Naked Oats and Gujju Cows

Reuters reports:

New diets for cows and sheep could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, research funded by the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) shows.

Feeding the animals maize silage, naked oats and higher sugar grasses could reduce the amount of methane they produce, the study by Reading University and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences showed.

Agriculture accounts for around nine per cent of all British greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this comes from sheep, cows and goats.

I can just about imagine a cow reading this and going, “Naked oats? Mmmm!” and setting off a pleased fart. Also, I would guess that Gujju cows have historically emitted less methane, since they’ve always like sugar in their grass. I wonder if news channel reporters could also be force-fed naked oats and sugar grass.

Yeah, I know this isn’t an astonishingly substantive post, but India Uncut has resumed, so how can I not do a cow post? 😉

(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113.)


Aside: What a badly written news article. Just see the first two paras. Jeez…

Homeopathic Faith

This is the sixth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

I was delighted this Monday when my fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane took on homeopathy in his column ‘Sugar Pills and Skepticism’. It needed to be done, but while I found myself agreeing with much of his piece, I was disappointed by the last paragraph, in which Girish said that he uses homeopathy occasionally, and that it sometimes seemed “to have an effect, particularly with respect to allergies.” This is a fairly common view among many people, who admit that while homeopathy has no scientific foundation, ‘it seems to work’. For many of my friends, this puts homeopathy in the category of things that conventional science can’t explain yet, rather than those that have no scientific basis at all.

I used homeopathy for a few years when I was much younger. I believed then that it worked on me. I still have much fondness for my erstwhile homeopath, who I believe to be neither a fraud nor a fool. And some people close to me still pop sugar pills when they are ill. Yet, I now believe that homeopathy is no less ridiculous than astrology or numerology, and no more scientific than them. I’ve travelled the entire arc of belief when it comes to homeopathy, from an automatic, peer-influenced faith to skepticism to unbelief and contempt—and that is the subject of my column today: why so many people believe in homeopathy even though it is, to put it plainly, nonsense.

I won’t do a detailed debunking of homeopathy here. For that, I refer you to books like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment, as well as this classic talk by James Randi. To summarise, the methodology of homeopathy makes no sense whatsoever, and scientific trials, when carried out with proper rigour, have shown homeopathic medicine to be no better than placebo, the standard for judging the efficacy of any new medicine.

The most bizarre thing about its methodology is the composition of the medicine itself. In homeopathic medicine, the substance being used to treat a patient has to be so diluted that there is generally not a chance that a single molecule of the substance remains in the medicine a patient is taking. In Randi’s video, for example, he displays a homeopathic sleeping aid that contains, as its active ingredient, caffeine. (Homeopaths believe that the substances that cause a particular condition should be used to treat it. Go figure.) The dilution of the caffeine in the medicine: “10 to the power of 1500.”

Randi asked the maths writer Martin Gardner if there was a way of explaining to the layman how much that really was. Gardner explained, “That’s equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.”

In Bad Science, Goldacre offers another analogy: “Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometers (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel that distance. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30c dilution.”

By these standards, there are so many impurities in regular drinking water that we are probably being treated for every major disease anyway.

Leave aside methodology. Maybe modern science hasn’t advanced enough, and we just don’t get it. Methodology would not matter if homeopathy actually worked. The standard test in medicine for seeing whether a treatment works is a double-blind placebo-controlled test. In this, patients are randomly divided into two groups, one of which is given the treatment being tested, and the other is given placebo—such as pills that look like real ones, but are actually inert. Neither the patients nor the doctors know which group is getting the treatment and which the placebo (that’s why it’s ‘double-blind’), thus eliminating psychological biases on their part. The mere belief that they are being treated often helps patients, so the true test for a treatment is if it can do better than placebo.

Homeopathy has failed such trials consistently. (Bad Science covers this subject in some depth, and also explains why some of the trials homeopaths claim have been successful have had methodological flaws, and suchlike.) There was a time when I wanted to believe the damn thing worked—but there is no evidence of it.

That brings us back to belief. Why do so many immensely smart people around us believe that homeopathy works if it does not? Surely they can’t all be deluded?

