Article Recommendation: The Fallacy of Success by G. K. Chesterton

The reason I am recommending this excerpt from All Things Considered by G. K. Chesterton is not because it says something that nobody else is saying today. But because he said it over a hundred years ago.

There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men. They are much more wild than the wildest romances of chivalry and much more dull than the dullest religious tract. Moreover, the romances of chivalry were at least about chivalry; the religious tracts are about religion. But these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success.

So it turns out that self-help books and their nothingness are not a malaise that has appeared only recently. And nor is the need to caution people against them particularly modern.

So if you are not convinced against self-help books in modern way and would rather partake some ancient wisdom, read The Fallacy of Success by G. K. Chesterton.

Article Recommendation: The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart

Now here is an article that calls a spade a spade. The spade here is management theories and education. Management education started with Frederik Taylor, whose theories have fallen into disrepute and are taught, at best, in “the history of management theory” lessons, but business education that he propagated has continued to prosper and so have continued the rise and fall of management theories.

In the spring of 1908, Taylor met with several Harvard professors, and later that year Harvard opened the first graduate school in the country to offer a master’s degree in business.

Although it is usually the same two concepts that keep coming up in new garbs adorned by new buzzwords.

Between them, Taylor and Mayo carved up the world of management theory. According to my scientific sampling, you can save yourself from reading about 99 percent of all the management literature once you master this dialectic between rationalists and humanists. The Taylorite rationalist says: Be efficient! The Mayo-ist humanist replies: Hey, these are people we’re talking about! And the debate goes on. Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion, of the individual and the group.

And the entire discipline manages to escape any kind of accountability.

The world of management theorists remains exempt from accountability. In my experience, for what it’s worth, consultants monitored the progress of former clients about as diligently as they checked up on ex-spouses (of which there were many). Unless there was some hope of renewing the relationship (or dating a sister company), it was Hasta la vista, baby. And why should they have cared? Consultants’ recommendations have the same semantic properties as campaign promises: it’s almost freakish if they are remembered in the following year.

But don’t MBA programs create those highly paid executives?

Management education confers some benefits that have little to do with either management or education. Like an elaborate tattoo on an aboriginal warrior, an M.B.A. is a way of signaling just how deeply and irrevocably committed you are to a career in management. The degree also provides a tidy hoard of what sociologists call “social capital”—or what the rest of us, notwithstanding the invention of the PalmPilot, call a “Rolodex.”


For companies, M.B.A. programs can be a way to outsource recruiting.

Read The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart.

Article Recommendation: India must end history wars over Tipu and other controversial Sultans by Janaki Nair

Now that the Karnataka government’s Tipu Jayanti blunder is (at least until next year) behind us, I feel safe in recommending this sensible article, which exhorts us to look at historical people as persons of their times and not try to force-fit them into our current political classifications. Unfortunately our public debates tend to push people into more hardened, extremist stances, rather than developing a shared, nuanced understanding of history, which will not serve a convenient precursor to whatever opinions, grudges and ideologies we want to hold today. As the article points out about Tipu Sultan and all the labels that different groups apply to him:

What we would get is a richly ambiguous historical figure who is not easily amenable to a “nationalist”, “secular”, “tyrannical”, “pro Islamic” readings.

It ends with a sensible suggestion:

We must find the resources to develop a new historical temper that acknowledges and accepts the inconvenient contradictions of our past.

While you are on the subject, you can also read Tipu Sultan: Noble or Savage? by William Dalrymple. This article may have gone some extra distance to prove that the “Islamic tyrant” image of Tipu was a British propaganda and is almost ready to label him a nationalist. But you can form your own opinion after looking at the facts presented.

Read India must end history wars over… at Daily O and Tipu Sultan: Noble or Savage at Open.

