Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Indians Don't Understand History (Or, How India Can Reclaim Its Civilisational Destiny)


Most Indians, even those who consider themselves savvy about current affairs, suffer from a shocking ignorance of India’s civilisational history.

The malaise afflicts analysts, commentators and policymakers as well, and it has serious negative consequences for the prospects of the Indian nation-state.

This paper lays out the scale of the problem, the impediments towards establishing a genuine civilisational narrative, and the epiphanies that can follow from such a narrative.

The implications for India’s foreign policy, and indeed India’s civilisational destiny, are mind-boggling.

Read the full document online on Medium, or download the PDF document from here.

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Indian Institutes Of Obscurantism? (Pronounced "Aiyaiyo") - My Critique Of A Blatantly Unscientific And Ideologically-Driven Embarrassment From IIT Kharagpur

As an alum of the IITs (BTech - IIT Madras, MTech - IIT Kanpur), I was embarrassed and dismayed to see a calendar from IIT Kharagpur (for 2022) that was riddled with pseudo-science, bad arguments, blatantly ideological narratives and unprofessional polemic.

Let me take a deep breath and find a suitable starting point.

There is a "Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS)" at IIT Kharagpur.

Under normal circumstances, I would welcome the establishment of such a department or organisation, since I believe there are many rough diamonds in Indian culture that are waiting to be investigated, tested, refined and given the respectability they deserve in the modern world. An external example of the kind of development I would like to see is the Nobel Prize-winning work of the Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou in 2015. Dr Tu rigorously investigated an ancient Chinese remedy for malaria and proved its efficacy through clinical trials. There are without doubt innumerable such elements within Indian culture, not just in Ayurveda, but also in other streams of thought, and so I would love to see an establishment like this Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems do the same for India.

Unfortunately, the stewardship of "Indian Knowledge Systems" seems to have been commandeered by right-wing Hindutva ideologists, who are doing great damage to the reputation of Indian Knowledge Systems by their unscientific and ideologically biased initiatives. Far from India getting the respect it deserves for its various intellectual contributions to the world, it is being reduced to a laughing stock thanks to the ham-fisted way in which these culture warriors are approaching this endeavour.

The calendar I am about to dissect takes up one aspect of this culture war, where it attempts to refute a bugbear of the Hindu right, i.e., the Aryan Invasion Theory.

[The calendar has not gone unnoticed, by the way. A number of people from scientific disciplines have poured scorn over it, including my good friend Seshadri Kumar in a brilliant and incisive post.]

As I have posted before, the reason why the Aryan Invasion Theory is anathema to the Hindu Right is that if it is proven that Hindu "Vedic" culture owes significant elements to sources external to India, then the ideological narrative of Muslims and Christians being cultural outsiders to a Hindu India is effectively torpedoed. It's nothing less than an existential battle for the Hindu Right, and the recent genetic findings establishing the basic validity of the Aryan Invasion Theory have put them in an extremely difficult position.

The calendar from IIT-KGP goes hammer and tongs against the Aryan Invasion Theory with a series of "evidences". [Although the word "evidence" is normally uncountable like "furniture", "evidences" is evidently an acceptable plural form in academic English. I'm still getting used to it, though.]

At the risk of providing further oxygen to this forgettable document, let me point out what is wrong with it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and bad ideas are best defeated by good arguments, not by Cancel culture, so here goes.

Let me first deal with the things the calendar does well (from the perspective of its proponents):

  1. It's visually arresting, with lots of colourful images;
  2. It is superficially well-structured, and appears to build up a coherent argument based on "initial", "intermediate" and "final" evidences;
  3. It uses a lot of scientific-sounding jargon in conjunction with Sanskritic terms, providing an impression that Hindu religious thought is based on science;
  4. It carries the IIT brand, which should awe a lay reader who may lack the intellectual wherewithal to challenge its arguments.

Being an alum of the IITs myself, I am not awed, merely dismayed that one of these highly respected institutes could stoop to producing such pathetic drivel. So let's dive in.

Before I delve into the calendar page-by-page to address each of its flaws in detail, let me provide a high-level framework to understand the thrust of this document.

Here's my one-page critique of the calendar. Feel free to download and circulate this chart. I have released it under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence.

Now let's go through it, page by page. It's painful, but also entertaining in its own way.

1. Initial Evidences

The first page engages in circular reasoning, by starting with an unproven accusation that the history of India's "Vedic" civilisation has been unfairly distorted by historians. "It must have taken a few 1000 years to achieve [a long evolutionary sequence of literature, and cultural and spiritual texts]". No proof is offered, just an appeal to the reader's sympathy that "it must have taken longer than what is credited". A number of emotive words are used - suppression, compromises, compressions, distortions, faults and biases.

The simplest explanation, of course, is that Vedic culture and literature indeed had much longer antecedents than 2000 years, but outside the Indian subcontinent. This is a possibility that the Hindu Right refuses to entertain.

Such an explanation would of course close the argument before it could even begin, hence the need for circular reasoning.

2. January (India's Sacred Space)

This page makes an important point that the Southern side of the Himalayas had not one but three riverine systems - the Indus valley, the Ganga-Gomati-Ghaghara valley, and the Brahmaputra (Sanpo) valley. There is a distinct possibility that the civilisational history of India prior to 2000 BCE included not just the famous Indus Valley Civilisation, but these two valleys as well.

