Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mentioning institute afiliations is not enough - I

Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. But taking pride in their ignorance is self-defeating - Peter Drucker.

Agniveer is a site which, while introducing itself, says, 'Vedas are the best available benchmarks cum workbooks cum textbooks to help us model ourselves.' In it,  I came across an article by one Sanjeev who says, ' I am an alumnus of IIT-IIM and hence try to find my humble ways to repay for the most wonderful educational experience that my nation gifted me with.' Citing the names of well-known institutes can only take you so far. The effect wears off after a while. I think he should have read and thought a bit more before writing his post.

Education is an investment that will yield returns after a while. The returns are increasingly being viewed only in monetary terms rather than about whether you learn something. As a Mehmood song says' 'The whole thing is that ke bhaiyya, sabse bada rupaiyya.'“Why create a generation of thinkers when what’s needed are workers?” seems to be the thinking behind education in most Indian schools. The RSS recently advised the government to  make education 'more practical and less theoretical'. In other words, don't think, just do.

I won't entirely blame Sanjeev for this post. The school system is geared towards training children to jump through the requisite hoops to get to college. Once there, you are expected to know about progressively narrower ranges of knowledge. When working, with the current fashion for staying late in office, there is no time to develop other interests. So people can be very knowledgeable about one area and astonishingly simplistic in their views about other areas.

It will be erroneous to think  that if a person is very good in one field, he is equally good in other fields. I was trapped in this bubble and would have continued in blissful ignorance but then I slipped on Life's banana skin and everything changed. Since then I have been reading about many things (since time is not of the essence, I can indulge in such luxuries)  and the common element in all  of them is that they have very little to do directly with what I studied in college. What I found was that the universe is a lot more complicated (and therefore more interesting) than I had been led to believe.  I agree with what another person said in this post:
All our technical universities seem to have one thing in common: their constant refrain to us to be ‘successful’. Be it the IITs, BITS or of course, the myriad others, anyone observant enough can make out that ‘success’ is the buzzword. ‘Achievement’ is a virtue, and dreams of 50 Lakh p.a. starting salaries seem to be the bench mark of the student who has ‘used his time wisely and worked hard’. And somehow, somewhere down the line, the real point of it all seems to have been lost.
It is simply not enough that universities exhort their students to make something of themselves. It is not enough that they churn out well-educated young professionals who still seek solace in astrology, continue to hold conflicting views about the universe in the face of scientific evidence, and continue to cling to crippling fears and insecurities about themselves and their purpose in life.
The cat is already out of the closet, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that a spurious understanding of science can co-exist with academic brilliance in higher education. If we are to really get anywhere to begin with, we must shed our collective cultural tolerance for faith-supremacy and stop riding on the popular bandwagon of Appeal to Antiquity. This manifestation of Karmic Capitalism comes at the cost of the rational worldview, and feeds off modern insecurity. It festers in a vacuum of discourse and open debate about what it means to be successful, or how we can overcome our anxieties thoughtfully.
Sanjeev seems to think that a scientific theory is a random guess that someone came up with over dinner. A theory is a system of ideas that gives an explanation of a group of facts or phenomena. It begins as a hypothesis and finally becomes a theory that is accepted by the scientific community after it has been confirmed by experiment/observation. If even one observation is wrong then the theory is wrong and has to be modified. The new theory must not only explain the anomalous fact but also explain the facts that had been satisfactorily explained by the old theory. Stephen Jay Gould says:
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Like the theory of gravity or the atomic theory, evolutionary theory is an extensively documented set of principles with evidence from multiple independent sources - morphology, embryology, paleontology, bio-geography, molecular biology, etc. There are multiple books and online sources which give information about evolution in language accessible to the layman. Following the advise of the Bible is useful: 'Seek and ye shall find'. As Jacques Monod said, '[A] curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it."

There are an amazing number of misconceptions about evolution by natural selection, an idea that can be summarized in just a few words - non-random selection of random variation. The use of the word 'evolution' as a synonym for the word 'change' in many contexts like evolution of Indian foreign policy, evolution of cities, evolution of car design etc. are misleading. These processes have nothing in common with the process of biological evolution.

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