Believe you me

Sir Bedevere: …and that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped.
King Arthur: This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.
(from ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’)

These are two of my all-time favourite lines, not just because of the sheer funniness, but also because of their universal relevance.  One can find daily instances of people trying to convince us that the earth is indeed banana-shaped and that a timely shipment of ovine bladders to Banda Aceh could have saved us a spot of clean-up.  Sometimes, this is really cute because the person peddling the snake-oil really doesn’t mean any harm.  You just wish you could lay your hands on some of that stuff he/she has been smoking.

In such cases, you anonymize the protagonist (‘This Uncle I know’) to save yourself some embarrassment and have an uneasy laugh over a cold one with your hip buddies.  For example, this Uncle would enter into deep, animated discussions on how best to avoid Rahu Kaalam and Yama Gandam while visiting the US.  The three obvious options are:

1. RK and YG travel with the Uncle in his carry-on and hence also stick to PST, EST, etc. They fall during regular working hours and hence this is hugely disappointing to Uncle’s descendants, who thought they had escaped them by traveling the seven seas.
2. RK and YG are non-negotiable and obey only orthodox (‘aacharam’) time, i.e. IST.  Huge pro: can be avoided just by sleeping through the night.
3. R and Y are themselves more than slightly confused and haven’t yet sent an SMS to your roadside astrologer.  Hedge your bets and don’t schedule your new baby’s diaper-changes in either set of time slots: practised by most sensible people to not seem ungrateful to nice folks.  And please don’t tell R and Y about daylight savings, that freaky thing.

Another example that most people have observed with a chuckle is the crushing of ripe lemons under the tyres of new cars.  Perhaps, the tyres are nauseous that they are going to have to finally meet the grimy roads of Chennai.  This lemonade-wasting is usually preceded or succeeded by camphor burning, coconut smashing and/or Vedic chanting with Yanni soundtrack (please kill me now!) in some particular order, which escapes me at this moment. 

Only recently did I notice that in the camphor burning part, they do the circling (deepa aarathanai) of the car.  This came as a surprise to me because I thought some ummachchi was the recipient of this business.  Perhaps the practice has its origin in a time when the Ambassador ruled the market; let’s face it, the Amby does look like Ganesha on wheels.  Anyhoo, no matter, this also seems to be a harmless blog-fodder type of anecdote (although this guy I know has been known to act all petulant about this kinda thing) and can be used as an excuse for more beer-drinking with aforementioned cool friends.

On other occasions though, the person asking you to count the bladders has got other more material interests, shall we say.  You might have too  much coin on your hands and the purveyor of fine bladders might take it upon himself to relieve you of some of the burden.  Or he might think you are oh-so-sexy in a spiritual kind of way and would like to get you into his roomy saffron pants.  In any case, all of these enterprises ask for suspension of disbelief, and surprisingly, the gullibility is available in the requisite extra-large doses. 

A few weeks back, our driver insisted that there is a particular type of snake that switches its head from one end to the other in 6 months.  We softly asked him how he would know if the snake hadn’t just turned around.  After all, 6 months is a long time for the poor snake to be pointing the same way, no?  He was adamant and bewildered that we didn’t agree with him.  As a clincher, he promised to show me the paper which had this stuff printed on it.  I realized the futility of this argument and told him that we eagerly look forward to seeing the article. 

One would expect that people who are in the education business would at least want to ask some basic questions about some of the mis-information that pervades us.  Instead, some of them are also busy selling this stuff to us.  I remember the Principal of  my high-school running away to Kanchipuram with all our Board exam hall-tickets to get them blessed.  No one thought it right then to ask what would happen if the Lord or Lady decided to give us a surprise test by losing our tickets. 

Recently, we got a mass mailing from a Professor announcing a food donation event (Annadanam) benefiting 1000 kids.  While the event itself was great, some of the mumbo-jumbo accompanying it was seriously dubious.  Statements were made about the event bringing ‘spiritual dynamism’ to the campus, about God being the ‘befriender of the poor’ etc.  These unprovable statements come from a person who teaches engineering, which is based on hard science.  I don’t get how this happens, unless the person is just puking the results of the scientific method in class without really understanding the method itself. 

So, what is it that makes us want to believe all this fantastic stuff?  That the positions of celestial objects control our lives, water cures us of bad-ass diseases, porn causes tsunamis and … scientology — sorry, I couldn’t come up with a short description for this bullshit.  Where does this need for answers come from?  Why do we need these crutches so badly?  Can we not find better answers through introspection and reasoning?  And why is ‘We don’t know’ not a good answer? 

Please to excuse me, I got a little carried away there for a second. 

Interestingly, I found a clue in an unlikely place this week: at a workshop on teaching and learning.  Turns out that we all form our own views of the world to suit our observations at a fairly young age, and some of these world-views are really deep-seated and hard to change.  For example, consider what we have learnt from the force concept inventory, an interesting tool used by physics educators.  It consists of concept-type questions testing one’s understanding of Newton’s laws, force, energy and such.  The same test is typically administered to students before and after an introductory mechanics course to judge what they have learnt. 

What has been found is that before being taught any of these concepts formally, all of us have our own intuitive understanding of these.  Of course, some of it is wrong, but it is there nevertheless. The interesting thing is that after the course is taught, not everyone is convinced of the ‘correct’ way of looking at it.  One student (at Harvard, I think) asked: “Should we answer this question based on what we think or what you have taught us?”  By itself, this is probably not a bad thing; but for this skepticism, we might all be card-carrying members of the Flat Earth Society, but that is a different issue for a different day. 

Students do make gains in their understanding, but hardly anyone gets all these basic concepts straightened out.  The way the concepts are taught has quite an impact on the gain, but even with the best teachers and the best interactive teaching techniques we have now, most students are not disabused of their ill-formed notions.  If this is the fate of Newton’s laws and basic kinematics, which we think we have a good handle on, what about more abstract things like the existence of God, thetans, and the 72 virgins?

Be good now.

Explore posts in the same categories: Bullshit, Education, Physics, Superstitions

6 Comments on “Believe you me”

  1. Ludwig Says:

    I am reminded of that great Chinese leader, R.O.F.L.Mao. The main thing, I think, is the sheer amount of $$$ this whole business is awash in. I’d like to sample some of it myself…

    • deshvaasi Says:

      That is the dream of everyone not in the God business. Robe, beard, long silences, and liberal use of the words ‘duality’ and its dual, ‘non-duality’, are absolute essentials to break in. If only we were that gifted …

  2. Can I be said hip/cool friend of yours for beer drinking purposes, oh kind sir? We can always work around the RG YG times and schedule it appropriately!

  3. Chadas Says:

    What hog wash! You seem to have too much time on your hands with this teaching gig. You need to come back here and work like the rest of us. BTW, how dare you question all the great people have vouched for in our ‘k(h)arma’ (translate in telugu) bhoomi?

    Can I considered in the hip friends list too as far as beer or even lemonade if accompanied with gin/vodka?

    • deshvaasi Says:

      Can’t read ‘rest of us’ without thinking of Festivus. Work? What is work? Must be what you corpo-types do to get your boatloads of options. We do no such thing, I tell you.

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