Article of the Week: What Scares the New Atheists

Please ignore the title of the article, while you are reading this post. I will explain the reason at the end.

The article I have chosen for this week is one which critically examines atheism, or at least the version of it that gets practised by the most aggressive, vocal proponents of the idea. It doesn’t get into the usual debate of religion vs. atheism, or what religion/atheists can or cannot explain about our world. Rather it tries to see atheism for what it is – well intentioned, like most religions in their idea forms would be, but with its own set of flaws, inaccuracies and irrational reverence for its current ideologies.

The author starts by reminding us of the early 20th century atheists who denounced religion for all its irrationality, but upheld the racist ideas of their time, not merely in passing, but by elevating them to the exalted status of being scientific.

It is a warning to the “missionary” atheists of today “aiming to convert humankind to a particular version of unbelief.” The particular version of unbelief treats liberal values in the same scientific vein as its predecessor treated the theory of racial superiority.

The attack is not on the liberal values, but the author contends that there is no reliable connection between atheism, science and liberal values. Atheists’ ideologies have often been used by despotic regimes, claimed to be based in science. Can there be a “science of good and evil” as these atheists would like to believe? Can science validate  values such as human equality and personal autonomy? As it happens, these quintessential liberal values have their origin in religion.

Although the focus of the article is on explaining how the fear of religious resurgence is driving atheists to a panicky, extreme response, for me that is not the most important takeaway from it. I don’t, in fact, know if I agree or disagree with this. That’s why I asked you to ignore the title of the article for the time being. What is fascinating for me is putting atheism in its proper historical and current context, which can propel atheists to think about their “obvious” truths and motivations more critically. While they may be good, they aren’t necessarily “scientifically” obvious.

Read the complete article on The Guardian here.

Book Recommendation: Wrong – Why Experts Keep Failing Us… By David H. Freedman

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us
Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them

The worst aspect of growing up for me has been the realization that a lot of the expert gyaan we receive is ineffective, ridiculous, wrong and many a time outright dangerous.

How dangerous?

Well. All of it – probabilistically speaking, with a very high level of confidence.

I wanted to incite people to burn all the self-help books, go on dharnas to remove advice columns from all publications, and wage a war against the publish or perish culture of research and academia.

Then I came across this book with an obnoxiously long title of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them written by journalist David H. Freeman. It managed to curb my rather ambitious and violent intentions down to wanting people to just read this book as it says what I wanted to say in a rather cool-headed and polite manner. At times too apologetic to douse my fury, at times trying too hard to prove something that’s obvious, at times going into journalistic diversions that the engineer in me cringes at, and at times using a roundabout way to explain a simple statistical term like ‘confounding variable’, the book does test my patience here and there. But overall it is a book that I could ask people to read instead of  – you know – organizing self-help-book-burning sessions, sitting on dharnas or waging wars.

So, why do I want people to read this book?

Because I am sick of people who want simple, optimistic, pleasant, actionable and universal solutions to their life’s problems. Those who want a clear-cut answer to whether Computer Science in NIT is better than Aerospace Engineering at an IIT, whether they should do an MBA or not, whether marrying an entrepreneur is better than marrying an investment banker, and so on – you get the point. They don’t want the right advice, which will force you to examine many complicated things about yourself and the world. No! They want what the book calls resonant answers. With all the characteristics I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph. Do X to achieve Y sort of solutions.

And because people want it, an entire advice-giving industry has been erected to serve their needs, which keeps doling out simple secrets to a wonderful life through best-selling books, TV programmes, speaking engagements and workshops, newspaper reporting, magazine columns, and now through You Tube videos or dime a dozen online publications.

Probably all of us have been skeptical of some of this advice at some point of time, but we are definitely not as skeptical as we should be, given the colossal scale and absurdity of advice being doled out, and SADLY consumed.

Certain kinds of informal experts – the magic-diet creators, the celebrity lifestyle gurus, local experts like mechanics – are usual suspect for potentially being incompetent, ignorant, giving wrong advice and building their careers around dubious offerings.

