Why Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman Gave Up on Happiness


October 6, 2018

Why Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman Gave Up on Happiness

The cognitive psychologist spent years studying happiness, yet now he considers satisfaction and life satisfaction of greater importance to people.

What did I consider more important about my meeting with Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman? My enjoyment of the meeting, which was fascinating and inspirational – or the photo that shows me talking with one of the world’s most brilliant men? According to Kahneman, this is a complex question that has caused confusion in happiness studies for many years.

He came to the study of happiness through a circuitous route, as an outgrowth of research in which he sought to understand the connection between what we experience in real time – that is, the life we lead – and what we remember of these experiences (i.e., the narrative we carry with us and tell about our lives).

A Tel Aviv native and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, Kahneman, 84, is a cognitive psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for research conducted jointly with Amos Tversky (who died in 1996). The two modeled a systematic, inbuilt set of cognitive biases and logical failures in our method of thinking that influences contexts, conclusions and decision-making. They then demonstrated how, as a result, we make decisions on the basis of erroneous assessments and intuitions that are inconsistent with either statistics or common sense.

The research and behavioral models derived from their studies had a significant effect on the economic sciences, forcing it to change its models – which had previously been based on the fundamental assumption of rational behavior. Kahneman’s insights created the field of behavioral economics: A field that seeks to evaluate the influence of irrational, impulsive human behavior.

In the 1990s, Kahneman studied another form of cognitive bias: That there is a discrepancy between our experiences as we experience them while they’re actually happening, and our memories of those same experiences.

The subject of his initial research was not sexy and quite distant from the happiness debate. The study documented, in real time, patients’ degree of suffering during a colonoscopy (it was a painful procedure at the time, unlike today).

It turned out there was no connection between the length of the procedure and level of pain a patient experienced and described at the time, and the extent of trauma he recalled afterward. The memory was based primarily on whether the pain increased or decreased toward the end of the procedure. The stronger the pain in the final stage of the procedure, the more traumatic it became in the patient’s memory – with no connection to the question of how much pain he actually experienced during it.

Positive experiences are processed similarly. In a 2010 lecture, Kahneman related the story of a man who told him about listening to a symphony he loved, “absolutely glorious music.” But at the end there was a “dreadful screeching sound” that, the man said, ruined the whole experience for him.

But as Kahneman pointed out, it hadn’t actually destroyed the experience, because the man enjoyed the music at the time. Rather, it ruined his memory of the experience, which is something completely different.

“We live and experience many moments, but most of them are not preserved,” Kahneman said. “They are lost forever. Our memory collects certain parts of what happened to us and processes them into a story. We make most of our decisions based on the story told by our memory.

“For example, a vacation – we don’t remember, or experience, the entire time we spent on vacation, but only the impressions preserved in our memory, the photographs and the documentation. Moreover, we usually choose the next vacation not as an experience but as a future memory. If prior to the decision about our next vacation we assume that at the end all the photos will be erased, and we’ll be given a drug that will also erase our memory, it’s quite possible that we’ll choose a different vacation from the one that we actually choose.”

A very vague concept

Kahneman’s studies of “What I experience” versus “What I remember” are what led him to get involved in the study of happiness.

“I put together a group of researchers, including an economist whom I viewed as both a partner in the group and its principal client,” he told me when we met earlier this year. “We wanted to figure out what factors affect happiness and to try to work to change conditions and policies accordingly. Economists have more influence on policy.

“The group developed a model known as DRM, or Day Reconstruction Method – a fairly successful method of reconstructing experiences throughout the day. It gives results similar to those of ‘What I experience’ and is easier to do.”

It turns out there are significant differences between the narrative that we remember and tell, and the feelings of day-to-day happiness we experience at the time – to the point that Kahneman believes the general term “happiness” is too vague and can’t be applied to both.

He views “happiness” as the feeling of enjoyment a person experiences here and now – for instance, two weeks of relaxation on the beach, or an enjoyable conversation with an interesting person. What is described as happiness in the “What I remember” is something Kahneman prefers to call – as he did more than once in his series of studies – “satisfaction” or “life satisfaction.”

 

Amir Mandel speaking with Daniel Kahneman, March 2018. What did I consider more important about our meeting? My enjoyment of the meeting or the photo? Moti Milrod

 

“Life satisfaction is connected to a large degree to social yardsticks – achieving goals, meeting expectations,” he explained. “It’s based on comparisons with other people.

“For instance, with regard to money, life satisfaction rises in direct proportion to how much you have. In contrast, happiness is affected by money only when it’s lacking. Poverty can buy a lot of suffering, but above the level of income that satisfies basic needs, happiness, as I define it, doesn’t increase with wealth. The graph is surprisingly flat.

 

“Economist Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize laureate for 2015, was also involved in these conclusions. Happiness in this sense depends, to a large extent, on genetics – on a natural ability to be happy. It’s also connected to a genetic disposition to optimism. They are apparently the same genes.

“To the degree that outside factors affect this aspect of happiness,” he continued, “they’re related solely to people: We’re happy in the company of people we like, especially friends – more so than with partners. Children can cause great happiness, at certain moments.”

‘I was miserable’

At about the same time as these studies were being conducted, the Gallup polling company (which has a relationship with Princeton) began surveying various indicators among the global population. Kahneman was appointed as a consultant to the project.

“I suggested including measures of happiness, as I understand it – happiness in real time. To these were added data from Bhutan, a country that measures its citizens’ happiness as an indicator of the government’s success. And gradually, what we know today as Gallup’s World Happiness Report developed. It has also been adopted by the UN and OECD countries, and is published as an annual report on the state of global happiness.

“A third development, which is very important in my view, was a series of lectures I gave at the London School of Economics in which I presented my findings about happiness. The audience included Prof. Richard Layard – a teacher at the school, a British economist and a member of the House of Lords – who was interested in the subject. Eventually, he wrote a book about the factors that influence happiness, which became a hit in Britain,” Kahneman said, referring to “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.”

“Layard did important work on community issues, on improving mental health services – and his driving motivation was promoting happiness. He instilled the idea of happiness as a factor in the British government’s economic considerations.

“At the same time,” said Kahneman, “a movement has also developed in psychology – positive psychology – that focuses on happiness and attributes great importance to internal questions like meaning. I’m less certain of that.

Tourists in New York posing near a homeless man. “In general, if you want to reduce suffering, mental health is a good place to start,” says Kahneman. Tourists in New York posing near a homeless man. “In general, if you want to reduce suffering, mental health is a good place to start,” says Kahneman.

Tourists in New York posing near a homeless man. “In general, if you want to reduce suffering, mental health is a good place to start,” says Kahneman. Reuters

“The involvement of economists like Layard and Deaton made this issue more respectable,” Kahneman added with a smile. “Psychologists aren’t listened to so much. But when economists get involved, everything becomes more serious, and research on happiness gradually caught the attention of policy-making organizations.

People connect happiness primarily to the company of others. I recall a conversation with Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, in which he tried to convince me I had a meaningful life. I insisted – and I still think this today – that I had an interesting life. ‘Meaningful’ isn’t something I understand. I’m a lucky person and also fairly happy – mainly because, for most of my life, I’ve worked with people whose company I enjoyed.”