However, while this is an important point, it is not a fatal flaw in the Aryan Invasion Theory. The references in the Rig Veda to the Gomati river are not dated. It is entirely possible that the Aryans swept through the Indo-Gangetic plain after overrunning the Indus Valley Civilisation, and that the references in the Rig Veda to these areas date from that period onward. Geographically, once the Hindukush mountains are crossed, there are few barriers to an invading army, and India's plains lie open and exposed. All three indigenous valley civilisations could have succumbed to an invader at about the same time.

3. February (Cyclic Time and Reincarnation)

This page is filled with such woo that it deserves to be dismissed with utter contempt.

"The constructs of space, time and causation is the bedrock of Vedic religious ideals."

This might impress some people, but it's a transparently pathetic attempt to make Hinduism appear like a "scientific" religion by throwing in some scientific-sounding terms.

"The law of causation is based on a chain of interdependence further based on subtle actions and reactions of the flow and value of work (Karma-vada) observed by an individual. The resultant is a chain of reincarnation, through transmigration and metempsychosis (Janmantar-vada) of souls at the cosmic level."

Souls, reincarnation, karma? This belongs in the realm of religion, not science. [Hello IITs, is this really you behind this calendar, or has your soul been possessed by some reincarnated demon? You're earning bad karma by violating your dharma as an institute devoted to science and technology, you know.]

"Rig Veda confirms that the life-principle of Agni as a chain (Vayu or Sutra-atman) over many lives (Jataveda) carrying its subtle repository of experiences (3rd Mandala 26.2-7)"

Oh, the Rig Veda "confirms" this, does it? An unimpeachable authority, no doubt. Is this meant to be a serious proof? A bit like Muslims claiming the Quran speaks the truth because it itself says so! [Dear IITs, if I had provided such a "proof" in one of my exam answer papers when I was studying within your hallowed portals, would you have given me anything other than a zero?]

"The science of Palingenesis constitute the essence and practice of Indian spirituality."

Palingenesis is a concept, not a science. It is a concept in theology and philosophy. In the science of biology, this concept (also called recapitulation) has been discredited.

Indian "spirituality" is emphatically not a science, just a set of unproven beliefs.

"The gnostic foundations of Indian spirituality is an alien or unknown element to civilizations in Europe, whether from the Caucasus Eurasia or from the Steppes. It is also missing in the Semitic foundations of religions practiced in the West and in the Middle East. Therefore, the invading Aryans, if any, had nothing to offer to the development of Indian Cosmology !"

First, a minor point. "Gnostic" sounds like a respectable term, but it is the very opposite of scientific. The Sanskrit term for gnosticism is "adhyatma vidya", or "knowledge from within". I.e., instead of observing a phenomenon and doing evidence-based research, one retreats into navel-gazing meditation and comes up with insights. It isn't very different from the Pope retreating to commune with God about important moral issues and re-emerging with a "divine" revelation over what needs to be done. Gnosticism is hardly a scientific approach, and should not be elevated to such a pedestal.

The important point here though, is that the prior existence of a gnostic tradition in India, even if true, does not refute the notion of an Aryan invasion, since the Aryan Invasion Theory only states that a fusion of cultures took place, not that Aryan culture replaced Dravidian culture and gave rise to Vedic thought all by by itself. [This is the strawman argument I referred to at the beginning.]

4. March (Law of Space-Time Causation)

This is again a repetition of the previous argument, that the Aryans did not have the concepts of "Yoga" or "gnostic foundations", and hence could not have been the progenitors of the Vedic culture.

But this is not a refutation of the Aryan Invasion Theory, because the theory postulates a fusion of Aryan and Dravidian cultures to form the Vedic culture. It is entirely possible that the Vedic culture draws its gnostic elements from the Dravidian culture, and other elements from the Aryan. [The strawman argument again.]

5. April (Non-linear Flow and Changes)

"The parable of the flow of seasons; an iteration of cycles of summer and winter, or spring and autumn are various allegories or metaphors. Chinese philosopher Confucius and Lao-Tzu have also used these parables."

The calendar seems to be arguing against itself here. If the concept of cyclical flow also exists in China, then there is nothing uniquely Indian about it.

"The cycle of the six seasons is the epitome of the wheel of life in the Vedas, and stands for the steadfast parable of a Eka-sringa (Unicorn) Rhinoceros in Buddhism, evident again and again in the Indus Valley seals."

This is a highly confused and confusing set of statements. What is the proof that the cycle of six seasons is the "epitome of the wheel of life in the Vedas"? Second, would the notion of cyclical seasons not be an obvious one to any culture? Third, what is the connection between a cycle and a unicorned rhinoceros? Fourth, how does the existence of a unicorned rhinoceros in the Indus Valley seals and the concept of an Eka-sringa rhinoceros in Buddhism together refute the Aryan Invasion Theory?

"The invading Aryans, if any, had no idea of these subtle constructs. It fulfills the disapproval of the invasion myth."

What "subtle constructs"? Any culture would know of the cycle of seasons. It is blindingly obvious and not subtle at all. And if the concept of the unicorned rhinoceros persisted from the Indus Valley civilisation through to post-Vedic Buddhism, then it simply means that this strand of Indian culture was contributed by the Dravidians rather than by the Aryans when the two cultures fused. It doesn't refute the influx of the Aryans. [Strawman argument again.]

