Myths, facts and decision making: The human animal

The world is full of facts. People are facts. Therefore myths are facts. Sounds like a logical fallacy? Well, actually it isn’t. It’s just playing with semantics a little. What I mean to say here is that facts are what help us create a picture of reality. We talk about Homo sapiens as a species because we know individuals similar to us (or me) exist, and that we can group them together. So people are facts. It also seems almost inevitable that if there are people, there will be myths, gossip and so forth. There is always a limit to our perception of reality. However, our perception of reality -which can be mistaken at times- is in itself a component of reality. We need to understand that in order to understand ourselves. That is why studying myths belonging to a particular culture is an important exercise in trying to get an anthropological or sociological picture of that culture. The diversity of myths across cultures gives us an insight into the varying ways in which human societies evolved over time. Even in relatively modern, secular societies you have truckloads of urban legends that have little basis in reality. Religion, for example, is a collection of myths. A recent study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making studied how susceptible humans are to meaningless bafflegab. Do they judge it to be more profound? This is what the study found:

We gave people syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random vague buzzwords and, across four studies, these statements were judged to be at least somewhat profound. This tendency was also evident when we presented participants with similar real-world examples of pseudo-profound bullshit.
For example, many test subjects judged statements like these to be profound:
Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.
Which has no real meaning. Rather which begs an explanation and is given none. That is what obscurantism is all about. This kind of receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit, of course, co – varied with other personality characteristics and indicators.
Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

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The new year, religious “offense” and the price of free speech

It’s the new year…according to the Gregorian calendar, which is accepted as the standard almost everywhere in the world. Different calendars have different “New Year days”. That’s one reason why I always find it difficult to take the phatic platitude of “Happy New Year” too seriously. The other is that new years are unlikely to be too “happy”. There is too much going against that possibility. For India, the new year began in a way similar to the way it did for France last year , as it did for Afghanistan and Iraq. It began with the threat of sadomasochistic suicide – murdering, commonly known these days as Islamist terrorism. It’s never in short supply when you are lucky enough to have a neighbour who suckles and nurtures terrorists or -luckier still- have them at home.

So the year last began with a ghastly spectacle motivated by religious offense – taking place in an arrondissement in Paris. It was a perfect attention – seeking stunt by murderous, ghetto – dwelling hicks who wouldn’t be given any attention otherwise. Nor would the object of their ire grab international attention. How, then, could 2016 not begin with another bout of offense taking? The Indian cricketer MS Dhoni in a new avatar:

dhoni
I couldn’t take offense with this even if I tried.

The cover of a business magazine trying to be a bit creative, perhaps. I mean, it’s really a “meh, whatever” kind of picture. Some people with a sense of humour might even find it a bit quaint and funny. Not what some people seem to think, though. Late last year, he was summoned by a court in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh after a VHP leader filed a case against him for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments.

In May 2013, Jayakumar Hiremath, a RTI activist filed a case in Bangalore under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code – intent to insult the religion of any class – for “hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community”.

In May 2014, Rajinder Singh Raja, national general secretary of the Shivesena Hindustan filed a case in Delhi saying Dhoni had insulted the Hindu religion and Lord Vishnu because he had “been portrayed as God Vishnu and instead of showing religious things, the magazine is showing products of various companies including a shoe in his hand.”

“Neither did he pose for the picture, nor were we aware of such a picture being published,”says Dhoni’s manager. Dhoni’s lawyer says he never got the summons. Whatever happened, the court couldn’t get MS Dhoni to appear before it. The result? A non – bailable warrant . Really.

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India: The moo mania, stupidity, obscurantism and hypocrisy

India has been touted as a land of “unity in diversity” for decades. I have my doubts about the “unity” part, but I have none regarding the latter. It’s intensely diverse, and its population profile complicated. Of course, the idea of India didn’t quite exist before the British colonized it, and it could be argued that India is simply a relic of British imperialism. Nevertheless, it exists as it is, and the “diversity” part is mainly because the British sought to bring the huge South Asian landmass together under their standard. They followed the policy of divide-and-rule, fractionating the natives on the basis of their creed, in addition to the fractures that had already existed. As it turns out, since independence/partition, India has shown obvious signs of a union that has been strenuously cobbled together. Anyway, that’s another story.

But there is a story to tell. The story of the cow. In India, Hindus have long held the cow sacred. They worship the animal and hold it to be as holy as a mother; the proposition of the “holiness” of the mother, somewhat in contrast to the general patriarchal premise, by the by, is seemingly an essential feature of every religion. “The Mother is Holy, but only if she is a faithful servant of God (monotheism), who is male, or goddesses who are basically sidekicks or servants of a higher ranked male god. In any case, the highest ranked is inevitably male (polytheism).” Ancient Indian societies used to be built around the cow, with agriculture being heavily dependent on bovine animals. A policy of protection of the cow was central to the popularity of many rulers, especially Muslim ones, who were deemed tolerant and wise. After independence, it was apparently noted that protection of the cow was necessary to sustain the predominantly agrarian economy of India. At the same time, animal husbandry was also encouraged, as a result of which there is an abundance of milch cattle in India today. But the cow continues to enjoy exclusive constitutional protection. I’m not an animal slaughter enthusiast, but I also don’t see the reason why people should not have the freedom to choose what they eat. From my personal point of view, it disgusts me to think of any animal being slaughtered, and if I would have my meat some other way (never mind the commercial implications there) if I could. But I do need my meat because of its nutritional value, and because it’s delicious. It’s true that eating meat involves killing of animals, but then if you had to suspend your natural survival instincts in order to exercise your compassion (i.e not take any life in the process of nutrition), you might as well practise inedia, -which by the way, is pseudoscience, and has actually led to deaths in different parts of the world- or adapt to a diet of stones and sunlight. Properly planned, high tech animal husbandry methods can certainly help replace cattle that have been felled for the purpose of human consumption, and subsidization of good breeds for farmers can help sustain the economy. That’s really the best human beings can do while not sabotaging their own interests. All it needs is a willingness to implement such measures and an open mind. It is true, however, that there are genuine concerns regarding possible health consequences of eating meat, especially red meat and processed meat. There are also environmental concerns that are associated with beef production, which is a significant producer of greenhouse gases. Further, studies have shown that the great volume of antibiotics that are used to cure livestock leads to greater antibiotic resistance development. These facts are meant to be discussed and debated in the public sphere, so that people can make informed choices, not to be co-opted by religious fascists, if at all they have knowledge of these facts.

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