Of IT and Pascal’s Wager

Technological Idiocy

Technological hubris is sometimes the result of infantile solipsism commonly encountered among those who are – paradoxically – at the two opposite ends of a spectrum of technical competence: those who are understand technology very intimately and those who have a very feeble grasp of what technology is. The former see the world and its concerns as merely a collection of technical problems just waiting to be solved by the available large collection of expensive technical wizardry; the latter are ignorant of technology but have a magical belief in the awe inspiring power of technology to solve all problems, technological or not.

The two groups sometimes come together and enter an unholy alliance to steer public policy with devastating impact on the wellbeing of the rest of the world. The alliance of political parties (the collection of technological ignoramuses) and some IT industry insiders (the collection with hammers who cannot imagine that every problem is not a nail) is a case in point.

Got a terrible educational system? Well, what we need is a laptop for every child. Lousy, apathetic governance? Give a smart card for every citizen. Distressing social problems due to extreme poverty? What we need is 2 mbps broadband connectivity for every household, however remote and inaccessible. Lack of clean drinking water, primary health care, malnutrition? A smart phone for every poverty stricken household is the answer.

That sort of policy is the unpalatable result of a combination of old-fashioned greed and blinkered pig ignorance. Public policy choice – especially in a democratic setup (however cargo-cultish {May 2004}) – requires public support. That is available by the truckloads, unfortunately.

Silly Public Policies

Harebrained schemes hit the headlines with tiresome regularity. Occasionally, out of sheer frustration at the mindlessness of the proposal, one is moved to throw caution out the window and express one’s distress. “Listen,” one says, “don’t you see that this idea is really a crock of bovine excrement? Not only is this a bad idea, it is going to cost an arm and a leg. Problem is that we are quadriplegics here and the last thing we can afford is an arm and a leg.”

And the public responds with, “No, that is a brilliant scheme. It will benefit the poor. You are a heartless free-market capitalist selfish rich ivory-tower intellectual bean counter who is not interested in the welfare of the country. You will never understand that this scheme will lead to benefits. So why the hell are you against this scheme, which even if it fails to achieve 99% of the goals, will at least have 1% benefit? Are you so bloody selfish that you will deny the poor the 1% benefit? Are you saying that zero benefit (if this scheme is not implemented) is better than whatever little benefits that will surely arise if the scheme is undertaken?”

There is a sufficiently large constituency of people who will actually advance that argument. I am not making this up. Read the popular press, and even blogs and mailing lists, and see what I mean. Read and then weep.

You should weep because this is the group that, although apparently literate and numerate, never got educated, despite all the massive spending in education. You have heard this before from me: dig deep enough into what are the ultimate causes for poverty in the modern world, one cause you will zero in on is a dysfunctional education system. The failure of the education system produces – among other ills – a large number of people incapable of basic logic. Most sadly, this group votes and thus influences policy – policies that sufficiently frequently adopted over an extended period guarantee poverty.

Pascal’s Wager

Whenever I hear the argument that a particular policy (despite its obvious faults and questionable merits) should be tried since there will be some (however negligibly small) benefits, I am reminded of Pascal’s wager and how people too stupid to handle basic logic fall for it.

Briefly, Pascal argued that believing in God is reasonable since even in the absence of any proof for the existence of God, it makes sense to believe than not to believe. If God does not exist, then you have lost nothing by your mistaken belief. However, if God does exist, disbelief could cost you infinitely (you would be tormented in hell for eternity), and belief would guarantee you infinite happiness (you would spend eternity in heaven. Even a very small probability of God’s existence, multiplied by the infinite potential gain or loss yields a non-zero result.

The trouble with that argument is easy to see. The argument is approximately true only if there was one true God. What if you end up believing in the wrong god? The Christian god would punish you with hell if you end up believing in the Islamic god, and vice versa.

The general principle is that by doing A, you end up foregoing the benefits of doing B, one of many choices which are excluded by A. If all you could ever do is A or nothing, then clearly the benefits of doing A is all that matters. But in a world where there are choices one can make, merely focusing on the expected benefits of A is misguided and cannot be evaluated without reference to the expected benefits of the other choices which A precludes.

Belief in monotheism rests on a large collection of logical fallacies (and other assorted stupidities humans are prone to) such as Pascal’s wager. But as a system that misapprehends reality through cognitive failures, monotheism has hardly cornered the market. Communism and socialism draw their life-fluids from the same poisoned well of illogic and ignorance.

