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June 26, 2007


Interesting post. I don't find your assertions contentious at all, though. They are perhaps a more careful way of saying that people basically tend to believe what they want to believe, what they are invested in believing, and many people will cling to those beliefs in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary. We see this play out everywhere both in the everyday (for example, buying lottery tickets) and in the epic (for example, continuing to pursue a political doctrine—well intended or otherwise—that's resulting in disaster).

Some will cling to unexamined beliefs more strongly than others. I think it depends on what an individual has to gain or lose by examining their beliefs. It's also partly a matter of personality: some people are really gifted at maintaining a state of denial.

In your brother's case, however, it doesn't even sound like he was necessarily subscribing to irrational beliefs, but that he simply has a different model for how the body and its diseases (and therefore it's cures) might work. I don't know what your brother does, but I'm guessing he's not carefully scrutinized or articulated his model of human health/the human body, but he is presented with reason (reliable testimony) to believe that it's a valid model. Even medical doctors with a scientific training are guilty of this to some degree, since so much is unknown and we tend to simplify systems, anyway. It may be that your brother's model is not without reasonable sense.

I wonder if he educated himself well on the scientific model of disease and the body (presuming he's not already so educated), would he still be as ready to believe in what the Baba is selling?

In any case, is it true that this Baba makes no money from these Pranayam programs, directly or indirectly? Now that I do not believe.

Going by empirical data, people fall along a continuum in terms of how many (and what kind) of received ideas they are inclined to examine. This seems to be a function of both experience and predisposition (nurture and nature, to simplify further). I think our skepticism and rationalism are significantly shaped by our experiences, and I see learning science as an experience, which makes one respond differently to the world (but it takes more than science; I don't equate scientists with rationalists).

Ramdev is quite a character. Neo-luddite and anti-corporation, he loves to rail against big pharma and coke/pepsi, which he considers good only as toilet bowl cleaners. He has a folksy, semi-progressive Hindu sensibility, which is not to say that he doesn't have loony ideas ("Sex education in schools need to be replaced by yoga education. The government should stop polluting the minds of innocent young children with sex education"). As for not accepting money, ego inflation and power over people can be fine substitutes, though I hear his trust has been "granted" thousands of acres of prime property all over India by fawning politicians.

Ramdev is clearly invested in yoga, the broad health benefits of which are hard to dispute. Problems arise when claims of specific cures are made and attested to by practitioners of pranayam. I've also had similar arguments with my parents about certain claims. Irrespective of the claim, their default mode is to believe, mine to be skeptical. By conventional metrics they are educated, but I attribute this gap in fair measure to our divergent life experiences, one part of which is their lack of experiencing science and being of a culture long indifferent to it.

Good question, VP.

Reliable testimony notwithstanding, if you personally counted enough number of believers being cured of their afflictions by subjecting themselves to a procedure of questionable value, would you grant that it probably has a salubrious effect - hope, placebo, psychosomatic or whatever? Even if we can't explain it? And does that count as bona fide "medical" cure? That's the problem with alternative medicine. There probably is a logical, empirical basis for many of the benefits but over the years, they have become obscured by other spiritual and life style mumbo jumbo - the typical attempt at gilding the lily. You encapsulate that thought rather well in your bulleted summary of the phenomenon. The counterpoint to this will be why a skeptic like me will not suffer any ill effects of spells or black magic directed my way, unless of course for good measure, my food is laced with strychnine.

True, we take many things on faith, even scientific findings. But the difference between what a guru and a scientist tell us is that we are fairly confident that the latter's claim has or will undergo peer review.

I do believe that some skeptics and believers are born although cultural buttressing helps to solidify both traits. As Namit points out, exposure to the sciences contributes to a large degree which way we will tilt. (But then, as you point out, there is a healthy sprinkling of "scientists" among Ramdev's chelas.) That skepticism is an innate quality among at least some is borne out by the presence of ancient atheists like the Charvakas in an overwhelmingly religious world which until fairly recently, was mostly devoid of exacting scientific traditions.

A few months ago, I wrote a post in a similar vein on my blog asking more or less the same question. It created quite a brouhaha among the "believers" of the guru in question. Namit knows all about it. I am providing the link for other readers.

Rigorous scientific foundations for medical practice are still being established.

I tend to be somewhat skeptical of modern medicine too especially the inflated claims of big pharma. A recent encounter with some hot shot specialists has convinced me that when doctors speak of "medical practice", they mean exactly that - they are practising medicine on us! What sticks is bull's eye and what doesn't, is yet to be "rigorously and scientifically established." :-)

I think most people would agree that belief is an interesting mix of nature and nurture. The interesting debate lies in where the line between nature and nurture exists, and if there is a line at all.

I also see a connection between belief and aesthetics. I wrote about it in an essay some years ago.

Did you know that Newton was actually looking for something utterly inconceivable for a modern scientist as he laid the foundation of classical physics and a true scientific revolution? It was all mumbo-jumbo if there was one!

Despite our theory of cognitive dissonance, this great man could perfectly well hold not two but multiple belief systems in his hypertrophied merry Anglo-Saxon head.

This is wild goose chase, but I agree on some of the points put forth.

It sure has something to do with history! Something with economy too. A lot with cult, ritual and religion _or an imagined lack thereof. And a lot more with that still Unknown Wonder of thinking _ that our modern neuroscience even with a working knowledge about quantum physics and some bizarre field theories apparently does not understand.

A probably also a sociological phenomena that grows on a widely available fertile substrate in the population _ from Alaska to Sydney. They always find their fans (believers) _ not just gullible sheep but lots of rabbits, jackals and foxes, who all have their own different reasons for joining the band wagon. However lots of them could be classified as being generally disoriented in life and society and the modern almost inhuman corporate culture of modern medicine. Here they become more interactive, perhaps also bit more than a number or as often the case are made to feel so _ and that sometimes can work wonders!

It is evident in history. There are periods where they gain on virulence. In other words, there are periods where even otherwise semi-sceptical or undecided members of the population are liable to be swayed toward a certain belief system _ even a Newton!

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Books by Namit Arora

  • “Namit Arora does for Silicon Valley what Tom Wolfe did for Wall Street in The Bonfire of the Vanities: with keen eye and sharp wit, he captures the culture and mores of the place. But Arora is funnier. And sweeter.” —S. Abbas Raza, Editor, 3QD.

  • The Lottery of Birth reveals Namit Arora to be one of our finest critics. In a raucous public sphere marked by blame and recrimination, these essays announce a bracing sensibility, as compassionate as it is curious, intelligent and nuanced.” —Pankaj Mishra

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