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India! I dare you to be rich

Trust no one – but yourself

A number of times on this blog (as well as in DOF) I have mentioned that we must think for ourselves. It is CRUCIAL that we retain our strong individual sovereignty and not become copycats of others, or echoes of "expert committees", or of people long dead and gone. 

The very basic requirement of freedom insists on each of us insisting that we will form our own opinions. No one else can dictate nor persuade through authority. Authority is NONSENSE. Old World. You may be President of USA or a Nobel prize winner but unless your ideas make sense, I will consider you an idiot. This is the fundamental statement of individual sovereignty.

Lack of critical thinking in India

We must not give in our allegiance to any cause or argument without the thorough examination and consideration. It appears to me, however, that ninety per cent of Indians don’t think, including the ones that call themselves educated (and perhaps a similar ratio prevails outside India).

The primary reason for this subservience to authority figures and lack of independent thinking is that Indians are never taught to think in school or college, and never learn to think after that as they get involved in the daily grind of life. True, some of us were taught the scientific method, but very few, I believe, imbibed its fundamental principles: of openness of mind. The idea of hypothesis and theory – that none of these are PROVEN conclusively, but essays or attempts in our search for the truth – is foreign to those who make up FIRM opinions about everything under the sun without as much as batting an eye.

Indeed, openness of mind is the most fundamental feature of classical liberalism as well. This openness arises from the following assumptions:

a) that we are all equal in our status and liberties;

b) that all human beings are significantly limited in their knowledge (essentially, all of us are deeply ignorant); and 

c) that all human beings have similar tendencies such as beliefs determined through socialisation (a Hindu child will most likely grow up into a Hindu, not a Muslim, and vice versa, through the sheer accident of birth). In general, we take for granted a lot of things that we should not. Questioning our traditions and fundamental "theories" is very rare. 

If people (including me) are ignorant, and we all rush to judgement, then this much is clear: There is no human being that knows anything perfectly. All are tentative conclusions towards the truth.

On simple matters we can let down our guard

It is possible that on trivial matters like flying a plane or conducting sophisticated heart surgery, someone might develop the relevant skills after years of training. That is similar to the ability to ride a bicycle. These are motor skills, not matters of thorough understanding and knowledge. These may be complicated, but they are not complex. The electrician does not need to fully understand quantum physics. The plumber does not need to understand the water cycle. 

On other simple matters as well, such as the laws of gravitation, we can live with what our school text books tell us. These laws are approximations, but they are pretty good for kids to learn. So for simple matters, we can defer to the consensus of 'experts', while keeping one eye open.

Complexity rules out blind faith

But this principle of deferring to experts breaks down the moment things become complex. On all complex matters we are obliged to understand things ourselves. The reality is that on most complex matters, experts know very little, and most of what they 'know' is wrong or partially correct. Let me illustrate:

Medicine

While a doctor learns a fair amount of mechanical knowledge about the body (the how), he doesn't quite understand why it works the way it does. Independent biologists and researchers therefore spend decades trying to understand the body. But they still do not understand it, and it is unlikely that they will understand it fully and comprehensively for at least another thousand years. Therefore, different doctors and researchers have very different understandings about the human body, often contradicting each other. For instance, one says that a modest amount of wine is good for the body, the other says that it will harm your brain! Who is right? Only we can decide – after balancing all the facts on both sides of the equation. We are obliged to think through issues ourselves.

Economics

Economics begins with simple assumptions that lead to the utility function and  simplistic analysis about supply and demand. But these are a first approximation. There are many more complexities in our strategic behaviour that economists barely understand. They are unable to even decide whether we are rational or irrational. I'm inclined to argue for a kind of rationality, else everything would be in disarray. While the human body is complex, the human mind is infinitely more complex, and different professional economists therefore have very different understandings about the economy. Which one of them is right? Only we can decide – after understanding and balancing the facts on all sides. 

Climate change

In the area of climate change, highly qualified and competent 'experts' have arrived at radically different conclusions based on their studies. Geologists generally see the world differently from short-term climate change 'specialists'. Which one is right? Only we can decide, each of us, after understanding and balancing the facts on all sides.

At this stage you might well object arguing that I'm asking people to study issues in more detail than they are capable of.  I only partially agree with this since I believe even experts can explain their ideas pretty simply. Once you understand something you should be able to explain it. So even the layman should be able to understand the answers to his questions. Regardless of whether everyone is capable of such thinking or not, I believe that on all important complex matters, we MUST try to understand things for ourselves.