Then, referring to his 2011 best-seller “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he added, “There were four years when I worked alone on a book. That was terrible, and I was miserable.”

 

Despite Kahneman’s reservations, trends in positive psychology have come to dominate the science of happiness. One of the field’s most prominent representatives is Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught the most popular course in Harvard’s history (in spring 2006), on happiness and leadership.

Following in his footsteps, lecturers at Yale developed a course on happiness that attracted masses of students and overshadowed every other course offered at the prestigious university.

In positive psychology, it seems to me they’re trying to convince people to be happy without making any changes in their situation,” said Kahneman, skeptically. “To learn to be happy. That fits well with political conservatism.”

I pointed out to Kahneman that Buddhism – including Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, which whom he is in contact – also places great emphasis on changing a person’s inner spiritual state. “That’s true to a large extent,” he agreed, “but in a different way, in my opinion. Buddhism has a different social worldview.

 

“But in any case, I confess that I participated in a meeting with the Dalai Lama at MIT, and some of his people were there – including one of his senior people, who lives in Paris and serves as his contact person and translator in France. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this man. He radiated. He had such inner peace and such a sense of happiness, and I’m absolutely not cynical enough to overlook it.”

Tending to mental health

Kahneman studied happiness for over two decades, gave rousing lectures and, thanks to his status, contributed to putting the issue on the agenda of both countries and organizations, principally the UN and the OECD. Five years ago, though, he abandoned this line of research.

I gradually became convinced that people don’t want to be happy,” he explained. “They want to be satisfied with their life.”

A bit stunned, I asked him to repeat that statement. “People don’t want to be happy the way I’ve defined the term – what I experience here and now. In my view, it’s much more important for them to be satisfied, to experience life satisfaction, from the perspective of ‘What I remember,’ of the story they tell about their lives. I furthered the development of tools for understanding and advancing an asset that I think is important but most people aren’t interested in.

“Meanwhile, awareness of happiness has progressed in the world, including annual happiness indexes. It seems to me that on this basis, what can confidently be advanced is a reduction of suffering. The question of whether society should intervene so that people will be happier is very controversial, but whether society should strive for people to suffer less – that’s widely accepted.

“Much of Layard’s activity on behalf of happiness in England related to bolstering the mental health system. In general, if you want to reduce suffering, mental health is a good place to start – because the extent of illness is enormous and the intensity of the distress doesn’t allow for any talk of happiness. We also need to talk about poverty and about improving the workplace environment, where many people are abused.”

My interview with Kahneman took place as I started working on the Haaretz series of articles “The Secret of Happiness,” and was initially meant to conclude it. It was the key to the entire series. It’s interesting that Kahneman, one of the leading symbols of happiness research, eventually became dubious and quit, while proposing that we primarily address causes of suffering.

The “secret of happiness” hasn’t been deciphered. Even the term’s definition remains vague. Genetics and luck play an important role in it.

Nevertheless, a few insights that emerged from the series have stayed with me: I’m amazed by Layard’s activity. I was impressed by the tranquility of the Buddhist worldview and the practices that accompany it. Personally, I’ve chosen to practice meditation with a technique adapted to people from Western cultures.

I learned to collect experiences and not necessarily memories, which can be disputed. I don’t mind sitting for three hours in a Paris café or spending a day wandering through the streets of Berlin, without noting a single monument or having a single incident that I could recount. I gave up on income to do what I enjoy – like, for instance, writing about happiness and music.

Above all, it has become clear that our best hours are spent in the company of people we like. With this resource, it pays to be generous.

https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-why-nobel-prize-winner-daniel-kahneman-gave-up-on-happiness-1.6528513

What Termites Can Teach Us


September 11, 2018

In 1781, Henry Smeathman wrote a report for the Royal Society celebrating termites as “foremost on the list of the wonders of the creation” for “most closely imitating mankind in provident industry and regular government.” Termites, he wrote, surpassed “all other animals” in the “arts of building” by the same margin that “Europeans excel the least cultivated savages.”–Amia Srinivasan

Do you know why?  Because there no politicians messing up their harmonious existence. Do you think we can live in societies without politicians. Those who invented”democracy”did not study how termites are able to live without politics. –Din Merican

What Termites Can Teach Us

Roboticists are fascinated by their “swarm intelligence,” biologists by their ability to turn grass into energy. But can humans replicate their achievements?

New termite colonies are founded on windless evenings, at dusk, after the rain. Most termites have neither eyes nor wings, but every mature colony has a caste of translucent-winged seeing creatures called alates, which are nurtured by the colony’s workers until they are ready to propagate. When the time comes—given the right temperature and humidity—colonies release thousands of alates into the air, an event called “swarming.” Most of the nutrient-rich alates are eaten by animals as they glide to the ground. The few that survive shed their wings and pair off, male and female. Then they burrow into the earth, future kings and queens. The pair will remain there, alone in a dark hole, for the rest of their lives. They bite off the ends of their antennae, reducing their acute sensitivity; perhaps it’s a means of making more bearable a life wholly given over to procreation. They mate, and the queen begins to lay her eggs. She will lay millions in the course of her decades-long life—the longest life span of any insect. Her translucent white abdomen, constricted by the tight black bands of her exoskeleton, swells to the size of a human thumb, leaving her unable to move. Her tiny head and legs flail while her pulsating body is fed and cleaned by her offspring.

 

The South African naturalist and poet Eugène Marais described the queen’s fate in “The Soul of the White Ant” (first published, in Afrikaans, in 1934): “Although you will apparently be an immobile shapeless mass buried in a living grave, you will actually be a sensitive mainspring. You will become the feeling, the thinking, the seeing, of a life a thousand times greater and more important than yours could ever have become.”

Humans have often looked at insects and seen themselves, or the selves they would like to be. Early-modern European naturalists peered into termite mounds, anthills, and beehives and saw microcosms of well-ordered states: monarchs, soldiers, laborers. (There was no general recognition that bee “kings” were actually female “queens” until the sixteen-seventies, when a Dutch microscopist, Jan Swammerdam, pointed out that bee kings had ovaries.) In 1781, Henry Smeathman wrote a report for the Royal Society celebrating termites as “foremost on the list of the wonders of the creation” for “most closely imitating mankind in provident industry and regular government.” Termites, he wrote, surpassed “all other animals” in the “arts of building” by the same margin that “Europeans excel the least cultivated savages.”

According to Smeathman, the “perfect” alate caste “might very appositely be called the nobility or gentry, for they neither labour, or toil, or fight, being quite incapable of either,” but are instead devoted to founding new colonies. (In 1786, Smeathman published a plan for the settling of freed black slaves in a new colony, on the West African coast, where he had done his termite studies.) He viewed the laborers, meanwhile, as “voluntary subjects” who served the “happy pair” of king and queen. Just over a century later, in “Mutual Aid” (1902), the Russian thinker and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin exalted the coöperative habits of termites as a model, and a scientific basis, for Communism. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud presented the termite mound as an example of the perfect sublimation of the individual will to the demands of the group—a sublimation that, he said, would continue to elude mankind.

