Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Distracted to death

 Presbyterian Rev Daniel Teelucksingh last week admitted he is culpable in the accidental deaths of 15 children over the past two months. 

This is the logical conclusion to be drawn from his argument that children were dying because of an “evil eye” and that the only solution was for people to get down on their knees and pray. After all, if that is so, then when a 17-month-old infant died after being left in a hot car for the entire day, Rev Teelucksingh must have failed to get down on his own knees and pray. The only other logical conclusion is that the reverend did pray, but God didn’t answer: which would mean God is either malevolent or not there. But that, of course, is an impossible conclusion for any believer.

Some religious leaders disagreed with Teelucksingh’s argument, however. Pundit Hardeo Persad, in a newspaper article, wrote it is “downright senseless to believe that evil stalks the land” and the real cause was karma: because, from Persad’s perspective, evil eye is superstition but karma is not. Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Harris, in his turn, asserted inequality—in salaries, in health care, in housing, and even in legal representation—was the key factor. This may be true in a very narrow sense, but although the countries with the lowest inequity are secular ones, I doubt Archbishop Harris would try to save children’s lives by reducing the religiosity of the T&T populace.

In any case, a science-based approach looks for patterns in order to find explanations. And, in this issue, there are two noteworthy markers: all the dead children were Afro-Trinidadians, and almost all were from lower-class but middle-income families. This means although all these deaths were accidental, they were not random. If they had been totally random in the statistical sense, then half of the dead children would have been Indo-Trinidadian. 

This, in turn, implies these children’s care-givers are under particular stress. Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, in their book Scarcity, show how stress, particularly financial stress, reduces cognitive capacity (which they call “bandwidth”). In one particularly clever experiment, they found the IQ of sugar-cane farmers in India dropped several points before harvests, when cash was low.

But why should working-class Afro-Trinis with mid-level incomes be under any special stress? I think there may be two reasons. The first is they have just enough resources to be living above their means. The second reason lies in another psychological phenomenon called the “stereotype effect”. Simply put, people’s behaviour changes when they are reminded of their group identity. Thus, when white women taking a math test are reminded of their gender, they score worse. And when African Americans are told they are taking an IQ test, their scores are lower than if they are told they are solving puzzles.

In this context, I posit a connection between the recent spate of police killings of young black men and the accidental deaths of the children. The idea is that, with police killings showing how vulnerable black youths are, the stereotype reaction was aroused in these parents and guardians, who became more stressed about the children in their care and, perversely, more careless.

Now this analysis may be completely wrong. But, unlike explanations involving evil eye and karma and obeah, my ideas are testable and, if we know the real causes, we can put measures to reduce the deaths of these children. Unfortunately, confirming this hypothesis would require the kind of research that’s never going to happen in this place, since public monies are better spent paying alleged criminals in LifeSport and Parliament.