Knowledge Gaps – The Problem with Voting

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In a friendly conversation with a stranger at a bar, it occurred to me that there is something fundamentally flawed with the way we perceive the world and how we react to our perceptions. The man, quite talkative with a thick Eastern European accent decided to discuss political affairs and some of the happenings around the world. In one of the subjects, he displayed an unusual sense of understanding of the region in question. He couldn’t properly identify which capital cities belonged to which countries, or what exactly was happening beyond what is apparent on the face of it.

It got me thinking about how all people are likely to have a similar sense of knowledge where they have different amounts of knowledge pertaining to different subjects. The idea intrigued me because I immediately thought of the process of polling, and elections, and they are fundamentally based on the idea that every person, above a certain age, belonging to a particular nationality, is allowed an equal vote like everyone else that shares those criteria that required no skill, effort, or intelligence. This imperfection of democracy is, of course, not a novel idea.

Churchill famously remarked, “The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter.”

There is, of course, political incorrectness involved in this idea. It implies that a certain amount of knowledge is required to make democracy something really worthwhile. It persuaded me to think of examples where either a double standard exists in our society that would overrule the political incorrectness of this idea.

Society is built upon the general principle that most high paying vocations can only be reached through passing certain criteria such as standardized tests or earning academic qualifications from a university. Job competency then is directly measured by the amount of knowledge and/or intelligence a person possesses. But if people need to be qualified in order to work, then why don’t they need to be qualified in order to vote.

In market research where companies compile data about consumer tastes and preferences, and use it to create a more suitable product, the ‘voter’ or person surveyed is not required to tick any boxes when it comes to qualifications. They just need to have a residence, access to the internet, and a general preference for things over others. It’s quite interesting to me that the process of voting has more or less the same criteria. Both forms of voting do not require any qualifications or proof of knowledge.

This seems to suggest that a presidential candidate is not elected on the basis of being competent. I say this because many people, even those who are educated, do not have the sufficient political, economical, or social knowledge to make an informed choice about who they think should lead their country. In the case of market research, the product is catered to be suitable for what most people want. The product is consumed within these groups of people, and a continual process of feedback would be taking place after that.

In the case of politics and presidential elections, the newly elected president is the product. However, in this case, the product has the ability to affect society, the economy, healthcare, and even other sovereign nations. It seems to me a little absurd that almost anyone can be part of these significant decisions.

If I hired a plumber to fix my sink, I would be sure to take note of his qualifications. I would also do the same for my mechanic, teacher, taxi driver, pilot, or anyone who is required to complete a job with any kind of competence at all. It would seem to follow that when it comes to deciding who the leader of my country is, I should want people with some kind of competency to decide.

The underlying insinuation from all of this is that the accessibility to the amount of power highlighted above is very odd. Of course, if asked about what a possible solution to this is, the immediate answer would be to test the competency of the voters in terms of political, historical, and social knowledge. Only those who have displayed adequate, relevant knowledge would be allowed to vote. In the same way a prospective drivers, job applicants, sports athletes, and police officers need to display competency in their domains, so should a prospective voter.

The fact that the situation as it is now is not like that seems to undermine the seriousness of voting and the actual impact it could have. It might indeed suggest that the process of voting is a meaningless exercise altogether.

As it was wonderfully put in the excellent 2001 movie, “Waking Life”, “You want the puppet on the right, or the puppet on the left?

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ISIS and The Psychology of Terrorism

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Terrorism is broadly defined as “the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Today and in the past decade, the most familiar form of terrorism is Islamic terrorism that we have known as “Al Qaeda” and most recently, “ISIS”. This isn’t to say that Islamic terrorism is the only form of terrorism that has existed. The past has seen Jewish, Christian, and even Buddhist terrorism. It should be noted, however, that the current form of Islamist terrorism is most worrying for many people due to (but not limited) the following reasons:

1) Ambition: As opposed to the old terrorism that predated Islamic terrorism, the current forms seek not only to topple governments and regimes, and seek purely political resolve, but have plans far greater and ambitious. The ultimate goal between these terrorists is to takeover the world, and Convert “Non-Muslims” or “infidels” into their religion, or alternatively, have them killed.

2) Method: The other worrying aspect about these new terrorists is the way they try to achieve their goals. They employ horrific, inhumane, and despicable acts of violence against their enemies and innocent civilians alike. There is no limit or guidelines to what they can, or cannot do. Their objective is to employ whatever means necessary to terrorize as efficiently as possible.

3) Background: It is not only people with mental disorders or poor, impoverished backgrounds who join terrorist organizations, some people who are well educated and intelligent may also do so. The man in charge of the World Trade Center bombings was one of those people.

Important Distinctions to Keep in Mind:

– It is important to make a distinction between groups of terrorists within the same belief system. For example, some terrorist groups receive popular support from their people and are very much integrated in their respective societies such as “Hamas” and “Hizballah”. In contrast, other organizations are very much isolated from society, and do not have such integration in society such as “ISIS”.

