A matter of Faith … or is it confirmation bias?

quotes-about-listening-to-music-20150208083448-54d71fa8c43bbIs faith a psychiatric disorder? Sometimes, I’m inclined to think so.

In my country, there are more places of worship than schools, more godmen than scientists, more ashrams than hospitals. In my country, stone idols drink milk, dead men are brought back to life, multi-million dollar research centers are first consecrated by a priest on an auspicious date and at auspicious hour before any scientist lays a step inside.

I ply my trade exclusively in academic research institutes. All my customers are scientists. Almost all of them have religious icons on their desks, pictures of godmen on their walls.

I’m no stranger to famous godmen myself. I’ve seen them up close, watched them perform their ‘miracles’, produce gold watches and holy ash from nowhere, drive their devotees into a religious frenzy. I’ve seen people getting ‘possessed’. I’ve seen idols drink milk. I’ve seen people drive spikes into their backs, nails into their palms, walk across flaming coals. I’ve seen a godman’s photographs generate nectar and holy ash.

When I ask devout people why they believe what they believe and why they do what they do, the answer is the same – Faith.

Faith is their raison d’être.

They will not give up their faith. In the face of overwhelming evidence against their godman, they will still cling on to him. Show them a video that clearly shows their godman producing holy ash from a tube hidden in his sleeve, they will denounce the video as a fake. Show them another video of their godman gambolling around with a naked woman, they will claim it is just his way of testing your faith. Explain to them that the “nectar” pouring out of the godman’s photograph is merely the product of a simple chemical reaction and show them how it can be done, they will yell at you and call you an agent of Satan.

The phenomenon has been extensively studied by psychologists. There’s a scientific term for it. It’s called persistence of belief. Or confirmation bias.

People will interpret data based on their own individual beliefs. If they are presented with evidence contrary to their beliefs, they will either disregard it outright or twist their interpretation of that evidence to fit in with their beliefs. That is why fake godmen consistently get away with all kinds of crap. They have a deep understanding of how confirmation bias works. Most of all, they know that confirmation bias is contagious. In particular, parents can and do, pass on their confirmation bias to their children.

I lost my only child solely because of confirmation bias. Haven’t seen her in fifteen years. She has been made to believe that I am the embodiment of evil, because I stood against her mother’s godman. And mind you, the godman she worships died in 1918. Such is the contagion of confirmation bias that more than a hundred years after his death, his cult still continues to grow.

Harsh experience has taught me to keep my evidence and my scientific arguments to myself. There is just no point in trying to explain to people that blind belief in a godman does not constitute religion, and that talking against an obviously fraudulent godman is not blasphemy.

I have tried to explain this to my ‘rationalist’ friends. You know, those well-meaning but hopelessly misguided souls who rant against godmen, religion, spirituality, superstitions and the like. They firmly believe their ranting will result in a fundamental change in our society and bring forth a new generation of enlightened humans who believe only in science. No matter what, they will not let go of that belief.

In other words, these “rationalists” suffer from confirmation bias.

I am fiercely proud of my country, the depth of her culture, the greatness of her philosophy, the vastness of her scriptures, her achievements in science, her ancient sagacity, her capacity to assimilate alien cultures and enrich them while doing so.

However, nowhere in her scriptures does she say that we should not use our common sense. Krishna in the Gita talks at length about ‘muda bhakti’, i.e. foolish, mindless devotion. You may read the Gita if you wish to. And whether you accept Krishna’s divinity is your choice. But there is no denying that the wisdom Krishna imparts in the Gita is practical and down-to-earth. If you take the trouble, you will discover that much of the knowledge in our ancient scriptures, like the Upanishads for example, is practical in nature. Contrary to what you may think, skepticism was encouraged in ancient India, debate was preferred over discourse, and evidence was considered a pre-requisite to belief.

Thanks once again to confirmation basis, we have been made to believe instead that our culture is based on ritualism and our scriptures are ‘mumbo-jumbo’ – this being the term favored by ‘rationalists’ and ‘free-thinkers’ (who are neither rational, nor free nor thinkers).

So. How do we deal with confirmation bias? We don’t. Because we can’t. Devotee or cultist or rationalist or free-thinker. Doesn’t matter. There is no real cure for confirmation bias.

Just as you cannot convince a devotee that he is wrong in his beliefs, you cannot convince a ‘rationalist’ that he is wrong as well. In both cases, they will disregard any evidence you present. It may seem incongruous, but frequently ‘rationalists’ base their arguments on flawed evidence. And just like their superstitious counterparts, they will not accept any evidence that their evidence is flawed. Ironic, isn’t it?

Therefore, don’t bother. Just steer clear of both sides. Keep your evidence to yourself, smile and go about your life. If you are not too burdened with scruples, you can use confirmation bias to your advantage, in your business and in your social life.

There is a very good reason why first impressions always count. That reason is interview-first-impression-300x300confirmation bias. If you want to win over a client or a lover, then be very very careful about the first impression they form of you. If they form a favorable first impression of you, then confirmation bias will usually compel them to hold on to that image over the course of the relationship, even if you bungle things later on. And vice versa. If someone forms a bad first impression of you, there is little you can do to correct it later on.

Do your homework then, before that first meeting.

And don’t fall into the trap of confirmation bias yourself. Learn to look at both sides of the coin. Realise that even scientific evidence can be and usually is, heavily biased. Understand that even renowned award-winning scientists have frequently been shown to be wrong – but rarely accept that fact.

If you do an internet search for the ill-effects of alcohol, for example, you will be presented with tons of research papers that conclusively prove that booze is bad for you. Do a search for the health benefits of alcohol, and behold, you will be presented with an equal amount of evidence that proves that booze is actually good for you.

You will have to use your own judgement. Personally, I think a little faith may not be bad for you. Too much of it, on the other hand, is not a good idea. How much is too much, is for you to figure out.

As for me and my estranged daughter Sanjana, who believes I am the embodiment of evil, well, I am sure that one day she will come looking for me.

I have faith.

Cheers … Srini.

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