Saturday, June 19, 2021

Why Politics isn't for the Honest

This is not a pessimistic post. I'll explain why honest people can't do well in politics. And then I'll also urge honest people to be political.

When I say politics isn't for the honest, I mean that the identity of a politician isn't for the honest. They cannot win elections on their own. They cannot sway votes on their own. They can't do anything in politics on their own.

Why? Because the country is full of human beings who are irrational and we have a first-past-the-vote voting system.

Winston Churchill probably never said that “the best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Nevertheless, that's true. And it doesn't require you to have contempt for others to agree with that statement. You just have to remember that we are all humans and that we are all bound by cognitive biases.

We stereotype, we assume, we guess, we make up, we are swayed by public perception, we change our stances under social pressure, we are biased, and we have cognitive blind spots. We are all irrational human beings.

When it comes to an election we choose a candidate based on our view of the world and our view of the candidates. Both of these are colored by the biases I mentioned above.

Here's where the first-past-the-vote system comes in. The vast majority of people won't vote for a candidate they think do not have any chance to win. "Why waste your vote on a candidate who will anyhow lose?" The elections are therefore already reduced to a two-party (or a three-party) election.

You can still start a new party and enter the three-party race (like AAP did in Delhi). It requires entering the consciousness of voters at large and, mostly, at once. AAP could do this because of the wide media coverage of India Against Corruption. Another way of attaining this kind of prominence is to split off from an existing party. In essence, being in people's minds is the first step to being a potential winner.

Now that is already our cognitive biases in action. And at this point the line between irrationality and reality blurs too. For, how do you do governance if you don't have the trust of the people. Why should people trust a random party based on their manifesto?

Trust. Trust could thus be considered the defining force of winning election. And trust is at the edge of what is called irrational. We make up trust in politics based on the circumstances. If we feel like there is a threat of war, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to win a war to lead us. If we feel like there is a threat of breakdown of social order, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to keep the society together to lead us. Our trust depends a lot on how we feel.

This is where politics becomes a game in which honest people have no chance. You can manipulate people's feelings in two ways - you can change their threat perceptions and you can change their perception about the ability of different political candidates to handle those threats.

How you feel about the how big a problem terrorism, war, global warming, fascism, or sedition is depends a lot on what you've been fed by the world and how rational you are. For example, let me take me. I am a person who avoids news. I do so because I believe that news is about sensationalization of the trivial matters because they're newsworthy. For me, matters like terrorism are quantitatively less important than matters like road safety. Whereas it is totally possible that another person looks at road safety as an unavoidable problem but terrorism as unwarranted, avoidable threats to the psyche of our nation. The perception of what the largest threats we face are can be manipulated by manipulating the media that people consume - be it news media or social media.

The next kind of manipulation is one that people routinely employ all around, but is the bread and butter of politicians. Image management. For a politician to succeed they need to project an image of leadership that suits the "largest threats" that we are facing. Image is ridiculously irrational. For example, let us look at very personal things that are all part of the image - clothing, fashion, colors, facial hair, hairstyle, make-up, facial expression, gait, speed of walking, phone, spectacles, ... Everything that you can think of affects the "image" one projects.

Let us take the biggest example in front of us. In 2007, 5 years after Godra, Karan Thapar did an interview of Narendra Modi. Narendra was not so much of an adult at that time and ended the interview at 3 minutes because Karan started with questions about Narendra's murderer image. A lot of people don't know what happened after that. In another video, Karan talks about it. The interesting bit is that Narendra looked at that 3 minute interview many many times afterwards to learn from their mistakes and do better. Maybe Narendra gave up and stopped doing interviews instead. But the fact is that playing to their strengths allows Narendra to project an image of a strong leader.

Every successful politician has done this. They've managed the perception they create in the mind of their voters. Barack Obama has done and wrote about it. It maybe interesting to know about how Michelle Obama in the first few speeches about Barack's presidential campaign was being perceived as an angry person and immediately course corrected with softer speeches (and clothing choices). Rahul Gandhi must be trying really hard to do this after Narendra knocked down Rahul Gandhi's image.

That brings us to another point. It is not just your image that you manage in politics. You also manage others' image. You tell voters how to look at other candidates. You make them look like fools, you win.

Now why does all of this matter for the honest politician? Can't they project an image of their own honesty and succeed? Not as easy. If you are an honest politician and if you believe that terrorism is not as big a problem as global warming or road safety, and you take that idea honestly to a set of voters who believe strongly that terrorism needs to be curbed, that is pretty much the end of your political career.

You will have to bend the truth, if not lie. And bending truth has its limits. There is only so much you can accomplish with bent truths, especially if your opponents are fighting with lies.

But politics is so important that you can't give up just because you don't have a chance to win. What should honest people do about politics?

First, they have to realize how irrationality rules politics. Then they have to use that knowledge to guide how they approach people. They need to turn the irrationality on its head and make it question the lies. 

They might have avenues other than politics to reach powerful and influential positions where it is easier for them to sway people's perceptions. 

Maybe they can be excellent researchers and use research as a political tool. Maybe they can be good artists. Or programmers. Or doctors. Or teachers. Or anything! Anyone who does their thing well gets some power and influence. And they can use those to sway irrational voters to things that matter.

Politics is for everyone. And honest people have their own options.

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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Giving up Ideological Purism

I used to be a purist. I would think that socialism is better than capitalism and therefore I should myself shun everything to do about capitalism. I would think that free software is better than proprietary software and use only free software everywhere. And so many other "principled" positions. Then a couple of things happened.