 

Some have seen in termites a darker vision for humanity, a warning rather than a guide. The early-twentieth-century American entomologist William Wheeler began as a believer in the political example of termites and ants, detecting in their colonies a Deweyan ethos, both communitarian and democratic. But, by the late nineteen-twenties, Wheeler had begun to worry that the social insects represented a sort of evolutionary cul-de-sac, which foretold “the eventual state of human society”: “very low intelligence combined with an intense and pugnacious solidarity of the whole.” For Wheeler, the harmony of insect society was made possible by its solution to what he called the “problem of the male.” Males, Wheeler said, are the “antisocial sex,” responsible for the “instability and mutual aggressiveness so conspicuous among the members of our own society.” Termites and ants, with their castes of sterile male workers and soldiers, had done away with the problem of the male. But humans could do so only at the cost of civilization, Wheeler warned, for “all progress . . . is initiated by a relatively small portion of the male population, whose restlessly questing intellects are really driven by the unsocial dominance impulses of their male mammalian constitution and not by any intense desire to improve society.” Among those products of male striving Wheeler counted “sciences, arts, technologies,” along with “philosophies, theologies, social utopias.” He did not appear to worry about what the termite life might mean for women, or about the possibility that the queen was not a queen at all but a slave.

 

Termites are insects of the infraorder Isoptera. They have bulbous, eyeless heads and teardrop-shaped bodies that are often translucent, exposing a swirl of guts and digesting plant matter. They are eusocial creatures—eusociality being the highest level of animal sociality recognized by sociobiologists, characterized by a division of reproductive labor between fertile and non-fertile castes, and by the collective care of the young. Until 2007, Isoptera was considered its own distinct order, and it had been classified that way for the previous hundred and seventy-five years. But phylogenetic studies confirmed that, despite appearances, termites are a kind of cockroach, and so Isoptera was reclassified under the cockroach order, Blattodea. This demotion has not helped the termite cause. Termites already suffer in the comparison with other eusocial insects: they lack the charisma of bees, with their summery associations and waggle dances, and do not receive the same recognition as ants for their work ethic and load-bearing capacities. They also have a reputation for destruction. In the United States, termites have been estimated to consume somewhere between $1.5 and $20 billion worth of property every year. At times they go straight for the cash: in 2011, termites consumed around ten million rupees’ worth of banknotes in a branch of the State Bank of India in Uttar Pradesh; two years later, termites munched part of the way through the savings of an elderly woman in Guangdong, who had wrapped four hundred thousand yuan in plastic and put it in a drawer.

The Australian Mastotermes darwiniensis, the oldest and one of the largest species of termite—most closely resembling the wood-eating cockroach from which termites are thought to have evolved—is reported to have performed legendary feats of chewing, including reducing a house to rubble while its owner was travelling for two weeks.

In fact, only twenty-eight of approximately twenty-six hundred identified species of termite are invasive pests. (If they all were, we would be in big trouble: collectively, termites outweigh humans ten to one.) What’s more, noninvasive termites are ecologically crucial, in irrigating land, protecting against drought, and enriching the soil. They may also have served as a crucial food source for our own australopithecine ancestors. And yet termites are generally unloved.

While I was reading Lisa Margonelli’s new book, “Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology,” I discovered that everyone I knew had an unsavory termite tale. A friend who lives in Los Angeles is disgusted by the piles of black beads she finds near neat holes in her hardwood floors, which I unhelpfully identified as the fecal pellets, or “frass,” of dry-wood termites. Another friend, in Berkeley, swears that she can hear termites chewing when she closes her eyes at night, despite an exterminator’s assurances that her house is not infested. As a small child in suburban New Jersey, I discovered a piece of wood in our back yard that was covered in a maze of delicate etching. I was thrilled with the beauty of it: the smooth, shallow holes and grooves had the look of secret runes—the writing, I imagined, of Druids or fairies. I took it in to my mother. She told me that this was not magic but the sign of a termite infestation, and made me throw it out.

Termites may be hard to love, but they should be easy to admire. Termite mounds are among the largest structures built by any nonhuman animal. They reach as high as thirty feet, which, proportional to the insects’ tiny size, is the equivalent of our building something twice as tall as the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. The mounds are also fantastically beautiful, Gaudíesque structures, with rippling, soaring towers, in browns and oranges and reds. The interior of a termite mound is an intricate structure of interweaving tunnels and passageways, radiating chambers, galleries, archways, and spiral staircases. To build a mound, termites move vast quantities of mud and water; in the course of a year, eleven pounds of termites can move about three hundred and sixty-four pounds of dirt (in the form of mud balls) and thirty-three hundred pounds of water (which they suck into their bodies).

The point of all this construction is not to have a place to dwell—the colony lives in a nest a metre or two below the mound—but to be able to breathe. A termite colony, which may contain a million bugs, has about the same metabolic rate as a nine-hundred-pound cow, and, like cows (and humans), termites breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. The mound acts as a lung for the colony, managing the exchange of gases, leveraging small changes in wind speed to inhale and exhale. Also like lungs, a termite mound has a role as a secondary diffusion system, which carries oxygen to and carbon dioxide away from the far reaches of the underground termite nest. The mound functions as a humidifier, too, tightly regulating moisture levels across wet and dry seasons. Some termite species partly outsource their digestion through the practice of fungiculture—the farming of a grass-eating fungus, which they store, tend, and feed in an elaborate garden maze below the mound.

Termites appear to do all this without any centralized planning: there are no architects, engineers, or blueprints. Indeed, the termite mound is not so much a building as a body, a self-regulating organic process that continuously reacts to its changing environment, building and unbuilding itself. Its complex behavior emerges, as if by magic, from its simple constituents. It is generally agreed that individual termites are not particularly intelligent, lacking memory and the ability to learn. Put a few termites into a petri dish and they wander around aimlessly; put in forty and they start stampeding around the dish’s perimeter like a herd. But put enough termites together, in the right conditions, and they will build you a cathedral.

“Underbug” is more about humans who are preoccupied with termites than about termites themselves. Specifically, Margonelli is concerned with the sort of human whose interest in termites isn’t confined to wanting to kill them. (About half the scientific papers written about termites from 2000 to 2013 involve their extermination). These entomologists, geneticists, synthetic biologists, mathematical biologists, microbial ecologists, roboticists, computer scientists, and physicists are drawn to termites for a variety of reasons, not all of which are compatible. Some of these scientists, the minority, simply appear to be seduced by termites, and want to understand how they do what they do. One such is J. Scott Turner, a physiologist who, before turning to termites, placed alligators in wind tunnels in order to understand how they regulate their body temperature. By pumping propane gas down termite mounds, he was able to show that they function as lungs, not as chimneys that allow hot air to escape, which had been the previous assumption. (Putting things into a mound and seeing what happens is a favored mode of termite experimentation; Turner and his team have also experimented with plastic beads and molten aluminum. One convenience of working with termites is that there are few regulations concerning their treatment.)

Turner is a proponent of what he calls the “extended organism” thesis. (It’s meant as a variant of, and ultimately as an alternative to, Richard Dawkins’s “extended phenotype” model.) In Turner’s view, the physical termite mound—with its mud tunnels and walls, digested wood and grass and fungus—is part of the termite, rather than part of the environment on which the termite acts. The entire mound—insects plus structure—is thus a living thing: a self-regulating physiological and cognitive system, with a sense of its own boundaries, a memory, and a kind of collective intentionality.