6. Intermediate Evidences

The quote from Swami Vivekananda is an opinion, not a proof of any sort. He would say what he said, wouldn't he? My earlier blog post analyses the difficult conditions of his youth, which caused him to evolve his particular worldview.

"In what Veda, in what Sukta, do you find that the Aryans came into India from a foreign country?"

Genetics is stronger evidence than any Veda or Sukta, my dear Swami. I agree it's unfair to expect you to know about this, since these findings occurred after your time.

"The object of the peoples of Europe is to exterminate all in order to live themselves. The aim of the Aryans is to raise all up to their own level, nay, even to a higher level than themselves."

A self-congratulatory statement with zero evidence. And the Swami is using the term "Aryans" here to refer to what he believes to be an unbroken Indian civilisation. How confusing.

"In Europe, it is everywhere victory to the strong and death to the weak. In the land of Bhârata, every social rule is for the protection of the weak."

Which may explain the treatment of Dalits in Hindu society? Some protection!

7. May (Sacred Feminine - The Matrix)

"This tradition [of representing the nation as mother] is unknown to the West, where nations are hailed as fatherlands."

This assertion is easily refuted by counter-example. Russia, as a steppes culture that is most closely associated with the Aryans (there is a strong relationship between Russian and Sanskrit, both in vocabulary and in grammar), refers to the nation as a motherland, as do many other Western cultures. [There is also the tradition of referring to "Mother Earth" in the West, which is an inconvenient fact the calendar glosses over.]

Hence there is nothing unique about the concept of a Bharat-mata ("Mother India"). Russia has an exactly analogous concept of "Rodina-mat" (nation-mother). One could argue that this fact proves that the concept of the nation as mother came to India from the steppes pastoralists (Aryans)!

"Rig Veda (1.164.46) forwards the sovereign sutra of the unity in diversity, either as the principle of death i.e., YAMA, and that of Resurrection of life, earmarked as MATARISVAN."

It is not at all clear what "unity in diversity" or the "principle of death and resurrection" have to do with the "sacred feminine", or why this is somehow unique to Indian thought.

"E Pluribus Unum" ("Out of many, one") is a well-known Latin phrase, and the phoenix is a mythical bird from Greek mythology that symbolises death and resurrection. [Dear IITs, what are you trying to say here? If I had used such logic in my exam proofs, wouldn't you have given me a zero?]

8. June (Unicorn - The Eka-Sringa Rishi)

So much confusion on just one page!

Unicorn-as-horse versus unicorned rhinoceros referred to on the April page - Make up your minds!

A "spinal column of light" "Neuro-physiologically, it is the spinal chord, the inner trunk of Yoga shoots above the eyebrow." There is nothing "neuro-physiological" about a "spinal column of light". The concept is just woo. [Dear IITs, you are making me cringe!]

"In Epic Ramayana and Early Buddhism, he is identified as Sage RisyaSringa."

As Seshadri Kumar has pointed out, sage Risyasringa was supposed to have the horns of a deer, and this had nothing to do with a unicorn!

9. July (Column of Cosmic Light & Aeons Of Time)

"The Colonial rules forged a different and skewed history, suppressing or misinterpreting Shiva as a Pre-Aryan Dravidian godhead isolated from portions of the Vedas."

Again, this assumes a manichean view of Aryan culture supplanting Dravidian culture to form Vedic culture, whereas the Aryan Invasion Theory postulates the fusion of the two, in which case all these "evidences" are hardly a refutation. [The strawman argument again.]

10. August (Cosmic Symmetry: The Septuplet Chord)

A number of different arguments are made here, which are not provably connected.

Duality is a common concept to many cultures. It is not unique to India.

The concept of seven elements (colours of the rainbow, musical notes, etc.) are again not unique to India but are found in other cultures too.

"They are portrayed as the giver of Madhu, the elixir of immortality, the very secret of inter-connectedness of consciousness in this universe. Thus Vedic Cosmology is a direct clue to philanthropy and altruism as against dialectics of racial superiority and inferiority, as promoted by Colonial historians."

This is drawing a long bow. The notion of givers of the elixir of immortality is not a proof that Vedic Cosmology is philanthropic and altruistic. On the contrary, the Hindu myth of the samudra-manthan that gave rise to amrit is marked by the deception of the asura race and their denial of this elixir in favour of the deva race. Does this not prove exactly what this calendar is trying to disprove, that the Vedic story of amrit represents the "dialectics of racial superiority and inferiority"?

"But the objectives of the Aryan Invasion is one of aggression, genetic superiority by race and skin color. The gospel of the Vedas is based on principles of adaptation, acceptance and assimilation; where as the Aryan invasion myth is based on aggression, invasion and extermination of other races ! They do not match."

This is a weak argument based on appeal to emotion. Why can a period of aggression not be followed by a philosophical period where assimilation and acceptance are emphasised? This is hardly an "evidence".

11. Final Evidences

After the damp squib of the initial and intermediate "evidences", there isn't much hope that the final evidences are going to be any better. And as we look at the last four months of the calendar, the set of "final evidences" turns out to be nothing more than an exercise in conspiracy theorising about why the colonialists came up with the Aryan Invasion Theory. [Sneak preview: The colonialists were culturally insecure, unlike us proud Hindus!]