One reason why homeopathy seems to work on so many people is the aforementioned placebo effect. This is a remarkably powerful phenomenon, one that medical scientists are still studying with wonder. In Bad Science, Goldacre wrote about Henry Beecher, an American anaesthetist who operated on a soldier with “horrific injuries” during World War 2, using salt water instead of morphine, which was not available. It worked. Similar stories abound through the history of medicine, and the placebo effect is an established part of medical science. If you believe you are taking medicine, that belief itself might help you get better, and you will naturally ascribe the recovery to the medicine you took. This is why, for any medicine to get the approval of the scientific establishment, it has to be shown to be better than placebo—otherwise what’s the point?

There is also a phenomenon called regression to the mean which comes into play. Many diseases or physical conditions have a natural cycle—they get worse, and then they get better, quite on their own. This can be true of backaches, migraines, common colds, stomach upsets, practically anything non-major. If you take homeopathy during the course of this, and you get better, you might well ascribe causation where there is only correlation, and assume the medicine did it. As Simon Singh puts it, you may take homeopathy for a cold or a bruise, and “recover after just seven days instead of taking a whole week.” And there you go, you’re a lifetime fan of Phos 1M right there. (This is known as the Regressive Fallacy.)

I suspect this was one reason homeopathy became popular in the first place. Back in the 19th century, conventional medicine was in its infancy, and as Goldacre wrote in his book, “mainstream medicine consisted of blood-letting, purging and various other ineffective and dangerous evils, when new treatments were conjured up out of thin air by arbitrary authority figures who called themselves ‘doctors’, often with little evidence to support them.”

Indeed, seeing a doctor or visiting a hospital probably increased your chances of dying. Atul Gawande, in his book Better, tells us in another context that in the mid-19th century, at the hospital in Vienna where the doctor Ignac Semmelweis worked, 20% of the mothers who delivered babies in hospitals died. The corresponding figure for mothers who delivered at home: 1%. The culprit: infections carried by doctors who did not wash their hands. (Semmelweis tried to reform the system and was sacked.) This, then, was the state of mainstream medicine when homeopathy began gaining in popularity. In contrast, homeopathy was harmless, would not make you worse or give you an infection and kill you, and if you recovered in the natural course of things, you would give it the credit and tell all your friends about it. The growth of the system, I say with intended irony, was viral.

When it comes to any kind of belief, the confirmation bias comes into play. If we use homeopathy, we do so because we are inclined to believe in it, and our ego gets tied up with that belief. After that, we ignore all evidence that it doesn’t work, and every time we pop a few sugar pills and get better, we give homeopathy the credit. Also, the fact that so many other believers exist reinforces our own belief, for all these people surely can’t be wrong.

In a way, belief in homeopathy is similar to religious belief. (Yes, I’m an atheist as well.) I don’t berate my religious friends for their beliefs, because even though they might be wrong, there is often comfort in that kind of wrongness, especially when dealing with issues of mortality and insignificance. Similarly, if someone I know wants to pop homeopathic pills for a stomach ache or a common cold, I’ll let them be, both because of the power of the placebo effect, and because they’re likely to get better on their own anyway. (Also, I’d rather see them taking sugar pills than, say, antibiotics for something so trivial.)

But just as religious belief can be taken too far, so can homeopathic faith. When people treat serious ailments with sugar pills instead of proper medicine, matters get problematic – especially if they force such treatment on others, such as the Aussie homeopathy lecturer Girish wrote about and I’d blogged about once, who killed his daughter by insisting that her eczema be treated with homeopathy alone. That demonstrates that while blind faith may have its consolations, it can be lethal when taken too far. If only it could be given a homeopathic dilution.

Previously on Viewfinder

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

The Philosophical Cow

Alex Tabarrok writes:

Suppose that you are a cow philosopher contemplating the welfare of cows.  In the world today there are about 1.3 billion of your compatriots.  It would be a fine thing for cows if all cows were well treated and if none were slaughtered for food.  Nevertheless, being a clever cow, you understand that it’s the demand for beef that brings cows to life.  How do you regard such a trade off?

I predict that any philosophical cow will consider its self-interest first. It might be in the interest of the species for cows to continue to be slaughtered, but it would certainly not be in the interest of this particular cow—so it would be against killing cows. Unless, of course, our philosophical cow is guaranteed immunity from slaughter, which its human overlords might well consider given how few cows tend to be philosophers. In that case our bovine thinker, freed from concerns about its own welfare, might well take the broader view.