The extended-organism hypothesis also recalls an older idea: that the termite, bee, or ant colony is a “superorganism.” This term was coined by William Wheeler in 1911, though the idea dates back to Darwin, who saw the superorganism as a solution to the “problem” of eusociality. The problem is this: if natural selection favors those organisms which are best at reproducing, then how do castes of nonreproductive insects ever evolve? One way to address the problem is to regard the colony as a whole as the unit of selection. The sterile worker should be thought of not as an individual organism but as a “well-flavored vegetable,” in Darwin’s phrase, produced by the queen.

Today, most evolutionary theorists favor the “inclusive fitness” explanation of eusociality, a theory developed by W. D. Hamilton in the early nineteen-sixties. Hamilton showed mathematically that altruism can be a beneficial reproductive strategy for an organism, so long as the altruistic act benefits another organism to which it is sufficiently genetically similar. As a human being, the obvious way for me to reproduce my genes is to have biological children, who will inherit half of my genes. But I can also reproduce my genes by helping my sister, who shares on average half of my genetic material, nurture and protect her own children, who will share a quarter. If sacrificing my life will enable my sister to have more than twice as many children as I would have had, my sacrifice is “worth it,” from the perspective of my selfish genes. E. O. Wilson, though an early evangelist for Hamilton’s theory, has recently argued for a return to the superorganism as a solution to Darwin’s problem. In this, Wilson is very much in the minority; Richard Dawkins has called his criticisms of inclusive fitness “downright perverse.”

Most of the other scientists Margonelli follows are interested in termites as a means to human ends, and aim at simplifying their complexity to something replicable. Consider termites’ ability to convert dead plant matter into energy. They do this with the help of the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of species of microbes—bacteria and protists—that live in their guts, ninety per cent of which are found nowhere else on earth. Some of these microbes are themselves, like the termite superorganism, composite animals. The protist Trichonympha, found in some termite guts, is itself host to colonies of symbiotic bacteria. Termites and their gut microbes are thought to have coevolved between two hundred and fifty million and a hundred and fifty-five million years ago, when some cockroaches ingested wood-eating microbes, and then began sharing what entomologists politely call “woodshake”—a mixture of feces, microbes, and plant matter—among themselves, mouth to mouth, and mouth to anus.

 

This practice, known as “trophallaxis” (another of William Wheeler’s coinages), allows a communal pooling of digestive capacity, which can then be handed down from one generation to the next. (With the rise of fecal transplants to cure C. difficile infection and other gastrointestinal disorders, trophallaxis is gaining popularity among humans; the F.D.A. has, since 2013, officially classified human feces as a drug.) The Department of Energy says that the U.S. can produce 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass—from harvested trees, cornstalks, high-energy grasses, and the like—without taking anything away from regular agricultural uses. If humans can crack the code to termite digestion, the U.S. could turn the stuff into nearly a hundred billion gallons of biofuel a year—what’s sometimes called “grassoline”—and thereby reduce automobile emissions by eighty-six per cent.

“AXP ↓ 0.78, AIG ↓ 1.12, T ↓ 2.63, BAC ↓ 0.98, BA ↓ 0.08, CAT ↓ 4.37 . . .”

The search for a termite-inspired grassoline is a major goal of the emerging field of synthetic biology, in which biological systems—metabolic pathways, cells, organisms—are reëngineered to produce things humans want, including biofuels and precursors of drugs. One of the field’s leaders is Jay Keasling, who runs the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, or J.B.E.I. Keasling imagines a fully modular system of synthetic biology, with different companies producing different off-the-shelf parts—empty cell “bags,” the chromosomes with which to program them, the molecules to “boot” them up—that can readily be assembled to produce the desired chemical output. Manufacturing a termite biofuel would require identifying the genes for wood eating from the termite’s microbe colony and inserting them into a cellular bag. The first challenge is overcoming the fickleness of microbes: less than one per cent of them can be isolated and grown in a petri dish. This used to mean that it was nearly impossible to map the genomes of the termite’s wood-eating microbes. But in 2004 a team led by the Berkeley earth scientist Jill Banfield came up with “metagenomics,” a process of sequencing the genes of an entire microbial community at once. In 2007, Nature published a metagenomic analysis of gut microbes from a Costa Rican termite; puzzle-piecing together fifty-four million base pairs of DNA, researchers identified more than a thousand genes that might be for digesting wood. A termite biofuel seemed not far off.

Yet the synthetic biologists at J.B.E.I. still have not produced a grassoline that can compete with ordinary fossil fuels. (They have turned their attention to the production of other biofuels, including those in demand by the military.) Margonelli suggests two reasons for this failure. First, the termite’s gut turned out to be too complex to understand, let alone imitate. Phil Hugenholtz, one of the researchers who helped sequence the gut microbes of the Costa Rican termite, jokes that “you might as well go and hook your car to a bunch of termites.” Second, the biology itself seems to resist being reëngineered in the way that synthetic biologists would like. “What we’re doing,”

 

Héctor García Martín, a physicist who works with Keasling, says, “is taking a bug”—like E. coli—“with no interest in producing biofuels and forcing it to produce them.” García Martín goes on to cite the microbiologist Carl Woese, who observed that, unlike electrons, cells have a history—something like memories of what they have metabolized in the past. These “memories” are encoded not in the cells’ DNA but somewhere else in their chemistry, so it may be misguided to think in terms of swapping genetic programs in and out of cell “bags.” The willingness, on the part of a physicist like García Martín, to talk about the “memories” and “interests” of biological systems is surprising. But it reflects a larger shift among synthetic biologists away from a belief in the fundamentally mechanical nature of life.

In 2014, Keasling and three other prominent synthetic biologists published a paper in the journal Cell, in which they declared it an “open question . . . whether biology is genuinely modular in an engineering sense”—that is, a predictable aggregation of rudimentary components—“or whether modularity is only a human construct that helps us understand biology.” But the spectre raised by termites, microbes, and other organisms that are at once simple and devilishly complex is that the very metaphor of modularity might be misleading: that, as long as we think of living systems as machines, we are guaranteed not to understand them.

Another reason termites interest engineers is that they are a paradigm of “swarm intelligence”—highly complex behavior that emerges from the interaction of individual units in the absence of a centralized command. Each termite is presumed to be governed by a set of simple rules, which dictate particular actions—crawl, turn, dig, stack a mud ball—in response to specific triggers from the environment or from other termites. But it’s unclear precisely what mechanism produces termites’ group intelligence—which chemical or physical signals trigger which actions, and by what rules.

Since 1959, the dominant theory has been “stigmergy,” first developed by the French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé. The term comes from the Greek stigma (mark or sign) and ergon (work or action); the idea is that a trace left behind in the environment by one agent triggers further action by other agents, creating a positive-feedback loop. Stigmergy seeks to explain how extremely simple creatures, with no capacity for communication, can achieve the appearance of joint decision-making. In the case of termites (stigmergy has also been used to explain the complex emergent behavior of other simple creatures, such as multicellular bacteria) scientists speculate that the action-triggering “trace” is found in their saliva. A termite picks up a mud ball, gets some of its saliva on it, and drops it, presumably at random; other termites, triggered by the saliva scent, start stacking mud-and-saliva balls on top of the first ball, strengthening the signal; eventually, the mud balls turn into a wall or a pillar.

