The TED 2011 Speakers…

… have been announced. It’s a solid line-up, and I’ll be looking forward to the talks by Antonio Damasio, David Brooks, Anthony Atala, Ed Boyden and especially Roger Ebert, who has reinvented himself so magnificently on Twitter. And ah, there’s also Salman Khan—not the Bollywood actor, but the entrepreneur who created the wonderful Khan Academy. It should be quite something.

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Aside: If the Bollywood Salman Khan was ever invited to TED to give a shirtless speech, what do you think he’d talk about?

Squirrels, Trees and Economists

Here’s Russ Roberts on economics:

I have often said that economics, to the extent it is a science, is like biology rather than physics. Let me try to make that clearer. By biology, I do not mean the study of the human cell, which we have made a great deal of progress understanding though there is more to learn. I am thinking of biology in the sense of an ecosystem where competition and emergent order create a complex interaction of organisms and their environment. That sounds a lot like economics and of course it is. But we would never ask of biologists what the public and media ask of economists. We do not expect a biologist to forecast how many squirrels will be alive in ten years if we increase the number of trees in the United States by 20%. A biologist would laugh at you. But that is what people ask of economists all the time.

Beautifully put—and you can make the same comparison with medicine. I am just reading The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial history of cancer, and the similarities between medicine and economics in the last century are striking. You see hubris, false certainties, ideological fervour, and mistakes on a giant scale that cause the suffering of millions and are diagnosed only in retrospect. Both fields have grown by quantum leaps and achieved much: Just look at the radical increase in life expectancies and living standards in the last 100 years. But complexity still abounds, cancer still kills, economies still fail, and humility is always a good thing.

Kindle Your Children

This is the 26th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 28.

Growing up, I was a lucky kid. My father was an avid reader, and his collection of books numbered in the thousands. It wasn’t a surprise, then, with books all around me, that I became a keen reader as well. At an age when other children dream of being astronauts or movie stars or cricketers, I wanted to be a writer. And I wasn’t just reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys—at age ten, I discovered a book called The House of the Dead, thought the title indicated a thrilling read, and embarked on my first foray into serious literature. It happened to be written by a dude named Dostoevsky, and while it didn’t contain the ghost stories I expected, it got me hooked. Dostoevsky was my first favourite, and I admit that looking back on it, I find it a bit freaky that I read all the major Russian novelists at age ten, and all of Shakespeare as well. (I liked Titus Andronicus more than Macbeth, so it’s fair to say that my tastes weren’t all that refined.)

My reading habit ebbed and flowed over the years. From a weird-ass, serious geeky kid who read a lot, I turned into a rebellious teenager who wore torn jeans, listened to alternative rock and didn’t read all that much. But one thing didn’t change: the desire to be a writer. After college, I wandered into copywriting, then into writing for television, then journalism, then blogging, and then after years of procrastination that I blame on my half-Bengali genes, I finally wrote my first novel a couple of years back. None of this would have been possible if my dad hadn’t been such a collector of books, and if serendipity hadn’t started at home. Forget the fact that I am a writer: I’d be an entirely different person if I hadn’t been the kind of reader that I was. My life would have been diminished.

As it happens, I have become a bit of a book collector like my father was, and while he lived in large, spacious bungalows all his adult life, I have lived in relatively small apartments in Mumbai for much of mine, and the thousands of books I own have created a major storage issue. The bookshelves are overflowing; all the beds with storage space are filled with books; there are three cupboards filled with books; the tables and sofas in my living room overflow with them. So it’s a surprise that I held out for so long before buying my first Kindle.

One reason I didn’t buy the Kindle earlier is that I like the feel of books in my hand. (Not so much the much-touted smell of paper, because years of sinus issues have ravaged my sense of smell.) Also, I used to think that I wouldn’t like the Kindle because one can’t read off a computer screen for too long. However, on using a friend’s Kindle, I discovered that the E Ink technology that the Kindle uses replicates the look of print on paper almost exactly, and is easy on the eyes. (No backlit screens and all that.) Also, the marketplace, which was once a bit limited, has now expanded, and book prices are quite affordable: often cheaper than you’d get in a real bookshop, and when it’s not, the premium is worth it in terms of convenience and storage space. So I’ve gotten myself a Kindle 3, and I love the machine already: it’s lighter than a paperback, can contain thousands of books, and the look and feel is just wonderful.