For instance, climate change is extremely important given its potential (if AWG is true) to destroy human life. I cannot countenance the destruction of the earth – if we can prevent it. So it is important that I study this matter on my own and form my own opinions. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle: the explanation of climate change, must fit. Specialists can't fit such complex jigsaws. Only intelligent and questioning laymen can do this job. It may well take years of thinking and reading – and even then one may not reach the end of the journey. But there is no substitute where complex matters are concerned. Agreeing to the IPCC or some such "committee" is the most foolish thing to do under such circumstances.

Trust no one

We should trust no one – particularly on complex affairs. The idea of trusting so-called "experts" or an "informed consensus" can lead us badly astray – often costing us our life. On all matters of significance, we must do our own research and make up our own mind. I know I set a very high benchmark. But that is my approach because I honestly DON'T CARE for experts. There are endless examples of scientific folly with thousands of examples of so-called scientific "facts" being proven completely wrong. But let me give a few personal examples of the hard knocks I have undergone due to so-called "experts", which have fostered in me a total disregard for anyone who calls himself an "expert". 

RSI: Virtually no medical expert today knows anything about RSI. I make this strong statement because I speak from personal experience. Since late 1998 I visited highly qualified experts in three different continents, and paid thousands of dollars for a range of "treatments". Nothing worked. I only found idiots wherever I went. Only through intensive reading of dozens if not hundreds of research findings and books on my own, then thinking through issues myself, and experimenting with a variety of alternative options, did I arrive at the solution that works for me. My solution is based on a totally scientific analysis of the causes of RSI, and while I have not yet conducted biopsies on my own muscles, I know exactly what is going on inside them. I believe it will take the medical profession another hundred years (at the current pace) to understand what I know. Without having resolved RSI, I could not have written BFN, or DOF, nor these blogs, and might have been a mentally disabled person, given I was tending towards depression. 

Colon cancer: My father is very fortunate to be alive today despite a series of wrong advice and diagnoses by doctors – in Australia and India.  His cancer was detected eight months late, after chronic problems, and required extremely aggressive surgery to control because of the delay.  Relying on experts is dangerous business. If you wish to live, then search the internet and understand your own problems. You rely on "experts" at your peril! 

Heel pain: For over one year I was barely able to walk, and my weekly tennis sessions were coming to an end because of acute heel pain. Doctors had NO CLUE, neither did physios. I spent 100 hours on so-called treatments that never worked (forget the money). I then resorted to my own brain by searching for solutions on the internet, by understanding the anatomy of the heel, and heel biokinetics. I finally found the answer on the internet – and within two months the problem was solved. One more example of the ignorance of "experts".

DVT: A highly regarded doctor in India placed my ankle in a cast after I had an ankle sprain in January 2004. He did not think it necessary to remove the cast before my return flight to Australia. During the journey my pain became extremely acute. On arrival I showed the ankle to a doctor who failed to detect any problem. Finally, a physio I had gone to said that he wouldn't be able to manipulate my ankle given my description of the pain and the air journey. He insisted I go for a proper check-up for DVT. Only then did a doctor finally refer me for an ultrasound test which showed clearly that I had developed DVT. As a result I undertook a significant course of treatment to dissolve the clot. But note that it took three doctors and one physio to detect this. Most importantly, this could have been easily avoided by the Indian doctor removing the cast before my return flight and asking me to allow some movement in the plane. I could have died had I not been properly diagnosed in the end (luckily I gather that below-knee clots don't usually kill). So how much do I trust "experts"? Close to zero.

GERD: For nearly a decade in Assam I suffered acute stomach pain which was diagnosed erroneously by all doctors (including "experts") as a bad case of acidity. For this I was given many strong medicines (strong antacids?) and prohibited from eating foods like chilli, coffee, even tomato.  Only after going to the USA and consulting with many doctors was I finally referred to a proper test which led to the diagnosis of GERD. I am now able to eat all foods, though I take ongoing medicines for GERD. Had I not been lucky enough to get a particular doctor in USA, I'd have literally been an invalid by now, or worse, developed oesophagal cancer and died.

I can go on and on – not only about myself and my family but about others who have barely escaped alive from the deep ignorance of doctors. Let me assert that it is not just doctors that I'm talking about. I have by now known all kinds of professionals including civil servants, policemen, and economists. On all complex matters, expect DEEP IGNORANCE and confused, multiple opinions. On all such matters we need to exercise strong independence of mind and use our critical thinking ability to form our own opinion about the problem after due analysis. We cannot rely upon "experts".