Doesn’t this happen with humans as well? I know ‘intellectuals’ who rail against urbanisation and romanticise village life, while themselves living comfortably in cities. I know women who condone the way other women are treated in some cultures by resorting to moral relativism, while themselves enjoying their full human rights. (For instance…) It’s easy to pontificate about matters that don’t immediately concern us—and most pontification is exactly like that. Such it goes.


I can imagine a philosophical cow deep in thought near an unsuspecting farmer. Suddenly, the cow starts jumping up and down, shouting ‘Eureka, Eureka!’

‘What happened?’ says the farmer. ‘Why’re you so excited?’

‘I just formulated the Cowtegorical Imperative,’ says our philosophical cow.

‘That’s impossible,’ says the farmer. ‘You’re just a cow. You can’t do something like that. You can’t!’

‘That’s right,’ says the philosophical cow. ‘I Kant. But you can call me Immanuel.’


(Link via email from Prachi Parekh. Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112.)

Is India’s National Dish…


Hindustan Times reports:

The Bombay High Court has stayed the disbursal of Rs 1,000 crore of the taxpayers’ money — in the form of subsidy by the Maharashtra government — to distilleries that make alcohol using foodgrains.

The subsidy is applicable to 21 distilleries, many of which are controlled by politicians.

Questioning the state’s policy, the court on Wednesday asked: “What is essential commodity — foodgrains or wine?”


The beneficiaries include former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s son Amit and Nationalist Congress Party leader Govindrao Aadik.

That last line I quoted is the killer, isn’t it? What’s the point of power, a politician might argue rationally, if you can’t enjoy its spoils?

(Link via email from Deepak Shenoy. For more posts on how our taxes are misused, click here.)

Where Your Taxes Go: 44

On paying the salaries of 22,800 fake employees of the Delhi municipality.

That’s right: it’s been discovered that 22,800 of the 127,094 employees on the rolls of the municipal corporation of Delhi do not exist. These non-existent employees get a salary of Rs 17 crore per month. Guess who pays their salary.

There’s an ecosystem of ghosts out there that you and I are funding. At night, while the city sleeps, they get to work. They deliver mail that was never sent, sweep streets that were never paved, file applications that will never be read. When morning comes they’re gone, giving way to a government that is not much better.

(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)

Where Your Taxes Go: 43

On doing up BS Yeddyurappa’s home. The Times of India reports:

An RTI reply has revealed that Yeddyurappa has […] spent a staggering Rs 1.7 crore to renovate his bungalow, Rs 35 lakh of which went into redoing his bedroom. […] Renovation and fittings of the master bedroom cost Rs 34.55 lakh. This includes toilet works and interiors at Rs 10 lakh, marble flooring at Rs 10 lakh, a false ceiling and wall designs at Rs 4.40 lakh and Rs 10.15 lakh for gypsum board and wall panelling.

Since that’s our money, that’s our bedroom, and we should all be allowed access. How would you like to spend a night in Yeddyurappa’s bed? I’m sure he has silk sheets.

Somewhere, though, Mayawati is snortling.

(Link via email from Dev. For more on how our government loots us, click here.)

Phul Singh vs State of Haryana (and the State of Indian English)

Oh boy, this Supreme Court judgment, excerpted on his blog by Imam Wapsoro, is masterful. Presenting Phul Singh vs State of Haryana, AIR 1980 SC 249:

A philanderer of 22, appellant Phul Singh, overpowered by sex stress in excess, hoisted himself into his cousin’s house next door, and in broad day-light, overpowered the temptingly lonely prosecutrix of twenty four, Pushpa, raped her in hurried heat and made an urgent exit having fulfilled his erotic sortie.


A hyper-sexed homo sapiens cannot be habilitated by humiliating or harsh treatment, but that is precisely the perversion of unreformed Jail Justice which some criminologists have described as the crime of punishment.

It may be marginally extenuatory to mention that modern Indian conditions are drifting into societal permissiveness on the carnal front promoting proneness to pornos in life, what with libidinous ‘brahmacharis’, womanising public men, lascivious dating and mating by unwed students, sex explosion in celluloid and book stalls and corrupt morals reaching a new ‘high’ in high places. The unconvicted deviants in society are demoralisingly large and the State has, as yet, no convincing national policy on female flesh and sex sanity. We hope, at this belated hour, the Central Government will defend Indian Womanhood by stamping out voluptuous meat markets by merciless criminal action.

