Faith … or mental illness?

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Is faith a psychiatric disorder?

In my country, there are more godmen than scientists, more ashrams than hospitals. In my country, stone idols drink milk, dead men are brought back to life, snakes take human form, cats bring bad luck.

All my customers are scientists. Almost all of them have religious icons on their desks, and have their own weird superstitions. Like the organic chemist who gave me a “scientific” explanation on why one should not trim his fingernails after sunset. Or the physicist who would never start any experiment in his lab during Rahu kalam (an inauspicious time of the day). Or the brilliant professor who told me that her husband would die if she took off her mangalsutra even for a minute.

I’m no stranger to world-famous godmen. I’ve seen them up close, watched them perform their ‘miracles’, produce gold watches, drive their devotees into a religious frenzy. I’ve seen people getting ‘possessed’. I’ve seen a godman’s photographs generate nectar and holy ash.

Why do people consistently fall for such obviously crooked godmen? They call it faith. I call it something else.

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. 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. When they are given evidence contrary to their beliefs, they will either disregard it outright or twist their interpretation of that evidence to fit in with their beliefs. This is why godmen get away with all kinds of crap. They have a deep understanding of how confirmation bias works. And 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 believes 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 – in Shirdi. Such is the contagion of confirmation bias that more than a hundred years after his death, his cult still continues to grow. And has become frightfully powerful.

Harsh experience has taught me to keep my scientific arguments to myself. There is just no point in explaining 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 hopelessly misguided souls who rant against godmen and religion. They firmly believe their ranting will 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 – just like their non-rational counterparts.

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 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 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. 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. It may seem incongruous, but frequently ‘rationalists’ base their arguments on flawed evidence. And just like their superstitious counterparts, they will not accept that their evidence is flawed. Ironic, isn’t it?

Therefore, don’t bother. Just steer clear of both sides, smile and go about your life. You can use confirmation bias to your advantage, in your business and in your social life.

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There is a very good reason why first impressions always count. That reason is confirmation bias. If your customer (or potential lover) forms a favorable first impression of you, then confirmation bias will usually compel him to hold on to that image, even if you screw up later on. And vice versa. If someone forms a bad first impression of you, there is little you can do to correct it later.

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 heavily biased. Understand that even renowned 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.

As for me and my former daughter Sanjana, who believes I am the embodiment of evil, well, I consider her dead.

I have lost faith in her.

Srini.

City of Palaces … and rip-offs.

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Mysore Palace

Want to get royally ripped-off?

Go to Mysore.

Half my family hails from Mysore. My forefathers served under the Wodeyar rulers. One of my great grand-uncles painted some the murals that are displayed inside the Palace. Hardly a month goes by when I do not visit this city, either for work or for photography.

And I’ve come to hate the place. Mysore typifies the horrific state of tourism in our country. Rickshaws and taxis that loot commuters without fear, hotels that give you the worst possible service, grossly overcrowded tourist spots, abusive waiters, corrupt cops, the list is endless. Everyone wants his cut, everyone has his hand out, everyone has a nasty invective for you.

And garbage everywhere. Mind you, this city claims to be the “cleanest” city in India. Well, it is marginally cleaner than Bangalore. But then, Bangalore is without question, one of the filthiest cities in the world, not just in India.

Some of the “hotspots” of this formerly regal city:

Chamundi temple: Well over a thousand years old. Home of Mysore’s presiding deity. Try getting into the temple on any day of the week. Minimum waiting time is an hour, and you have to literally fight your way in. Literally. Count the number of encroaching hawkers and illegal shops around the temple. Inhale the tantalising stench from the huge pile of garbage on the hillside below. And then ask yourself, if this is how this city treats its presiding deity, how will it treat you?

Mysore Palace: For heaven’s sake leave your camera and cellphone with someone you trust. Cameras are not allowed inside the Palace. If you carry one, the cops inside will ruthlessly extort you – even if you do not take the camera out of its case. Same applies to cellphones. Photography outside the palace is permitted, without any entrance fee. Even here, you can get ripped off by touts. Be on your guard, will you?

