Sunday, November 19, 2006

Misusing Science

Science is a powerful tool to understand how the world behaves, and, to a certain extent, why it behaves as it does. People generally give a lot of value to what scientists say, and anything that is said to be scientific. However, most people have only a hazy idea about the basic principles of science and what even some of the common scientific terms really mean. This situation can be exploited by those who wish to mislead others, either for monetary benefit or to convince the gullible people that what they are telling them is true. Let me try to explain this by describing a few experiences that I have personally had.

Once I happened to see a beautifully designed vessel at a friend's house. Since I found it very attractive, I was examining it when I saw something written on its lid. The words said something like "Scientifically designed for loose fit". I noticed that the lid was not very tight, but at the same time, it was made such that the lid fitted neatly on the vessel. However, I was baffled by the word "scientifically". I could not understand what science was there in the design, though it was obvious that it was carefully designed. I suspect that the word "scientifically" was introduced just to impress the unsuspecting customer. The same statement was rather prominently displayed on the carton in which the vessel came too.

Another interesting instance was the attempt by a salesman to sell me a device that he claimed could save 5 to 10 percent fuel on my motorbike. The device was simpe. It consisted of a cylindrical object with tubes extending from both ends. The salesman told me that I only need to connect it to my fuel line, between the fuel tank and the carburettor, and I could save a lot of fuel. I asked him how it worked. He told me that it contained a magnet that would force the fuel molecules to align so that their combustion would take place more efficiently. He had no answer to my questions about how the molecules would stay aligned as the fuel moved through the carburettor, got mixed with air, and was pulled into the engine. This happened years ago, when I had no access to the Internet, but today the Internet tells me the whole story. For instance, just take a look at I quote:

"Magnetic devices that purport to miraculously save fuel by aligning the fuel molecules have been around for many years. ......In tests of many similar devices for automobiles conducted by the EPA, none has ever shown one iota of benefit when carefully tested. Additionally, the underlying theory of these devices is not supported by scientific evidence."

The salesman could probably convince a number of people about the efficacy of the device because he used scientific terms like molecule, magnetic field, combustion and so on. Most common people tend to believe that those who use such terms probably know what they are talking about! They get cheated.

An interesting incident was an attempt by two young men to get me to buy some clothes that they claimed could cure me of various diseases inlcuding hypertension and arthritis. I asked them how these pieces of attire could cure diseases. They explained that the material was impregnated with a special kind of clay. This clay could absorb infrared radiation emitted by the body and reradiate it, which could cure these diseases. Since they were students of engineering, I asked them whether they had any idea what infrared radiation is, and what objects emit radiation. I had to remind them that every object above the absolute zero temperature (about -273 degrees Celsius) do radiate and that the spectrum of the radiation depends on the temperature of the body. At temperatures close to human body temperatures, the radiation emtted is infrared. So we are immersed in a sea of infrared radiation all the time. I asked them what was special about the radiation emitted by the clothes they were trying to sell, and how it became special. Of course, they had no answer, and all they could say was that this is what the had been told in the marketing class. Here also, some scientific jargon is being used to confuse people and get them to buy the clothes. Let me point out here that I have no idea whether the clothes had any beneficial effects, as some people who had used them told me. If at all that is true, the effects obviously were due to something other than radiation.

The most dramatic statement I ever heard was in a discussion in one of the local television channels. One of the participants in the discussion was a well-known neuro surgeon. He was trying to show that women had some strange properties during their menstrual periods. He told a story about women who were employed by a company that was manufacturing diodes. According to him, the company found that 95% of the diodes manufactured by women during their periods turned out to be rejects. This, he explained, was due to some electromagnetic radiation emitted by them! For me, it was news that diodes were manufactured by hand, rather than by machines! And that some strange electromagnetic radiations could be emitted by women at during certain days! If that is true, husbancs need to beware!

But that was nothing. He went on to tell another story that was much more astounding. He said that during the tsunami of 2004, sea water did not enter a particular temple, though it was on the coast and on low-lying land, because of some electromagnetic radiations that were emitted from the temple! Wonder of wonders! Electromagnetic radiations can stop sea water in its tracks! Why waste money on sea walls and other structures to prevent coastal erosion? Just install some devices that emit suitable electromagnetic radiations!