12. September (Why An Aryan Invasion Myth Was Forged)

"The colonial invaders, from the Portuguese to the British, were shaken by the striking similarity between millions of words evident in Indian languages and others in the European Tree of Linguistics. So they had to forge an Indo-European Language system, and further design a history of invading in-migration prior to the Buddha, Plato and Lao-Tzu. They proposed that the superior Colonial rulers invaded the inferior India the second time in 17th century! What an audacity and arrogance!"

Why is this "audacity and arrogance"? Isn't linguistic similarity a sufficient basis for postulating a migration in one direction or another? Since you accept that there is a "striking similarity between millions of words [...] in Indian languages and [...] the European Tree of Linguistics", what alternative explanation would you offer for this phenomenon? Given that the "Out of India Theory" has been comprehensively discredited by genetics, the only plausible theory that remains is a migration into India from outside. Isn't it logical? Sorry, but I fail to see any "audacity and arrogance" here. I only see your cultural insecurity on display.

13. October (Equivalence in Semantics and Semiotics)

"The colonial invaders were also shaken and shocked by the extent of similarities. They had to quickly maneuver and recast a story of Asiatic Invasion via the Caucasus and Central Steppes to prove a one-way flow of culture and sciences from the West to the East."

This reads like a thriller novel. The colonial invaders were "shaken and shocked", not merely intrigued. They had to "quickly maneuver". To avoid what catastrophic outcome exactly?

If the Hindu revivalists wanted to paint a picture of an insecure culture, they could have just used a mirror instead. The desperation in their "evidences" comes across, exclamation marks and all.

14. November (Aggression and Imperialism - An Invasion)

"From a system of philology and linguistics to racial primacy"

The calendar takes issue with Western academics drawing unwarranted conclusions from linguistics to postulate theories about race, especially concepts of racial superiority.

In a generic context, one could of course critique the drawing of racial inferences from mere linguistic similarities, but with modern genetic research having established the existence of separate genetic groups that migrated into India in several waves, the hypothesis of distinct racial groups has been vindicated. Even if the motives of the colonialists in postulating an Aryan Invasion were self-serving, that theory, for better or worse, has now been proven. Those who believe in evidence-based research [Hello, IITs!] should accept evidence even if they personally hate it.

And just so we're clear, accepting the fact of an Aryan Invasion of India does not equate to an acknowledgement of the superiority or inferiority of any group, so you can get that chip off your shoulder.

15. December (Aryan Fallacy and The Two World Wars)

The calendar blames racial theories behind both world wars whereas it is only true of the Second World War, as Seshadri Kumar has pointed out. The causes of the First World War have been well researched and established, and these had nothing to do with racial theories. Even with the Second World War, race was not the only casus belli. Resentment over the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles was probably a bigger contributor. The calendar is drawing a really long bow here in its attempt to gather supporting evidences.

16. Epilogue (The Story of Civilisation)

The page features a collection of books dealing with much later periods than the time of the Aryan Invasion (2000 BCE). It is not clear what purpose this serves apart from furthering the polemic about "East versus West".

The poetic quote by Swami Vivekananda is a hopeful statement about the resurgence of Eastern civilisations. It is not a proof of the superiority of "Indian Knowledge Systems".

16. Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS)

The term "Indian Knowledge Systems" is itself vague and non-rigorous, and not at all what I had hoped it would mean. As this calendar disappointingly demonstrates, a lot of its elements are in the realm of belief and philosophy, not evidence-based science. Any superstition can be defended as a "knowledge system" using this logic.

The page lists the rogue's gallery of all those responsible for this execration. I'm surprised they couldn't coopt Deepak Chopra. I suspect he's a fraud of a much higher league who doesn't want to be associated with relative amateurs.

Sanjeev Sanyal is unfortunately part of this cabal. I had great respect for him at one time as an author of several important books on Indian history. Alas, he has compromised his intellectual integrity and crossed over to the side of the culture warriors.

I suspect that Rajiv Malhotra is the eminence grise behind this centre. He's probably staying in the shadows and advising them on how to take on the Western academics using their own tools of the trade. I remember him psychoanalysing Wendy Doniger using "Chakra hermeneutics", which was a good example of setting a fraud to catch a fraud. The verbal diarrhoea of important-sounding nonsense words on every page of this calendar bears his stamp.

"Induction of an advanced scientific methods of exploration and investigation – GPR based exploration; Laser induced breakdown spectroscopies and Photo-luminescence dating; Paleo radiology, CT computer tomography and micro-CT scans and Kirlian imagery; Paleo-botany and advanced geo-hydrological exploration studies; Decoding NLP and allied methods of language sciences using Sanskrit based on HMI and Natural language Processing algorithms; Advanced satellite imagery studies in landscape exploration; Image processing and advance visual software driven decoding of Iconographic exploration (semantics and semiotics); Exploration of advanced electrical sciences in health, healing, therapeutic and noetic science driven techniques; and many more."

Such a long list of technologies! So impressive! Wait a minute, did you just say "Kirlian imagery"? [Ah IITs, you were doing fine until that point. Mixing pseudo-science with science is never a good idea.]

To sum up, if this sort of nonsense goes on for much longer, I might have to hide the fact that I'm a double graduate of the IITs. I never thought this day would come.

Thursday, 23 December 2021

The Danger Of Focusing On Facts Alone, Without Regard To Context And Interpretation

I discussion I had with a friend recently resulted in a difference of opinion on how one needs to approach facts.

I had questioned the motives behind the source of his information, pointing out that the source was guilty of the same things that were being criticised. My friend objected to my line of argument.