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Chamarajendra Wodeyar, King of Mysore 1868-1894

Mysore Zoo: If you’ve seen a zoo before, then don’t bother. There’s just nothing special about this one – except for the pickpockets and petty thieves inside. Keep all your jewelry out of sight, remove your bangles and ear-rings. And keep your purse or handbag hidden, or booby-trapped. Distribute your cash and cards in various pockets. If you’re from Bombay, you know how to protect yourself from pickpockets. The same principles apply here.

Karanji lake: Next to the Zoo. If you want to observe human couples in foreplay, this is the place to visit. Once a nice waterbody for birds and birders, Karanji has become polluted with sewage, and infested with lovey-dovey couples. The lake smells foul on most days. You still can see waterbird species like the painted stork, spot-billed pelican and oriental darter, but these special residents of Karanji are constantly disturbed by boating and illegal fishing. Bird populations have been declining and will eventually disappear.

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Kukkarahalli lake.

Kukkarahalli lake: Same as above. Once attractive. Now avoidable. Not as bad as Karanji, since Kukkarahalli is not as commercialised. But it is getting there.

Brindavan Gardens: The best place to get groped. This place is definitely unsafe for women, even if they are in a large group. The much-touted musical fountain is not worth the trauma you will have to undergo to get there. Parking is a nightmare. Traffic is ghastly. Crowds are unruly, drunk and abusive. And they grope, grope, grope.

Ranganathittu bird sanctuary: For a bird-lover like me, Ranganathittu used to be the place for observation and photography. Used to be. Now, the place makes my blood boil. Far too crowded. Leaky boats. No safety measures of any kind. And the usual rip-offs. The “friendly” boatman will take you on a prolonged boatride for your photographic pleasure, if you cross his palm with a good amount of silver.

Srirangapatnam: This “historical” town on the outskirts of Mysore was once the capital of Tipu Sultan, a person for whom I have very little regard. Srirangapatnam is as bad as Mysore for tourists.

The so-called “expressway” from Bangalore to Mysore, once a great road to drive on, is choked with traffic and extremely unsafe. Without fail, I see at least two accidents on this road, each time I drive down. I wonder when it will be my turn.

My country has so much to offer to a discerning tourist. Ancient culture, spectacular temples, remarkable architecture, awe-inspiring natural beauty. And yet, India has less than 0.7% of the world’s tourism business. Tourists are ripped off everywhere they go, abused, intimidated, and frequently molested. India is generally known as one of the world’s most unsafe destinations.

Anyone who knows Mysore the way I do, will understand why.

Srini.

The plate is not plastic. But the rice may be!

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I cooked this spaghetti myself.  80% is real food. The rest? God knows!

 

Is it plastic? Or not? Safe? Not safe? Unnecessary panic? Or really scary? Media hype? Or scientific fact?

Yesterday, I was a panelist on a TV discussion about plastic in our rice and eggs. There were scientists, food experts and two worried consumers who thought they had eaten plastic rice and eggs.

I was silent for the most part of the discussion, listening to everybody else on the panel vehemently argue that plastic rice is a myth, cannot be made, commercially not viable, technically not possible, creation of the media, etc, etc.

There was even a “scientific” demonstration by one of the panelists who took a cup of cooked rice, added a drop of iodine tincture and showed that the rice turned blue and was therefore real. That is, he took a cup of real rice and proved that it was real. Which made me wonder exactly where the “science” in his demonstration was.

It was all about denial.  Denial, denial, denial.

The videos on Youtube were loudly denounced, the two aggrieved consumers on the panel were hushed up, the caller who called in with her complaint about a dubious cabbage was overwhelmed with “science”.

The general attitude of the learned ones on the panel was, “I don’t believe it, therefore it does not exist”.

