Category Archives: pluralism

Epistemic limits of scientific enquiry

Had attended a talk the other day by Dr. Jayant Haritsa from the CSA department, on using textual representations of Carnatic music (Music written as Sa Ri Ga Ma etc.,) to determine what is the ‘Aarohana’ and ‘Avarohana’ (the equivalent of scale in Western music) of a given Raaga or identifying the raaga itself, given another piece of music, outside the ones used to train the identification system. Among other aims than the ones given above, was to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for the raagas, based on the statistics of usage of notes in various compositions, and maybe, provide a better Arohana/Avarohana for the raaga itself than the one received from tradition.

The talk was itself quite interesting and the system seems to do pretty well. In the Q&A session, a lot of concern was generated as to whether the ‘better’ Arohana/Avarohana proposed by the system would capture the ‘mood’ of the raaga, which seems to be an essential part of each raaga. Haritsa was of the opinion that as scientific researchers, we must not take things for granted and must try to question tradition using tools of science.

The essential issue, which one can generalize to things further than just music and its analysis, is the question of what is knowledge and/or Truth. More specifically in this context, one can ask the question as to what type of knowledge can we obtain using the scientific method, and whether this is the only kind which is ‘reliable’, the rest being ‘subjective’  is useless in a more general context, i.e, whether Truth in all its glory is best sought out using the scientific method.

Upfront, one must understand the fundamental premise of the scientific method, even leaving out its reductionist inclinations — Nature is not random: it follows some logic, some pattern which by large number of observations and/or experiments is discovered and this knowledge (from observation/experimentation) eventually can be called Truth. This is not hard to justify: we can see patterns everywhere in Nature and can build quite accurate models of the same. The reliability of scientific knowledge depends hugely on the concept of measurement – representing natural phenomena as cardinal numbers – numbers we can use to say something about the size of the measured phenomenon. No observation or experiment can be called a success/failure if it does not produce some kind of number. For example, Haritsa’s system produces a number per candidate scale for a raaga — higher the number, more likely it is the correct scale.

Immediately, one can see phenomena that the scientific method cannot be used to investigate : Emotions, ethics, likes, dislikes, etc., etc., Not only are these immeasurable (neuroscientists may disagree!) quantities, but they are also incommensurable: a statement like 2.5\times Happiness \geq 0.5\times Sadness makes absolutely no sense. Also, science can give no answers to statements like ‘The world is Maaya’, or ‘What we perceive is not what Is’. These statements belong to the same class of knowledge that the fundamental ‘axiom’ of science belongs to — you cannot prove or disprove them within the logical system that is built upon that axiom.

Now, music is a strange beast. It is highly patterned (scientists like to talk about its ‘mathematical’ structure), but at the same time, its main (probably only) value is in the emotion that it evokes: it is not coincidence that music is an essential part of religious worship, especially of the Bhakti variety. Therefore, no musical education is complete without a good understanding of both the patterns and the emotions (Bhaava) associated with music. Now, scientists are uncomfortable (or dismissive) about things they cannot measure, and musicians are uncomfortable (or dismissive!) of statistical analyses of their art. Therefore, it is not surprising to for each to value one of the two more. Haritsa’s and the audience’s apprehensions merely betrays their respective inclinations.

With the advent of huge computing power, a scientist’s optimism in understanding the universe has understandably increased. It is a common notion that failure of mathematical models is simply due to the ‘exclusion of some variable’ from the model. With more information/data, one can do arbitrarily well. This attitude conveniently ignores the fact that some quantities are not measurable and even if some quantitative representation is possible, they might be incommensurable. This can be seen best in sciences dealing with human tastes and values, like economics, sociology or anthropology. Subjects like econometrics, social psychology seem to be treading a fine line that distinguishes scientific knowledge from gobbledygook. For example, if one surveys 100 students asking them to rate the facilities at the hostel on a scale of 1 to 10, and we conclude that the average score is 8 and so most are satisfied (assume a score greater than 7 implies satisified), we are making two assumptions : we can add the satisfaction of 100 people and divide that number by 100, and that one student’s rating of 7 is the same as another student’s rating of 7. Though there have been arguments justifying such an approach, it is upto the individual to decide how seriously to take such surveys.

The dominant paradigm of our times is that of scientific optimism, and most appeals to emotion or morals are considered ‘woolly’ and ‘unscientific’. But one must realise that unless there is a healthy engagement with both pattern finding and moralising, the Truth can never emerge.

Design as if people mattered: A report

Settling down into the madness that is IISc, but had to complete a (somewhat tiny) report for my final semester here in JSS college, Mysore. It is an account of theoretical and practical issues and experiences that one should consider while trying to design something which has to be used by others. It’s main focus is on rural areas and LED lighting, but I believe that the principles are quite general in nature. The interplay of science with everything else is quite obvious in this report, if somewhat implicit since that was not the main focus. You can find the report here and the slides here, or check out the documentation section.

