Words, words, words

It hardly needs to be said that the bomb blasts inside the Samjhauta Express are a terrible tragedy, or that one feels awful for the people who lost family members in it, or that the perpetrators should be punished. Yet it is said, repeatedly, by leaders from all over the place, and duly reported. What’s the point of this? Does it matter to anyone?

And really, what’s the EU doing saying things like this:

The composite dialogue and reconciliation process between India and Pakistan should continue with all efforts.

Do they have any idea of the nuances involved? Who, exactly, is that statement meant for? It can’t be the governments of India or Pakistan, both of whom would snort, if governments can snort, at hearing such suggestions from the EU.

Perhaps Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf should get together and advise the EU on how to rework their anti-trust laws. No?

Take that Goog

I went to the airport today morning to receive a friend who was coming from Delhi to attend the Roger Waters concert, and while waiting at Arrival, I checked out the signs that people were holding up. One guy had a sign that said Bhogle. The guy besides him had a sign that said Google.

And you know just how I pronounced the second one, don’t you?

Religion adds to its headcount

A depressing headline, this: “Polio cases jump in Pakistan as clerics declare vaccination an American plot.”

What bugs me the most is that if some people unconnected with religion spread such rumours, and deaths were caused by that, legal or police action would almost certainly be taken against the mischief mongers. But because these guys are clerics, they’re untouchable, immune from the consequences of their actions. It’s a pity so many of us put religion on such a pedestal—and it’s not only Islam I’m talking about.

Recent related posts: 1, 2, 3.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Reading Rushdie in Iran

I would never have imagined that reading a book could harm anyone, but consider this family’s story:

The family’s complicated journey began after the couple fled Iran and arrived in Toronto in January 1995. They lived here for 10 years while seeking asylum, giving birth to a son. But on Dec. 6, 2005, with all legal avenues exhausted, the parents were deported back to Iran.

The boy’s father claimed he had been originally persecuted in Iran after he was discovered with novelist Salman Rushdie’s book. Once they were sent back there from Canada, they were detained and tortured for three months while the boy lived with relatives. Once released from custody, they again fled, reaching Turkey with the help of relatives. They bought fake passports and eventually travelled to Guyana, the parents said.

On Feb. 4 they boarded a direct flight from Guyana to Toronto aboard Zoom Airlines, planning to seek refuge again in Canada. The boy’s father said the plane was diverted to Puerto Rico after a passenger suffered a mid-flight heart attack.

There, they were detained for having the fake passports they’d earlier used to escape persecution, and sent to a detention centre in Texas. There they remain as I type these words, still trying to get away from the consequences of reading a book by Salman Rushdie. I hope they make it to Canada and get asylum, but they’re just one family, and at least they got so far. What about the millions of people still in Iran, unable to find escape even in a book?

(Link via email from Manish Vij.)

Amitabh for president?

I’m amused by all the speculation around whether Amitabh Bachchan will consent to being a candidate in India’s presidential elections. If anything, it shows how meaningless the post is, a vestigial organ of government. In the past, it’s been used to kick politicians upstairs, reward old partymen for a few decades of service, or make a symbolic gestures about inclusiveness. (The calculus of caste and religion plays a part; see here and here.) But at least most previous presidents have had some kind of experience in politics and governance. Why does Bachchan deserve to be president?

On the other hand, do consider who won it last. I can’t imagine Bachchan coming up with anything quite like APJ Abdul Kalam’s poetry. I can live with “Eir Bir Phatte.”

On alarmism

The global warming people are called alarmists. Once, when it was in vogue, just three decades or so ago, the global cooling people were called alarmists. People who speak of apocalypse are called alarmists. People who warn of imminent nuclear warfare or the ozone layer getting screwed or biological warfare ravaging continents or super-resistant bacteria destroying mankind or mosquitoes with battleaxes taking over the White House are called alarmists.

I don’t know whether all the people above are alarmists or not, but I think of the world around me staying as it is, and I feel alarmed. What’s that about?

Anna Nicole Smith and America

Tunku Varadarajan writes in the Wall Street Journal:

[Anna Nicole] Smith was the object of a fierce popular fascination. It could be said—and said not entirely as metaphor—that Anna Nicole Smith embodied America. She embodied its bounty as well as its overabundance; its exploitability, and its propensity to exploit. She embodied, also, its litigiousness, its enterprise, its universal offer of the chance to remake oneself (Gatsby did it one way, Anna Nicole Smith did it another). And to many foreigners—particularly foreign men—she embodied America in a literal way, too: in a brassy blondeness that people in repressed cultures marvel at.