He said:

You remember the time you and I used to argue with [people] on FB? One unwritten rule then that we used to enforce, and call [them] out on, was whataboutery. [...] I take that as a universal principle. Every action should be judged on its own merit, not by comparison with someone else's action. [...] I would urge you to focus on the facts.

If someone points out that my roof is leaky, does it matter whether they are saying it because they are my well-wisher or whether they want to show me up?

The fact is still that my roof is leaky.

His was a pretty compelling argument on the face of it, but something didn't sit right with me. After a lot of thought, I composed this rejoinder using his own example of the leaky roof, and you can judge if it has any merit.

I have said more than once that "facts" by themselves are useless. They may be objectively true, but they are meaningless without context, and they are useless without interpretation. Context and interpretation are crucial to facts, and they are the aspects that are most prone to mischief. This is why it is naive to emphasise facts alone without regard to context and interpretation.

Let me illustrate with your own example.

I hear a rumour that your roof is leaking. You denounce it as malicious gossip. I persist with my investigation and determine that your roof is indeed leaking. I can now be triumphant in my insistence on verifying the facts regardless of the source of my information.

But the story doesn't end there. The fact that your roof is leaking is a useless piece of information in itself. What is the interpretation? What is the actionable intelligence from this "fact"? Well, upon further research, I find that roofer A was the one who built your roof, so my actionable intelligence is to be wary of roofer A, and not to hire him when building my house.

Now, let's say I instead choose to "follow the money". I try to find out who spread this rumour, and I discover that the source was roofer B. Aha! Roofer B has a motive in spreading such a rumour, because the resulting loss of reputation of roofer A will drive potential customers away from A towards his own business. Now people may argue that his motive doesn't matter, because facts are facts. Your roof leaks, and that's a fact that doesn't change regardless of who spread it.

But now, armed with this extra piece of information, I start another line of research. I find out how many roofs in the locality were built by roofer A and how many by B, and further, how many of each are leaking. My results now show that an equal percentage of roofs built by both A and B have leaked. There was a particularly severe thunderstorm last night, and many roofs have leaked in the neighbourhood. It's not fair to blame roofer A alone for leaky roofs, or to deny him business based on the "fact" that your roof leaked.

So when I announce, "Hey guys, guess what? Roofer B's roofs have also leaked!", that shouldn't be considered "whataboutery".

I thought this was an important debate on how to argue.

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Humanising The Other

One of my friends made an insightful comment after watching a Chinese serial that I had recommended to him:

I realize the power of cinema and TV serials in shaping the attitudes of foreigners about a culture. The serial may have been written primarily for Chinese residents. But in this day and age, people around the world watch these shows. Someone like me may never watch another Chinese show or ever go to China. This show, then, might have a huge influence on my view of China. With nothing else to inform me otherwise, this show becomes my reality of China.

Thus the serial is very influential, and I think the Chinese government understands this, and that's why they have told makers of shows to project only positive images of the country.

His comment brought to the surface a theory I have been having for a while. It's the importance of "Humanising the Other" in today's world. I believe there are two aspects to it.

Soft power as a political tool of governments

When I was a kid, my dad was a professor of foreign languages and for a time was teaching Russian. We used to get to read a large number of Soviet books and magazines, and also had the opportunity to watch a number of Russian movies. I remember many of those movies very fondly. They showed the lives of average Russians and the problems they faced and overcame. Over time, an audience exposed to a series of such movies develops a deep sense of empathy with the characters and by extension, the society they come from. For a long time, I used to think Russian people were among the warmest in the world, until the horror stories from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan started coming out, and I realised Russians could be as brutal as anyone else.

It's also true that American soft power helps the US immensely. The US routinely does terrible things to other countries, and in recent times, even the pretence of noble intentions is no longer bothered with. Yet lots of people around the world still think of the US as a benign power. I read about a recent survey that reported that Iranians have a generally positive image of the US! For citizens of a country long subject to American meddling, and still suffering crushing American sanctions, to report such a positive view of the US points to the extent of American soft power.

So it's perfectly natural for the Chinese government to try to use the soft power of its movies and TV serials to create a positive image of Chinese society.

Positive stereotyping as a means of counteracting negative stereotyping

I was reminded of my own impressions of other groups of people during my formative years.

I grew up in Bangalore, capital of the South Indian state of Karnataka. For many years, my only travels outside Bangalore had been to Madurai, Madras (now Chennai) and other places in my home state of Tamil Nadu. I had never visited North India (even the central Indian state of Maharashtra was considered "north"), and in those pre-television days, I hardly heard any Hindi at all. "North Indians" were an unknown group of people.

We mostly used to watch English movies, because the staff club at the Indian Institute of Science where my father worked would only show English movies. A few times a year, my parents would take the whole family to a theatre in the city to watch a Hindi or Malayalam movie, perhaps because my mother had heard good reviews about it from her schoolteacher colleagues.

I remember the time we watched the Hindi movie Bawarchi. In one scene, the character played by Jaya Bhaduri wakes up her kid cousin, saying, "ucho, ucho". I found it very cute that she didn't say "uTho, uTho" (Hindi for "Wake up, wake up") but used affectionately diminutive language (what we in Tamil call "chella bhaashai") to speak to a kid. That immediately humanised North Indians for me. I was already aware that Tamilians say "okachu" instead of "okaru" ("sit") and "taachiko" instead of "paDutuko" ("lie down") when speaking to kids, so this "ucho" thing, although a tiny part of the movie, had a huge impact in terms of suddenly turning those strange and unknown people into human beings like my own kind.

