Saturday, December 21, 2019

In Defense of Cognitive Biases

Many books have been written during the last two decades about cognitive biases.  Some of the authors have been awarded Nobel Prizes for their work in this field.  Kahneman's "Thinking Fast, and Slow" is a major work in this category.

During my college years, we undertook a course in Logic which told us that "ad hominem" is a bad argument, and so is "appeal to authority" and so on.

During recent years, "victim blaming" and "whataboutism" have become four-letter words.

In formal journals, the scholar Gigerenzer has been a formidable adversary to Kahneman et al in his defense of such "fallacies" and "biases".  Interested readers can follow his work and read his papers.

In this essay, I will touch upon two modern sins that I listed above, and why they are not the sins that people claim they are.

Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is to hold the victim of a crime or injustice partly responsible for the crime.  It is most vehemently cited when a sexual assault victim is blamed for acting in a reckless manner.  In most cases, however, nobody disagrees that the criminal is wrong and he/she should be punished.  The argument that the incident could have been avoided had the victim taken better precautions is considered blasphemous. 

However, all precaution against criminality is of the same nature.  As long as we live in an imperfect world, it is important to continue to punish the criminals as well as  to take precautions to avoid becoming a victim.  If you put your wallet in the front pocket in a pickpocket-ridden area, if you drive defensively, if you watch your step in an unfamiliar location, you are protecting yourself from harm.  Yes, you may be able to file a police complaint or sue if your pocket gets picked, if you are hit by another car, or if you fall and break a bone in a hotel lobby.  But most reasonable people avoid harm rather than invite harm and then seek damages.

Traditionally, the adage "better safe than sorry" has been a heuristic to follow.  In modern times, unfortunately, the media and the "wise" tell you otherwise.  While they continue to take precautions, they ask you to be flagrant.

Ignore such advice, and be safe.


This is a recently coined word which means: To attack a critic with an allegation of a wrongdoing at their end.

Say, politician A says to politician B: "You spend your Sundays at leisure instead of working for the country."  And B replies: "You have no right to lecture me as you go on a two-month vacation every year instead of tending to your constituents."

The first criticism gets deflated by such a response, but the WhatAboutery brigades say: "No, no, answer the allegation on its merits.  Don't accuse the accuser of something else."

The problem is, human activity is acceptable or not depending on the norms prevalent in a setting.  If everybody is breaking rules, you cannot be expected to follow them.  If someone expects you to follow a rule, they must first demonstrate that the rule is followed quite generally, especially by themselves, and that you are an exception.

Traditionally, an allegation of theft coming from a thief was called Hypocrisy.  Whataboutery is calling out the hypocrisy.  Even if the reverse allegation is of a different kind ("you have no right to call me fat when you dropped out of college"), it is still reasonable in the sense that the accuser must first put their house in order before being considered a serious voice of morality or ethics.  If the accuser has multiple failures of their own, traditionally they have little right to criticize others.

Traditionally, the heuristic has been: "Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others."  And it is a good heuristic.  Only someone relatively blameless and upright has the moral right to criticize someone else for their failings.  Yes, their criticism stands on its own in a formal sense, and a mature individual would take their admonition at face value and try to determine whether self-improvement is warranted, but in a social sense, their criticism will not be considered worthwhile. 

People expect a moral policeman to be moral himself.  For good reason.  It is hard to be moral and ethical, and if the accuser finds it hard, the accused is saying, in other words, "Fix yourself before you try to fix me."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Basic Tenets of Sikhism

Today is the 550th birth anniversary of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev.

As commonly understood, and according to nothing less than Wikipedia, the basic teachings of Guru Nanak can be summarized as:

ਨਾਮ ਸਿਮਰੋ, ਕਿਰਤ ਕਰੋ, ਵੰਡ ਛਕੋ

Loosely translated as: Keep remembering the name, work for your living, and to share one's wealth with the community.

However, it is a myth that these are the three tenets of Sikhism.  Nowhere in the Guru's teachings, except for passing references to the working for one's living and being kind, are the latter two tenets mentioned.  Far be from it that the latter two tenets are "central" to Sikhism.

The first tenet ("remember the name") is indeed mentioned repeatedly in the Guru's teachings.  But as I have written previously, almost universally, Sikhs are either ignorant or confused about what the "name" refers to, and what does it mean to "remember" the name.

Most Sikhs take it to trivially mean just chanting "Satnam Waheguru".  This particular mantra, and this particular practice of chanting is nowhere mentioned in the Sikh gurus' teachings.

I would love to be proven wrong.

Spirituality as Analgesia

"Religion is the opium of the people."  (Karl Marx, 1843)

Of course, as is well-understood now, by this statement, Marx indicated that religion offers a coping mechanism to numb the suffering in one's life.

In his words:
... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
The new-age corollary to this dictum is:

Spirituality is symptomatic relief for the ills of modernity.

Spirituality offers a feel-good state, a state of "inner" peace or bliss, which is to be achieved by efforts directed solely at modification of one's inner state.

If the circumstances of modernity, and the ills thereof, are unaddressed, then spirituality can be considered a painkiller which does naught for the underlying disease.

Of course, analgesia is an important discipline in medicine, to lessen suffering while the real disease is cured over time, or deemed incurable.

But it is possible to be merely addicted to painkillers, or spiritual practice, without having any insight into the disease (or one's life situation), and efforts to address the cause.

Unless a spiritualist is also engaged in effectively transforming his living situation, spiritual practice is akin to taking an aspirin everyday for a wound that continues to fester.  The need for that aspirin will continue, and may even increase.  Except in the happy circumstance that the wound gets healed on its own.  Which is possible.