Coming from a well-known surgeon, people would tend to believe what he says. I wonder whether he really believed these stories himself. I cannot believe that he does not know what the term electromagnetic radiations means. To become a doctor, it is not sufficient to study biology alone. One needs to study some amount of physics and chemistry too. So I am forced to think that his statements were deliberately made to decieve people. Either way, it is a shame.

But what was most tragic was that there was no one, not even one single person, in the panel or the audience who could get up and call the bluff. There were many who possibly did not believe what the doctor said, but no one had the basic scientific knowledge to ask how human beings or temples could emit some special electromagnetic radiations at specific times, and how these could cause damage to diodes or stop tsunami waves. They were simply stumped by the jargon.

What all this points to is the need to educate people about what science is and explain to them some of the basic concepts of science--at least so that they do not get cheated by charlatans like these.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

My new blog on Freedom

I have created a new blog to write about freedom -- freedom in general, and free software in particular. You can read this at Since freedom is the most important thing (at least for most people), I hope you will be interested in my new blog.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Blame the Politician Game

Elections are here in many states in India and the political machinery is getting into full swing. Election manifestos are released and promises made to the people - promises that are forgotten as soon as the polling is over. This is nothing unusual in India, or, for that matter, in any country. People have no option other than voting for a candidate, or a party, knowing fully well that it often hardly makes any difference who they vote for. The so-called 'verdict' of the people is often a response to the misrule of the party that has been in power, and hence the important place given to the incumbency factor.

On the other hand, we often hear people and the media blame the politicians for being dishonest and insincere. There appears to be very few gentlemen and ladies in the political arena who have been spared such branding. I think we need to look into this problem closely, if only because it is something that can affect our lives and that of our children significantly. Other than lamentations in the media, there doesn't seem to have been many serious efforts to understand the problem and find solutions. In this situation, it may not be totally out of place for me to give some ideas, though I am very much ignorant of history and politics.

I would like to look at the issue from a different point of view. Admittedly, a good number of politicians today are insincere and dishonest. I take this as a given (basic premise, or whatever) without bothering about its truth. Though this may not, strictly speaking, be a correct approach, I am sure many of you would agree with me on that. I then ask the question: Why? Why are today's politicians 'bad'? Is it because the parties have promoted all rotten people, and ignored the genuine ones? If so, again, Why? Is it because, as they say, Power Corrupts? Then what about the young leaders who have not tasted power? How come so many of them are also branded as insincere and dishonest?

I would like to go back by a few decades and take a look at the leaders who led the political parties of the time - be it the Indian National Congress or the Communist Party of India or any other. We see a number of outstanding individuals who could have landed good positions in the British Indian government before India got independence sacrificing all that for a life of uncertainty and, sometimes, great personal difficulty. You and I may or may not agree with their policies or actions, but it is rarely that we brand them as dishonest or insincere. Where have such people gone? Is it that today's people are all selfish and dishonest? I find it difficult to believe that, somehow, the character of the entire population has undergone a drastic change. On the contrary, could it be that honest and sincere people no longer come to politics? If that is the case, then, I guess, it is high time that our society did something about it, rather than simply blame those who are currently in politics.

"Oft-repeated Johnson's definition that politics is the last resort of the scoundrel holds good even to-day." says The Modern Rationalist. It goes on to say, "Why Thanthai Periyar shunned politics is also due to the same reason." This is not an isolated case. Pakistan's Daily Times ran an article by J. Sri Raman in its issue dated July 29, 2004, in which he wrote, "“Politics is the last resort of the scoundrel.” I suppose a computer-aided quantitative analysis can give a more precise finding; but, offhand, I will say that not a week passes without someone or the other citing this maxim in the Indian media." "It seems to be the nature of politics that ignorant racist boors often end up as "leaders", whether in the USA or Iran or anywhere else. It's not for nothing that the phrase "politics is the last resort of the scoundrel" was coined. We are best off ignoring these people and their ugly beliefs." goes a comment on, of all things, a review of a new GNU/Linux distribution at distrowatch! But can we simply ignore them? In an article by Ashu Pasricha in The Tribune dated January 30, 1999, she says, "Today the decent people in politics are a fast vanishing species in our land. This leads to the question why more decent people are not entering the fray? This is proving the dictum that “politics is the last resort of the scoundrel”. Today politics has undergone a sea change. Now it stinks. Politics has degenerated to the level of corruption, dishonesty, rank opportunism, expediency, manoeuvrings and manipulation of all kinds and above all, greed — devoid of moral fabric." Although she raises the question of why decent people are not coming to politics today, she does not try to answer it. Of course, the article was meant to be on Gandhiji, so she may be excused for not delving more deeply into the question above.

