What impacts decision-making?

No pollster – save a couple of isolated academics – would predict Donald Trump’s victory at the hustings.  The media gave the findings of the pollsters as much publicity as they could, and they also went all out to influence public opinion in favour of their choice for President. They made sure the public would recall instantly all the reasons why a Trump presidency would be disastrous: fear, anger and recoil was pumped up to hysterical levels to ensure Trump would not  have a smooth ride – or indeed any ride at all – to the White House.  The media, perhaps, did not give credence to Kahneman’s assertion (Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow) that people are not as rational in their thinking as believed and their judgement is less influenced by emotions than by heuristics and biases.

But, do heuristics and biases inform our decisions to the degree that social scientists believe they do?  It is a simple rule of thumb that a person voting to have a good leader steering their country would choose experience in administration over inexperience in governance, a deliberate and considered speaker over a blustering ad hoc talker, a candidate with proven credentials in office, who had the backing of her party, over a maverick who had parachuted on to the political firmament with running battles against his own party bigwigs till voting day. A frenzied media – print and audiovisual – went all out to prejudice the public opinion against their representation of homeo horribilis. And yet, the will of the people seemed to have upended the consideration that heuristics and biases impact thought even more than emotions.

Recent upheavals in the polity of the US and India appear to be opening up uncharted avenues for research into the human psyche. Despite all that he has to his discredit the  American electorate have given a startling thumbs up to a Trump tenure. Despite all the difficulties that they have to personally undergo, the Indian public have voted overwhelmingly for the government’s demonetization initiative.

The #IndianScientificCommunity and their irrational fears

I have reproduced in this post the text of a recent online petition of the Indian scientists protesting what they term “the climate of intolerance” in the country.  My questions to them are indented, in red, in-line.

The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.

Apart from the stray comments of people in power, is there any evidence that science and reason are being eroded in the country?  Indeed, the question is: is the tradition and practice of Science in our country so vulnerable that it can allow unreason to prevail? 

It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare. All three fought against superstition and obscurantism to build a scientific temper in our society. Prof Kalburgi was a renowned scholar and an authority on the Vachana literature associated with the 12th-century reformer Basava, who opposed institutionalised religion, caste and gender discrimination. Similarly, Dr Dabholkar and Shri Pansare promoted scientific temper through their fight against superstition and blind faith.

It is important, firstly, to delink the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi from the assassinations of the rationalists.  The first, a crime against an individual, is inhumane in its conception and execution.  The other three crimes appear to have been executed against a belief system that is at odds with that of the perpetrators of the crime.  However, it is important to bear in mind that the criminals are yet to be brought to book and their motivations, exposed.  Till such time that this is done, who is responsible for these crimes can only be conjecture born of gut feeling.  It is also important, in this context, to recall that a recent news reported the finding of the dead body of one of the suspects alleged to have killed Prof. Kalburgi: the former had himself been killed under mysterious circumstances, which now has further complicated the investigation.

The Indian Constitution in Article 51 A (h) demands, as a part of the fundamental duties of the citizens, that we ‘…develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing instead is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.

Once again, this claim is not borne out by sufficient evidence.  A few stray comments do not warrant the overarching comment that “we are witnessing the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought” almost as a matter of state policy. 

More importantly, though not germane to this discussion, since ‘humanism’ has been cited as a guiding spirit behind the action of the scientists, why are the victims of Bhopal not deserving of this compassion? Why has Indian academia not take any significant step to argue the case of the thousands of ordinary people who suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of the worst man-made tragedy independent India has witnessed?

The Indian civilisation is a truly plural one. We have always had many practices and communities that have allowed space for each other; we celebrate the festivals and anniversaries of all faiths. This unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts, attacks on minorities and Dalits, which show no signs of abating.

The pluralism continues to be felt on the streets, in the markets, in every means of public transport, and in every place where masses gather to either have their opium or their caffeine and nicotine.  To superimpose a drawing room or conference room perspective of conflict on to the society at large and claim that “unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts” speaks of the disconnect of the intelligentsia with the real India.

The writers have shown the way with their protests. We scientists now join our voices to theirs, to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love.

Once again, a few stray incidents are being blown out of proportion to make it seem as if there is a war against right-thinking individuals by right-wing individuals or groups.  What people should wear, think, eat and love have always been subjects of debate.  Lumping them together as is done here only seems to be a tactic to give an impression of a crisis where no such thing exists.

Consider this: when someone asks the masses to question superstition is it not as much about telling people how to think and what to practice?  When an unwritten dress code exists in each of our public and private spaces, in institutions, at events and gatherings are we not already outsourcing our sartorial sense? As for eating: sciences of health, medicine and nutrition have more or less taken over our kitchen, and public policies in this regard are impacted by multiple agencies.  Midday meal programmes in schools that includes eggs and milk or ragi porridge and biscuits are definitely not tailored to individual tastes or cultural practices!

We appeal to all other sections of society to raise their voice against the assault on reason and scientific temper we are witnessing in India today.

“Assault on reason and scientific temper”, once again, is a hyperbolic sentiment.  It is, in fact, a reiteration of an unsubstantiated claim already made several times over in the scientific community’s rather short letter. Redundancy does not add value to a claim.  And repeating a claim does not make it any more true than what it is worth.

The views expressed in the statement are individual and do not reflect views of the institution a signatory is affiliated to.

I find this disclaimer hypocritical: Courage of conviction demands that the individuals de-link their names from their positions.  Unless an individual feels that in order to draw attention to one’s views it is necessary to use their institutional affiliation as a crutch!