Monday, December 30, 2013

Indian Intellectuals and the Fighter-Pilot Syndrome

Update: title changed

Legendary formula car racer Michael Schumacher suffered a serious injury in a skiing fall. As millions around the world pray for his safe recovery,  a troubling question was triggered by this sad news:

"How likely is it for a skiing enthusiast, who is known to have made a successful career in the superfast and dangerous world of Formula car racing, to meet with a skiing accident?"

Does this conditional probability increase or decrease? I am not aware that Schumi claimed he was a skiing expert or thought of himself as one. This is just a sample of one and could just be a tragic coincidence. The question remains open and the focus of this post is on a related topic.

Here's a wikipedia blurb on a US Air Force officer John Stapp:
"During his work at Holloman Air Force Base, Stapp became interested in the implications of his work for car safety. At the time, cars were generally not fitted with seatbelts, but Stapp had shown that a properly restrained human could survive far greater impacts than an unrestrained one. Many traffic-accident deaths were therefore avoidable but for the lack of seatbelts. Stapp became a strong advocate and publicist for this cause, frequently steering interviews onto the subject, organizing conferences, and staging demonstrations (including the first known use of automobile crash test dummies). At one point, the military objected to funding work they believed was outside their purview, but they were persuaded when Stapp gave them statistics showing that more Air Force pilots were killed in traffic accidents than in plane crashes. The culmination of his efforts came in 1966 when Stapp witnessed Lyndon B. Johnson sign the law making manufacture of cars with seatbelts (lapbelts at that time) compulsory..."

Controlling fast jets did not give those pilots additional skills that made them equally safe at driving cars at some speed. Is it possible that this 'fighter pilot effect' gave them a false sense of security while driving the much slower motor cars?  Similarly, safely driving ultra-fast cars shouldn't automatically make one an equally safe hi-speed skiing expert (update: initial reports indicate Schumacher was not going very fast). However, public belief in this 'fighter pilot syndrome' appears to exist at some level, and this is especially true in India. For example, if you win a Nobel Prize or for that matter, any prize in the west, then regardless of your field of expertise and your near-total ignorance about what makes India tick, you are given special powers that turn you into an expert on every topic under the sun (especially Indian culture and politics), overnight. Unlike Marxist economist Amartya Sen or India's egoistic movie stars, who don't need a second invitation, there are others who prefer not to make a fool of themselves in public. However, the Indian media does not spare them the embarrassment by demanding their "fighter pilot" advice on unrelated topics. This 'intellectual celebrity' feedback is then used to try and influence public opinion. A good example is the recent NDTV-25 debate panel on "secularism in India" compered by 2G-scam tainted journalist Barkha Dutt that included exactly one genuine expert, Arun Shourie, who knew what he was talking about, and bunch of other "experts".

All-weather experts and their Indian media co-pilots must be asked to wear their seat-belts and slow down before they take the Indian public for a ride.

Happy New Year. Drive Safe. Get well soon, Schumi.

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