Should we be worried about the (your favorite word here) Sene?

One has to stop watching NDTV news. They were among the most vocal in their campaign against the ‘Talibanization’ of Mangalore and almost suddenly went quiet and now are most vocal about Slumdog Millionaire, what with Anil Kapoor being their special correspondent and all. If they complain about ‘rightists’ stoking emotional fires in India for political purposes, they seem to be doing the same for commercial purposes. Now that we have appropriated an English film as our own and celebrating it, however grudgingly, everything else seems to go into the background.

But yes, the Rama Sene has almost completely gone off the TV/media radar for the moment, until they do something else  (someone else seems to have taken over the baton in Bangalore).  The media seems to have given them what they wanted: their two minutes in the limelight to show that they have ‘arrived’. The media showed, in its typical sensationalist form, an India that we are embarrassed of and would like to wish away. Talking to people not from the middle class in buses and trains, one gets a feeling that they are not as opposed to it as we would like them to be.

Social delinquency is not as rare as one might imagine it to be. India has always been deeply divided on the questions of caste, class, gender and religion. Things always seem to be simmering below, and sporadic outbursts are a public manifestation of these issues. It is not as if the Sene members woke up one day and decided to beat up people.

But the million dollar question is : Can this cause widespread social change ? If it is, then all minorities and women in India are in for some trouble. In answering this, we must first realise that all nationalist movements (be they Indian nationalism, Hindu, Kannada, whatever) have always been urban phenomena. The members of the Congress were upper middle class professionals and businessmen, Kannada Rakshana Vedike has most of its rallies in Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities, and Mangalore has been simmering for some time now, on questions of conversion and culture, BJP’s main voter base has always been in the cities. So, nothing in the scale at which the Taliban operated can be achieved, all the more so since violence cannot be made mainstream without a organised militia (which no *-Sene has, but the Sangh Parivar does, but not comparable in scale to the Police or the Army).

This means that making a Nationalist agenda on whatever grounds cannot be widely accepted if it does not have the blessings of mainstream political parties. The Hindu Renaissance that the BJP claims to be spearheading has taken years of organization, building of cadres ( both with legal sanction (RSS) and otherwise (Bajrang Dal, et al) ). Even with such an organized machinery, their coming into power can be blamed on the Congress Party’s incapacity to produce good leaders. No other nationalist organization, neither the Rama Sene or the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike have such firm ideological grounding or discipline. Also, militant actions make it easy for the State to deal with such organizations, and this makes it necessary for them to toe the line and reduce violent actions ( Anyone remember large scale violence by the KRV recently ?).

The BJP itself has had troubles implementing its agenda at a national level due to the fractured results that the Indian polity returns. Coalitions are hardly the ideal ground for pushing hardline policies. Then, it is unlikely that smaller, less organized movements can have much impact. They can capture the public imagination for some time, but the combination of existing rival interests (KRV has already broken into two factions, so has the Shiv Sena) and short term public memory makes it difficult to build on such gains.

Will conflicts based on caste, culture, religion go away anytime soon ? No. Will they be the major talking point of any political party ? Not anytime soon. Should we be worried about *-Sene ? In their present form, No.

Institutions: reflections

The bad thing about constructive work is that it makes it more difficult to do non-constructive things like reading and writing blogs. After a crazy schedule for almost a month and half (including 3 hindi movies):, finally managed to sit down and finish some documentation and other sundry work.

The world has decidedly gone to hell in the past few weeks. Pakistan is going crazy, so is Kenya, the Middle East, as usual is looking doomed, SM Krishna is returning to Karnataka politics, BIAL is opening (with its interesting user fee concept), a world food crisis looks imminent, the stock market is acting like a cranky kid, so are gold prices, privacy concerns are freaking out people. But one can reflect on Walter Benjamin’s words:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” (written in 1940)

In other words, business is as usual. Coming back to the topic at hand, we had an interesting discussion in class about the importance of institutions, their design and management. One of the courses this semester is sustainable rural and urban development, both of which can be made into a course themselves. Though development-oriented courses emphasize on ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, this one has so far touched only ‘why’. We had a few case studies on Pani Panchayat, Ralegan Siddhi, Pabal and Tilonia, touching upon their salient features and looking at reasons for their success.

The question that arises first is why institutions after all? By institutions, one can mean anything from religion to marriage to Archie’s comics. Anything that sets up a predictable behavior pattern in individuals that subscribe to it, generation after generation. Any long term advancement of social life is possible only via institutions. Else, individuals make a great impact when they are there, and their influence vanishes after they are gone. Institutions provide a sense of security and stability to people. This is one of the reasons first time mothers almost blindly believe anything that their parents or grandparents or relatives (preferably female) tell them, however ridiculous it may seem. The process of socialization drives certain institutions deep into us, especially the ones most needed to live in society.