The fact that spending $2 billion on laptops for 10 million students will yield some benefits is not in doubt. The question is how do those benefits stack up against the benefits of, say, spending the same amount on making 100 million literate and numerate using some other technology.

Here ends this rant. What I rant about is that too often too many are content with partial analysis when what is required is a general (or full) analysis. Don’t just palpate the animal and say that it is like a snake; continue to walk around it and then tell me if that is an elephant or not. What our education system has to do is to teach the kids that you have to think critically, and question assumptions and motives. The system produces too many gullible people who are dazzled by lofty speeches and shiny gadgets.

Previously in this series on a rational IT policy (provoked by the BJP’s “IT for All” policy announcement), I had written the preamble. This is the foreword to the upcoming IT policy. When, you may ask, is the IT policy going to be introduced. Patience, my dear gentle readers. By the time I am done with the laying out the foundations of a good IT policy, I think the policy will write itself.

4 thoughts on “Of IT and Pascal’s Wager

  1. vishu Wednesday March 18, 2009 / 6:46 pm

    The critical thinking void is created because of lack of understanding of economics. What is required to educate people is that

    1.One needs to priortize problems and work on solutions which give the maximum return on money.

    2.Money cannot be created by Government. Taxes which Government collects from one section of people will be used for many of these public policy implementation.

    3. The best way to think is will people want their money to be used the way the Government does.If people agree to part with 30% of their money will they want it be used the way Government does.
    If one has to educate a poor kid using our own money will we buy him laptop, mobile, broadband or we will give him a slate or book.



  2. Srini Thursday March 19, 2009 / 12:51 am


    The way you presented the options in Pascal’s wager, it still looks like the best thing is to believe in God:
    if the cost of not believing in God is infinite, and the cost of believing in God is nothing (according to your wager, you don’t lose anything if God doesn’t exist, by inference it hasn’t cost you anything to believe), it’s probably better to believe in some God even at the risk of believing in the wrong God, as long as there are only a finite number of Gods. Since the cost of believing in the wrong God, and the cost of not believing in the God are both same (capped at infinity), if you believe in some God, you escape hell with certain probability if God exists, where as you go to hell certainly if you don’t believe at all.
    I think your multiple Gods hypothesis just reduces to a Single God Pascal’s wager with the probability of God’s existence adjusted appropriately;
    You probably need to tweak the costs such that cost of believing in the wrong God is much higher than the cost of not believing in God at all.


  3. anuragdeepak Thursday March 19, 2009 / 1:16 am

    Atanu, you are highlighting a problem of investment governance. How does one manage the limited resources and put them to prioritzed use? The reasons investment governance becomes difficult, when one talks about social benefits, are:
    1. You do not have a simplified logical criteria to assess various options.
    2. The decision-makers who would rank the options on various criteria are not rational (they are merely literate and not educated).

    Both these reasons stem from the fact that “We are governed by democracy and not meritocracy”. One would hope that the two go hand-in-hand but alas that hasn’t happened in free India.

    I hope that we as a collective of logical, rational and educated citizens can come up with a structured decision-making mechanism to do this. Count me in if you are interested in such a research/discussion.


  4. soumen.chakrabarti Friday March 20, 2009 / 3:11 am

    “Those who are understand technology very intimately” and “some IT industry insiders (the collection with hammers who cannot imagine that every problem is not a nail)” — I hope you don’t mean Indian IT industry insiders understand technology very intimately! Most of India’s IT segment “leaders” are idiots and/or crooks. They won’t recognize a hammer if one fell into their lap.

    We just bought several Hitachi ACs. We had a simple question: if you set the sleep timer, and while the AC is sleeping, utility power fails, what happens when power returns? You should have witnessed the confusion. Finally Hitachi India gave a verdict. We immediately ran their machines and proved them wrong.

    We just bought several HP servers. We had a simple question: why are the two LEDs beside each hotswap disk not alight or blinking? We later discovered the answer after opening up a server: they are activated only if you have a multilane SAS/SATA card installed, not if you are running the hotswap disks on the planar SATA controller. Four tech people at HP could not give us the answer.

    We just bought a 30kVA UPS from APC. The manual did not say how the 32 12V batteries were to be connected. So we said, any customer should know how to wire up the gadget, why is the installation manual incomplete? It’s been a month and no one in APC India could give us the answer.

    This is what happens when technology does not emerge from the masses but is imposed from far away to merely complete work on hire. Our leading tech companies are almost as clueless as the politicians. And Dick Raju has proved that they can be quite as corrupted.


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