I too do not have a ready solution. In fact, I do not think that there could be any easy and quick solution anyway. But I think this is something our society needs to ponder over with more sincerity and seriousness if we expect to have good governance in the not too distant future. And, having raised this question, I feel it is also my responsibility to place a few suggestions here. So here they are, for whatever they are worth:

1. As a society, we need to repeatedly tell ourselves that running a government is one of the most difficult of tasks. Instead of repeating the Johnsonian quote given above, we need to spread the word that we need the best of individuals to run the government. Politics as a profession needs to be given a pride of place so that we attract the best of talent.

2. Politics should be taught right from school and there should be serious political debates from high school or higher secondary school onwards. These debates should be moderated by the teacher (who also may have his/her opinion). Children should be encouraged to delve deeper into current political issues so that they learn to discriminate between the superficial statements of politicians and the equally superficial analysis often dished out by the media.

3. We seem to expect the politician to give up everything and serve the people. I think this is absurd and counter-productive. Politicians also are human beings (in case you did not notice) and they too need families whom they have to support. In other words, society needs to find ways in which politicans can feed, clothe, educate, their families without having to collect money on the sly from whoever is willing to offer. I am strongly in support of allowing all employees to involve in political activity (which is banned now, though it is a public secret that almost every government employee has affiliations with a party). The employment gives them an income, and this brings into the political arena a large group of people, many of whom could be capable, honest and sincere.

Ladies and gentlemen, the topic is open for debate. Advance thanks for your contributions.

April 7, 2006. Let me add something that I missed last time.

People are often told that it is their duty as citizens of a democratic country to cast their votes. Voting is considered to be the most important responsibility of a citizen -- almost the be all and end all of democracy. I think this is a very wrong idea that should never be spread. Admittedly, every citizen should cast his vote for a democracy to function properly, although even that could be circumvented. For instance, at least in principle, if a survey is planned and executed very correctly, it should tell which is the party or the candidate that is most popular. The increasing accuracy of pre-election opinion polls is one sign of how the techniques are improving.

The problem is that we tend to see political parties as separate entities, one of whom we select to rule us for the next five years, almost like we select a contractor to build a bridge. In this process, we tend to forget that these parties are composed of people from among us, and that each one of us does have a role, however small, in deciding what these parties are and how they function. In fact, I think it is more important for every one of us to be involved with a political party and influence its functioning than to vote. Let me hasten to add that this is not at all to take away the importance of voting in the elections.

Let me narrate an incident which may give a clue to what I am trying to say. We have a Residents' Association in our colony, the responsibility of running which is put on someone's head at every General Body. Sometimes people protest, but usually someone takes on the responsibility. It so happened that the office bearers once elected did hardly anything for two years. There was none of the usual activities like cleaning the premises or arranging a family get-together once a year. They did not even bother to collect subscription from members. Eventually, some people got together and called for a General Body meeting to elect new office bearers and to revive the activities. Someone suggested that the dues from members should be collected first and a family get-together arranged. Then one elderly gentleman said that there was no rationale for collecting the subscription for the previous years because, as he said, "We did not get any service"! This was such a ridiculous statement because the Association is not a private agency whom we, the residents, are paying to get some service!

In a similar manner, we should not consider political parties as organisations external to society whom we select for a five year term based on the kind of service the previous party provided and the "quotation" (Election Manifesto) given by the different parties. These are structures built by us, for us and among us to carry out certain jobs. If these structures are not functioning properly, there is no point in blaming them. This is not like a class where you can blame the teacher if (s)he does not teach properly, or like your autombile workshop which you can change if you find that one fellow does not do his job properly. Political parties are organisations created by society, composed of individuals who are willing to work for them, and are required for a democracy to function properly. If they are not functioning as they should, let us get involved and do something about it, rather than just complaining. But, unfortunately, that has become our national habit -- complaining about anything, but doing nothing to bring about a change.

Any comments?