The thing is, the USA stands for a lot of things—you could replace Smith’s name in the above quote with that of vitually any American celebrity, and find that they ‘embody’ their country in as many ways as she does.

And what of India? I’d argue that Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant embody our country as much as Narendra Modi and Pratibha Naithani do. Do not shudder at the thought—perhaps you embody India too. To use a cliched expression, countries contain multitudes—and so do you.

The magic of Shruti Nelson

The partner, as some of you may know, curates and organises art shows. A show she’s put together is running in New York at the moment, but I’m far more excited about a show that opens today in Mumbai: it features works by Shruti Nelson, a painter from Baroda, and while I’ve long been a fan of hers, some of this work is way beyond even my expectations.

You can check out some of the paintings featured in the exhibition here. My favourites: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Heck, they’re all good, and they’re much better close up, so visit the exhibition if you’re in Mumbai and check them out.

Reason vs Rationalisation

A shorter version of this piece was published today as the second installment of my column, Thinking it Through, in Mint. I also posted this on the old India Uncut.

Often when I argue with friends, or on the internet, I am dismayed by how intransigent some people are. No matter how many facts I throw before them, or how solid my reasoning is, I simply cannot convince them of my point of view. No doubt they feel the same about me. “He refuses to listen to reason,” they think, even as I bemoan how unreasonable they are.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to me: we live in deeply polarised times, and around half the world believes that the other half ignores reason altogether. Well, it is my belief that we overestimate reason to begin with. The Scottish Philosopher David Hume once described reason as “the slave of the passions,” and I believe that much of the time when we feel we are being reasonable, we are actually rationalising conclusions we have already arrived at, positions that we already hold.

An excellent illustration of how our mind does this comes from neuroscience. In the 1960s, neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of experiments on patients with split-brain epilepsy. A common treatment for such patients used to be to sever the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This effectively splits the brain into two: rational thought is carried out by the left hemisphere, but the two halves of the brain stop being aware of the happenings the other half.

Describing the experiments in his book, “The Blank Slate,” Steven Pinker wrote of how “the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behaviour chosen without its knowledge by the right.” One example: the experimenters would flash the word “walk” in the visual field of the right hemisphere. The patient would get up and start walking. But when asked why he did so, his left brain, which would be unaware of what the right brain had seen, and would effectively be doing the replying, gave answers such as “to get a coke.” The remarkable thing is that the patients actually believed their explanation, even though the conscious mind arrived at it after the unconscious mind prompted the body to start walking.

Pinker called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief,” while Gazzaniga referred to the left brain as “the interpreter.” In his book, “Phantoms in the Brain,” VS Ramachandran wrote, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”

In other words, the left brain’s job to to make sense of the world and build a coherent worldview. This isn’t easy. The world is full of complicated phenomena, and the most intelligent among us would not be able to make sense of it all if we tried to place each disparate event in its proper perspective. We would be perpetually bewildered.

To deal with this, our brains evolved to seek patterns in everything. Michael Shermer, in his book “How We believe,” wrote: “Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring.” Of course, while we are especially good at seeking patterns in everything, not all patterns are meaningful, and many simply come from confusing correlation with causation. Thus, a cricketer who makes a century when he happens to have a red handkerchief in his pocket may carry that handkerchief with him for the rest of his career.

Indeed, this explains religion. For much of our existence, science hasn’t been around (or able) to answer the big questions of the day. We’d have gone mad thinking about it all if we didn’t have religion to give us ready-made patterns that explained everything. Similarly, in the modern world, we have all kinds of belief systems that help make sense of the world around us, and provide us with cognitive shortcuts to think about the world.

When these belief systems are attacked, it is natural for us to not want to have to rethink them. As an economist would say, that would be inefficient, wasting too much time and energy. Thus, various kinds of defence mechanisms originate for this purpose, such as the confirmation bias, which is a tendency to consider only evidence that fits our existing beliefs. A believer in astrology would do this, for example, by considering all correct predictions by an astrologer to be proof of its validity, while ignoring the ones that turn out false.

And indeed, this is why most arguments, especially about politics and economics, are so frustrating. If both sides have firm beliefs, they stand little chance of convincing the other person, for most reasoned argument in such cases is rationalisation couched as reason. The next time you get into one of those arguments, and witness one of them, you will actually be able to observe this happening. The delight of it all is that the people involved will not be aware of this process, and will honestly believe themselves to be open-minded individuals who are, well, thinking it through. But that is mostly self-deception.