Thursday, December 1, 2011

Search for simple explanations

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this. -- Bertrand Russell

Every year, the literary agent John Brockman asks several public intellectuals to answer some question or another, and posts it on the Internet to provoke discussion. This year's question was "WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?" One of the responses was 'Randomness'. It is a difficult concept to accept which results in simplistic explanations for complicated phenomena. In Endless Forms Most Beautiful,Sean B. Carroll writes:
Francois Jacob has pointed out that all of our explanatory systems, whether mythic, magic, or scientific, share a common principle. They all seek, in the words of physicist Jean Perrin, "to explain the complicated visible by some simple invisible."
It was obvious that my sudden stroke would bring forth many such explanations. For example one person persuaded my mother to sell her house by telling her that my stroke happened because there were statues of some gods on the grounds that were not supposed to be there and if she sold the house, I will be cured. One guy wanted to know if I had an implacable foe who could have put some sort of hex on me to cause the stroke. I assured him that there was no such person.

Another person said that I had made many bitter enemies in my life and a few of them had got together and performed some black magic that had resulted in my stroke. Another person told Jaya that one person had wanted to marry her but I entered the scene and spoiled his well-laid plans so he took some steps to put a clot in my head. Mostly people will claim that they were the revelations of some guru with capacious learning who had unparalleled insight into these issues.As Javed Akhtar says:
It’s not surprising that in Pune there is an ashram and I used to go there. I loved the oratory. On the gate of the lecture hall there was a placard. Leave your shoes and minds here. There are other gurus who don’t mind if you carry your shoes. But minds?…sorry.
When Jaya was explaining the circumstances of my stroke to one woman, she was told that many people in the flat suffered from a 'bone problem' which happens if some puja is not done. Doing the puja will solve these problems. A brain stem stroke is due to a 'bone problem'? H'm.

What used to astonish me was that so many people uncritically accepted the idea that you can clot the blood in somebody by mumbling some mumbo-jumbo. This thought is not limited to fringe elements of society. It is mainstream. Education goes only so far and no further in eliminating these superstitions. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, education helps to reduce superstitious beliefs but it eventually asymptotes to a non-zero value. (For example, listen to this interview with Father George Coyne. He comes across as a pleasant, intelligent, articulate person but at times he churns out word salad.)

Perhaps I had heard similar things before my stroke but they didn't register with me probably because of two reasons: 1) I usually did not hang around for long listening to superstitious talk and 2) I was not the focus of these talks. Now it was different. I had no option now but to sit silently and listen 'with a patient shrug, for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.'

I started noticing the Dunning-Kruger Effect only after my stroke. I have been fortunate enough to associate with plenty of very smart people throughout my life. I am not exaggerating if I say that they were rarely as proud of their intelligence as some of these people were of their of their ignorance.I began to understand why Edith Sitwell said, "I am patient with stupidity, but not with those who are proud of it." I learned quickly that it was useless to argue. My best option was to fall back on Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer - "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

1 comment:

  1. George Carlin, in one of his shows, talks about the rain dance of a Native American tribe. If they get the dance right during practice and it does not rain, did they really get it right? Or should they keep practising?