In the nineteen-nineties, computer scientists began programming virtual termites that built “walls” via the principles of stigmergy. These virtual termites could build two-dimensional shapes, but they could not produce anything like the complex three-dimensional architecture of real termites. And though stigmergy might explain how termites build, it does not readily explain why they so often unbuild, dismantling and modifying their work as they go. Recent studies suggest that some individual termites have a tendency to lead, while others have a tendency to follow—meaning that what gets the stigmergic process going is not a random action but something more systematic. It also appears that termites are not so much industrious drones as they are denizens of a post-capitalist Utopia: in a petri dish of twenty-five termites, only five appear to work at any one time. It seems likely that stigmergy is, at best, just one of several mechanisms that produce the complex group behavior of termites. For many researchers, identifying these mechanisms is the key to the future of robotics and A.I.: not one smart machine but a hyper-smart flock of thousands of small, cheap, dumb machines.

In 2014, an issue of Science featured, on its cover, a piece on TERMES, a termite-inspired robot created by the computer scientist Radhika Nagpal and her team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. TERMES are adorable, semicircular, tissue-box-size robots that move on four “whegs” (short for “wheel legs,” a feature inspired by a cockroach’s climbing behavior) and lift and move blocks with their clawlike heads. Each TERMES robot is programmed with an algorithm that tells it what basic action (move forward, turn, pick up block, place block) to perform next, based on the input its sensors receive about its environment. By following a sequence of a hundred or so programmed steps, each robot can construct a preordained structure: a wall, a staircase, or a four-sided building. What is more, a group of TERMES, each programmed with the same set of individual instructions, will collectively build the same structure, without any centralized command or inter-robot communication; if one robot detects another in its way, it simply pauses until it stops sensing the other robot, and then gets back to its regular programming. The robots are built on the principle of what Nagpal and her team call “extended stigmergy”: the embedding of design information in the robots’ environment, rather than in the robots. Each building block, for example, can be given a unique label, allowing the robots to use the blocks as landmarks. In some versions of the TERMES system, the robots themselves tag the blocks as they build.

When the Science piece came out, there was a brief media frenzy, with some journalists predicting that TERMES would end up colonizing Mars, and others warning of the coming robot apocalypse. Still, TERMES are limited: they can build only on a black-and-white floor, in quiet rooms, and with magnetized blocks. Indeed, these are features of extended stigmergy: TERMES rely heavily on the orderliness of their environment to be able to build. Real termites, by contrast, are masters at responding to the novel and the unpredictable. “I don’t really know how to do that,” Nagpal says. What is not clear is whether TERMES ever will be termites—whether a more sophisticated version of stigmergy will eventually allow robots to mimic their biological models, or whether stigmergy, like modularity, is a framework that can take engineers only so far.

The Wyss Institute’s most famous robot is the RoboBee, a mechanical bee, smaller than a paper clip, that can take off, fly, and land. Although research for the RoboBee was funded by the National Science Foundation, its creator, Robert Wood, has previously been funded by DARPA and the Air Force. (J. Scott Turner, of the extended-organism thesis, has also been funded by the military.) An influential paper published by the Center for a New American Security, “Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm,” cites the RoboBee as evidence of the possibility of 3-D-printed, less-than-a-dollar-apiece drones that, in vast quantities, could “flood” civilian and combat areas as “smart clouds.” As Margonelli writes, “Everything termites do, the military would like to do, too.” The military would like to have weapons that are at once tiny (like termites) and massive (like swarms)—weapons that are easy to maneuver and hard to detect, but also smart and lethal. One researcher in Nagpal’s lab tells Margonelli, “We can’t stop the technology because it might be used for bad.”

Indeed, synthetic swarm intelligence is already with us. A few years ago, the U.S. Navy began testing swarms of autonomous, self-organizing robotic speedboats. In 2012, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic called for a preëmptive, international ban on the development of fully autonomous weapons. The same year, the Department of Defense issued a directive that stopped far short of banning autonomous weapons, requiring only that a human be somehow involved whenever they are used to deliver lethal force.

Mark Hagerott, the former deputy director of the Center for Cyber Security Studies at the Naval Academy, favors stringent restrictions on the development of swarming weapons, including limits on size (no smaller than a human), fuel sources, and numbers. He worries that, with both semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons, it is increasingly difficult to identify the crucial place where finger meets trigger. This matters, Hagerott says, because this is the place where empathy is exercised, when it is exercised, during warfare.

What is less often mentioned by critics of autonomous weapons is that there is something valuable in the high casualty rate of conventional warfare. If war costs states nothing but money, what is there to hold them back? What will stop a bellicose government from pursuing its foreign projects, if there are no body bags to focus its citizens’ outrage?

The termite is no longer what it was to earlier observers: a model of what humans could be—more coöperative and harmonious, less competitive and aggressive. Instead, it has become a resource to be harnessed for the achievement of our own, already established, ends. ♦

 

This article appears in the print edition of the September 17, 2018, issue, with the headline “Busy Bodies.”
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  • Amia Srinivasan is a contributing editor of the London Review of Books and an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford. Her book of essays will be published next year.

Longing for a kinder, compassionate, more humane and freer Malaysia.


September 7, 2018

Tough Love: Longing for a kinder, compassionate, more humane and freer Malaysia.

by Zainah Anwar

http://www.thestar.com.my

THIS time last year, I wrote about my longing for a better Malaysia, and how my utter belief that this was possible would always triumph over my many moments of despair. There was just too much good in this country for us to ever give up hope.

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And this year, as we celebrate our 61st year of Merdeka, I am simply thrilled. Thrilled that what most people thought was impossible, became possible. Malaysia bucked the global trend and voted into power a reformist government, throwing out a kleptocratic government and a ruling party that had held uninterrupted power since independence in 1957.

The election of a reform-minded government that believes in an inclusive Malaysia and eschews the use of race and religion for political gain does not of course mean we are home free. It is important that we who voted for change remain vigilant that the Pakatan Harapan government delivers on its promises of transformation. And to do this transparently and in consultation with stakeholders.

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Malaysia’s autocrat turned reformer: at 93 can he deliver?

Politicians and voters now realise the power of the ballot box. It cannot be business as usual, replacing one set of economic and political elites with another set whose priorities will be to divide the spoils of victory.

As we welcome the first Merdeka and Malaysia Day under this new Malaysia, I have many wishes for the kind of country I want to live in.

First, I wish to see our ministers summon the political will and courage, and build their knowledge and strategies on how to deliver their reform agenda. And not least, how to stand their ground and defend what is just and what is right, in the face of opposition. We in civil society are tired of seeing too many ministers over the decades retreating in the face of criticism from ideologues, instead of defending a principled position.

Many NGOs, activists, academics, professionals who have long been working on issues such as human rights, women’s rights, education reform, poverty eradication, and economic justice, stand ready to support this government with the kinds of data, analysis, policy instruments, arguments and strategies needed to deliver on the reform agenda and build public support for this urgent necessity for change.