I understand that the same thing happens to non-Muslim Indians who watch Pakistani TV serials. After watching episode after episode of regular characters going through day-to-day troubles similar to their own, they start to realise that at a fundamental level, Pakistanis (and by extension Muslims) are just human beings like themselves.

I think this is a very good thing. There is too much "othering" going on, and social media is exacerbating it rather than healing it. Recently, one of our Indian friends told us that she gets into fights on family WhatsApp groups because there are people who post nasty things about Muslims. When she asks them if they personally know any Muslims or have Muslim friends, they say, "We know what they're like". Of course they have no idea what Muslims are like. They're just perpetuating stereotypes that they consider to be truths.

I imagine it's the same thing with Indians and the Chinese. I think Indians in the main have a very negative view of the Chinese (all thanks to the 1962 war and the unresolved border issue that erupts into public consciousness from time to time).

I know that many non-Chinese people, not just Indians, have a negative opinion of China for many reasons. While most of them would justify their viewpoint based on a ready list of facts, those facts themselves probably suffer from "selection bias". In other words, people tend to see what they want to see. There is no objective truth, only subjective opinion.

Before I quit Facebook and other social media platforms, I had been engaged in a never-ending battle with people who in my view were bent on perpetuating hatred between communities, based on nothing but prejudice.

And so, given the amount of hatred and othering that is swirling around social media, it's probably not a bad thing to counteract negative stereotypes with some positive ones.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

When The New York Times Proved To Be No Better Than Pravda

There was an old American joke I read long ago about the former Soviet Union, and it went like this:

There was a race somewhere between an American car and a Russian car, and the American car won. (Of course the American car won! This is an American joke, remember?)

The next day's headlines in Pravda said, "The Russian car came second, while the American car was next to last."

Ha, ha! Oh, those Russians!

I've been watching the medal tally at the Tokyo Olympics over the last couple of weeks, and something puzzled me about American reporting on this.

Normally, medal tallies are shown in descending order of gold, then silver, and then bronze medals. The country with the most golds is on top. If two countries have the same number of golds, then the one with more silvers goes above the other. Ditto if the two countries have the same number of golds and silvers. The country with more bronze medals goes above the other.

Not according to the New York Times, though.

In their reporting, the medal tally was sorted in descending order of total number of medals.

But wait, there's more!

One would think there would be no wiggle room when comparing gold medals, right?

Apparently, there is. You can shrink the icons on China's row to make it look much shorter than it is. That way, the US won't look quite so bad.

Unbelievable, right? I guess that's what a "free press" means. You're free to bend and twist the truth in any way you like. Not that it didn't get called out and ridiculed on Twitter and Reddit. In that context, I learnt a new word - copium.

Luckily for them, the US ended the Olympics with more gold medals than China (in addition to having more medals overall), so it could legitimately be at the top of the medal tally, and the media subterfuge of the previous few days went by unremarked.

Now you know why I don't believe the Western press when it comes to reporting on China. If they can distort such obvious facts to create a misleading impression, what else are they distorting?

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Don't Buy The Covid Bioweapon Hypothesis? Let's Lead You There In Two Steps

[Update 12/06/2021: This post is no longer a prediction. Look for the link at the bottom of the post. The other shoe has already dropped.]

Given the subject matter at hand, I believe I will be forgiven for using an immunological phrase -- I still have antibodies in my system after a nasty bout of WMD-itis in 2003. In other words, if the Western establishment tries to demonise yet another country after the loot and plunder of Iraq, my reaction is (understandably) going to be one of contemptuous disbelief.

China is no angel in white, of course. Every conspiracy theory regarding China necessarily carries a non-zero probability at the very outset. In other words, no one trusts the Chinese government, and that includes a significant number of Chinese people.

Still, if we're trying to be as objective as implicit bias will let us be, we should be skeptical even if it's the devil himself who is being demonised.

My starting point in following the money is in recognising the most recent recurrence of the Thucydides Trap. The Thucydides Trap states that every rising power, however peaceful its intentions, necessarily threatens an established power, and history has shown that in 12 of the last 16 such cases, the situation has led to war. As a corollary, if a war is to be fought, it is in the interests of the rising power to delay the conflict until it is stronger, while the converse holds for the established power. It must strike before the rising power becomes any stronger.

In the context of the US and China, independent analysts have concluded that the US is under an imperative to move to contain China sooner rather than later, since every year's delay works to China's advantage.

But a move by the US against China will carry no legitimacy unless another convincing WMD story can be manufactured, and this is obviously proving hard to do since the boy has already cried wolf once too often.

A trial balloon was floated a year ago, and it was called the "Bioweapon hypothesis". It alleged that China deliberately engineered the SARS-CoV-2 virus to cripple the rest of the world while it surged ahead. If it had been widely accepted, that hypothesis should have stirred up enough outrage worldwide to endorse US-led punitive action against China. But as it happened, that hypothesis sank like a lead balloon with no takers.

However, such a hypothesis is vitally important to the US, because it remains the best basis for mobilising world opinion in favour of concerted action against China. The hypothesis needs to be revived through some other means.

And this is why I think we are now seeing the first of two steps through which we (even the WMD-immunised) will be led to accept the bioweapon hypothesis, and by extension, be led to support military/economic action against China.

