Becoming rational

Dec 13, 2015   #Rational  #Constitution  #Nobel  #Scientific temper 

Dr. Venkataraman, in his lecture at the Univesity of Mysore last Friday, said that India needs to become more rational and less superstitious (emphasis mine). These are just words. What do they mean?

Article 51A of The Constitution of India 1949 lists the fundamental duties of every citizen of India. One of it is this -

(citizens have a duty) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform

It is visionary of our leaders to put it in our constitution that it is our duty to be scientific, and yet 65 years down the road from when that was written, one of our top scientists is saying that as a country we need to become more rational and less superstitious. What went wrong?

To be rational is generally construed as a tendency to rely on evidence based reasoning.1 The examples that Dr. Venkataraman gives - homeopathy and astrology - point to a broader problem that common folks face. To many, it is difficult to tell what kind of evidence to ask for. They rely on experts. The thing is, we all do. For even those of us who care to read research papers, we’re still reading someone else’s work and start with some degree of trust that they’re reporting what they observed. Oh wait, that’s not a given in science btw as we also get reporting errors or, in the worst case, fraudulent papers. So a web of trust is what we rely on to decide what to pay attention to and what not to. Humans are fallible. The peer review system used in science is a socially engineered system of checks and balances that keeps scientists honest and accurate in the long run.

So if the web of trust includes folks you trust for other reasons - including family members, professionally successful folks, or folks whose reputation for something else, say a good deed they did to somebody or an organization, rubs off on to a field where they do not have expertise at all or have bogus beliefs about, it is easy to be trapped by their false beliefs or professions. It doesn’t help that people may want to create and hold on to certain beliefs for social reasons.2 Or someone may ask you for an opinion on a topic that you don’t really care about and, due to the pressure of the circumstance (say you’re on TV), you commit to an opinion that then perhaps sticks with you as part of your identity. Beliefs indeed have crazy life cycles.

The virtue of scholarship built over time can alleviate this to some extent by helping you hone an internal bull shit detector. Scholarship is not just about knowing what other people have found out about things outside, but also general patterns of fallible thinking that’s been researched by psychologists. Knowing about biases and ways in which we can cognitively fail is useful to save us from forming such false beliefs.

As for those who take to homeopathy, the experience of going to a doctor, being questioned about various symptoms, being given packets of non-descript powder or tablets or being injected with something, is for the layman not very different from the experience of going to a doctor practicing modern medicine … except perhaps the loads of extra time they spend with you. The same goes for astrologers in comparison with, perhaps, psychotherapists.

So how do we expect lay people to be able to tell the difference? If it is well established in the scientific community that these are invalid practices, should a government that requires its citizens to “develop the scientific temper” help them by sharing this knowledge and declaring these as invalid practices? Or should it play politics and ratify anything that a majority would believe in? .. be it preference of a millennia old earth over the theory of evolution, or vouching that astrology is a science, or .. take your pick.

Is it, in the end, “rational” to permit folks to have a right to believe whatever they wish to believe, even if we know that anyone with the interest of humanity at large would disown those beliefs in an instant?

Education might be an answer to this. However, the evidence is not conclusive on that front either. A good many in the USA seem to be opposed to the theory of evolution .. at least opposed enough to fight for it to not be taught at schools. We will wish to be “educated” about only those beliefs that we are willing to accept.

The “humanism” part of our fundamental duty might urge us to permit our brethren to have “freedom of beliefs” - i.e. the freedom to hold whatever beliefs they wish to take on. One possible benefit to holding that view is to consider how we may profit from that occasional radical idea that happens to be valid and impactful to our society’s development. Do recommended practices for individuals to keep their irrationality in check apply at the level of the society, or should we consider other factors that don’t apply at the individual level? If people are free enough to form superstitions, then the small likelihood that some of those superstitions would eventually turn out to be valid ideas could be worth it?

That brings us to what superstitions are. Are they merely beliefs in “impossible” connections? From a cognitive architecture perspective, correlations are about all we seem to have to derive causal connections between phenomena.3 So guessing causal connections between things that we know are not mechanistically connected as per current knowledge is part of the process by which we make sense of our world. The layman visiting a homeopath may judge the validity of the practice based on the protocol correlation with modern medical doctors. It doesn’t help that homeopathy has support in so called developed or “scientifically advanced” societies as well.4 Over time, false beliefs can be expected to cease their grip on society even in a system that unconditionally admits diversity of beliefs, but right beliefs probably will never form if you tone down the exploration of connections too much. Radical theories, in their early stages, look very similar to superstitions to outsiders (ex: string theory). The point at which it turns awry is when we get into cycles in a web of trust that sustains these superstitions without basis in evidence. Worse, we gain a vested interest in sustaining these superstitions instead of goading proponents to offer evidence for their claims. Due to this vested interest, we might concoct protective beliefs that these belief systems are somehow unquestionable.

One trait that helps is fearlessness. Ask questions. Be curious. Genuinely curious. It is fine to admit that you don’t know something. No “loss of face” in that admission. If you’re getting responses mixed with amplified emotions with little content to them, remain calm and probe further. Cut deep into the ignorance without fear. You do respondees no favour by trying to go soft on them. Cut down their arguments with as strong an argument as you can muster. If they lead you to the point of doubt, thank them for the golden opportunity and take the time to clarify things for yourself some more through study.

Have a blast fulfilling your constitutional duty!


  1. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s twelve virtues of rationality is a great summary reminder of what we ought to aspire to. The virtues are curiosity, relinguishment, lightness, evenness, argument, empiricism, simplicity, humility, perfectionism, precision, scholarship and the “nameless” twelfth one. ↩︎

  2. This is usually referred to as “belief in belief” - like “I believe it is good and righteous to believe in Santa Claus, even though I don’t truly expect Santa Claus to come down my Chimney. So I’ll pretend and teach my kids too about Santa Claus.” ↩︎

  3. I’m not referring to processes that the hard sciences have established in their communities to go beyond mere correlation to establish causation. I’m talking about the general every day usage of correlations to evaluate whether causal connections might exist. ↩︎

  4. See Regulation and prevalence of Homeopathy.

    France -

    Homeopathy is the most popular form of alternative medicine in France. Its use rose from 16% of the population in 1982 to 29% in 1987 and 36% in 1992.

    Germany -

    In 2006, homeopathic remedies accounted for 3.16% of sold units (1.08% of business volume) in the pharmaceutical sector. 0.48% of prescriptions covered by public health insurance were for homeopathical remedies. A telephone survey of German adults found that 11.5% had used homeopathy. Homeopathy accounts for 27.4% of patient contacts in the area of alternative medicine.

    Sweden -

    In September 2011, after the National Board of Health and Welfare had put a doctor on probation for recommending homeopathy to a patient, Sweden’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that “doctors can recommend homeopathy”.

    USA -

    The FDA makes significant exemptions for homeopathic remedies as compared to other drugs. Here are a few:

    • They are not required to submit new drug applications to the FDA.

    • They are “exempt from good manufacturing practice requirements related to expiration dating”.

    • They are exempt from “finished product testing for identity and strength”.

    • They may “contain much higher amounts” of alcohol than other drugs, which may contain “no more than 10 percent…and…even less for children’s medications”.