The problem with institutions arises when those that subscribe to it are given no choice. The burqa system is a good example. Many women may want to wear one and feel proud to do so, but why it is considered repressive is that the exceptions who do not want it are forced to wear one, for the sake of preserving tradition. This is an important characteristic of any institution: it carries within it rules to preserve itself. Government, caste, education (by means of recognition through educational qualifications) are other examples which strongly show this characteristic. Betty and Veronica are now institutions: there is no way Veronica can become the sweet girl next door anymore. Any attempt to do so(on a long term basis) will destroy the essence of Archie’s. Therefore, institutions tend to become rigid and ossified as time goes by. The reason for this is two-fold: the institution has a better chance of survival when there are no critics, and no competent people man the institution, and its rules become superstition instead of practical pointers to guide daily life. Only competent people who understand the reasons (if any) behind the formation of the rules laid down are in a position to change them. Trenchant critics as outsiders cannot, dullards running the show also cannot.

About their design. Realising that the longer an instituition survives, the more likely it will tend to establish a hegemony, one should make the basic precepts as accessible and open to debate as possible. Modern science no longer can lay claim to this feature. Even incremental changes require large amounts of ‘specialization’. Since not everyone become scientists and are not really bothered what scientists to unless it has a direct impact on them, this is (almost) acceptable. But everybody lives in a society, and must have a say in how they want to live and grow. The major issue now arising in development circles is the insinuation of western institutions into cultures which are neither prepared nor willing (mentally, physically, culturally) to accept them. Like I mentioned, institutions give a sense of stability and wholesale replacement is usually rejected by the majority. Deccan Herald recently ran an article where the author pities the Nandigram villagers because they rejected ‘modernization’ and was very sure they would regret it. He also called the landowners in Orissa greedy for not parting with their land for mining and other ways to rape land. While such attitude may seem shocking, it seems to be the attitude shared by those with power. ‘My way or the highway’ is hardly the perfect path for institutional reform/change.

And such issues in a democracy. Imagine what would be the situation in China or Venezuela or Cuba. The problem with such wholesale change is that the population becomes restive and loses its sense of autonomy, and tends to rely on others for direction. That is why farmers make loans knowing they cannot repay them (since the Government will waive them anyways) and new converts to a religion are the most intense. Technologists trying to put a laptop in every child’s, well, lap will inevitably cause similar problems. While undoubtedly institutions like caste and religion need reform, implementing them at a societal (rather than philosophical, where nobody gets hurt) level should be incremental and build on existing institutions, rather than reject them altogether. While this approach may not seem attractive to hot-blooded idealists, it is the path of least pain, which is most important.

The Idea of India – review

Just finished watching a very cool movie called The Story of Stuff. It is a 20 minute documentary that I recommend watching to anyone who has 20 minutes to spare. You can download the movie on the downloads section of the website. It the most entertaining, funny piece of media that I have seen about, well, the story of stuff. Happy New Years and all that, you have one less year to live!

A book that I finished (mercifully) after sporadic reading bursts stretching almost to a month was Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. One cannot truly write about all the various ideas of India in a book barely reaching 200 pages, and the author does not pretend to do so. He touches upon a few ideas of India – The British, Gandhian, Nehruvian, BJP being among the prominent ones, and how they interacted on subcontinental scale to produce some of the features of the Indian State, Constitution, Economy and culture. The book essentially tells us that there is no one true, perfect idea of India, and that one must always be able to compromise and adjust one’s beliefs in the face of realities. It is also concerned with the rise of Hindu Nationalism and critiques it on the basis of its origins, its beliefs and aims, and how these are counter-factual and ahistorical. Another book with similar critiques and pleas for cultural and religious pluralism that comes to mind is Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Infact, a visit to any book store that stocks decent non-fiction writing about India will show that there seem to be a lot of literature on this subject. An interesting historical parallel is the glut of books supporting democracy and liberalism that were published during the times of the World War, criticizing both Communism and Fascism. One wonders whether a similar albeit quieter revolution is taking place within our society right now.

The book is quite partial to the Nehruvian idea of India which he argues is not an ideological obstinacy to ‘go socialist’, instead, one that was quite contingent and prone to change. The one thing he was ideological about was the role that a strong State had in the stability of India, and seeing the situations in Pakistan, Myanmar, most Central Africa, this seems like a justified conviction. The book is filled with interesting analyses, about the nature of social power in India, which was destroyed by the British rule, the evolution and shaping of cities by the people in power, Chandigarh being a good example, how nationalist leaders like Nehru and Gandhi had to first ‘become Indian’ before taking the pivotal roles that they did play in our history, how Hindu Nationalism ironically has a European core around which all the necessary obfuscation has been done, and interesting tidbits like this. However sceptical one may be that Khilnani can do justice to the object of the essay, the book itself is worth reading just for the analyses like those mentioned above.

The book itself was quite difficult to find, and I finally found it in Blossoms second hand book store near M.G Road in Bangalore, if anyone is interested.