Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Random reflections on the Delhi election 2015

There are lessons to be learnt from every election. What of the February 7 Delhi election? There have been non-stop dissections and analyses on ‘what, why and how’ it happened in what is called the ‘mainstream media’ since yesterday morning. The analysts’ spiels, informed by personal and political predilections, were marshalled over time, tested cautiously after the exit polls and screamed in a crescendo of rising pitch as the results appeared. The underlying theme of the analyses ran true to form – reflecting their pathological hatred for Modi, the BJP and Hindutwa. The adage ‘an enemy’s enemy is my friend!’ couldn’t be more truly applied to any other case than to their approach to Mr. Narendra Modi. The difference this time is the willy-nilly contribution of the subject (the BJP or sections of it) itself to its own torment.

The reasons too have been thrashed threadbare and there is no need to go into them. But some arguments are incongruous. If the voter couldn’t care less whether Arvind Kejriwal flies economy class or business class or even in a chartered jet, would he be put off by a suit worn by Narendra Modi?

If the voter voted for the BJP, ‘he inexplicably fell prey to the machinations of the Hindutwa forces’; if the voter votes out the BJP, ‘he voted wisely to defeat communal forces’. If Baba Ramdev canvasses for votes, ‘the BJP is communalising the election’. If a Fr. Frazer Mascarenhas or a Imam Bukhari issues a fatwa calling for the defeat of the BJP it is ‘a valourous attempt to defeat communal forces’. Don’t they have freedom of speech?

There however appear to be two key determinants in this election that the pundits either did not notice or did not articulate because it is politically incorrect to do so. If they did, it would not be possible to sing paeans to the ‘sagacity of the ordinary Indian voter’ and ‘the triumph of Indian democracy’ in the same breath.

The two factors are apathy towards corruption and a penchant for freebies, which are interlinked. It is quite simple. Why should the voter bother whether a leader travels economy class or business class or uses the executive jet provided by a businessman whom he bashes in carefully choreographed press briefings? All he is interested in is the promise of free electricity, free water and if possible a free colour television. Hasn’t it worked in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh in the past? There may be long power outages in the hinterland of Andhra Pradesh but it affects only someone who has an air-conditioner at home or someone who runs a factory. Colour televisions given away in Tamil Nadu may have only ornamental value (because of power outages in rural areas) but recipients can always sell them in second hand shops and await the next election. Government employees in Uttar Pradesh may arrive late and exit early but it affects only those who have to visit these offices.

Any attempt to discipline this privileged class will adversely affect the electoral fortunes of those who attempt to discipline them as Jayalalithaa and Chandrababu Naidu found out in the past. They not only form a large electoral block which can make a difference to an election but more importantly they administer – and possibly can manipulate – electoral processes.

It takes time to fix an economy mired in inefficiency and an administration steeped in corruption. It takes time to put in place basic infrastructure – like electricity, roads and water, and contain inflation. It is not possible to distribute wealth without first generating it. 

But these are concepts the ordinary voter neither cares nor understands. Why should he? For him subsistence today is more important than a vague promise of tomorrow. He is really not bothered whether a leader lives in a large villa or a 200-crore palatial bungalow. Let a neta embezzle 1000 crores or even 10000 crores. It is a perquisite that comes with the profession! The ordinary voter is neither awed nor shocked by the ostentation or the vulgarity of greed in Delhi where there is a millionaire under every brick and where Audis and Bentleys could be seen crawling like ants at traffic intersections. The poor man would be happy to get the little trinket that is promised to him. The poor man is really not bothered whether AAP has received huge moneies from shell companies whose address does not exist as long as he gets a 500 or 1000-rupee note along with his voter slip. This time around the AAP is sitting pretty. It could claim credit for fulfilling its promises, if it does. It could also wring its hands and plead helplessness for failing to do so, pointing fingers at an un-cooperative centre. It is a win-win situation! For it the next battle is five years away. 