But business gurus? Those who tirelessly mete out advice based on whatever latest management fad there is or squeeze out banally generic lessons from successful companies have been proven wrong time and again. Yet their popularity does not seem to wane.

Professional life or personal, we seem to have this insatiable appetite for resonant advice. We don’t like to accept that most problems do not have a clear-cut solution. Any good advice, if there is one at all, will come with if’s and but’s and uncertainties and qualifications. It will most likely be difficult to follow through and still not offer a guarantee of success. The best anyone will have to offer will be an explanation of things, which leaves us with nothing concrete or actionable.

Okay! So, all those business gurus and self-styled informal experts are charlatans. But what about scientists and researchers? Aren’t they the paragons of truth-seeking? Don’t they do better?

This is where the last shreds of your faith in the truth-seeking tendencies of human-kind will fall apart. From ignoring confounding variables, to mis-measuring, to plainly doctoring the data to create sensational, publishable results, there is no statistical, operational or ethical crime that our revered scientists have not been guilty of. And no! Those are not exceptions. The much heralded peer review process doesn’t weed out the careless and incorrect studies. Even direct observations of misconducts are not reported or acted upon, and finally even after publications most studies are not replicated or verified. The incentives are so skewed that honesty and diligence don’t pay. Even the self-reported (anonymously, of course) levels of frauds and misconduct in scientific community are staggering. Whenever people have tried to look into scientific studies, the conclusion is that given the kind of system and incentives we have created in academia and research,  scientific findings are just not reliable.

If you think that I am asking you to read a depressing book, I do hope it is not the case. I hope that you find this liberating in the way I found it. That the nagging doubts I had about all the gyaan floating around me were not a figment of my imagination or arrogance. The rot runs real deep and the amount of outward make-up to keep things looking nice and sorted is ugly! At the end of the day, you would be better off being deeply skeptical of things that seem too good to be true. They probably are.

But there is no reason to despair. You have yourself to depend on. After reading this book, the skepticism you will create in yourself will  prevent you from falling  into the expert trap!

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website:

Our investments are devastated, obesity is epidemic, test scores are in decline, blue-chip companies circle the drain, and popular medications turn out to be ineffective and even dangerous. What happened? Didn’t we listen to the scientists, economists and other experts who promised us that if we followed their advice all would be well?

Actually, those experts are a big reason we’re in this mess. And, according to acclaimed business and science writer David H. Freedman, such expert counsel usually turns out to be wrong–often wildly so. Wrong reveals the dangerously distorted ways experts come up with their advice, and why the most heavily flawed conclusions end up getting the most attention-all the more so in the online era. But there’s hope: Wrong spells out the means by which every individual and organization can do a better job of unearthing the crucial bits of right within a vast avalanche of misleading pronouncements.

Purchase Links

Article of the Week: Human Behavior in the Face of Disaster and Loss

How do you expect a man to behave when his wife and children are trapped in the debris of his home after a devastating earthquake? What about people whose spouses, children and parents are  dead? Would they like it if camera people were out to capture the dead?

The experience in the field can be chilling. It is a short piece by Manu Joseph based on his experience of covering Bhuj earthquake in 2001. It came to my timeline as a reaction to another devastating earthquake that has hit the humankind in Nepal.

Warning: It can be deeply disturbing.
Request: Don’t judge people. Try to make sense of their plight and coping mechanisms.

Read the complete article on the journalist’s facebook page.

Article of the Week: You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile… by Luke Malone

If I have to summarize the article, it will say something like this:

Pedophilia is an illness before being an offence. If we could treat the illness, ideally before it results in offence, wouldn’t we create a safer society for our children?

Not all pedophiles, that is,

an individual who “over a period of at least six months” has “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children.” This person also has to have “acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty,” and be “at least age 16 years and at least five years older than the child or children” involved.

abuse children. Not all those who abuse children are pedophiles; many of them are opportunity offenders.