We want to see this government succeed in making this country a just home for all. We pray this government does not squander that goodwill.

Second, I wish to live in a kinder, compassionate, more humane Malaysia. It pains me to see the frenzy of hate, attacks, violence, demonisation of the LGBTIQ community in the country. Why this obsession with another citizen’s sexual orientation and gender identity? The debate is not about same-sex marriage or even about the halal or haram of their sexuality. It is about the right of LGBTIQ people to freedom of movement, their right to work, to health and to live a life free from violence. Why should that be contentious? They are citizens of this country and entitled to the same fundamental rights that other citizens enjoy.

It is obvious that the issue has been whipped up as a political tactic to generate hate and fear, spearheaded by those opposed to the reform agenda of the new government. So they stir up controversies in order to rebuild lost ground. And politicians fearful of losing popular support cave in, so quickly, so easily, so thoughtlessly.

How could a small, oppressed, and discriminated community who actually live in fear on a daily basis, and who long to live in peace and dignity ever pose a threat to Malaysian society? How could an all-knowing compassionate God ever condone cruelty against his own creations just because they are different? So let’s be confident in our faith and believe that if God really wanted all of us to be the same, he would have done so.

Third, I wish to see an end to corruption that has been long fuelled by the intricate web of business and politics in this country. Professor Terrence Gomez’s just released research findings on Government in Business reveal a mind-boggling labyrinth of thousands of GLCs at federal and state levels, most of them unlisted and thus, unscrutinised. There are of course GLCs that are professionally run. But many also serve as tools of patronage and as vehicles to provide politicians with monthly directors’ fees to support their political ambition – at best.

At worst, official investigations and media revelations of outright corruption, criminal breach of trust, and asset stripping display a spectacle of unbelievable greed and betrayal of trust.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed himself has called such GLCs “monsters” that have deviated from their original noble intention of helping the poor.

The Head of the Council of Eminent Persons, Tun Daim Zainuddin, has promised that this time the government wants to get it right in delivering its bumiputra empowerment policy.

We all wait with bated breath, for this country cannot endure, economically, politically and socially, yet more decades of affirmative action on the basis of race rather than need, and all the consequent distortions and abuses that had benefited the economic and political elites.

Fourth, I wish to live in a country where the political leaders and the citizens embrace our diversity as a source of strength, and not a threat. And to walk the talk. It is imperative that the new government sets the tone that it will not tolerate further manufacturing of a siege and crisis mentality among the Malays and supremacist speeches in the name of race and religion to incite hatred and fear of “others”.

This country was on the verge of implosion, and it was the wisdom of the rakyat that saved us, when with courage we voted into power a reformist party.

I was in Bangkok last week to give a talk on identity politics in South-East Asia together with speakers from Indonesia and Myanmar. They were depressed about the political developments in their countries, and my optimism on Malaysia was tempered by the reality that they too had earlier voted in reformist leaders who have now succumbed to the politics of race and religion in order to remain in power.

But I would like to believe that Malaysia is different as we have strong antecedent resources that will put us in good stead in moving forward on a reform agenda. Most importantly is the entrenched belief that this country cannot survive nor prosper without the three major races accepting each other and learning to give and take in sharing equitably the wealth of the nation. It can never be a winner take all game in Malaysia.

Second, we have a significant minority population. This means there is a limit to how far the majority group can use race and religion to serve the interest of the ruling elite, before paying a high political cost for its relentless transgressions, or complicity in its inaction and silence.

Third, while things are far from perfect, our long record of economic growth, poverty reduction, and strong state apparatus put us in good stead that a more open and robust democracy will not be destabilising, and can lead to a more inclusive Malaysia.

Moreover, a large educated Malaysian middle-class and a strong business community eschew any hint of violence or chaos or extremism, and there is a growing critical mass of voters, not least from among the young, who expect their freedoms and rights to be upheld.

And more than anything, the rakyat feel very precious about what we have achieved. As much as we are willing to give Pakatan Harapan the support it needs and the time, too, to deliver on its reform agenda, we have learnt from the mistakes made in the past. We are no longer willing to acquiesce in silence in the wrongdoings and abuses in powerful places, in return for stability and prosperity.

This is the new Malaysia where it will be tough love for all.

ISTAC and The Closing of the Malay Mind (?)


September 6, 2018

ISTAC and The Closing of the Malay Mind (?)

 

Dr. Maszlee Malik was appointed Minister of Education to enhance Pakatan Harapan’s Malay-Islamic credentials

COMMENT | Any specialist on think tanks will tell you that 80 percent of the think tanks in the world were formed right after 1950. This was a period marked by the ascendance of the Cold War.

When Cold War ended in 1989, think tanks remained. Some tried to reinvent themselves by holding marquee events like the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

In Japan, the Nikkei Asia Review does not have a think tank but is nevertheless made more pronounced by the annual Nikkei Asia Conference which Dr Mahathir Mohamad never seems to miss.

In China, the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan Island was formed with the goal to supplant and replace WEF while the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore seeks to gather all the defence ministers in one spot over a period of three days or less.

At last week’s Bumiputera Empowerment Congress, which in 1962 and 1965 spawned the creation of MARA and Bank Bumiputera (now absorb by CIMB Bank Group), there were a series of resolutions that read like a laundry list of motherhood statements.

This is usually the first sign that things are about to fail. When driven to the extreme, where ideas are sparse, just pull any proverbial rabbits out of the hats.

Among others, it affirmed the centrality of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) as the prime vehicle to transmit the right values to help Malays and bumiputeras become competitive again.

Yet, ISTAC has had a checkered history. When it was first created in 1987, its location was just a stone’s throw away from the old International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) campus in Petaling Jaya.

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Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (pic above) was the leading founder of Istac.  His goal was to revive the salience of the philosophy of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Anyone who failed to abide by this dictate was not considered his ‘murid’ (student).

Subsequently, it was moved to its own campus in Damansara Heights, adorned with its own Spanish Muslim or Andalusian motifs to give it a sense of crowning intellectual glory.

Before ISTAC could establish itself as a world-class institution, the politics of 1998 had thrown a curve ball at it.

ISTAC found itself embedded into IIUM’s new Gombak campus once more, and towards the end of the tenure of Najib Razak tenure as prime minister, most of the professors in Istac were either retired, or impelled to leave; some sadly were teaching three credit hours a year.

So much for respecting the intellectual authority and pre-eminence of the academics. It was Rais Yatim, as the IIUM President, who tried to add a dash of relevance by connecting ISTAC to the Malay world.

After all, rather than a singular focus on Imam al-Ghazali, the same intensity can be zeroed in on Hamzah Fansuri, a top spiritual thinker in Aceh, Indonesia, in the 16th century.

Malay, Islam, or both?

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When the authorities resort to moving the goalpost once too often, what is originally a sound academic institution would be enveloped by a foreboding atmosphere of fear and intellectual intimidation. Should we focus on Islam or the Malay world or both? In other words, academics who signed on to teach in ISTAC would be immediately aware of its sketchy history.