Lots of whispered "evidence" in support of a Lab Leak Hypothesis is turning up, complete with little-known amateur actors, some with secret identities to boot, and documentation from obscure and now-sealed sources that, by definition, cannot be followed and verified. 

I predict that the other shoe will drop once this hypothesis gains sufficient acceptance, in the form of "evidence" that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is an arm of the Chinese military establishment.

Voila! Bioweapon.

The West has an inherent advantage in the propaganda war against China, which is that the Chinese government has inherently low credibility in the eyes of the rest of the world, and its denials are therefore going to be ineffectual from the very outset. Almost any charge can be made to stick, provided it sounds plausible.

The latest round of "evidence" in favour of the Lab Leak Hypothesis reads like the plot of a Sidney Sheldon novel. The report by Newsweek makes for a thrilling read.

My interpretation of this round of "evidence" covers the following points:

1. Western government and intelligence sources have no credibility anymore, thanks to WMD. Hence the source for the hypothesis has to be another set of actors.

2. Scientists and journalists are the obvious credible sources for such a hypothesis, but hardly any mainstream scientists or journalists have risen to the bait. Few have been willing to put their professional reputations on the line in support of this hypothesis.

3. Of the handful of media organisations willing to associate themselves with the hypothesis, none has high credibility. Media watcher site Ad Fontes Media doesn't seem to have a high opinion of any of the organisations (Business Insider, Mother Jones, The New York Post, and Fox News) that Newsweek listed in its latest report as being in its corner. These would be just the sort of news outlets that a government could use to push its views.

Ad Fontes Media's Media Bias chart showing the five media organisations that aligned themselves early on with the Lab Leak Hypothesis - not hugely confidence-inspiring

4. The Newsweek report describes the evidence gathered as establishing "probable cause -- a strong, evidence-based case for a full investigation". It carries a standard disclaimer ("None of this proves that the pandemic started in the Wuhan lab, of course: it's entirely possible that it did not."). And it heads off the demand for definitive proof with another disclaimer ("It's not clear that the best efforts of the U.S. and other nations to investigate the lab-leak hypothesis will ever turn up unequivocal evidence one way or another, at least without the full cooperation of China, which is unlikely.").

I have to wonder, if this is never going to go beyond the status of a hypothesis, why are we wasting our time on this? Unless the objective is something beyond finding the "truth".

5. Many of the players in the report are amateur investigators. That in itself is not necessarily a disqualification. However, the identities of some of the key players ("The Seeker", "Billy Bostickson") remain hidden, and it is unlikely that they can be cross-examined by anyone who wishes to. The nebulous nature of the main characters raises red flags with me.

6. Descriptions of the sources seem designed to prevent fact-checkers from verifying their veracity. ("he'd become an expert at searching the back alleys of the web, far beyond the well-lit places patrolled by Google", and "Shortly after The Seeker posted the theses, China changed the access controls on CNKI so no one could do such a search again."). In other words, we are told in advance that the evidence cannot be independently verified.

In short, the impression I get from this round of reporting is that a lot of mud is being thrown in the hope that some of it sticks. Given the pervasive suspicion of China among many, I'm sure some of this mud is going to stick.

From the enthusiastic forwards of these "findings" by many of my friends on social media, I'm going to accept that the Lab Leak hypothesis is going to find general consensus (even if I am myself unconvinced).

My immediate question is, what next?

A prediction - The other shoe is about to drop

Let me put my money where my mouth is, by making a prediction.

Once the Lab Leak Hypothesis is widely accepted, the other shoe is going to drop. We're going to be provided "evidence" (of similar quality) that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is an arm of the Chinese defence establishment. No amount of indignant protest from the Chinese government is going to be able to refute that allegation. Indeed, this could very well be an illustration of the well-known maxim, "Never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied".

Make no mistake, once the other shoe has dropped, the Bioweapon hypothesis is effectively legitimised. The SARS-CoV-2 virus originated from a lab controlled by the Chinese military establishment. Surely that could have had no benign intentions behind it.

And with that, the hawks will have the endorsement they need for the 13th violent enactment of the deadly Thucydides Trap.

[Update 12/06/2021: This has just happened.]

Thursday, 20 May 2021

The Origin Of The SARS-Cov-2 Virus And The Decoy Effect

Exhuming a body long buried

After months of seemingly universal satisfaction that the SARS-Cov-2 virus originated in the Wuhan wet markets, having crossed over from bats to humans through some intermediary species, there is now renewed interest in ascertaining its true origins.

The "Natural Origins" hypothesis has the virtue of being the simplest explanation that fits the facts, what is popularly known as Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor doesn't refute other hypotheses, but merely favours the Natural Origins hypothesis as the simplest explanation.

A new hypothesis gaining ground in some circles is that the virus was a genetically-engineered species that may have accidentally escaped from a research lab, more specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Given that the virus was first detected in the city of Wuhan, this hypothesis has immediate appeal. The paper that discusses this idea in detail, and which most of its proponents point to, is one by British author, journalist and science writer Nicholas Wade. [Mind you, Wade is not a scientist but a popular science writer. His paper was not published in a peer-reviewed science journal but on Still, he has a certain amount of credibility thanks to his past writings, and the paper makes a compelling case.]