The gentleman who wrote this is Justice Krishna Iyer. One can only assume that he proposed to his wife in some other language. Or maybe he spoke like this, and she went, Enough, enough, I’ll marry you, but please don’t go on and on in English. You libidinous brahmachari, you!


The larger issue here is why Justice Iyer waxed so purplacious. I blame colonialism. Even after the Brits left, English remained a marker of class in India. The better your English, the more highly you were regarded (even by yourself). This led to a tendency of showing off how fluent you were in the language, and from there, to this kind of overkill. For Justice Iyer, the language he used was as much a signal as a tool: It signalled his sophistication and his class. Or so the poor fellow thought.

I believe this is also partly responsible for why style overwhelms content in so much Indian writing in English. As kids, we’re too used to parents and teachers and peers telling us, Wow, this is so well-written, your English is so good. (As opposed to Wow, your narrative was compelling, I lost myself in the story, I couldn’t put it down.) So they end up giving more importance to the language they use rather than the narrative they’re building, while the former should really be slave to the latter. Pity.

And we also see this a lot in our local trains. Two random people will be arguing over something, and then one of them will break into bad English, as if to say, I”m superior to you, I know English. You lout! And then the other guy will say something to the effect of Hey, I know English too. Only you can speak or what? Bastard! And so on.

I’d like to see Justice Iyer get into one those local train fights, actually…

Where Your Taxes Go: 42

On golf buggies for the army.

I’m actually okay with that—if you want to attract good people to join the army and defend the country, one of the few functions of a government that I consider legitimate, then you should give them their perks. But what is WTF about this whole thing is that the army claimed it had spent this money on “silent reconnaissance vehicles for missions beyond enemy lines.”

I can totally imagine a Pakistani military convoy cruising outside Islamabad and suddenly coming across a golf buggy with an Indian general in it. They stop it immediately, and the Pak commanding officer asks the Indian, ‘WTF are you doing here?’ And the reply comes:

‘Have you seen the 18th hole? I think I’ve lost my way.’

(Link via email from Anand Bala. For more posts on taxes, click here.)

A Cattle-Class Country?

This is a bizarre controversy. A couple of days ago, in response to a question about whether he would be travelling economy class, Shashi Tharoor tweeted:

… absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!

It’s always nice to see a minister be light-hearted. Sadly, his party isn’t. He’s been rapped on the knuckles for this act, and the party spokesman, Jayanti Natarajan, said:

We totally condemn it (Tharoor’s comments). The statement is not in sync with our political culture. His remarks are not acceptable given the sensitivity of all Indians.

Certainly the party does not endorse it. It is absolutely insensitive. We find it unacceptable and totally insensitive.

We do not approve of this articulation. Thousands of people travel in economy class.

Firstly, the lady desperately needs a thesaurus. She is being insensitive to her readers/listeners by going on and on about ‘sensivity’ and how ‘insensitive’ it all is. Once was enough, no?

Secondly, her party needs a dictionary. The term ‘cattle class’ has not been coined by Tharoor, but is a commonly used term for economy class. If it is derogatory to anyone, it is to the airlines that give their customers so little space, and not to the customers themselves. So whose sensitivity are we talking about here? Air India and Jet?

I’m a bit bemused, actually, by what the Congress is up to these days. An austerity drive means nothing when the government continues wasting our taxes on the scale it is. And berating someone for using the term ‘cattle class’ is needlessly sanctimonious when, after six decades of mostly Congress governance, we have hundreds of millions of people who cannot afford the basic necessities of life. Hell, most people in this country live cattle-class. And here we have the Congress strutting around and talking the talk.

Oh, and showing rare unity in WTFness, the BJP’s also condemned Tharoor’s tweet. Is there not one political party in this country that understands English and can take a joke?


On another note, Times Now has asked me to appear on their show, “Newshour”, to chat about this topic. It’s supposed to be tonight, and while the show runs from 9pm to 10pm, I’m told this segment starts at 9.30. They said it’s titled “A Tweet Too Far”, and if they imply that Tharoor should not be tweeting, I will defend him with as much gusto as I can manage. We all ask for transparency in government, and here you have a minister who’s actually in direct contact with so many of his countrymen, and everyone’s getting all het up. If I was in the Congress, I’d recognise this as a good thing, and encourage more of my ministers to go online. Anyway, such it goes.

(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111.)