Instead of challenging the students to think in a critical and creative manner, the academics themselves would be looking over their shoulder if any authorities are watching over them when they teach subjects that are seemingly politically or ethnographically incorrect.

Must they teach Islam alongside with Malay history when the two can be separate disciplines?

The sciences of Quran and Hadith, for example, have their strong and long pedigree. But so does Sufism of various strands. Would a scholar be punished for teaching Ibn Arabi, instead of Ibn Farabi? No one knows. Precisely because the prior failed experimentation with creative Islamic thought had sent Muslim thinkers careening into various directions.

Do they just stick to their jobs and teach run-of-the-mill courses dictated by the authorities above or do they take the risk of teaching thoughtful and challenging subjects?

When scholars themselves are enveloped in an atmosphere of uncertainties, the process of transmitting the right values to the students are usually facile, fake, and artificial.

Not surprisingly, IIUM produced two groups of students in the last 20 years. Some were committed to reforming Malaysia, others who worked alongside Najib, saw no wrong in the kleptocratic excesses of the regime.

How can IIUM students fail on such a simple moral issue? Stealing was wrong yet many went with it at the Prime Minister’s Office. When scholars cannot predict their own fate, how can they help students grapple with their own?

Way to move forward

Indeed, Neil Postman, a top critic and educator, affirmed that the classroom is a seat of “negotiation”. When students and staffs are trapped in the same classroom, they have to challenge and confront one another’s ideas, albeit differently.

What emerges from the austere setting of the classrooms are not just information and knowledge per se, but the appetite to ask even more questions in the following days or weeks.

Paul Freire, a Brazilian thinker, argued in ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ that if students and staff members do not resort to outright argument and counter-argument, they would be importing all the logic of domination – and hegemony – that are all too apparent out there into their own mental conditioning.

If Malays are deemed as an “uncompetitive race” and this notion is left unchallenged in the future classes of ISTAC, then the students and staff members would not be able to break the chain of such mind-numbing stereotypes that are transported into the academic setting.

Students and faculty members would be attempting a safe and septic way to put their views across, which for the lack of better word, is what the late Professor Allan Bloom pointed out in the American campuses at the start of his ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ – no one wants to ask hard questions.

Indeed, the Bumiputera Empowerment Congress can lead to the Closing of the “Malay mind” too.

At the one-day conference, where the leaders talk down to the audience, where the latter in turn pretends to listen out of the polite fiction to portray their sheer compliance to the new government of Pakatan Harapan, there is no “breakthrough” at all.

Indeed, even if Education Minister Maszlee Malik as the IIUM president wants to focus on transforming Istac, the latter is an institution that is distinguished by two mediums of instructions – Arabic and English.

Malays were at their phenomenal best in MARA, subsequently, Bank Rakyat and Bank Negara, when they could excel in Malay and English, only then Arabic. If it is the latter, a third language, one would have to spend a considerable time memorising the grammar, syntax and rich vocabularies.

While learning a third language is good, the issue at play is economic competitiveness of the bumiputeras and Malays now, which means they have to make their proficiency in Malay and English work first, only then a mastery of Arabic. Either way, they must compete in an Anglo-Saxon world.

Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim are not masters of Arabic. Neither is Daim Zainuddin. In fact, none of our previous prime ministers or education ministers has had any command of the Arabic language, except perhaps Maszlee who did a language stint in Jordan. But one cannot expect a first-term minister to lionise the whole country at the first instance. He can’t. The struggle over black shoes versus white shoes was enough to reflect the difficulties that he may have found himself dragged into.

To be sure, the idea of using ISTAC to transfuse the right values into the bumiputeras is a lovely premise. But a wrong one.

Anyone who has been associated with ISTAC in any way and form will also know that the institution does not normally cater to large segment of students. They offer advanced graduate classes at Masters and PhD levels. How can bumiputeras and Malay graduates be transformed only at the top, when those howling for help and jobs are those at the heap of the bottom?

Somehow the proposition on Istac as the locomotive of ‘revolusi mental’, or mental revolution, seems like a return to the 1990s when the Malaysian and global economy both moved so far along to produce platform, honeycomb, sharing, and gig economy – all of which are driven by artificial intelligence, algorithm, big data analytics and automation.

How can ISTAC transform Malays and bumputeras to adopt Industrial Revolution 4.0 when the focus on ISTAC itself, both institutionally and otherwise, remain unclear?

The success of MARAa has proven that Malays are quite adept at learning the best technologies, sciences and communication media; without which Malaysia would not have produced a capable group of officers and captains of industries.

But ISTAC has to either be merged with MARA, or converted into an entity that can cater to the bumiputera and Malay masses.

When it does, ISTAC has to then cultivate an ethic to learn, unlearn, and relearn, without fail, as futuristic Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler warned. Without such a curiosity, it will be another project that is high on rhetoric and low on delivery.


PHAR KIM BENG was a multiple award-winning Head Teaching Fellow on China and Cultural Revolution in Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

No to Academic Normalization of Trump


August 6, 2018

No to Academic Normalization of Trump

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Those who have served the current US president are necessarily tainted by the experience. While they should not be barred from speaking at universities, they should be accorded none of the trappings of institutional esteem such as fellowships, named lectures, and keynote speeches.

 

CAMBRIDGE – The University of Virginia recently faced a storm of protest after its Miller Center of Public Affairs appointed President Donald Trump’s former Director of Legislative Affairs, Marc Short, to a one-year position as Senior Fellow. Two faculty members severed ties with the center, and a petition to reverse the decision has gathered nearly 4,000 signatures. A similar protest erupted at my home institution last year, when Corey Lewandowski, a one-time campaign manager for Trump, was appointed a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

“Universities should uphold both free inquiry and the values of liberal democracy. The first calls for unhindered exchange and interaction with Trumpist views. The second requires that the engagement be carefully calibrated, with not even a semblance of honor or recognition bestowed on those serving an administration that so grossly violates liberal democratic norms.”–Dani Rodrik

The Trump administration confronts universities with a serious dilemma. On one hand, universities must be open to diverse viewpoints, including those that conflict with mainstream opinion or may seem threatening to specific groups. Students and faculty who share Trump’s viewpoint should be free to speak without censorship. Universities must remain fora for free inquiry and debate. Moreover, schools and institutes of public affairs must offer student and faculty opportunities to engage with the policymakers of the day.

On the other hand, there is the danger of normalizing and legitimizing what can only be described as an odious presidency. Trump violates on a daily basis the norms on which liberal democracy rests. He undermines freedom of the media and independence of the judiciary, upholds racism and sectarianism, and promotes prejudice. He blithely utters one falsehood after another.

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Those who serve with him are necessarily tainted by the experience. Trump’s close associates and political appointees are his enablers – regardless of their personal merits and how much they try to disassociate themselves from Trump’s utterances. Qualities like “intelligence,” “effectiveness,” “integrity,” and “collegiality” – words used by Miller Center Director William J. Antholis to justify Short’s appointment – have little to commend them when they are deployed to advance an illiberal political agenda.

The stain extends beyond political operatives and covers economic policymakers as well. Trump’s cabinet members and high-level appointees share collective responsibility for propping up a shameful presidency. They deserve opprobrium not merely because they hold cranky views on, say, the trade deficit or economic relations with China, but also, and more importantly, because their continued service makes them fully complicit in Trump’s behavior.

