Jan 21, 2008

The Modern Risks of Information and Advice

In my earlier post, I wrote about the school principal who had strongly urged her Secondary 5 students to give up studying for their O-levels and go to the ITE instead. This incident reminded of Freakonomics, a very interesting book that I had read some time ago.

Here's the relevant point from Freakonomics. As society grows more complex, more and more specialists evolve. Doctors, lawyers, financial advisers, property agents, journalists, religious leaders and car salesmen - all of them are specialists of a different kind.

The individual cannot possibly be an expert in every field relevant to his life. So he must often rely on advice from different specialists. For example, if he is ill, he will consult a doctor. If he wants to buy a car or sell an apartment, he will talk to a car salesman or a property agent.

The Freakonomics authors warn us that very often, the specialist's self-interest is not fully aligned with the self-interest of the person seeking information or advice. In other words, it often does not serve the specialist to tell you everything that you should know.

For example, it may take too much time for the specialist to tell you everything you should know, and there is no reward for doing so - therefore he won't.

Or the specialist might deliberately withhold certain information about his product / service, because if you knew all its flaws, limitations or disadvantages, you might not want his product / service any more.

Or he may deliberately slant or angle his advice in certain ways, so that you will be inclined to make a decision that serves his own self-interest.

And there is usually no equal footing, because the specialist, by virtue of being a specialist, already knows more than you. He holds the edge.

Let's now consider our education system. Socially, we are conditioned to think of education as a noble thing, and of educators as noble people. Certainly this view has some validity - some people would say, a lot of validity.

But at the same time, we must realise that there are different actors within the school system. Different actors means different self-interests, and that means the Freakonomics info/advice problem must arise again.

What's good for the Ministry of Education is not necessarily good for the principal. What's good for the principal is not necessarily good for the teachers. What's good for the teachers is not necessarily good for the students.

And what's good for the students may not necessarily be good for the teachers, principal or the Ministry of Education.

(Minor digression - here is a brief
account of how I, as a student, went against the government's then-prevailing career advice for young Singaporeans. I thereby became quite rich and successful).

It is very good for the principal, if the school achieves a high overall pass score. An ambitious principal may well aim to achieve, say, a 98% or 100% pass score. It is conceivable that such an ambition may heavily shape a principal's advice to the students or the way the principal runs the school.

For example, the principal may discourage students from exploring knowledge outside the formal school syllabus (such extra learning may be good for the students, but will not help the overall pass scores).

Or the principal may prevent the students from taking subjects which the students are interested in, but which are considered harder to pass (for example, Further Maths, or Art, or Literature).

Or the principal may seek ways to put extreme pressure on the students to work as hard as possible, such that a few of the less-resilient students will inevitably suffer
severe stress.

Or the principal may advise the weak students to leave the school and pursue other options elsewhere (if these students stay, and fail their exams, then the overall pass scores would be damaged).

And the students may never realise that their education is being shaped, not by considerations of what is good for them, but of what is good for their principal.

The Freakonomics authors do not say, of course, that in every case, specialists are out to hurt the advisee's position. In many situations, the interests of the advisor and the advisee could be well-aligned - this means that the advisor has a strong incentive to be genuinely helpful.

What Freakonomics does warn us is that when we receive any specialist advice, we should pause to ask ourselves - what are all the possible reasons why the specialist is telling us what the specialist is telling us?

Final food for thought. Here's that Bertrand Russell quote again:
"Passive acceptance of the teacher's wisdom is easy to most boys and girls. It involves no effort of independent thought, and seems rational because the teacher knows more than his pupils; it is moreover the way to win the favour of the teacher unless he is a very exceptional man. Yet the habit of passive acceptance is a disastrous one in later life. It causes man to seek and to accept a leader, and to accept as a leader whoever is established in that position." - Bertrand Russell.
So beware of the specialists in your life, whoever they may be.


zj83 said...

i guess we have different objective to meet. n being too objective,we failed to consider or, at times, compromise the sujectivity feelings of others.

i am v.impressed with your latest posting, Mr Wang. and i believe that each and everyone shld have the freedom to explore his/her field of interest and enhance one's own personal growth, sad to say, we r always being 'constrain' by 'outer' pressure to comply, thus nelecting out innate abilities to develop. ( regarding the principal case)

Anonymous said...

Interestingly Buddha also have this advice for his follower:

Kalama Sutta - "Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching. Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words. Rely not on theory, but on experience. Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." - the Buddha

Anonymous said...

i think information is always "bias" in the sense that it all depends on the thought process as well as the situation of the one processing the information.

I believe that the success that Mr Wang has today is based on a combination of factors. If you really know that your interest is in a particular field, it is likely you try for it and sometime things might just work for you due to the change in the environment.

In general, one would like to believe that success is through one better judgment but most of the time a lot of factors come into play. Then again, when one is successful, one can say anything on the path to getting there. :)

zj83 said...

I seen your previous posts on Abraham Maslow and self actualization some timeago. maybe you would be interested in Carl Rogers and his theory on becoming a person. (smiliar to Maslow, Rogers is a prominent psychologist in humanistic Psychology)

i cited a paragraph from this website http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/rogers.html
it talks abt being a person in society and similiar its toking in a direction to your post. In my opinion, Rogers teaching does compliment B.F Skinner theories to some extend.

