systems while it takes care of getting problems out of the way.

However, that misses the point. For every time I come across an interesting paper, some sections of which could fit well into a corpus of knowledge that I’m, at the time, assimilating, I currently use a fragile customization of the WordPress CMS that “works” with certain folders in my hard-drive. And by “works”, I mean I’m the go-between semantic interpreter – and that’s exactly what I need an automaton for. On one of my other blogs – unnamed here because it’s an online index of sorts for me – I have tagged and properly categorized posts that are actually bits and pieces of different research paths.

For products that offer such functionalities as the ones I’m looking for, I’m willing to pay, and I’m sure anyone will given how much more handy such tools are becoming by the day. Better yet if they’re hosted on the cloud: I don’t have to bother about backing up too much and can also enjoy the added benefit of “anywhere-access”.

For now, however, I’m going to get back to installing the California Digital Library’s eXtensible Text Framework (CDL-XTF) – a solution that seems to be a promising offline variant.