Friday, September 27, 2019

A Ghazal by Saleem Kausar

मैं ख़याल हूँ किसी और का (सलीम क़ौसर)

Rendered by Mehdi Hassan

Rendered by Ghulam Ali

Rendered by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Rendered by Jagjit Singh

मैं ख़याल हूँ किसी और का, मुझे सोचता कोई और है
सर-ए-आईना मेरा अक्स है, पस-ए-आइना कोई और है
(पस-ए-आइना = behind the mirror)

मैं किसी के दस्त-ऐ-तलब में हूँ, तो किसी के हर्फ़-ऐ-दुआ में हूँ
(दस्त-ए-तलब = outstretched hands, हर्फ़-ऐ-दुआ = words of prayer)
मैं नसीब हूँ किसी और का, मुझे माँगता कोई और है

अजब ऐतबार-ओ-बेइतबारी के दरमियान है ज़िन्दगी
में क़रीब हूँ किसी और के, मुझे जानता कोई और है

मेरी रौशनी तेरे ख़द्द-ओ-खाल से मुख़्तलिफ़ तो नहीं मगर
(रौशनी = sight, ख़द्द-ओ-खाल = features, मुख़्तलिफ़  = unfamiliar)
तू क़रीब आ तुझे देख लूँ, तू वही है या कोई और है

तुझे दुश्मनों की ख़बर न थी मुझे दोस्तों का पता नहीं
तेरी दास्तां कोई और थी मेरा वाक़िया कोई और है

वही मुन्सिफों की रवायतें वही फ़ैसलों की इबारतें
मेरा जुर्म कोई और था पर मेरी सज़ा कोई और है

कभी लौट आएं, तो पूछना नहीं, देखना उन्हें गौर से
जिन्हें रास्ते में खबर हुई कि ये रास्ता कोई और है

जो मेरी रियाज़त-ए-नीम-शब् को 'सलीम' सुबह न मिल सकी
(रियाज़त-ए-नीम-शब् = midnight prayer)
तो फ़िर इस के मानी तो ये हुए कि यहां ख़ुदा कोई और है

(with help from Rekhta, a recitation in the poet's own voice is on this page)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Nostalghia of Photograph

The knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable. (Irwing Howe)

Nostalghia is a 1983 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

From Wikipedia:
The film depicts a Russian writer .... During his stay he is struck with nostalgia for his homeland, longing for an inner home, a sense of belonging, and a clash between his personal vision of the world, and the real conditions. ... profound form of nostalgia ..., comparing it to a disease, "an illness that drains away the strength of the soul, the capacity to work, the pleasure of living", but also, "a profound compassion that binds us not so much with our own privation, our longing, our separation, but rather with the suffering of others, a passionate empathy.
Photograph is a 2019 film by  Ritesh Batra, who previously directed the acclaimed film The Lunchbox.  The film follows a man from rural Uttar Pradesh making his living in Bombay clicking photographs of tourists, and a middle class woman student who he happens to meet.

Both of them are lost and alone in their lives, nostalgic for an earlier, simple way of living. The man lives with his friends, and the woman has a caring family, but their feelings and desires linger in silence.  The man is trying to find his footing in a world that has brutalized him in many ways, and the woman is silently waiting for whatever life might have in store for her.

The nostalgia is not just about an earlier way of living, in which joys were simple and the relationships more about love and the bonds of family.  It is also about the nostalgia of an adult for his childhood.  The innocence of being a child is hard to maintain as one tries to navigate a world in which pragmatism and planning take the place of spontaneity and freedom from care.

The film celebrates silences, showing instead of verbalizing.  Old songs, traditional street food, old taxis, old people, extinct drinks, out of fashion adornments and cosmetics, old cinema halls, ...

There is a certain lack of ambition and aspiration in children, as is probably there among people who have their homes in the hills or in a remote village.  They are content with the little pleasures of an occasional celebration, of an infrequent treat, and of a simple gift.

Of course, the film paints the poor people as carefree, innocent and caring and the rich and urbane as somewhat manipulative and stressed.  It is true to some extent.  The poor do not have much to lose, and they can thereby be more "in the moment" and heart-driven than the rich.

But poverty, the brutality of which is hinted at in the film when it describes the man's early years, is not entirely a romantic phenomenon.  There is immense suffering in it.  The daily grind and the daily humiliations of being at the lower end of society drain a man of his innocence as surely as the competition and upward mobility of the rich.

In a key scene, the woman innocently says to another man that she wishes to live in a village.  Earlier in the scene, the man has casually bragged that he can be happy "anywhere", but is taken aback when he hears her.

The woman idealizes the village life as being idyllic, not having actually lived it.

I used to think, when observing slums and the urban poor in the big cities in India: Why do these poor people come to the city and live in such inhuman conditions?  Do they not miss their village?  Yes, they might have a television now, but is their cramped and rotten living really better than what they had in their earlier life? 

It is a complex question.  But if we trust that these unfortunate people make their decisions not in foolishness but with regret and resolve, the answer must be that despite the open fields, the skies and the clouds, the simpler life, their earlier time in the village must be, in the final analysis, a romanticized nightmare of insecurity, scarcity and indignity.

They have a different kind of indignity in the city, but the city offers them at least a hope of making a life in which their children will have a place in the world, and not merely be blown around by the winds of the caste system, of oppressive landlords, of a capricious monsoon, of a criminal neglect and usurpation of their lands (if they have any) by those who can.


The wish of a human being that he will again be fragrant and innocent, once he traverses the hard and brutal terrain of a world that values only value, is a tragic one.  For that innocence will find itself deeply buried in the end, unless it is carefully renewed and nourished every day.

To keep one's inner child alive is not a mild undertaking, it is the very dream and the eventual hope of man: That one will again be free to be as one was.