What we have to realize that many pedophiles, that is people who are sexually attracted towards children, often against their better judgement, have nowhere to go. The taboo and legal disclosure requirements are so strong, that most therapists also either do not know how to or cannot handle treating pedophiles. Many pedophiles find themselves in a situation where if they seek help, they might be ostracized or punished even without having hurt anyone.

So, society comes into picture only after an offence has been committed, in the form of viewing child pornography or an actual abuse. And then we have strict laws to punish the offender. Problem? Deed is done. A child has been harmed. In most cases, there have been multiple victims because abuse has gone undetected for years.

We do really need a more proactive approach by helping pedophiles before they become offenders. They need a place to go, they need help in managing their condition!

The article has many stories, of pedophiles who are supporting each other so that they don’t hurt anyone.

An upfront warning – it is deeply disturbing. But let’s not be ostriches. The problem is real.

Read the complete article on Medium.

Author Update: A 10 minute IIT Puzzle

The telegraph extensively quotes Dr. Sanghi’s blog post on the rather lax process of hiring IIT Directors.

Sanghi said the process of selecting an academic leader of an institution should aim at assessing a candidate’s leadership qualities to take the institution to international levels in teaching, research, industry linkage, etc.

The process in American universities is more rigorous, with the board shortlisting three or four candidates after studying their bio-data and references. The candidates then have to spend a day or two with the board’s trustees and other stakeholders and present their vision for the institution.

Sanghi said he had had to go through a similar process before he was selected director of a private institution in Rajasthan in 2008.

He drew a contrast between the rapid selection of directors in six hours and the long-drawn selection of students for BTech courses through a series of tests. A student has to clear the Class XII board exam with 75 per cent marks or has to be in the top 20 percentile in the board.

Read the article on The Telegraph.

Article of the Week: Borderlands by Kai Friese

The beginning of the article is capable of challenging Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike.”

ALL NATIONAL BORDERS ARE IMAGINARY. But some are more imaginary than others. And perhaps some nations are more imaginative too.

It is customary to spout platitudes about nations, their glorious histories, their heart-stirring national anthems, their national characteristics and their bitter-sweet relationships with neighbours. So much that we tend to forget that nations are often accidents of history and there is nothing natural about them. Nowhere is it more apparent than the border areas, where a casual ink stroke has separated families and societies and natural economy arbitrarily into two nations, where it is impossible for people to live by  national ideals (and isolations) that inlanders in their comfortable homes and stable lives rejoice in.

As if an arbitrary boundary wall is not enough, there is the absurdity of chit mahals on India-Bangladesh border.

There are some 200 chhit mahals in all,  approximately 106 pockets of Indian territory inside Bangladesh and another 92 the other way around. Some are “counterenclaves”: an island of Bangladesh surrounded by India, surrounded by Bangladesh (or vice versa), and one, called Dahala Khagrabari # 51, is an Indian counter-counterenclave or, in the jargon of border management, an “adversely held third order enclave.” India inside Bangladesh, inside India, inside Bangladesh.

And there are valid reasons of “national” politics for why the situation has not been remedied and people are stuck with their disconnected nationalities (and hence lack benefits, papers, identities and rights!). Na khuda hi mila, na visaal-e-sanam* is what it reminds me of.

People are killed, raped and mutilated in the normal course of the day – visiting their families and carrying out trade that makes perfect sense for the area, but which national ideals have declared illegal.

Read the entire story of borderland dwellers on n+1 magazine.

* I neither found God, nor achieved union with my love.

The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina by Gary Saul Morson

I can not make this a part of regular recommendation, because it would make sense only to those who have read the voluminous classic Anna Karenina and preferably also War and Peace. But I couldn’t help writing about this article.

Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit.

Anna Karenina, the character, justified the “romance” of her life. Not the book or the author.

As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.

Is Karenin the unfeeling, uncouth man that Anna makes him out to be?

