16th Oct 2010
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:
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 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.
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.