The "Lab Leak" hypothesis posits that the escape of the virus from a controlled environment into the wild was the result of slipshod systems and insufficient governance.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this hypothesis is that it does not ascribe malicious intent to any party.

There is another hypothesis that does.

This one is known as the "Bioweapon" hypothesis, and postulates that the Chinese government deliberately created and released the virus to bring the rest of the world to its knees while China's economy alone would remain untouched. Most commentators refer to this as a conspiracy theory and do not give it much credence.

Conspiracy theorists would love to believe that the nefarious Chinese establishment (symbolised here by DC Comics's villain Egg-Fu) deliberately created the virus to bring the rest of the world to its knees.

A fourth hypothesis owes its origin to Chinese researchers and authors, who postulate that the virus did not originate in China at all. They point to studies by Italian scientists to argue that the virus was detected in Italy long before the first detected outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan. For obvious reasons, this hypothesis is not taken very seriously by non-Chinese, since the nationality of its proponents seems to provide an explanation of why they would seek to disclaim a link between the virus and China.

So that's the landscape of competing hypotheses on the origin of SARS-Cov-2:

A. "Natural Origins"

B. "Lab Leak"

C. "Bioweapon"

D. "Not from China"

Which hypothesis do you favour?

All hypotheses are not created equal (or for the same purpose!)

I have an interesting meta-hypothesis of my own about these hypotheses.

There is a well-known tactic in Marketing known as the Decoy Effect. Given competing products A and B from two companies, how can either of the companies nudge consumers towards its own offering, apart from obvious techniques like advertising and sales promotion?

The Wikipedia example describes two products, each of which has an advantage and a disadvantage compared to the other.

A popular tactic is to introduce a third option that functions purely as a "decoy". In other words, the company introducing this third product does not expect customers to buy it. Its purpose is solely to reposition its existing product and the competitor's in order to make the former appear much more attractive.

As the Wikipedia example shows, the decoy can be designed in such a way that one of the products now appears superior to the other.

The Wikipedia entry also shows how a decoy can be designed to have exactly the opposite effect.

The Wikipedia examples above illustrate the general principle that a decoy must appear comprehensively inferior to the company's favoured product, but only partially inferior to the competitor's product (the principle of asymmetric dominance). Then a prospective customer will tend to favour the company's main product (because it is comprehensively superior to the decoy) over the competitor's offering (because it is not as comprehensively superior to the decoy).

The Decoy Effect as it applies to SARS-Cov-2 origin hypotheses

Given this quick introduction to the concept of the Decoy Effect, we can see a certain pattern to the four hypotheses on the origin of the virus.

"Natural Origins" was the original product. We could consider it to be the "Chinese" product, because China seems to be comfortable with this hypothesis.

"Lab Leak" is a competing product introduced by the West. It is meant to put China on the defensive while taking pains not to appear as a political attack. After all, the hypothesis involves elements such as Western funding and involvement by Western researchers, so accountability is diluted. Further, malicious intent is explicitly ruled out.

These two hypotheses are "products" looking to persuade prospective "customers". Which of these two would an unbiased customer buy?

To nudge the customer along, each of the competitors has introduced a "decoy".

The "Bioweapon" product is a decoy introduced by the West. It's introduced with disclaimers of its being a ridiculous conspiracy theory, so it was never intended to win supporters anyway. It's only intended to make the "Lab Leak" hypothesis appear more credible than "Natural Origins".

The "Bioweapon" and "Lab Leak" hypotheses support each other by claiming that the virus was deliberately engineered, and so they together exert a psychological influence that seems to outweigh the "Natural Origins" hypothesis, relying as it does merely on Occam's Razor.

Between these two hypotheses, though, Occam's Razor applies once again. Malicious intent requires a higher burden of proof than an accident or a mistake. And so the Lab Leak hypothesis is comprehensively "better" in terms of plausibility than the Bioweapon hypothesis. After all, apart from hardcore conspiracy theorists who want to believe the worst about China, most people would prefer the explanation of an innocent mistake rather than malicious intent. 

And that's the Western gambit. Introduce a decoy in the form of a conspiracy theory, and people will gravitate towards the more reasonable-sounding (but still China-blaming) Lab Leak hypothesis.

The Chinese decoy, on the other hand, is the hypothesis that the virus originated outside of China, much before it was detected in Wuhan. This hypothesis turns the seemingly damning indictment of first detection into a virtue. The virus had been circulating in other countries for months, according to this hypothesis, but it was China, with its superior scientific abilities, that was first able to detect it!

Analogously to the other decoy that we saw, the "Not from China" and "Natural Origins" hypotheses support each other in ascribing a natural origin to the virus. They thus exert a psychological influence away from the idea of a human-engineered virus. Between the two, the "Not from China" idea seems less credible because non-Chinese observers would ascribe a nationalistic motive to the argument of its proponents, and so the only credible hypothesis left standing is the "Natural Origins" one.

The Chinese gambit is therefore to introduce a decoy in the form of an overly defensive claim, so that people prefer the more reasonable-sounding Natural Origins hypothesis, which absolves China of any responsibility for the pandemic.

Is there an objective truth at all?

In sum, I believe that the search for the origins of the SARS-Cov-2 virus is not a search for truth, no matter what pious protestations we may hear, because such a search is compromised from the start. Two sophisticated marketers are engaged in a battle for the mind of a prospective customer, and that customer is all of us.

Knowing what you now know about the Decoy Effect, which hypothesis would you believe now?