All Articles

Children of Reason

Over the past few weeks, I met a diverse set of wonderful people from different backgrounds and upbringing. An interesting pattern seemed to emerged.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting a bunch of irreligious heathens, all software engineers from some of India's premier institutes. None of us would introduce each other that way of course — religion (or the lack of it) is not central to our identity.

But it eventually came up in random social commentary on the rise of the right-wing in India. It turned out that despite our wildly different backgrounds, none of us trusted the government (or the political opposition or any politician or Aam Aadmi).

As the conversation went into other topics, there was a level of comfort in discussing issues that could be perceived as "touchy".
We probably annoyed a few Nationalist Uncles around us with our banter. What I found most striking was the way everyone framed their sentences — littered with "most likely", "probably", "statistically speaking", "trend has been", and most important of all — "I think" and "In my opinion". In short, these were civilized discussions. No facts were being peddled, only opinions and perspectives.

There's a sense of humility the Physics and Chemistry lab experiments instill in you at an early age.
The same process continues as you move into Software Programming or medical research careers.
You are constantly corrected by others, and because the truth is observable, well-defined, and deterministic, you have no choice but to accept you are wrong.
There very little room for ego here — if you are unable to accept your mistakes, things will eventually go horribly wrong.

I think this is in stark contrast to people from other backgrounds. I totally agree ‐ this is a wild generalization that is hypocritically baseless.
So let me put it this way — I find it absolutely astounding how some people are able to hold opinions with absolute and unwavering conviction, and are unresponsive to opinions that challenge them.

A long time ago, I found myself in a discussion on the Narmada Bachao Andolan — a grand dam was being built in Gujarat and thousands of farmers' families were going to be displaced.
A friend spoke of supporting the mission, so I was curious on how she was able to pick a side. There were clear pros and cons. The poor were allegedly being given an unfair deal.

I get annoyed when people shut down others trying to oppose their views. For e.g., it has become "uncool" to challenge climate change. The evidence for climate-change is obviously conclusive, but I should not have to say this. Criticism of climate-change science is perfectly welcome. When people criticize, they also read up on the subject. Sure, they read fake news and sketchy sources, but at least they are making an effort. You have to appreciate that they are involved in the process of discussion, however unreceptive they may seem. It is better than utter apathy and indifference.

Science can make you timid about picking a side. You can end up having to suspend judgement and say you need more information. Social issues are therefore extremely tricky.
Folks that are driven by empathy and compassion have strong conviction without needing to hear views from the other side.

— Is displacement of families really worth the pros?
— If GMO Corn is able to feed the hungry (and there is proper oversight), is Monsanto really evil?
— Do firecrackers significantly damage the environment to warrant a total ban?
— Would you thank your god if your 12 year old child's brain tumor was cured?

A scientist would likely order some research and cost-benefit analysis to pick a side that outweighs the other. Or if no source of knowledge is available, they would simply suspend judgement until further notice.

Conviction only comes with a body of evidence...and maybe some empathy if there is evidence.

More thinking: Would you sacrifice one person to save five? - Eleanor Nelsen