Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The perils of rumor

Jayne Cravens, an expert in development studies and online volunteerism, provides a long list on her website of the damage suffered in developing regions due to rumor, superstition, and urban legends. One story describes an African village that could no longer sell their ginger crop because of rumors that one could be infected with HIV through their produce.
What becomes clear after a perusal of her list, is that these rumors and superstitions are reflective of an inefficient information system. The problem is that this is a huge obstacle to development and the creation of wealth.

As noted in the World Bank's "Where is the Wealth of Nations" report, most of the "wealth" in the developed world is intangible, existing in institutions and rule sets. The most interesting part of this is that this intangible capital is so vital because it actually allows the creation of more wealth. Think of the patent office and the court system that enforces copyrights: this is a system designed to encourage creativity and invention, which in turn enriches the whole society. In a cournty with no protection for inventors, there is little incentive to work hard at developin anything new and useful. The bottom line is these institutions are crucial for the developing world to achieve a better state. What's left to discover is how much this inefficient information distribution system (rumors and superstitions) hampers the development of these economic and social institutions and rule sets.


Vincent said...

I wonder about this, Patrick, particularly your evocation of superstitious belief in Africa. I cannot get rid of my nagging feeling that the harm done by Europeans in Australia (to the Aborigines) and Africa remains a running sore, in consequence of a cultural infection one or two centuries old.

I must be wary of judging by the standards of Western civilisation. Even my nephew aged 15 (half Nigerian, half Jamaican) warns me against this; though I doubt he has more than a superficial understanding of the depths here, any more than I do.

I see the West as existing in a kind of emotional poverty from which it has been partially helped by black colonisation. On the other hand, I feel horror at the remnants of the ancient Indian civilisation which survive today, particularly arranged marriages.

Of course I agree with you about patents and copyrights. Such institutions have no parallel in other traditional civilisations, so far as I am aware.

And yet I'm reminded of the traditional irrigation/drainage systems in Bali, which were controlled by mysterious information flows between Hindu temples, and worked far better in managing sluices and canals than the more modern systems which the Indonesian government tried to impose. See for example this article

PatricktheRogue said...

I should note, I did use an example from Africa, but rumor and urban legends are rife everywhere, just more relied on in the developing world. Africa has no monopoly on this.

But, yes, I do defend Western civilization, at least the scientific method, which is really the only reliable method for judging the veracity of knowledge ever devised. But that is only one aspect of Western civilization. Much of the rest thankfully we have left behind, including useless religious dogmas, attitudes toward women, subservience to authority figures, etc.

For an easy example of a specific peril due to belief in rumor take the tragic rise in child rape in Africa. Due to a false belief that having sex with a virgin will eradicate HIV, afflicted men are raping young girls on a terrifying scale.

On the other hand, it is true that often folk wisdom can impart useful knowledge, but... the only way we know it is useful is by testing it scientifically.

I would suggest that, in the end, the scientific method of gathering and testing knowledge, and submitting it for peer review, is not simply an aspect of Western civilzation, but a useful tool that should and will be adopted by the entire human race, in the same way that practically the entire world uses Arabic numerals, simply because they are better. Not just different, not just culturally unique, but demonstrably better than any other numeric system. For instance, have you ever tried doing algebra with Roman numerals? (I am aware they came from India, BTW, that we in the West call them Arabic because that's where we encountered them.)

And I don't know that Western cultures are necessarily any more impoverished than others. Was Ayaan Hirsi Ali fleeing emotional freedom for emotional poverty when she escaped a forced marriage in Somalia to flee to Europe? every human civilization is flawed, simply because humans are part of them. Let's not idealize the less industrial past simply because it seems bucolic from our standpoint.