– Suicide bombings are not an exclusively Islamist conception. Two examples are a secular, nationalist group in Sri Lanka, called the LTTE, has practiced human bombings for over 20 years, and their bombs have caused killed a large number of civilians. Another example is the Japanese Kamikaze in World War II.

– Islamic teachings, or the Quran do not advocate suicide. “The Arabic term used is istishad, a religious term meaning to give one’s life in the name of Allah, as opposed to intihar, which refers to suicide resulting from personal distress. The latter form of suicide is not condoned in Islamic teachings.” (Library of Congress, 1999)

Motivation: 

There are many theories that seek to explain the motivations of these individual both from a personal, psychological level, and from a broader, sociological level. What seems to be prevalent very often is that these terrorists believe that they are saviors of society, and genuinely believe that they are fighting evil. They also gain feelings of value and self-worth from committing these acts against evil. Their lives seem to have a meaning, or purpose.

Other theories also suggest, that terrorism emerge from political repression, and injustice. That these individuals feel as though they are being alienated, and discriminated against because of their belief system. Even within the Middle East, the struggle between Shia and Sunni Islamic groups is more intense than those between the West and Muslims. Many have explained this hatred through repressive Shia governments present in both Iraq and Syria, and it is precisely when these political tensions escalate that these Islamist fundamentalists gain in strength, momentum, and numbers.

There are a number of factors, both identifiable, and unidentifiable that explain why otherwise mentally sane people choose to become terrorists. Some choose to fight for religious organizations that are engaged in a nationalistic, political struggle with less emphasis on religious fundamentalism, while others are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The danger of ISIS and similar groups today is that they are thriving in the midst of the chaos that the region of the Middle East is seeing. The longer the destruction, war, poverty, discrimination, and displacement go on, the more fertile the breeding ground for disillusionment, violence, and hate in future generations.

There is simply no simple solution to stop this from happening. There are very few people who are against the total destruction of ISIS, and for good reason, this is a group of violent, monstrous sociopaths who are on a mission to kill and torture. They are estimated to have 10 to 20 thousand armed forces, and if military efforts are concentrated against them, it is unlikely that they will survive.

There is only the hope that future generations will be dissuaded to join terrorist militias through education, popular condemnation of violence, and knowledge that the world isn’t against them, and consequently be able to shape a future that is dominated by moderates and reformers rather than extremists and terrorists.

References:

http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Soc_Psych_of_Terrorism.pdf

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0162-895X.00195/pdf

Conspiracy Theories – The Problem

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Like almost everyone I’m sure, I’ve been told about and exposed to many conspiracy theories. Some made sense, of course, while others were utterly ridiculous. But all of them shared one very striking aspect. They were all inevitably unsatisfying. At least for me, here’s why.

Being exposed to a conspiracy theory usually starts with a promising premise. There is often a story, a narrative that allows you to imagine how the motive could be real, and perhaps why the facts are concealed so well. This introductory stage is interesting, you begin to think, wonder – perhaps there is something to this theory. Perhaps everyone else is deluded, so you start your investigation. You start to look for facts, and the second stage begins. .

It seems that many of facts you are discovering match the hypothesis amazingly well. Here, you start to get annoyed that you didn’t know this earlier. How could you have been so foolish? Why didn’t anyone say anything sooner? Your anger drives to you be more investigative. You begin to look for more facts to support the hypothesis. You start to slowly lose your capacity for critical judgment about this particular topic, and you forget that you’ve learned all about ‘confirmation bias’ and it’s harmful effects on reason and clear thinking. You start to loosen your standards for what should count as ‘evidence’ and what shouldn’t. You start to interpret numbers and statistics in a way that would always support your theory.

You then reach stage three. You’re now feeling more empowered with this information, almost like a prophet who’s on a mission to spread the truth to those who don’t know. And you do just that, you start with friends, family, acquaintances – anyone willing to listen. Some will entertain your proposition, some will even feel you’ve enlightened them, but most will laugh it off. You then argue, trying to recall facts and figures. Referring to everything you can that had you convinced in the first place. You block out what they tell you because they’re obviously wrong. They haven’t read the facts. They don’t know about the articles, they can’t, they’re not supposed to. If they weren’t convinced by the end of the argument, you are slightly disappointed that you have failed to convince them, but then move on to greener pastures.

After a while, you feel you need more reinforcement, and here, you enter stage four. You seek out people who share similar thoughts, and begin to share information. You quickly realize that they already know a lot of what you know. Some know a little more, and others much more. You feel energized, and motivated to continue and learn more.

After you build relationships within that community, your beliefs are reinforced. You feel more reassured and confident. You may even feel slightly elitist in that you possess knowledge that only a few number of people do. Time then passes, and slowly your passion, interest, commitment, and dedication reach a critical stage.

You’ve now entered stage number 5, the one that divides conspiracy theorists from everyone else. There are three alternative modes of action that you can take.