Article of the Week: Be careful, your love of science looks a lot like religion by Jamie Holmes

As one of the articles we have discussed earlier on this blog reveals, ignorance is mostly (confidence-inducing) misinformation and hence misinformation can be safely labelled as dangerous. Misinformation, as wise people declare with a knowing nod, is worse than no information. In a similar vein, a misinformed defender can be worse than an uninformed bystander or even a critic. Science and scientific methods seem to have quite a few such dangerous defenders. The article we have selected for this week should warn you against the beliefs that you may mistakenly think to be pro-scientific, but are really just the opposite, especially when science is fielded against religion and its dogmas.

The article quotes the results of some studies:

When people felt anxious, they esteemed science more highly than calmer subjects did, just as previous experiments have shown to be the case with religious ideals.


Another study led by University of Amsterdam’s Bastiaan Rutjens in 2010 found that uncertain subjects expressed an increased faith in God o​r i​n evolution, provided that evolution was presented as a structured and predictable process.

It seems that we tend to accept science for the same (misguided?) reasons as religion. To feel “a reassuring sense of order”. One way in which this need for predictability and order reflects is by resorting to extremism, where the world is divided into good and evil, black and white, saints and sinners. Some use religion as a vehicle for expressing this extremism, and others can do the same with science too ( “Anything not statistically significant is truly worthless.”). The article reminds us that “psychology, not theology, is at the root of extremism.”

In case you think that while extremism with religion is dangerous, extremism with “science” is harmless or even desirable, take a step back; science is not about absolute beliefs.

If the moral authority of science is rooted anywhere it is in the opposing stance, in its acceptance of fallibility and its welcoming treatment of ambiguity and unknowns. That is where science finds its contrast with scientism and many religious perspectives.

Why does it matter to the general public? Because when our understanding of science and scientific methods does not accommodate uncertainties and fallibility, it bestows a legitimacy on dogma. And dogma is not science’s strong point!

If the public were more comfortable with degrees of scientific uncertainty, for one, then climate change “skeptics”—those merchants of doubt, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway dubbed them—wouldn’t be able to conflate so easily minor uncertainties with substantive disagreement.

Read the complete article at Quartz.

Article of the Week: We Are All Confident Idiots by David Dunning

The article I have selected for this week is by David Dunning, one of the pair after whom the Dunning-Kruger effect is named. For those who have not already searched wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

Basically when idiots think they are the bosses!

The article explores similar and related phenomena focusing on ignorance.

What is ignorance? We tend to think of it as unawareness about something (the dictionary also says something like this). But if we do so, we don’t truly comprehend the dangers and impact of ignorance.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This can explain what to me is one of the biggest disappointments of the 20th century. That education doesn’t really work in fighting ignorance. If ignorance were absence of knowledge, education could have imparted knowledge and made people wiser. But since it is not the absence of knowledge  but misguided knowledge, all too often education ends up producing illusory confidence without disabusing people of their wrong ideas. The information that comes through education is bent to fit in with the sacrosanct beliefs people already hold, instead of challenging and changing it.

The article mentions an example, where people uninformed about nanotechnology were “educated” about it through a brief write-up. Before reading, their opinions on the impact of technology were unsure and all over the map. However, armed with education, their beliefs became more confident and also polarized. The polarization was guided by what they already believed in (details in the article).

There is another interesting mention of an experiment, where teaching people about evolution not only increased the percentage of people believing the right things about evolution, it also increased the percentage of those believing the wrong thing. They were confident about their wrong beliefs too!

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve.

The article does end with some advice on how to manage ignorance-generated confidence. Those I think will only work, as in the case with most advice, if the idea has been internalized by you and you can clearly see the misguided confidence not just in others, but in yourself too. Knowing what is going on can definitely be a first step towards it.

By the way, if after reading it you find that you can see it happening only to others and not to you, you might be bending the information to fit the sacrosanct belief you hold about yourself – that you are smarter than everyone else!

Read the complete article on Pacific Standard.

