The following three events are probably arranged in the increasing order of the surprise with which they took those who care for our country.
(a) Dynasty worshipping literati, such as a Nayantara Sehgal or a Munawwar Rana, returning their awards in protest;
(b) An acclaimed, genuinely talented (well, I am in no position to judge but this is what most people say), author like Vikram Seth agreeing with the other writers; and
(c) A good number of scientists petitioning against the present Government - here is the petition, and it was reported in the `news and comment' section of the prestigious scientific journal Nature.
(a) probably does not come as a surprise to many. (b) would surprise those accustomed to thinking of writers as particularly enlightened. After all, in school, we were all taught - dogmatically - to take for granted that literature and art add value to the society. However, many do realize that being a good writer does not mean much more than being able to arrange words in an aesthetic fashion (or perhaps rather, excelling from the view point of certain rigid aesthetic conventions; on this topic, do not miss out on Eric S. Raymond's take on literary status envy
). For instance, many on the right consider Arundhati Roy to be talented in literary aesthetics and yet pathetic in any kind of analytic reasoning.
The conundrum of the scientists' petition
What is on the face of it most puzzling here is scientists being swept away by the tide of the artistic chorus, with seemingly uncharacteristic disregard for data (see this
; also see [this]
). A friend of mine, who happens to be an academic, asked me how scientists who are trained in logical reasoning, who know the difference between data and anecdote and can tell good statistics from bad statistics, could make such loose allegations. Moreover, while their petition does not mention the ruling party or a specific individual by name, they claim to be adding to the voice of writers who are very clear about their political affiliations. Further, their claim regarding "the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government"', notwithstanding the fact that one of their examples chosen as illustrative was that of Narendra Dabholkar, who was killed when the currently ruling party was in charge of neither the state in which he was killed nor the center, strongly raises suspicions of "lying without lying", in the sense of trying to impress a false thought in the mind of the reader without having to take responsibility for it.
And yet, it is worth noting that:
(i) Many of these scientists are highly accomplished. Not merely the best in India, but with substantial contributions to the frontiers of human knowledge, having come up with theories or solutions to problems that some of the very best scientists in the world were looking forwarded to or impacted by.
(ii) Many of these scientists are good human beings who mean well, as people who know them vouch for. It goes without saying that, at least intentionally, they would never buy into a diabolical plan just for the sake of their political sympathies.
Aim of this article
So, I would like to propose a mechanism which I believe likely explains this phenomenon. Of course I cannot read others' minds or produce data to explain why scientists think in a certain manner, so the rest of this article is going to be quite speculative.
Preliminary considerations - scientists and rationality
To warm up, let me discuss an aspect of the issue my friend raised - how far does scientists' training in logical reasoning contribute to the rationality of their outlook? It is true that scientific research does place a very nontrivial demand for rationality. More to the point, scientists depend on their existing beliefs or expectations as to how things function, in order to make bold guesses - typically far bolder than non-scientists might expect them to be. The scientific method, or an attempted proof of a theorem, may then tell them that their idea was unrealistic or wrong. To be a successful scientist, then, one necessarily has to keep challenging one's belief system.
Thus, it might appear at first sight only reasonable to expect a scientist to be a highly rational individual. However, as Robin Hanson points out
, such a perspective is misleading. Rationality consumes resources, and hence ``you should spend your rationality budget where truth matters most to you.'' Scientists may typically not acknowledge this explicitly, but in my experience most of them realize this at some level and make adjustments accordingly. Thus, one can often see scientists consciously choosing the naive route in many a practical matter. For instance, somewhat analogously to the "rules versus principles" dichotomy, they realize that dogma is a cost effective way to implement a principle. A perhaps different but at least superficially related phenomenon is the observation
of Gaurav ji: "Gaurav's law of intellectual anisotropy. In general the genius of a person in one field is directly proportional to his chutiyapa in an unrelated field."