Where’s the proof, they all cried. We’ve analysed a hundred samples, but all were clean, they claim. Sure. If you take a sample that is clean to start with, you will get a clean result.

The one panelist I found really entertaining was the food expert who kept screaming and shouting about the rampant ‘malnutrition’ that is allegedly happening because people have allegedly stopped eating eggs. Egg farmers will go out of business, thousands of jobs will be lost, the economy will collapse, what will happen to our country, etc, etc.

I wonder if he meant that millions of Brahmins (like myself), Lingayats, Jains, vegans and other non-egg eaters across India are (a) severely malnourished and (b) responsible for India’s economic ruin because we do not eat eggs.

But hey, who am I to argue? I’m no “scientist”, am I?

I’m not surprised at this vehement denial. Some people have their reputations at stake, you see.

This is a classic case of confirmation bias. You can read more about it in this blogpost of mine. What it means is that if one is totally convinced about something, then he will either twist the existing facts to support his conviction or worse, create facts of his own.

This is just what I saw during that panel discussion. Not one of those “experts” was willing to even consider that there may, just may be, some basis to all those reports pouring in from across the country. They were not willing to concede even the remotest possibility. No means no, to them. We, the experts, say there is no plastic, so there is no plastic. That’s all.

I was reminded of that scene in Matrix, in which the little boy says, “There is no spoon”.

My take on this issue: The people deserve to be heard. The people deserve to know.

This is our food, damn it. Our food.

As it is, most of our food is already adulterated with all kinds of shit, and with all kinds of “legally permissible” stuff.

As our vociferous food expert loudly told us, and the rest of India, during the panel discussion, our sugar and salt have about 1.5% “legally permissible” silicates added to them. In other words, your sugar and salt have about 1.5% sand in them. And that’s legal. That’s right. When you add a hefty spoonful of shining white sugar to your child’s milk, you are legally feeding a little amount of sand to her. Cho chweet, no?

Did you know that? No? Then blame it on the same “experts” who tell you your rice is absolutely clean and totally plastic-free.

Don’t believe me. Try it yourself. Dissolve a teaspoon of your sugar in a glass of water.

The question here is not whether there really is plastic in our rice or not. The real question is, what are we not being told about the food we eat? How exactly is officialdom dealing with our food safety?

We saw this during the MSG issue during 2015. Vehement denial, confusing the public with “science”, contradictory statements by “experts”, rules and regulations, brushing aside consumer worries, raving and ranting.

But not one straightforward answer.

Do not underestimate the Indian house-wife. She knows her food. She knows what she’s buying. She’s the most skeptical consumer on earth, because she buys not for herself, but for her family.

When a deeply worried housewife tells you there’s something wrong with her food, you had better take her seriously.

And that is what the “scientists” do not understand.

This is not an effing research project, not an effing scientific experiment. It is not about “science”. And not a political issue, either.

It is about a worried wife and a scared mother. It is about a laborer who lives on daily wages. It is about a terrified farmer who already has enough problems in his life. Whether it is vada-pav on the roadside or a buffet at a 5-star hotel, whether it is a laborer or a corporate magnate – the questions on their minds are exactly the same.

How safe is our food? What are we not being told ?

Vehement denial is not the answer. Throwing “science” in our faces is not the answer. Quoting rules about “legally permissible” crap is not the answer.

People do not need “science”. They need compassion, and understanding. They deserve a proper explanation, not rhetoric. They need to know that someone in the administration is doing his job and someone is keeping us safe.

They need the truth.

Is there plastic in our rice? Are our eggs fake?

I do not know. It may contain plastic, it may not. Is it technically possible to make plastic rice grains and eggs? Yes it is.

But, does your rice really have plastic in it? I just do not know for sure. That I do not know for sure does not scare me. I am not responsible for your food supply.

What really scares me, is that those who are responsible for your food are not entirely sure either – and just do not want to accept that fact.

Think about that, when you order your biryani.

Srini.