Article of the Week: The obscure legal system that lets corporations sue countries by Claire Provost and Matt Kennard

I think it appeared as a cartoon in my facebook feed. It said something to the effect that the third world war is on and it not being fought through tanks, but through banks. The lament that corporations are the imperial powers of the 21st century has become almost clichéd. So clichéd indeed that we think these claims are exaggerated. Well – these pithy truisms are much closer to reality than the effectiveness of the latest weight-loss diet you have been recommended. The article I have selected for this week disturbingly points out one such system, using which corporations are not only able to undermine the sovereignty of nations but are turning these disputes into “asset-classes” against which they can raise money, not to fight the case, but to expand their business, while the states are so threatened that even democratically elected governments are not able to do right by their people.

The cases discussed in the article have mostly resulted in settlements or judgements that completely disregard the health, safety, social, economic and climate-change conditions of the people in these countries. And to top it all, all this has been done in the name of development. These investor-state dispute systems, one of which was created by the World Bank despite protests from almost every Latin American country, Philippines and Iraq, were supposed to help in the growth of developing and underdeveloped countries “by creating a welcome environment for international investments”. These were supposed to be “fair, impartial” mechanisms to resolve disputes. The reality is turning out to be bleak.

Corporations from developed countries are just have more support and are more adept at using these systems to their advantage than the states they are dealing with. Even in the rare cases that the state wins, the cost of dispute itself is too heavy for them to recover from. Read the complete article on The Guardian to get an idea of just how deep the rut is.

Article of the Week: Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? by Oliver Burkeman

The article I have selected for the week addresses a curious question. Curious, because depending on which camp you are in, it is either the most important question humanity and sciences face today, or it is not a question at all. We know a lot about how our brains work. We understand how we learn, how memory works and how we perceive things. But despite all the progress in neuroscience and related disciplines, we don’t have an answer to the question of why “should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from inside”. How does any of it result in Consciousness? The question has come to be known as “the Hard Problem of Consciousness” (the article describes how this phrase came to be).

But does the problem really exist? Is Consciousness really something that needs explanation? Apparently for many people, it doesn’t.

Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

Some think we are never going to understand consciousness, and some others have the notion that we probably already understand it, although the implications are bizarre.

in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations.

It appears difficult to agree on even the question where consciousness is concerned, much less the answer. The views on the question almost seem a matter of faith rather than of understanding. Everyone seems to find their position to be the obvious one and nobody seems to have argument enough to convert people from other camps.

Read the complete article on The Guardian and let us know where you stand on the Hard Problem?

Article of the Week: Slaves of History by Jori Lewis

Let’s play a word association game.

South Africa

Did you follow that with “America”? That’s alright. Most of us do. The narrative around slavery is very US-centric, and not just in the US. That’s why I found Slaves of History by Jori Lewis worth a read and picked it up for article recommendation of the week.

Not all slaves from Africa were taken to the new world. Many remained in Africa and this article talks about their descendants. Unlike in the US, the stigma of slavery continues to hound the descendants of slaves in West Africa, particularly in Senegal from where the writer reports.

Black Americans do not feel shame about slavery; they feel anger or sadness or any number of other emotions. The shame is for others; it is the collective shame of the US. Slavery is our history, but it is not who we are. In Senegal, the stigma of being a descendant of a slave still holds strong. For people of slave origin, their history is an open secret, one that is often difficult to speak out loud.

The hierarchy still exists. And although it is breaking in piecemeal ways, it isn’t quite gone yet.

We know that there is an inequality between us and that they are above me. There is an unwritten code of conduct. I know my limits. I know what I have the right to do and what I do not. And I don’t need anyone to teach me a lesson.

People of slave descent cannot become the village chief or imams in the mosque.

Even running for political office, which is theoretically possible, is a bit off-limits in his mind. ‘Most of the descendants of slaves know their limits and they don’t even try to become candidates for elected office, even if they have the right,’ he said. ‘It’s not possible to stop the sea with just my arms.’