Other examples of "expert" stupidity

It is amazing how many times "experts" are wrong, and wrong repeatedly. Leaving alone science, consider economics and politics. When I was young, the vast majority of Indians thought that population is India's great problem and if only we could control it, we would be fine. Not only Indians, but all kinds of Malthusians put out books like The Population Bomb (Paul R. Ehrlich); the Club of Rome issued dire predictions through its report, The Limits to Growth.

When I was young everybody in India was smitten by socialism. While pirated Ayn Rand's books were found on the footpaths, these were read but not understood, being considered the views of an extremist. 

When I was young, superstitions of all types ware rampant (astrology, ghosts, etc.). Astrology was used to set the dates for marriages, to start a business venture, to call elections! 

I need not perhaps add that all these "expert beliefs" were wrong. Totally wrong. The truth is slowly triumphing over untruth, but will still take time.

All diseases of the mind (group-think) begin when we let down our guard and become "impressed" by someone's authority. Someone in an important position starts off a theory. Some evidence is almost always available for theories that explain complex things. That evidence (and theory) is then blown up beyond proportion, till panic sets in. After the panic dies down, none of the experts is penalised. They are capable of creating one more panic in their lifetime!

Key message: Vital importance of critical thinking

Let’s teach our children to think critically. Let us never trust anyone but ourselves. Our students should be taught NEVER to accept ANY "consensus" – without first understanding the arguments clearly. I'm not saying all consensus is wrong! I'm saying we must KNOW why we believe. Indeed, often the media controls such ‘consensus’, which creates a dangerously misleading situation! Journalists with virtually no knowledge sit as arbitrators on what gets published, using criteria such as the quality of language (not the content!). Ignorant people determine the consensus. Beware such nonsense masquerading as "expert knowledge".

We can find the truth about complex things only by paying great attention to the detail and asking lots of questions. As free individuals, we are obliged to challenge each other and ask questions. Unless we are fully satisfied with the answers, we must never agree to others.


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9 thoughts on “Trust no one – but yourself
  1. Bhagwad Jal Park

    I don't think anyone (least of all me) will deny that experts can be wrong. But they've been right far more often than not.
    When laymen try and uncover the facts for themselves, they usually fail to appreciate the nuanced way various bits of knowledge work in that field which is something that experts in the field can tell at a glance.
    For example, yesterday I was having a discussion on my blog about how long a newborn baby could survive without food or water. One of my readers tried to do what you recommend – using his own knowledge of medicine to answer this question and came up with this response:
    "But most important factor is how long would a baby, premature by 12 weeks survive without any medical/nutritional whatsoever support in one of the coldest times of the year (when glucose requirement would increase), and more so born to such a young mother? Though, I don’t think such ‘experiments’ have been conducted, even a term baby, not taken care of, without food would not survive for more than 4-5 hours in those circumstances. As ensuing hypoglycemia and electrolyte imbalance would cause seizures. In fact, body temperature management in new-born babies is such an important issue, that it is made sure that babies are wrapped up in mother’s clothing"
    Now he's not a doctor and from the beginning I was suspicious (as I always am) about a non expert trying to determine complex things like how long a baby can survive just by "making a best effort". So instead of trying to answer him point by point, I just did some googling and came up with this example of some newborn babies in Mexico who survived for eight days without food or water and were called the Miracle babies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1985_Mexico_City_earthquake#Hospital_Ju.C3.A1rez
    Now where was his analysis wrong? I don't even want to try and debug his analysis, but I was right not to trust it. He probably missed some small detail that he was either unaware of or thought unimportant or missed some large factor completely or what not.
    And this is why it's a thankless task for non experts to try and decide things for themselves.
    In fact, my point is exactly the opposite of yours. For simple things, you can try and figure stuff out for yourself. Like how a light bulb works or how electricity is transmitted. But for complicated fields, there are too many pitfalls for the unwary person. You can never trust their analysis.
    No matter how little one might trust experts, if two intelligent people try their best to understand a phenomena, all things being equal I will trust the expert over the non expert – even if the non expert is me.
    And I have to say that things like a heart surgery or the airodynamics of a plane or even a calculator are not "simple!" What criteria are you using for "simple?" In fact, I can confidently say there is not a single person on earth who knows everything about how a computer works – IC design, thermal cooling, binary computation techniques, types of memory, registers, and god knows what else.
    We live in a time of specialization. The times of Gauss where a person could look for himself into all fields are long gone.  And they're not coming back.

     
  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

     

    Thanks Bhagwad

    I've got to rush so I'll just address one point now.