But I’m not writing this column to evangelize the Kindle as a device. I’m writing, instead, because while browing the online store, I remembered my privileged childhood. I bought a handful of books on my first day with the machine, but the vast majority of the hundreds of books I downloaded in my first few hours with it were free. Every book published before 1924 is in the public domain, and therefore free to download. So there I was, reliving my childhood, downloading Dostoevsky and Turgenev and Dickens and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and even some of Agatha Christie and Wodehouse on my Kindle—for free. In half a day, I put together a collection of books that must have taken my father years of perseverance and saving up to compile. To me, that is a matter of great wonder.

For someone who doesn’t like children very much, and chose long ago not to have any himself, I will now have the audacity to give the parents reading this piece a word of advice: kindle your children. The biggest thing you can do for your kids is open up the world to them, and reading is a great way of doing that. One can’t force kids to read, of course, but merely having books around the house is often enough. (Most avid readers I know picked up the habit that way.) The Kindle—or any other ebook reader that you prefer—saves you a lot of trouble and makes it easy to put a world of books at your kids’ disposal. So here’s what I suggest: gift your kid a Kindle, load it up with a library of free classic books, and set up a one-click payment system through a debit card with a monthly budget so that your kids can buy a reasonable amount of books themselves, regularly, without your supervision. Give them the power—and set them free. There is a good chance that, 30 years later, they will thank you for it. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, it will take you far less effort than it took my dad.

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

Scientific Consensus

The tastiest bit of the recent controversy over the IPCC’s mistake is this nugget:

Interestingly, the IPCC study is reported to have taken the deadline on the melting of the Himalayas from a Russian study, which predicted the melting of the glaciers by 2350. IPCC changed it to 2035, making it a ‘Himalayan’ blunder.

If you’re predisposed to reaching a particular conclusion, and all your incentives are tailored towards it, then such mistakes become inevitable. It doesn’t help that RK Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, calls himself “unsinkable”. Mr Pachauri, remember the Titanic, for which that term was also used? There’s an iceberg of truth heading your way.

Also, Pachauri really does owe VK Raina an apology. Maybe, following the example of David Frith, he should literally eat up all the IPCC reports. That would make for a good YouTube video.

(I got some of these links via an online discussion involving Mohit Satyanand, Barun Mitra, Yazad Jal and Sruthijith KK, among others.)

Silent Bestsellers and the Tech 100

It’s somehow appropriate for a lazy half-Bong to come up with a sleeper hit. Open Magazine‘s latest issue has a feature story titled “Silent Bestsellers”, and My Friend Sancho is one of the subjects of the piece.

There was actually a decent amount of buzz about the book both before and after it was published, so maybe it’s not so much of a sleeper. But it’s true, as the author of that story says, that “cocktail crowds don’t trip over each other trying to grab a photo op” with me. It is entirely their loss, I must say, for my company is more intoxicating than a Long Island Iced Tea spiked with Bhang.

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In other personal news, the December issue of the Indian edition of the magazine T3 has compiled The T3 Tech 100, their list of 100 movers and shakers in the technology world. Anil Ambani comes in at No. 82, Jimmy Wales is No. 83, and Amit Varma is No. 84. (This Indian list doesn’t seem to be online, but here’s a screengrab, if I may call it that.) Shah Rukh Khan is No. 86, and I hope this settles once and for all the longstanding debate about which of us is a bigger stud.

No, but really, it’s an interesting list. Stephen Fry clocks in at No. 4, ahead of Steve Jobs (7), Steve Ballmer (10), Barack Obama (18), Bill Gates (27), Tim Berners-Lee (36), Mike Arrington (58) and Jeff Bezos (63). Go figure.

The last time I made such an august list was in April this year, when Business Week named me one of India’s 50 Most Powerful People. The local auto drivers haven’t got the memo, though, and keep refusing to go where I want. Like, dude, do you not know who I am? I’m the juggernaut, bitch.

Maybe I should act in a Shah Rukh Khan film instead of him.