A presidential candidate was called by his opponent to be a ‘descendant of slaves’ and to have ‘come from a family of cannibals’. It was the former comment that caused the real stir. If you are thinking how the ‘chaiwallah’ comment meant to degrade Narendra Modi ended up biting his opponent instead, you will be disappointed in Senegal. The candidate there was insulted by the ‘descendant of slave’ charge and hired a traditional West African storyteller to articulate his lineage proving that he came from a family of respected warriors and not slaves. Turns out, it isn’t politically incorrect to use the term  ‘descendant of slave’ as a derogatory accusation there!

There are other anecdotes from the oral history of slavery, people who managed to change their identities and forget their slave past, those who are still stuck, those who are fighting it, and those who take their station in life as granted.

But we Indians need not get too smug. “Illegal” caste-based discrimination and crimes are as much a part of our present as the “abolished” slavery is of Senegal’s.

Read the complete article on Aeon.

Article of the Week: I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss

The article by John Bohannon that I have chosen for this week can be thought of as a follow up to or even an initiation to the book of the month for May. What is even better here is that it is a first person account of how badly designed scientific experiments get legitimacy and popularity if they only translate into headlines that people want to believe. It is a sting operation of sorts into the functioning of a large section of scientific research and publications and into how science reporting works in popular media, even the more creditable ones.

The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic.

So, if the study was authentic, how was the public “fooled”?

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.


With our 18 measurements, we had a 60% chance of getting some“significant” result with p < 0.05. (The measurements weren’t independent, so it could be even higher.) The game was stacked in our favor.

It isn’t a good idea to be on cutting edge in the fields where you lack the time or competence to critically examine every new fad. So most of us would do well to avoid reading diet advice in media (or even science journals).

The key to success in popular media is rather disappointing.

The key is to exploit journalists’ incredible laziness. If you lay out the information just right, you can shape the story that emerges in the media almost like you were writing those stories yourself. In fact, that’s literally what you’re doing, since many reporters just copied and pasted  text.

Then there is more bad news. There isn’t much hope of getting conclusive dietary advice in the near future.

But science will figure it out, right? Now that we’re calling obesity an epidemic, funding will flow to the best scientists and all of this noise will die down, leaving us with clear answers to the causes and treatments.

Or maybe not. Even the well-funded, serious research into weight-loss science is confusing and inconclusive, laments Peter Attia, a surgeon who co-founded a nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative—one of the largest of its kind—yielded few clear insights about diet and health. “The results were just confusing,” says Attia. “They spent $1 billion and couldn’t even prove that a low-fat diet is better or worse.” Attia’s nonprofit is trying to raise $190 million to answer these fundamental questions. But it’s hard to focus attention on the science of obesity, he says. “There’s just so much noise.”

So, there! Just stick to the basics when it comes to lifestyle choices. If it sounds exotic, when it comes to dietary advice, it probably is wrong.

Read the complete article on io9.

Article of the Week: Without immigrants, none of us would be here

Let me accept at the outset, the article by Ian Goldin that I have picked up is weak. It’s call for “Fresh thinking and bold action” is based on diffused reasoning and it doesn’t look like he understands or wants to think about the motivations of the people he is addressing. Even purely on the merits of argument, it isn’t as solid, factual or fool-proof as you would expect from an academician. You might wonder why I picked this article as a recommended read, if it appeals strongly neither to  my logic or emotions.

The reason is the bold (even if carelessly made) assertion in the article that immigration has been made too difficult in present times and it should not be so. Think of it. The Europeans persecuted for religious, political or legal reasons in earlier centuries found refuge in India, the Americas, China, Hong Kong and a bunch of other places across the globe. Today Rohingya Muslims have nowhere to go. We may regard national boundaries as sacrosanct, but is it just? Is there anything natural about it?

Yes – I understand that countries cannot  give up overnight their immigration restrictions. It will bring nothing but chaos. But is making the borders rigid by the day the way to go for the human race? Read the complete article on The Conversation and think about it even if you don’t particularly like the article.

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