One, you will proceed with passion and venom and continue to build on your knowledge about the subject and try to reach out to more people.

Two, you will take a few steps back and rethink about how smart it really is to really delve into this, and you slowly start to lose interest and get occupied with other things in life until the matter doesn’t concern you entirely.

Three, you neither back out nor delve in, you only retain the knowledge you already have that will inevitably slowly fade with time. You don’t actively try to preach what you’ve learned, but you do so passively. If asked about the subject, you will reach into the depths of your mind and retrieve whatever information you can find, but you will do so based on social context more so than a powerful motivation to recruit more people to your way of thinking.

Based on my life experience, these are the different paths you can take, and what you choose will depend of course on your personality more than anything else (the objective validity of you beliefs). What I have always disliked about conspiracy theories is that I generally felt that they were potentially a horrible source of anger and despair and really no source of happiness and fulfillment.

Some conspiracy theories might be true, I do not deny that. Some are quite sophisticated and intelligent, but the problem with conspiracy theories is that by their definition, they cannot lead you to the truth. Indeed, if you are interested in the pursuit of truth, you will find that conspiracy theories are unsatisfying simply because their nature is that they cannot be proved. I suspect that it would be ignorant to assume that everyone is interested in the truth. I believe that this is simply not true. I find that a lot of people use conspiracy theories as emotional reassurance, a way to connect to a society, or merely a pursuit of intellectual interest. Some do it wittingly, and others unwittingly.

I think learning about conspiracy theories is a fun intellectual exercise and could make for great conversation with people, but I would prefer to leave it there. My reasoning is not only will you be unable to prove its validity, but the mere belief in certain ideas could be debilitating and destructive. If you believed some kind of theory that is fundamentally opposed to the way society works for example, you’re likely going to feel resentment, hatred, and distrust towards that society, and there’s little benefit that could accrue from that.

Instead, if some of us are naturally inclined to search for truth, I feel it would be a lot more beneficial and conducive to a sustainable, healthy, and fulfilling existence if we focused our energy towards looking for truths about matters that can actually be verified and confirmed.

problem: i think its interesting at first but then becomes useless.

ISIS Debate

This is a recent 10 minute debate I saw on Youtube that annoyed me. In summary, Ben Affleck and the guys to the right of Bill Maher argue that it’s unethical to ostracize an entire religion because of the insane actions of a few people. Bill Maher and Sam Harris are the ones who are arguing against them by saying that a large group of Muslims, even though not extremist, hold extremely immoral stances on issues like homosexuality, abortion, and women.

What bothered me was that they weren’t arguing about the same thing. Affleck was expressing a good point, you should never condemn an entire religion because of the actions of a few of its members. That would be like condemning the practice of medicine because of the malpractice of a few doctors. But there is fundamentally a growing problem, and that is extremism. It’s growing rapidly and powerfully in the Middle East, and as someone who was living there, I’ve seen just how wide spread it’s become.

The reasons are many, and many political commentators will have their own justifications for this rise of terrorism, but the fundamental issue is that there is something that needs to urgently be addressed. Maher and Harris have built careers by criticizing religion. It’s their job. They don’t like what religion stands for, and they don’t like that it’s a dominating and influential force today. Any event or story that exhibits the dangers of religious extremism comes as another argument for their case. It’s a classical case of selection bias. These guys prey on these events, but their comments can be somewhat misleading.

While Islamic fundamentalism is a problem, Islam isn’t. There are many Islamic countries that do not engage in violence, and that is really a case in point. Extremism is created by religious leaders in a region abrupt with turmoil and violence, in a region that is the perfect melting pot for fundamentalism to thrive and grow.

Say you have two chemicals, the first is called ‘chemical A’ and the second, ‘chemical B’. If you pour chemical A into a container, nothing will happen. If you then pour chemical B on top of it, you’ll get an explosion equivalent to that of a nuclear bomb. The metaphor here is obvious.

Harris explained that if you think of Islam in terms of overlapping circles, you’d get the guys blowing themselves up in the core, the guys who think that’s cool but won’t do it themselves just outside the core, and the guys who aren’t cool with the blowing up bit, but love to discriminate against women and homosexuals. I think what he’s saying is mostly true, but he also said that these factions combined make up around 20 percent of the Islamic population, and that’s probably accurate as well.

So what does this all mean? You’ve got 20 percent of an entire religion that’s the second largest in the world (a few hundred million people) who are to most people’s standards, immoral. Should we condemn the entire religion? In other words, if I said that 1 in 5 police officers accepted bribes at some points during their careers, would that mean that all cops are corrupt? Obviously not.

And I suspect that Maher and Harris know that, yet they side step the issue as if they’re answering a completely different question. In summary, yes, there is a growing problem in the world and it’s religious extremism, and a lot of innocent people will lose their lives because of it. Does this mean that we should condemn all Muslims? Of course not, and I doubt any sane person would argue that.