In 2009 someone pointed out that to fill all the promises made by the Congress party or its rival the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, the state budget would not be adequate. Competitive populism of offering freebies is like riding a tiger for the political parties. None dares desisting it, lest it gave an advantage to a competitor. Just as they all ganged up to resist being brought under the ambit of the RTI they would not come together to legislate to restrict electoral promises to what is feasible. What is the way forward? Why, judicial activism so abhorred by the cynical politicians. For that some public spirited citizen must approach the courts with a PIL. 

P.S.: A little bird in the social media forums says that a war chest of Rs 7-8000 crores was deployed to defeat the BJP in the election! There are also dark hints that certain interests inimical to India’s majority religion have unleashed an insidious campaign.  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is astrology science or superstition?

On the eve of the May 2014 general elections, several Telugu news channels conducted what they call ‘panel discussions’ on astrology. It would be a mistake to expect ‘panel discussions’ on television to be objective in which the two sides of the issues under discussion are debated and rational conclusions arrived at. There is nothing rational or scientific about the debates. The subjects are selected based on their topicality to arouse viewer interest and are subject to two limitations: the channel’s political worldview and political correctness of the subject. Commercial interests of course determine a channel’s political worldview. As for political correctness even the most intrepid champions of freedom of speech tread cautiously as they are wary of backlash. If they are sure there would be no backlash, they would go overboard flogging the issue. There is no need to state the converse.

In the discussions on astrology, a couple of ‘not-very-articulate’ astrologers were pitted against rabble rousing rationalists and asked to predict the outcome of the elections. Despite protestations that Jyothisha predictions should not be made without sufficient data they were made to predict electoral outcomes, only to be jeered at. The anchors saw to it that the odd articulate astrologer did not get enough air time. He was simply shouted down in cacophony. The overt objection of the rationalists to astrology is that it is unscientific. If the objections were really ‘scientific’, they should have objected to such disciplines as craniometry (measurement of the head), phrenology (measurement of the skull) and nasal indices as predictors of race not to speak of the wholly unscientific Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) - which was based not on historical or archaeological evidence but on comparative philology!

Their unstated, underlying objection could be that it is a Hindu discipline! The rationalists, with their pathological rather than logical hatred for everything Hindu forget that the original Jyothisha Vedänga concerned itself with astronomy, not astrology. The primary objective of this Vedic addendum (of the Rig and Yajur Vedas) was in the preparation of almanacs. The Indian almanac writers known as Siddhantis have been producing accurate almanacs for hundreds of years. The predictive discipline of astrology was a latter-day offshoot, just as psephology was an offshoot of political science which itself can hardly be described as science. The question that the faux rationalists should seriously introspect is why do they unquestioningly believe in psephology while they equally irrationally disbelieve in astrology.

What logical arguments do the rationalists offer in support of their contention that astrology is unscientific? Do they offer cogent reasoning and verifiable proofs? No, just an arrogant and unsubstantiated assertion that it is ‘impossible’! In the history of science, there are many examples which disprove the theory of ‘impossibility’ when subsequent discoveries upturned confident assertions. For example, in 1800, the English scientist John Dalton proposed that the atom was the smallest particle of elements and is indestructible.

Eysenck and Nias list several ‘impossibility’ theories which fell flat when subsequent discoveries disproved them.  (Eysenck, H. J., and and Nias, D.K.B., 1984. Astrology Science or Superstition? New York. Penguin Books). In 1933 Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford two of the world’s greatest physicists declared that the splitting of an atom could have no practical uses. Just twelve years later America dropped its bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many countries in the world today harness the energy released by the splitting of an atom for peaceful uses.

Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus, all dismissed the theory that oceanic tides were caused by the moon as ‘astrological nonsense’. Johannes Muller, a very reputed nineteenth century physiologist and the author of an authoritative monograph on the subject, declared that measuring the speed of a nervous impulse would never be possible. Only three years later Helmholtz had measured it quite accurately.