This is not to say that rationality is like a fixed resource to be utilized sparingly. Rather, it is probably more like a muscle which, though a "limited" resource, becomes stronger with usage. I think this `muscle view' together with the fact that scientists come from a smarter subset of the population makes scientists more rational on an average
than others, all other things being equal, but far from perfectly rational.
Thus, these considerations only partially alleviate my friend's concern and mine.
As Robin Hanson says
, we tend to form political opinions less out of a real concern for the society or interest in policy than as a means to signal our qualities. We have all evolved to be hypocrites. Without ourselves realizing, we use political arguments all the time as a means of signalling our loyalties and telling others how awesome we are as human beings. Everyone has this tendency, including academics.
Thus, the arguments that succeed are often not the most honest ones but the ones that can arm your side to signal its superiority over the other. For instance, as discussed in the previous post
, attempting certain forms of nuance can in many contexts invite unfair accusations of blaming the victim. Making arguments from certain sides involves swimming "against a moral current". This moral current may also be heavily influenced by contemporary intellectual fashion - for instance, an anti-caste crusader in sixteenth century India may find it very difficult to come up with effective ways of articulating his or her views.
Thus, the natural tendency for humans is not to pick the more honest side in an argument, but the `easier to argue' one - one that allows you to indulge your own tendency of self-validation, to signal your loyalties to what you think is the intellectually fashionable side, and increase your relative legitimacy by demonizing those on the other side. Thus, we have what we may call the "narcissism bias".
There is a way science gets over the problem of bias in human thinking - for in science, we have the concept of falsifiability. Science requires its practitioners to make predictions that can actually put their hypotheses to test, and test these hypotheses against the predictions. If our theory is not falsifiable, i.e., do not allow for predictions against which its correctness can be tested, then it is not science anymore; it is subject to human biases.
However, subjects like social science being unfalsifiable, one can easily set up systems that can explain any outcome. For instance here is the left liberal template while explaining a communal polarization or riot that occurs before the elections:
I. If the state Government is BJP ruled, blame the state Government (in fact, one who stops at just blaming the state Government cannot be faulted - law and order is indeed in the State List).
II. If not, and if the central Government is headed by the BJP, blame the central Government. This is what they did for the polarization that happened just before the 2015 Delhi elections (e.g., for the nun attack in West Bengal in which the culprits turned out to be Bangladeshis; [link]).
III. If neither the state Government nor the central Government is BJP ruled, claim that the BJP is engineering the riot in order to capture power. Further:
III.a If BJP wins the subsequent elections, claim that the BJP used communal polarization to win the elections (for instance, they use this to explain Modi's victory in the 2002 Gujarat state elections)
III.b If BJP loses the subsequent elections, claim that people rejected the communal politics of the BJP (a suitable variant of this was used following the 2015 Delhi elections).
Thus, they have a set of hypotheses ready to explain any situation - in other words, there is no falsifiability
. This protects narcissism from being tempered by truth.
Nationalism as an anti-dote to narcissism
Is there a factor that counters this unfortunate human inclination? There is, namely nationalism. If you really care for your country, you sincerely wish well for it, and this can override your desire to conform to what your colleagues say or to be led astray by your personal quest for legitimacy. You sometimes see that the theory you supported does not work well for the nation (recall, we are assuming now that you care sincerely for the nation), which forces you to update it. Thus, for instance, so much of the good criticism of the Modi government actually comes from the right wing. This does not apply to "citizen of the world" considerations in place of nationalism, for we are not wired to be that altruistic. We are, however, wired to conflate a part of our own identity with the national identity - our national identity gets tied with our own ego, something that does not happen with a "citizen of the world".
Unfortunately, many scientists have grown up to have a disdain for nationalism. They think they are "citizens of the world" with a global perspective. In the process, they overestimate their rationality, succumb to narcissism, and have their honesty compromised by the lure of easy, binary narrative.
Thus, nationalism is far more than a blind worship of artificial borders; it is perhaps our only defence against some of our darker tendencies. The senselessness of some of the smartest brains in our country is a stark illustration of why nationalism is so important and indispensable.