Feisal Naqvi

The media and the emperor’s clothes

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

Everybody knows the story of the emperor’s new clothes, about how a vain king is persuaded by the flattery of his courtiers to believe that the clothes which he cannot see are actually the finest in the world. Everybody believes that they would never, ever be so dumb.  But it turns out that most of us are actually just as gullible as the fabled emperor.

Solomon Asch, a psychologist at Swarthmore College, carried out a legendary series of experiments back in the 1950s. In the experiments, people were shown a vertical line drawn on a card and then asked to pick out the line closest in length to the one shown (from a series of line drawn on another card).

Since the lines were drawn in such a way that it was very easy to pick out the identical ones, you might ask what the point of the experiment was. Well, most people got the answers wrong.

The reason for the error was that the person being asked to make the choice was placed in a room with other people pretending to be volunteers. Each of the other fake volunteers enthusiastically picked out the same wrong line. And in about 75% of all cases, the genuine volunteer followed suit. Incredibly, people refused to believe their own eyes, even when the difference between the original and the ostensibly equal line was as much as seven inches!

The traditional interpretation of the Asch experiments is that they show the power of peer pressure. In fact, the truth is even stranger than that. The experiments were recently repeated in such a way that the test subjects were inside an MRI machine when they were shown the different pictures. The neurological scans showed that some of the volunteers were actually “seeing” something different simply because other people claimed to be seeing the same thing!

What these experiments teach us first is that we are massively susceptible to peer pressure. Even when we can clearly see that what other people are saying is wrong, we are willing to suppress our views just to fit in with the crowd. And that goes for all of us, irrespective of wealth or education. More importantly, what we think we see, as in literally “see”,  is greatly affected by what other people claim to be seeing. In other words, we cannot even trust our eyes.

The Asch experiments are thought-provoking at many levels. The argument I want to advance though is that the Asch experiments, combined with the rise of a free press in Pakistan, provide some rational basis for believing that our current rendezvous with democracy may not, unlike past encounters, be just a one-night stand.

Let me explain. Changes of regimes in Pakistan are often initially successful (and popular) in part because the person who takes over brings in new ideas along with a group of reasonably competent technocrats. However, as time goes by, both the rulers and their advisors get increasingly entrenched and isolated.  As the Asch experiments tell us, consensus is self-reinforcing. Once the doors to fresh thinking get closed, rulers tend to make more and more mistake until eventually they destroy themselves.

There are two ways to break this cycle. The first is to have internal capacity for critical thinking. Unfortunately, so far as our civil service is concerned, we have done our best to destroy that capacity. Our bureaucrats now serve at the whim of their political masters. Even leaving aside corruption issues, the ability of a senior bureaucrat to continue in a position of significance is entirely based upon his ability to please his minister. Why then would he ever disagree? And if he never disagrees, how will his minister ever reconsider his views?

The second solution is to have external capacity for critical thinking or, in other words, a vibrant free press in which people and ideas are freely criticised. We now have such a press for the first time in our history. Which means, in turn, that for the first time we have a feedback mechanism where our rulers get to hear people shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Which at least to some limited extent, makes it slightly more difficult for our rulers to persist in their follies. Note; not impossible; just a bit more difficult.

At the same time, I don’t want to be overly romantic about the press. The media bubble may not be as insulated as federal ministers but there is still a groupthink mentality which tends to prevail. We see on a daily basis that the media tends to focus on a narrow set of issues and present a narrow range of ideas. The larger scope of possibilities in dealing with problems thus often gets reduced to minor variations on the conventional wisdom. And once conventional wisdom gets agreed upon, that consensus becomes self-reinforcing just like the Asch experiments tell us.

Let me end therefore by making two final points. The first point is that this flaw of the media is unavoidable. At the same time, once a country commits to freedom of speech – as Pakistan has now done – there is at least some hope present that new thinking can enter the halls of power.

The second point is that the media will only provide critical analysis if there is a market for such thinking. We cannot simultaneously teach our people to be obedient, rote-memorising little academic robots and then bemoan the fact that there is no critical thinking. Instead, we must reward critical thinking at every stage of the educational process. But we are conspicuously failing to do this.

I was recently shocked to learn that the only three options for A level students at Aitchison are Sciences, Medicine and, wait for it, Commerce.  Which means that some of our best students head out to college without having studied any literature, any history, or any liberal arts discipline since the age of 15. And yes, I know things are far worse for the rest of the country.

Telling the emperor that he has no clothes requires both the ability to see and the courage to speak. We have no shortage of courage. But we need to learn how to see. And we must teach our children too.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2011.

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