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Academic institutions must therefore tread a narrow path. They cannot turn their backs on Trump and his entourage, nor ignore their views. Otherwise, they would be stifling debate. This would run counter to what universities stand for. As a pragmatic matter, it would also backfire, by giving the Trump camp another opportunity to demonize the “liberal elite.”

But clear rules of engagement are necessary. The most important principle to uphold is the distinction between hearing someone and honoring someone. Trump’s immediate circle and senior appointees should be welcome for discussion and debate. They should be treated in a civil manner when they show up. But they should not be accorded the degree of respect or deference that their seniority and government positions would normally merit. We do not, after all, have a normal administration that can be served honorably.

This means no honorific titles (fellow, senior fellow), no named lectures, no keynote speeches headlining conferences or events. While individual faculty members and student groups should be free to invite Trump appointees to speak on campus, as a rule such invitations should not be issued by senior university officers. And lectures and presentations should always provide an opportunity for vigorous questioning and debate.

Without two-way interaction, there is no learning or understanding; there is only preaching. Administration officials who simply want to make a statement and escape searching interrogation should not be welcome.

Students and faculty who sympathize with Trump may perceive such practices as discriminatory. But there is no conflict between encouraging free speech and exchange of views, which these rules are meant to support, and the university making its own values clear.

Like other organizations, universities have the right to determine their practices in accordance with their values. These practices may diverge from what specific subgroups within them would like to see, either because there are contending values or because there are differences on the practicalities of how to realize them.

For example, some students may believe that requirements for a certain course of study are too stringent or that examinations are a waste of time. Universities allow free debate about such matters. But they reserve the right to set the rules on concentration requirements and exams. In doing so, they send an important signal to the rest of society about their teaching philosophy and pedagogical values. Allowing full debate of Trumpism while refusing to honor it would be no different.

Universities should uphold both free inquiry and the values of liberal democracy. The first calls for unhindered exchange and interaction with Trumpist views. The second requires that the engagement be carefully calibrated, with not even a semblance of honor or recognition bestowed on those serving an administration that so grossly violates liberal democratic norms.

Dani Rodrik is Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy, Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, and, most recently, Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.

Dr.Bakri Musa’s Advice to Education Minister Maszlee


August 7, 2018

Dr.Bakri Musa’s Advice to Education Minister Maszlee Malik : Be More An Executive, Less A Professor

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa, Morgan Hill, California

Image result for Bakri Musa on Malaysian education

New Education Minister Maszlee Malik should be more an executive and less a professor. He leads an organization with a budget in excess of RM280B and a staff of over half a million to lead. That ministry, like all others, is not known for its crispness.

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Forget about grand plans and overarching policies. All would be for naught if your staff and organization cannot execute them, or if they are consumed with such trivia as campus newspaper subscriptions and pupils’ shoe color. If Maszlee is still obsessed with policies, delegate a committee to work on them.

Maszlee should first focus on shaping up that flabby organization. Enlist someone with a solid MBA or credible business experience to help him be an effective and efficient executive. There is a universe of difference in being a professor and an executive. Likewise, business meetings are unlike academic seminars. You want results and decisions, not endless intellectual musings and more research.

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Dr. Maszlee Malik–Malaysia’s New Education Minister

Maszlee should assess the capabilities and weaknesses of his staff . Forget about wacanas, town hall meetings, or press conferences. To his credit, he has already made many personal visits for first-hand assessments.

The challenges facing Malaysian education are as overwhelming as they are obvious, the consequence of long neglect, incompetent leadership, and political meddling. The difficulty is not in identifying them but to pick three or four of the more pressing ones and tackle those.

Maszlee has articulated some of those–greater university autonomy, making our students at least bilingual, enhancing English and STEM, as well as fixing our dilapidated schools. Those four would occupy and challenge him for some time. There is little need and would serve little purpose to go beyond as with recognizing UEC, sending a team to Finland, or issuing edicts on students’ shoe color.

Maszlee’s first and continuing public task, as with all the other ministers, is to “walk the talk.” He cannot profess to champion university autonomy and then order the dismantling of campus gates and make the campuses have speakers’ corners! The universities should do those things on their own initiative. By issuing that directive Maszlee missed out on a splendid opportunity to assess his Vice-Chancellors’ (VCs) responsiveness to the rising expectation for greater openness.

Maszlee should elicit from them their three or four most immediate challenges and ask how he as minister could help. They, not him, know best (or should) as they are closest to the problems. If they cannot articulate them or are more concerned with a welcoming ceremony for him, fire them.

Firing university leaders should be done only if they are found wanting or fail to gain the confidence of the greater campus community, and not because they were appointed by the previous administration. Doing so would only perpetuate the blight of political interference that is the bane of local institutions.

Likewise with stressing the importance of English. Maszlee would best demonstrate that not through endless speeches but with an executive decision to make MUET mandatory for universities and teachers’ colleges. Likewise if he were to give extra allowances and preferential choice for quarters to teachers of English (as well as STEM). He could also direct schools to increase their hours of instruction in English and have another subject be taught in that language.

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Former MITI Minister Rafidah Aziz–An Excellent Dare to Do  and dynamic executive

 

Another would be to have his staff communicate in English and make its proficiency a requirement for promotions and entry into the permanent establishment. Emulate what Rafidah Aziz did at MITI. She was an “excellent dare to do” dynamic executive.

Make 12 years of schooling the norm. Bring back Form VI and reduce it to one year and start it in January together with the rest of the school. Make the transition from Form V to VI as seamless as going from Form IV to V. That would bring order to the current chaos for school-leavers.

For those academically inclined, the current seven-month hiatus following Form V is a colossal waste of time and precious loss of learning opportunity. The rich enroll their children in private colleges. Most Malays idle their time away. Much attrition of good study habits occurs. Beyond that, idle time is the devil’s workshop.

Get rid of matrikulasi and universities’ foundation courses. Both are a waste of scarce and expensive resources. Universities should focus on undergraduate, graduate, and professional education, not high school work.

As for fixing schools, Maszlee has demonstrated the dire need for that by his many photo-ops showing him sitting at pupils’ broken desks. At the macro level the best solution would be to prevail upon Treasury to have MOE’s tenders be open to competitive bidding. That would achieve more with less.

At the micro level, the Minister would achieve even more and much faster while at the same time streamline the process if he were to give the money directly to the headmasters. Let them prioritize the repairs and choose the local contractors. If you entrust them with the nation’s most precious assets–the brains of our young–then you could also trust them with a few million ringgit.

Back to the teachers, Maszlee should not get bogged down with administrative trivia as with requests for their transfers and maternity leave. Let your human resources people deal with those. Stay out of it by letting the teachers deal with the schools directly.

Execute these well and Maszlee would earn the heartfelt gratitude of millions of Malaysians, quite apart from making a significant contribution to the betterment of the nation. Get off the public lectern and buckle down at your desk.

Image result for Bakri Musa on Malaysian education

 

Note: I have explored these and other ideas in greater depth in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia (2003,  ISBN 983 2535 06-9 (Malaysian edition), 0-595-26590-1 (US Edition).