"Our society also leads us astray with conditions of worth. As we grow up, our parents, teachers, peers, the media, and others, only give us what we need when we show we are “worthy,” rather than just because we need it.....Getting positive regard on “on condition” Rogers calls conditional positive regard. Because we do indeed need positive regard, these conditions are very powerful, and we bend ourselves into a shape determined, not by our organismic valuing or our actualizing tendency, but by a society that may or may not truly have our best interests at heart. A “good little boy or girl” may not be a healthy or happy boy or girl! Over time, this “conditioning” leads us to have conditional positive self-regard as well. We begin to like ourselves only if we meet up with the standards others have applied to us, rather than if we are truly actualizing our potentials. And since these standards were created without keeping each individual in mind, more often than not we find ourselves unable to meet them, and therefore unable to maintain any sense of self-esteem."

Rogers works influences me in an 'undecisive' way to be courageous in realising what i would like to be and to hold pride in becoming me. and i hope that people who r living in an objective orientated society like Sg can take some notices in his works as well and maybe help looking at life in an another perspectives :-)

Potassium said...

Hey Mr Wang, I am pleasantly surprised by the fact that you have also read that book as well. In fact, it was my lecturer who introduced us to the book Freakconomics during his economics lecture.

In any case, I have to agree with your view about schooling. Asymmetric information, as you have mentioned, exists in our society and there are people who do refuse to divert the extra information that they know for their own benefits. For example, the classic paper of the lemon market talked about sellers trying to sell old cars to their consumers. These cars could be good or defective and obviously such information would only be known by the sellers themselves. The buyers would have to guess or pray for their luck when buying the second hand cars.

Similarly, the principal has an incentive to chase the students away so that he can achieve better scores for his school, thus reflecting his capabilities. Just another example of how asymmetric information works in our lives. Other examples may include constructing buildings with inferior materials to save costs and only be discovered when the buildings collapse, to making toys that contain too much lead (Mattel's case in China), companies having accounting scandals (WorldCom etc) and so on.

Anonymous said...

Not just ordinary folk, the rich and powerful (of course include gahmen) also seek specialist advice. They are not experts in everything, right? Imagine the impact (good or bad) of such advice and decisions made! If it is bad they will say it is short term only, in the long run it will be good (sounds familiar?) But in the long run (depends on how long) all of us will be dead. That's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Lui Tuck Yew cannot even give a speech pwoply.

What is the purpose of education? To learn as much as possible in areas that one is interested or exposed to. Or merely to rote memorize and regurgitate in the hopes that the sieve of society will fall in one's favor?

Education is to learn how to learn. To constantly keep improving on one's accord. It is dismal that non-academic abilities and talents do not bode so well in Singapore - beyond English, Maths and the Sciences.

We shouldn't be throwing away a huge chunk of every year's cohort just to make space for that 240 doctors and 200 law students at NUS. Life is surely more than triple science and further mathematics.

So much for "Moulding the Future of our Nation" - more like sending half of it to hell and appreciating just 1% of each batch. More resources should be used to help benefit those students who may need a little bit more time, a little bit more coaching and a little bit more help.

It sure is a sad thing to waste the potential of a young mind.

Anonymous said...

We are not encouraged/allowed to think independently and look at problems from multiple perspectives. I stopped paying attention to Straits Times. I have no expectations of this country every changing.

Sometimes, there isn't much point over analyzing, move on and evolve. Find ways to make more money as it is an important means to many things, not just materialism.

That's all.

drozbloke said...

I suppose the same question could be posed to you Mr Wang.

Why would a quite rich and successful lawyer want to blog about this?

What is the motive?

There are many facets to each problem. You might want to speak to some teachers who have students who are struggling academically and see what the situation is like from their perspective.

My motive? My wife is a teacher and I spoke to her about what you blogged and she agrees on some points but also contends that things are not as simple as you make it out to be.

I just want to share this point with you.

Anonymous said...


who are at the receiving ends of Wang's blogs?

And who are at the receiving ends of the damn principal and f*8ker Lui?

Think about it.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

Where was the Bertrand Russell quote from? Whatever book it was would make a good read.

Iago said...

There is a new JC subject called Knowledge & Inquiry, exploring epistemologic issues and developing critical thinking (emphasis on exploring and developing).

Here the teacher is relegated to a springboard for independent exploration, and an Independent Study research paper is part of the course.

I am taking such a course, and the few of us who do have developed very differently from our peers. One could say we've taken on existentialist slants, believing in education being our prerogative - as rightly it is - and this is why I believe it isn't taught widely or in all JCs.

We have become questioners, as our mind broadens and explores. We do not just explore our subject matter, but the paradigm of many phenomena. We challenge views, including those of the school/authority figures, and challenge in a way that their whole argument and possibly unreason can be brought to light.

Perhaps this is why thinking skills aren't so emphasised, because we have been given a weapon that cannot be removed, a weapon that has the potential of greatly upsetting the status quo. Short of an Orwellian 1984 circumstance, the mind is a gun with no safety but itself.