First, life became unlivable. There was nothing worth doing because everything broke some or the other ideology I had. I can't start a business because it is not socialism. I can't put tweets and try to get followers because I am against the concept of popularity and getting more followers. I wouldn't make videos to upload to YouTube because Google owns YouTube. I can't build an app because it wouldn't solve a pressing real world problem. I wouldn't get a vaccine till all people would get it. I can't do this, I can't do that. I couldn't do anything.

It is not that I didn't see contradictions then. I am living in a comfortable house in Bangalore. Where's the equity in that? By my logic I had to give up all my savings and live like the poorest person. But I wouldn't do that.

In some way or the other I was thinking pragmatically. I realized that free software puts software above humans and rethought it. Even came up with feminist software. I had been thinking about putting privilege to use. I had just about figured out that good capitalism and good socialism are almost indistinguishable.

But the straw that broke the camel's back is the vaccine issue. There were many reasons I was against getting myself vaccinated - the undemocratic institution of CoWIN, the lack of transparency in approving vaccine for usage, and most important of all the fact that lots of people were not getting vaccine. There were many compelling reasons to get vaccinated too - that there is good science for vaccines in general and these vaccines specifically, that I could be putting others' life in danger, that I would be of no use to anyone if I'm dead.

But ideological purism works in mysterious ways. I had chosen that the morally right way was to avoid the vaccine. And my brain would come up with various reasons on why I was right.

But on one fine day it clicked in my head. I was indeed being stupid. I told Swathi that I'll start looking for places where vaccine was available. And by the purest of coincidence, a friend from a private company asked me the next day whether I needed a jab in their company's private drive.

That's when it all came together for me. Ideological purism is an unsustainable and self-contradicting position. The only way human beings can live life in the real world is through pragmatism. And pragmatism doesn't have to be lazy and directionless. Pragmatism is the way of figuring out the good and bad of capitalism, the good and bad of socialism, and the good and bad of all the ways to organize economic activity and to figure out a way to work it out in your life towards your goals of a better world. Pragmatism is the way of figuring out how to use proprietary software, free software, and all kinds of software for making things happen.

I also figured out I was being lazy. By doing all of these fights against twitter, CoWIN, proprietary software, health inequity, authoritarianism, meritocracy, and so on in my small world, I was not doing anything. I was just sitting in a corner of the world complaining about all this. Sure I was a member of Indian Pirates, Free Software Community of India, etc. I was doing things like organizing calls and camps. I was mentoring people, etc. But all this felt like running away. I was not engaging in a powerful way.

One of the reasons was the idea that lasting change requires converting people this way from the outside. That we can't live in the existing systems and change them.

I still don't have an answer to that. I don't have an answer to how I can change the system from within.

But I'm tired of being outside the dominant systems in all fields. I'm tired of swimming the other way. Let me try swimming this way.

It is selfish. But hey, we are all stardust anyhow. Let's see what happens?

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Is Science The Only Way of Knowing?

 This is continuation of a debate from YouTube.

The statement that "Science is the only way of knowing" is correct. But it is also arrogant.

The definition of knowledge that we are working with is "justified belief of independent rational observers". What I argue in the video is that independent rational observers can come to different justified beliefs when it comes to social science where the observations are made about human behavior. I gave the examples of economics, politics. That when two independent rational observers look at the "market" one comes up with socialism and the other with capitalism. That there is no way for science to figure out which of them is the "truth". And that this lack of convergence on one justified belief is what makes the argument "science is the only way of knowing" break down.

But using "logic" (which can also be called scientific method) is the only way for humans to know anything, and that's right. Those who defy the commonly accepted "logic"s are considered psychotic by human beings.

Where is the arrogance? The arrogance is in claiming that "science is the only way of knowing" when it is clear that there are very severe limitations for science when it comes to the field of social science. A society cannot be subjected to controlled experiments. What science requires to arrive at the truth, to "know" how a human society will function is a set of observations from which one can draw conclusions. It is impossible for human beings to perform this set of observations in the way that's required to correctly draw such conclusions and "know" the human society. And that is the fundamental limitation of science.

To claim that theoretically it is possible to isolate all the variables and test a hypothesis about human beings - that's useless at best, and politically inappropriate at the worst.

In the video I try to keep physics, chemistry, etc from the uncertainty about truth that I introduce. But in response to the video Pirate Bady brought up the argument that 'single' truth does not exist in even physics. That quantum mechanics, for example, has infinite truths with different probabilities.

I don't know quantum physics. I have no perfect idea how exactly Schrödinger's cat is a paradox. Which is why I omitted talking about this in the video.

But if physics is also observer dependent, then that's another argument which weakens the idea that "science is the only way of knowing". That multiple truths can exist and we won't be able to come to a single truth translates to the idea that - "we cannot know certain things". 

From that it can be argued that if there is a way to know it is only through science and consequently, "science is the only way of knowing". And that's a big if clause.

If there is a way to know, science is the only way

I can stand by that statement.

Because it admits that there are times where we cannot "know". Be it quantum physics, be it politics or public policy. That's a humble statement. That's a statement which accepts the limits of science. That is a statement which gives space for "other" ways of "knowing".

The only argument against giving space to these "other" ways is that it can lead to irrational thinking in human beings. And I think that's the argument Dr Viswanathan makes too. And I think that's also the reason why science has not been able to win people over despite so many accomplishments it has had. That science fails to acknowledge what is fundamentally human. That science, in its ivory tower, arrogantly believes that all that the world needs is science. 

If only more rational thinkers admitted that there are times when humans can't know and that science has no role in such times, we can then start negotiating with irrational people and push them to use science in all the places that matters.

Yes, that means that we will have to tell them that science cannot tell them whether there exists a God or not. But that's okay. By accepting a humble position like that, you make science more welcoming to all humans. It is by being arrogant that you drive them away.

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