    Re: And I have to say that things like a heart surgery or the airodynamics of a plane or even a calculator are not "simple!" 

    I've got to rush, but just letting you know that I've added a sentence: "These may be complicated, but they are not complex."

    There is HUGE difference between a complicated thing and a complex thing. Mastering complicated stuff is a LOWER ORDER motor skill, mastering thinking about complex matters like the human body and how it works in the context of the environment is a MUCH HIGHER ORDER skill, currently found in less than 0.1 per cent of the population who have paid attention to the concept of thinking.

    Therefore most lower order politicians (like Al Gore) rush in to implement a 'consensus'. Virtually none is found who will use his own mind.

    I can guarantee that virtually ANYONE can be trained to do complex heart surgery, but virtually NO ONE can explain why the heart works (starting from the Big Bang all the way to its detailed molecular level). 

    Similarly, Swiss watchmakers made excellent watches, but only Einstein could understand the meaning of time. I trust you see the point. Complicated is NOT complex, just a simple thing multiplied 100 times.

    Regards

    Sanjeev

     
  3. Ravi

    Very useful article Sanjeev. Really enjoyed it. Its true that critical thinking is lacking in even educated people nowadays.

    I can give my own example. I did my B.Com from one of the top two colleges in India. Yet with rot learning etc, I has no skills for critical thinking. Then I did a Diploma in Business course from one of the anglo saxon OECD countries. Even than nothing gained.

    Only after getting enrolled for Post Graduate course, I learnt a bit bout critical thinking and its advantages and how not to trust any source blindly.
    What I am getting at is , the value of critical thinking should be taught from school and not during Post Graduate courses only.

     
  4. Surya

    @Bhagwad
    I think you mis-understood Sanjeev. He is not questioning the importance of specialization. Considering his grasp of economics he definitely knows the importance of division of labour. As he already replied, we definitely need people specializing in complicated tasks. That is one of the important sources of progress of civilization. But that does not mean that we should blindly follow expert advice even in places where with some effort on our side, we can come close to finding the truth. Where to do this is a decision we have to take depending on our priorities.
    Sanjeev's circumstances forced him to find out a cure for his problem himself. Here he actually specialized in curing RSI more than any medical expert.  You can ask me on what standard? He says he has been cured completely and you see him typing out 2-3 blog posts per day today, which I find pretty amazing. Sanjeev has also done a quite comprehensive research on climate-change theory. And he keeps all his articles open for review. You can go through them and his sources to come to your own conclusion. In-fact the traditional scientific method of ensuring validation through peer-review has failed in the case of climate-change theories. As recent e-mail exposes showed, climate-scientists seem to be motivated by something other than a search for truth which is what Science is about. They have publicly and privately stated that there is no harm in exaggerating things, if it can be used to scare public into acting. That is suitable for Goebbels, not for Scientists. 
    The same is true with modern macro-economics. A case in example would be Paul Krugman. On almost all policy matters you can see that he has two contradicting view-points. He has been completely opportunistic and has denied his past statements. When such a person is rewarded a Nobel and considered an expert and his ideas are taken as an input to determine a nation's policies, you know what harm can happen. So the moral is very clear. Experts do a valuable service. But in matters of life and death do not depend on them entirely. They are not Gods. There is so much they do not know. They are not angels either. They too are motivated by self-interest. If pro-global warming scientists accuse the climate-change deniers of being funded by corporate interest, then can't we not ask them " Are you not motivated by your interest in keeping your government funded ( mostly European Union funded ) jobs and keeping the money flowing for your research? And if global warming theory proves to be false, won't most regulatory departments in EU become un-necessary. So you have every interest in keeping the theory alive even at the cost of truth?" 
    In the end it is up to us to decide what is true and what is false. We should keep in mind what Reagan said – "Trust but verify"

     
  5. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Thanks, I was supposed to further respond to Bhagwad on my return from tennis, but got involved in other things. You’ve made a good point there, Surya, that I’m not against specialisation!

    Indeed, I would hope that we all put in the hard work to learn at least one area of human knowledge pretty well. Only then can mankind advance.

    Having done that we must revert to the fundamental realisation of our common humanity and independent sovereignty. I’m reminded of Swami Suddhananda (see this) who says we must never forget that we are humans first and ‘professionals’ later. Let us always sit back and look inwards. We will then understand others better, as well. They are just like us, with all our follies and foibles. There is NOTHING that any other human being can know that we can’t, should we put in the right effort and ask the right questions.

