Believing the Unbelievable

In the years immediately following Independence, the country was awash with the phrase “scientific temper”. Jawaharlal Nehru had used it first in The Discovery of India, making it the bedrock of his vision for the newborn, forward looking nation. Now that the people were free of their alien masters, surely they would want to be free in mind and spirit too. They would want to search for truth, not accept ideas on hearsay, try them out, be willing to change old certainties in the face of new evidence. A scientific temper, he wrote, “is the temper of a free man.”

How disconnected this vision was from the reality of our countrymen’s ancient rock-solid beliefs, was proved in Nehru’s lifetime itself. When the Society for Scientific Temper asked prospective members to sign a statement that said, “I believe that knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavour and not through revelation, and that all problems can and must be faced in terms of man’s moral and intellectual resources without invoking supernatural powers”, nobody, not even our leading scientists signed. Years later, probably in desperation, a clause was slipped into an amendment of the Constitution that said, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform.” Unsurprisingly, this duty has been disregarded ever since. Nobody even talks about the concept or the clause today.

Science is clearly not our strength, although it was in ancient India. Our strength has been and still remains ritualistic religion. Newspapers confirm this all the time. Most recently, a senior woman engineer in a multinational IT company in Bengaluru, jumped to her death from the fourth floor cafeteria of her office building. Her fearful colleagues refused to enter the place till the company boss had performed a Shanthi Homa there. Presumably this helped exorcise the cafeteria’s resident evil spirit which had surely driven the woman to suicide; and the employees returned. These were techies, mind you, not uneducated villagers whom we think of, rather unfairly, as socially backward. So what had education done for the techies? Evidently it had neither opened up nor strengthened their minds. It had given them certain mental skills to earn good money, but hadn’t equipped them with the means to overcome their confirmation bias which psychologists explain as an in-built impulse pushing people to act in accordance with pre-existing beliefs rather than on the basis of neutral and scientific investigation.

Confirmation bias is at work in every sphere of modern India. In Bengaluru again, a police inspector and his wife performed three pujas in a row to help resolve recent problems. The primary problem was that two young women had been assaulted in the precinct within a week of each other by unknown men. The secondary and more frustrating problem was that the media had picked on and given saturation coverage to particularly these incidents although the entire city was rife with similar assaults on women. The police inspector thought in all honesty that doing Vaastu Puja, Sudarshana Homa and Shatru Samhara Yaga would stop men in the neighbourhood from looking upon women residents as their natural prey while simultaneously blocking the media’s focus on the unfortunate events.

A scientific temper would have demanded that the police inspector study the outcome of the pujas. Had the number of assault cases fallen to zero after they were conducted? Had men suddenly become totally respectful of women? That would be sensational. The inspector could sell the story to the press and take a bow. But confirmation bias renders scientific inquiries redundant. It allows people to interpret all kinds of iffy evidence in a way that supports their belief while permitting them to reject any evidence to the contrary. Belief by its nature requires no justification.    

In Mumbai, an astrologer has directed his clients to feed milk to 125 dogs to rid themselves of personal problems and prosper. If prosperity does indeed follow even in a stray case, as it might do with human effort, skill and right decisions taken at the right time, it will be held up as evidence that feeding milk to 125 dogs brings prosperity. If nobody prospers, the dog-feeding clients will arrive at the non-scientific conclusion that the wrong kind of milk was fed to the wrong kind of dogs. They’ll go to another astrologer. He will say feed only cow’s milk to 222 black dogs. So off we go looking for black dogs, belief intact.

Published On : 13-03-2017