Because Anna feels guilty for hurting her husband, she persuades herself that he cannot feel. She knows better and is well aware that although he cannot express his feelings, he nevertheless experiences them. He suffers horribly from jealousy. But she makes sure not to see his suffering. Tolstoy tells us that Anna “schooled herself to despise and reproach him.” She maintains of him that “this is not a human being, this is a machine.”

If you have read Anna Karenina and have only thought of it as a tragic romance, you must read this article for yourself on Commentary magazine.

Author Update: Traversing a Scenic Silk Trail with Meera

Deccan Herald has an interesting article about the silk trail tour organized by Meera’s company.

As we embarked on a silk trail to unravel the entire process of silk-making in Bengaluru’s backyard, we realised each village has a yarn to spin, waiting to be unravelled in the seemingly innocuous small towns like Vijayapura and Sidlaghatta.

Read the complete article on Deccan Herald.

Article of the Week: Dr. Raghuram Rajan’s speech on Democracy, Inclusion, and Prosperity

The question that Dr. Raghuram Rajan, governer of RBI in his professor of political economy avatar, asks is

But how do countries ensure political freedom and economic prosperity? Why do the two seem to go together? And what more, if anything, does India have to do to ensure it has these necessary underpinnings for prosperity and continued political freedom?

Dr. Rajan starts by explaining Fukuyama’s three pillars of a liberal democratic state

  1. Strong Government: Strong government does not only mean one which has great military power or effective intelligence against enemies, but one that can provide effective and fair administration too. Dictatorships are usually weak governments. They can terrorize their citizens, but not provide good governance.
  2. Rule of Law: Government’s actions are constrained by rule of law, which might be enforced by religious, judicial or moral authority.
  3. Democratic Accountability: Government has to be popularly accepted.

Strong governments do not always move in the right direction.

Hitler provided Germany with extremely effective administration – the trains ran on time, as did the trains during our own Emergency in 1975-77. His was a strong government, but Hitler took Germany efficiently and determinedly on a path to ruin, overriding the rule of law and dispensing with elections.

Both rule of law and democratic accountability are needed to steer a strong government on the right path. (Why both? Read the explanation in the full text of the speech.)

Dr. Rajan then goes on to introduce a fourth pillar in his discussion – free enterprise.

Why are political freedoms in a country, of which representative democracy is a central component, and free enterprise mutually supportive?

It isn’t quite obvious that they should be. Democracy treats everyone equally. Free market system does not. Income and property decide an individual’s power in a free market system. But despite this difference there are certain circumstances in which they go hand and in hand.

(To) the extent that the rich are self-made, and have come out winners in a competitive, fair, and transparent market, society may be better off allowing them to own and manage their wealth, settling in return for a reasonable share of their produce as taxes. The more, however, that the rich are seen as idle or crooked – as having simply inherited or, worse, gained their wealth nefariously – the more the median voter should be willing to vote for tough regulations and punitive taxes on them.

The key, then, is level playing field. When there is a perception of fairness in competition, inequality does not breed resentment. Democracy and free market support each other by giving everyone the opportunity.

The level playing field, however, is easier hoped than achieved.

(In Western democracies) quality higher educational institutions are dominated by the children of the rich, not because they have unfairly bought their way in, but because they simply have been taught and supported better by expensive schools and private tutors. Because middle class parents do not have the ability to give their children similar capabilities, they do not see the system as fair.

This is something India needs to be careful about. Right now we are moving in the direction of providing level-playing field to more and more people by giving access to education. But it would not automatically remain so.

In the concluding part, Dr. Rajan makes an interesting point about India’s political situation. He is of the view that (despite many shortcomings), the checks and balances on the government is not in a bad shape. The rule of law and democratic accountability is functional here. But strong government is still wanted. This is a situation unique to India because in most parts of the world, strong governments have emerged first and checks and balances have followed.

Let me emphasize, we need “checks and balance”, but we should ensure a balance of checks. We cannot have escaped from the License Permit Raj only to end up in the Appellate Raj!

Read the complete speech on