Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Little More Reason- II

In my last article (March 30), I tried to ask if our rationalist-culturalist divide could be bridged up by way of contestation and interpretation of the given myths in our society. One disadvantage of living in a country like ours with an ancient history are the many cognitive burdens we carry around that could have been eased or discarded with some thoughtful effort.

I have long wondered, for example, what may be keeping us from seriously questioning and debating if Sita was, indeed, born directly of earth. The irony is, we are told, King Janak of Bideha, the adoptive father of Sita, was a noted scholar, who regularly hosted intellectuals in pursuit of truth and wisdom. But he never seems to have been curious enough to invite anyone to challenge or to validate the truth about Sita’s mysterious “earthly” manifestation. Contrast that with the western skeptics who have produced volumes on the implausibility of Jesus’ resurrection and also his birth without physical conception.

Telling the kids that we have many-handed goddesses, and other gods with elephant trunks and serpents around their necks is different from explaining why they are so weirdly conceived. Rather than a ridicule of our beliefs, it is a rational appreciation of our complex origin. The strangest thing is, once initiated into this magical divinity, kids hardly find such “facts” cognitively dissonant. Do not expect any “no, duhh” from these new conformists.

I told a child that Saraswati, the goddess of learning, in fact, did not have four hands. Long time ago, the pre-literate people struggled to grasp the abstract notions of mind, intellect, alertness and ego, the four aspects of human personality in learning that the goddess was made to represent. The elite transformed her into a tetradic visual model so the masses could internalize those concepts. And she probably did not ride a white swan simply because the bird could have been easily crushed to death by her weight.

Hmmm. Now the little child twitches his brows, gives me that bitter look of disapproval finding my alternative version of truth uncomfortable. It is as if I was trying to disrupt his cognitive order, perhaps I was committing an act of mental terror.

Forget about the ancient myths and childish credulity, this cognitive propensity is evident in contemporary life, among grown-ups. I am not referring to opinions or ideology of belief. They are fundamentally about likes and dislikes and not about right or wrong. You cannot falsify anybody’s views, but only the facts they propose in support of their ideas. So the greatest challenge to our science, our rational way of life today is our complacency with inaccuracies, distortions, wild rumors, sweeping generalizations that make up our modern myths, our concocted f/actualities.

Did you believe people all around you recently telling you that you should not get soaked in the rain or exposed to winds because the radioactive substances from the Japanese nuclear disaster were arriving in Nepal? One is tempted to believe in such things because modern science has its tentacles spread everywhere and it has mysterious ways of affecting our lives, beyond our common understanding. The point here, however, is there seemed to be nobody, not even our government, our scientists, to reject or validate the fear, to explain the facts of the matter, or simply to manage the hysteria.

Accepting a given fact without the context of the fact can be a dangerous adventure. One area of much relevance to Nepal is the debate on “climate change.” Utter those words and you get an image of an impending apocalypse, because our lands will soon be turned into deserts, our mountains will dry up, and our glaciers will sweep away our towns and villages. But no, we cannot easily undo the once-accepted, reverberating facts. And those sacred facts (that our glaciers will “very likely” disappear by 2035) came last year from someone in authority.

The problem is not with the kind of assertion made but with the degree of impact it underscored. It turned out that the study by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was flawed; it had cited a decade-old estimate of a climate scientist. But we have to live with its initial shock. Had we taken the facts with the context, for example, along with other competing facts, we would be able to read a more complete story.

But an even bigger issue with human cognition is that it adores some facts and loathes others or outright rejects or distorts them, especially in the service of its own ego (one of Hamshabahini’s hands). I present two examples that continue to veil us from our socio-economic realities only because they help nurture our quintessential Nepali national pride, sustained often through political agenda.

We have not yet found a definitive answer to a question as simple as this: How poor is our country, exactly? Yes, we sure feel we know it; we have since long been familiar with this common refrain— garib desh, dhani janata (rich people, poor country). However, I have not come across any formal evidence collected to scientifically validate this widespread belief. Is it true only because we like to believe it?

It looks like we do not need any evidence, and even if we do, we can seek such evidence that confirms our hunch, our notions, our preexisting belief. Today, remittance often serves as that evidence. We were told that as more and more of our boys and girls were working abroad, Nepal’s per capita income had doubled in the last decade. In 2010, fewer people, 24.7 percent to be precise, were under poverty level, as compared to the 42 percent six years earlier. When in July last year an Oxford University study conducted for UNDP put the figures at a whooping 65 percent, we were not to be intimidated; our officials refuted it, and we stood by our facts. Yes, Nepalis are rich.

Another familiar data that serves to inflate our national pride is “83,000 megawatts.” We have been taught this since school, so it must be true that Nepal is jalbidhutko dhani desh (hydro-power rich country). Focus on the immense possibility, the abundance of power; no distinction whatsoever between water-rich and hydro-potential. The contextual fact is Hari Man Shrestha, the expert who came up with these numbers for his doctoral thesis written in the early mid-60s also estimated that only 42,000 megawatts of power was economically and technically viable in our waters. More recent studies have found 53,000 megawatts viable. But for our cognitive constancy, and our sense of pride— “next only to Brazil”— we are not going to disown this sacred fact that easily. The bigger, the better. In number games, small is NOT beautiful.

These new myths stand in our way of learning and pursuing true facts that have grave implications for our lives and works. Just like a gyani child taught to quietly absorb the givens, we accept them as universals. My argument is that if we are to face our realities as they are, and if we are to plan or work realistically, there are many scientific facts that need to be questioned, just as we should contest myths. Modern myths thrive on unverified, outdated scientific statistics and claims.

Happily, we sometimes do get to see such contestations focused on refining existing knowledge. Of all our prides, let us take Sagarmatha, Mt Everest itself. The US Geological Survey conducted a GPS survey in 1999 to measure the mountain and found that it was 2 meters higher than 8,848 meters, the numbers from the 1955 survey. The new finding triggered further scientific surveys and debates. China’s May 2005 survey showed the mountain was 0.43 meters higher from the original. Nepal and China agreed to take it as the accurate measure.

Another recent example of vetting scientific facts was a lively debate last month on the correlation between menstruating Nepali girl students and their drop-out rates. News reports did not just say that our government was spending US$15 million to build separate toilets for female public school students; they also cited hard scientific data suggesting that menstruation had very little impact on school attendance.

The media could do more of such probing works on our many “facts.” However, journalists, who traditionally were in the lead of professional skeptics, find little enthusiasm these days for getting the facts right. If a minister throws a number, they quickly relay it to the public, without bothering to question it, and without verifying the givens. They hardly find the urge to quote a statistician or a scientist. So what we most often get are culturally embellished facts, myths-in-the-making.

Published in the Republica, April 13, 2011