What is science and what are the criteria that should be satisfied for a discipline to be declared scientific? Eysenck and Nias suggest three methodologies. Sir Francis Bacon’s induction method involves collection of facts and a theory hypothesized based on them. The Vienna School of Logical positivism suggests that a theory is proposed which is then verified or disproved by research. Then there is Sir Karl Popper’s argument that no theory can be finally verified as, even after a theory is verified umpteen times, one more experiment might still disprove it. The catch in this proposition is that Popper believes that ‘a theory is scientific if it is open, not to being proved true (which it never can) but to being proved wrong’. The authors argue that none of these methodologies were ever applied to astrology before disqualifying it as science.

A generally accepted criterion for a scientific theory is that its results should be replicable, i.e. it should yield predictable results and that the same results should be obtained in repeated experiments. Let us consider the example of modern medicine to validate this theory. Medical magazines regularly publish clinical trial reports of medical, surgical, radiological or other procedures used in the treatment of diseases. The reports very rarely report 100% cure rates with several trials reporting as low as 60-70% successes. This means the results of curative procedures used in modern medicine are not always replicable. In spite of this anomaly, none disputes that modern medicine is a scientific discipline. ‘Statistical significance’ (rather than absolute conformity) is an accepted criterion for validation of results in ‘double blind cross over’ clinical trials used to study the efficacy of medicines. A majority of rationalists appear to be unaware of such nuances in scientific criteria.

While Eysenck and Nias do not explicitly say that astrology is a scientific discipline, the do not dismiss it as superstition either. They argue that more data is needed to come to a definite conclusion and more research. They cite the work of Michel and Francoise Gaquelin to support their view. The Gaquelins were not astrologers but professional psychologists steeped in the ways of research. Their work in cosmobiology found a positive correlation between certain personality traits (which determine professional success) and planetary positions at the time of birth. Here is a brief account of the work of the Gaquelins that may be instructive:

*Eysenck and Nias describe them as ‘a rare combination, possessing both a detailed knowledge of astrology and a genuine scientific outlook based on a formal academic training.’

*The Gaquelins began their work by analyzing 576 members of the French Academy of Medicine, ‘who had achieved academic distinction by virtue of their research. They found that the doctors were all born when Mars or Saturn had just risen or just passed midheaven.

*In order to validate the theory, the Gaquelins tried to replicate their experiment with another group of 508 doctors with similar antecedents. The replication conformed with the original observation.

*Encouraged and intrigued by the results they extended the research to include other professionals in Belgium, Germany, Holland and Italy and reviewed 25,000 birth charts. When they contrasted 5,100 successful artists with 3,647 successful scientists they found quite interestingly that while the scientists were born when Saturn has just risen or was past midheaven, the artists tended to avoid being born under the planet.

*Similarly when they reviewed the birth charts of 3,438 military leaders, in 680 cases (against 590 sufficient for statistical significance) they found that Mars, considered the symbol of the god of war had risen or was past midheaven.

*In order to confirm the results the researchers studied control groups selected from the general population and concluded that the planetary positions as mentioned occurred only for the births of the famous and distinguished. The results seem to indicate that these planets are ‘related to destiny, success and good fortune’.

*A corollary to the observations already made was the predictability of certain character traits found in business leaders and successful sportspersons. It was found that those with birth times associated with Mars were seen to have greater determination and iron will.

*A study that reviewed the birth charts of 2,089 sportspersons, 1,409 actors and 3,647 scientists could predict personality factors like ‘extravert’, ‘introvert’, ‘unstable’ and ‘tough-minded’.

*The researchers made quite a few other interesting observations in their studies. It is not possible to include them all here for want of space. However one point deserves mention. Invariably the results the researches obtained conformed to naturally occurring births and not artificially induced ones. This means that human hand cannot design destiny. It has to be ordained by the Gods!

Eysenck and Nias conclude that “the time has come to state quite unequivocally that a new science is in process of being born.” 

It may be apt to remember what Bertrand Russel said on ‘the value of scepticism’: “when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain”?

Tailpiece: The union HRD minister has as much right to visit an astrologer as the ‘goddess of small things’ and other secularists for hobnobbing with ISI front men like Gulam Nabi Fai. The former is her personal affair and does not harm the nation whereas the latter is detrimental to national interests.