    Re: Bhagwad’s point, “If two intelligent people try their best to understand a phenomena, all things being equal I will trust the expert over the non expert – even if the non expert is me.”

    I strongly disagree with this surrender of our own mind to someone’s degree or fame or expertise. For instance, I disagree with Paul Krugman and Amartya Sen on numerous issues particularly because they over-rate the government’s capacity to do anything. They may be more decorated than I am (I’m not decorated at all, so anyone is more decorated than me!) but I KNOW more than them on many issues that they simply have no clue about. Similarly, on RSI I know MORE than any doctor you can produce before me. Also perhaps on heel pain.

    I’m not saying that the same applies in every area, but on areas where I’ve had the opportunity and time to study a bit, it does. E.g., on climate change I have identified MANY gaps in argument offered by many experts and therefore I do not believe that they have explained the situation properly – to MY satisfaction. And as far as I am concerned, anything that doesn’t make sense to me (provided I put in the right effort), or does not work, is not good enough.

    That, by the way, is also the reason why I take a highly questioning approach to religions (among other things). Not one religion has satisfied me. I don’t care if they throw their ‘scriptures’ at me. I don’t believe ANYTHING till it makes full sense to me. I have questions they don’t address, so they fail my test. I don’t believe in ANY miracle, for instance. I need to see it performed under HIGHLY controlled conditions, preferably in my presence. Nothing else, i.e. no reports of miracles, are sufficient.

    Anyway, this is my key message – and if people don’t want to use their own mind and sovereignty, so be it. I, for one, am willing to experiment and learn, and keep an open mind, but only MY understanding matters. If anyone can’t explain ALL the questions that I ask, then they may have won a Nobel prize or even claim themselves to be God (!) but they’ll fail to persuade me. I don’t propose to give up my sovereignty as a common human, that easily.

    Regards
    Sanjeev

     
  6. Manish Gupta

    Sir, Now I am 24 years and 8 months old. In last two months I have seen a lot of changes in myself. I think I have become mature now(Sense of feeling responsible and not depending on parents). Now I can understand your blogs much better and I think I have developed the the art of vision and decision making after gaining maturity. Of course your blogs have educated me to realize real world without experiencing it myself.
    I am grateful to you for teaching me critical thinking. It was never taught before. But I think being a critical thinker can be dangerous for immature persons(up to age of 21-25 depending upon different persons). How will they take decisions if they become too much critical?
    Now I come to analytical and creative thinking. I am too much analytical(more than needed). I think it ruined my enjoyment in college life. I am too much information seeker and think too much before taking any action. On the other hand I’m zero at creative thinking. Can I learn it now at this stage of life? Can it be taught by a teacher? Why our education system blocks creativity in most of the kids? I am victim of this. I was always taught to get good percentages in schools and ranks in competitive exams like IIT-JEE, AIEEE and GATE. And why don’t you promote creative thinking on your blog?

     
  7. Pradeep Kumar

    That is my first time, I go and read about critical thinking on this website. I am much agree with your points on critical thinking ( not taking complex issue). I saw a lots of documentary movie on utube and they give a lots of information how experts change there views according to situation. One documentary movie on global warming and I am surprised how experts change there views according to situation. There is little low of carbon dioxide in global warming and link of carbon dioxide to global warming is for restriction on industrialization in developing countries. I saw lecture on physics by a professor from MIT (Professor Walter Lewin). And after seeing his lecture, I thought that physics concepts are so simple if u have good demonstration. I am doing research in biochemical field and its very good for me to apply more critical thinking. I thing that way u demonstrate about critical thinking will be helpful to many people.

     
  8. Shrijith

    Sir,

    This is not the easiest article I have read on the net, and so, I’m not sure if I have truly understood your message. Here’s my version of your message:

    * Trust no one but yourself, when you form opinions on *complex issues*.
    * Complex issues are those issues yet to be understood completely by subject specialists.
    * In complex issues, facts and opinions cannot be differentiated. Until proved, all words from experts = mere opinions and hence expert opinion should not be followed blindly.
    * How not to be a blind? Follow 3 steps before you form an opinion:
    1) Form a hypothesis 2) Research and gather data 3) Analyse 4) Form an opinion

    I hope I’ve got the gist of your message. Please do correct my understanding if I’m wrong somewhere.

    Thank you!

     
  9. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    The key is to have an open mind to evaluate all expert opinions and to assess missing links. Most of the time the explanation doesn’t work in all cases. Then it is wrong. Open mind to keep questioning and NEVER believing.

    s

     

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