Friday, March 29, 2013

Opinions, bias and independent thinking

This is a post I wrote last year but had not published.

I must confess that I have gotten into a habit online over the last several years, one that has both benefited and harmed me.
I have been a news junkie, an imdb junkie, a Wikipedia junkie of people and, well, a person obsessed with lots of stuff periodically. Therefore, I silently prowl Yahoo, MSN and many other websites. These days, I only do it occasionally to keep things under control.
I can't resist reading the comments either. Yahoo and some other websites have comments that fall in the range of thousands.

Do you have time to kill that you can't seem to know what to do with?
All you have to read is a couple or more articles and before long, your entire afternoon of 3-4 hours is completely wasted on reading hundreds of comments which are mostly different versions of the same recipe of soup.

Why am I so attracted to op-eds and commentary? Maybe it is the avid student speaker/debater in me. Maybe it is because I have had family members in the legal profession or who are intelligent and opinionated with concern for social and political issues. Anyway, this tendency is a double-edged sword.

If you are trying to improve your reading speed or comprehension abilities, this is an excellent choice of activity.

The most fun are those comments that are replies and counter replies. Some are downright rude, some are clever retorts and some are, well, deleted or hidden due to their poor quality or extremely profane language. Sometimes, these hidden comments may have a valid point.

These days, you can give a thumbs up or down on someone else's opinion, just the way you like something on Facebook. I often wonder why some perfectly good replies get thumbs downs. Say, there is an article about religion. You post something to the effect that you don't believe in God and don't get why people believe in some of the irrational ideas that some religious book tells you to. I can bet on this - you will most certainly get a few thumbs downs. Depending on which country the site hails from and the political/religious bent of the majority of its readers, you can get more thumbs ups or thumbs downs.
The same goes if you post something to the effect that God controls everything and that the Bible/Koran/Gita/x-religious-book is the absolute and unquestionable word of God.

If you want to develop a thick skin and a spine, a.k.a. the courage of your convictions, try posting something that you truly believe in that is not exactly mainstream thought yet and get ready for the thumbs downs and worse.

All said and done, the quality of a website's comments does reflect on it. Personally, I have seen some blogs and websites such as MSN Slate where the comments are very articulate and intelligent. One can actually learn something from reading other people's opinions or about their experiences.

Participating in an online discussion is also good practice for developing your debating and overall communication skills, abilities that could come in very handy if you are in any position that requires verbal negotiation.
I remember going in for interviews when I was straight out of college. I have also heard this from my friends who attempted to get into MBA programs. There is a round called Group Discussion or GD for short, after the initial written screening in which you have proved your analytical abilities to the point where you can be considered competent enough to code or understand spreadsheets or pie charts or whatever else your job is all about.
In this round, one has to be able to discuss a topic with people without shouting out the competition or antagonizing them to the point where they corner you later in a dark alley:). Being a timid mouse won't do either. One has to be able to get one's point across eloquently to the rest of the group while weighing the pros and cons of other people's opinions.
Online discussions are good preparation for developing such discussion and negotiating skills.

For me, online forums are a way of sampling the society that I live in. People tend to be more politically incorrect and brash online, maybe because of the anonymity that the Internet offers. When I came to the United States, it was a great way to check out people's opinions on everything ranging from politics and religion to their personal relationships. I also got to know Indians better that way:).
Do you want to get a feel for people in a certain region of the world? Check out their major news outlets and the comments section. Of course, the readers of any publication only represent a small minority in that country so one has to be careful not to generalize.
To be better informed, check out both the conservative and the liberal ones ( know, I have too much time on my hands).

After the Colorado gun shooting incident, I checked out news sites in the US and the Guardian from UK. It is enlightening to see how vastly gun control ideas differ on both sides of the Atlantic.


Now, for the downside. How many of you watch a movie or read a book without checking out the reviews first? Well, most of us do because we simply do not have the time or energy to plod through an inane movie or lackluster book even if it were given to us for free.
However, we might entirely dismiss a work of art purely because it did not rank high enough on the critics/popular opinion scale. Ditto for restaurants.

Guess what, many artists who are today's legends were yesterday's great-but-not-the-greatest. For something to become a classic, it has to be tested by time. I was reading about William Shakespeare on Wikipedia the other day and learnt that he became even more famous well after his death. This does not mean that he was considered substandard in his times, he had certainly made a name for himself.
The spread of the English language around the world and the popularity of his plays on the stage led to further acclaim over the ages.

Another case in point - the tragic romantic Indian novel, "Devdas" by the famous Bengali author, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, that has been adapted into movies more than once, one of the most famous recent adaptations being the one that had Bollywood stars Shahrukh KhanAishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit in it.
"Devdas" was published many years after it was written and has achieved an astounding level of popularity in posterity. To its credit, the author did live to see its success with film adaptations even during his lifetime.

A few years ago, I was reading the preface to Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights". It is amusing to read contemporary critiques of her work. Many thought that the novel transgressed accepted social standards of morality and propriety. After so many years, we know that it stands in a league of its own.

I wonder though how many more legendary playwrights/authors existed whose work we do not read much these days? If you consider all the languages of the world, there must be a staggering amount of literature that falls under the category of 'timeless classic'. Yet, we may know nothing about it.

It is easy to get biased and praise a work just because it is a classic while overlooking its flaws. As an exercise, take any great classic author or artist and objectively look at their work. What did you feel was lacking as compared to say the work of a lesser known artist that you admire?

This tendency to be part of the crowd is precisely what Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about in his thought-provoking and ground-breaking book, "The Black Swan". He also warns us of "silent evidence", the great people or works that never made it to the podium of public acknowledgement but are nevertheless priceless in their own right.

This bias extends to virtually any sphere of life. Thanks to the "Please gimme a  break" cynics on the Internet comment boards, the media cannot get away that easily with "Sexiest Man in the World", "Most Beautiful Woman in the World", "Greatest Movie of All Times" and other superlative lists.

They say that a lie when told repeatedly, starts to sound like the truth. If we are not aware, we could be easily swayed by the images and words that we are constantly bombarded with.


Once, I picked up a novel without reading a preface or looking it up online. That was "The Citadel" by A. J. Cronin. It tells the story of an idealistic young English doctor who starts his practice in impoverished villages in Wales, his marriage and the slow corruption of his ideals with the passage of time. When I borrowed this book from my former local library, it was a plain hardcover edition with no pictures or jacket with a synopsis. I decided to read it with an open mind.
Although I must admit I skimmed through some portions or even entirely skipped them, I still enjoyed it. It is a story that is very relevant to every day and age and every society in the world.
The loss of our ideals and the compromises that we make at every stage in our life is a universal human experience.

Summing up, do try to watch a movie or read a book if you like the synopsis of the story. Watch a lesser known play. Go hear a local band play in your bar. See an art exhibition even if you know little about the artist. If you have some free time and if it doesn't cost much money, it is always worthwhile to expand one's horizons and develop critical thinking of one's own, not moulded by the opinions of others.
Admire the natural beauty of your friends and family, even though none of them may ever make it to any popular list. Take pleasure in and compliment them on their talents and accomplishments, be it a painting they made for you, a poem they wrote or a melody that they played proficiently.

While you are at all this, have fun!


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