I was travelling. A guy sat opposite, reading a bible. I buried myself in ‘A Brief History of the world’. Suddenly he eyed me with a gimlet look:
“You know- the world is only six thousand years old. Whole of pre-history is a concocted fable.”
I wanted to nod and keep quiet. But couldn’t.
“But what about the fossils?” I asked.
“Planted. A conspiracy by the Royal Geological Society of England. I have read the book.”
“Oh- “ I said. I bet the dinosaurs are still alive.”
“Of course they are- in Africa.”
“Yeah- I get you, friend.”
I got him. I returned to my book. It was tough feigning deafness for the rest of the trip. But I had to do it.
“But don’t you want the world to be saved?” He kept asking.
Recently, I gave a talk in JIPMER, and what I sought to highlight, was a realistic approach to life. One of my critics had a complaint, and it was genuine.
“That was not inspiring! At all.”
I got her too. This was not the first time.
I was constitutionally incapable of espousing Grand World Views, and I just couldn’t tell younger human beings, that I had a grand formula for success. In fact – what is success?
There! Do you get my problem?
The big leaders are hugely inspiring. They have a formula for the whole world, the country, and the farmer. Complex geo political issues can be solved- just like that. You know my methods, Watson. I will apply them- and save the world!
In the recent Hindi controversy, I had a very erudite friend, who forwarded me a link about ‘Limuria’.
Never heard of Limuria? Come on, guys, gals, gentle ladies and beautiful men-
It is the mythical Dravidian continent that had been there that included the south of India, stretching from Australia to Africa. It had, for obscure reasons, chosen to bury itself in the ocean. One can go to the appropriate links and groups and learn the convincing proofs of its prior existence. That includes sound bites of African and Australian tribal languages that ‘resemble’ Thamizh, the oldest language in the world.
What is the truth?
No language is older than others. Some are current. Some are extinct. That is all. Every five hundred years or so, every language becomes unintelligibly different from its ancestor. An expert Linguist can discern language families and trace its evolution.
Any human language has the same expressivity. A Yanomamo tribal can, if sufficiently sophisticated, express his or her emotions, vision, and grand plan for the world in his or her own language spoken by just a few hundreds, just as nicely as Shashi Tharoor can do the same in English. One can safely say that all languages are equal. What makes Languages unequal, are accidents of history, random geo politics and demography. If I want to shine in a globalised world, I have to know English. If I want to be comfortable in a huge swath of India, I need to know Hindi. If I want to be part of that unique culture that is my own, and if I want to keep that emotional attachment, I should know Malayalam.
It is just that simple- and complex.
And Limuria never existed.
Have you heard of Philip Tetlock? Well, it is a pity that many of us haven’t.
Tetlock was the person who conducted a study that ran from 1980 to 2000, and involved twenty eight thousand complex geo political predictions. You know- the kinds gurus and TV channel experts claim to tackle.
“What is the chance of North Korea attacking South in the next ten years?”
“Will America bomb Iran in the next year? What are the chances?”
“What are the chances that Greece will leave the European Union in the next two years?”
You get the general idea. He recruited the foremost, most celebrated gurus, journalists and people called upon by the media to answer things like these, and followed the results for twenty years. The results were staggering.
The experts did less well than Chimpanzees would have, by throwing random darts. That is, well below chance!
The American Intelligence Agency got interested. They funded Tetlock’s next study. He asked volunteers to come forward, and answer similar questions.
He found that a minority did very well, and some did exceptionally poorly. He found that it had more to do with their personality and ways of thinking, than anything else.
And who were the winners?
-People who were good at numbers and used statistical methods were much better. The ‘gut instinct’ chaps lost out, big time.
-They were open minded, and could see every aspect of a problem.
-Extremely self critical, they repeatedly asked everyone, to find flaws in their reasoning, and incorporated them into their analysis.
-They were intellectually humble, changed their opinions whenever a new piece of data became available, and were generally tentative about their predictions.
-All of them believed that chance played a huge role in complex problems. Fate, and ‘inevitability’ counted for little.
And who were the losers?
-The most famous, the loudest, the most confident, did exceptionally poorly.
-The ones with the BIG IDEAS were the worst. People with formulas- the extreme rightists and fringe Marxists- the grand vision people- bit the dust. In fact, any grand vision or belief made people spectacularly poor at predicting complex issues.
History bears this out. The Christian grand vision, thundered across Europe, killing, Witch-hunting, and crusading for centuries. Historians had to name an entire age as the ‘Dark’ ones. Islam was similar.
Look at this century. Hitler had a grand vision. And he backed his formula by the pseudo science of social Darwinism. Result? Six million Jews killed systematically, and a war that killed many times more.
Mao, Stalin and Pol Pott. The grand vision of communism saw a simple 50 to 100 million dead, either killed directly or starved to death as a result of strange policies.
It seems as if we have a bug in our brains that make us listen to BIG, GRAND FORMULAS.
Bye-bye, grand formulas. Dont come this way, please. Just good old pragmatism will do.
And if anyone comes thundering at you espousing his or her own grand formula for universal salvation,
Run! Run for your life! (Jimmy Mathew)