Monday, February 11, 2013

Theists and checking up facts: an oxymoron?

First- this post is not meant to offend anyone, but of course, as all articles that start with such a line, it just MIGHT end up offending some people. I hope it doesn't because the people that it might offend have a lot to gain from this post. Secondly, when I say "religion" in this post, I mean both religion and Hinduism. More often, the latter. Third, as usual I started out with intention of writing a much shorter post but like Mark Twain, found I didn't have the time to, so I wrote a longer one :P Lastly, I have included some interesting references at the end, if you are interested in looking up and decided not to plod through this entire post. Now let me start at the beginning.

As I might have mentioned in the blog before, I come from a very orthodox family. At least within my circles, I sometimes feel that our family could serve as the Oxford dictionary definition for orthodox. I don't find anything wrong about it per se, but that is worth mentioning because it partially explains why I am interested in religion (interested in, not a believer of). Because I grew up in such an environment and because I was also taught some excellent reasoning skills by the same orthodox people and because I am a big reader, I spent a substantial portion of my childhood reading stuff related to religion. I also spent quite some time listening to all kinds of arguments FOR religion- how great God is, why we gain from believing, the millions of miracles he has performed, why it "makes sense" to believe and so on. I must admit it was not that difficult to 'believe' before I knew Google.

Anyhow, with all that background reading (which was pretty interesting, admittedly, and a lot of it quite reasonable) I learned that- unlike what many people in the outside world think, orthodox people are very intelligent. I think I should re-emphasize this point because much of my audience consists of people who grew up in so-called neutral families. Such people often think that religious fanatics and fundamentalists are complete idiots. Let me break this to you right now- they aren't. In fact, I can almost say that I know many more sensible yet orthodox people than I know sensible secular people. Talk about irony.  
Anyway, because of such a background, I continued to read stuff that religious people say long after I stopped believing. You see, I want to be able to pit myself against the best of the other side. Anyway, so far, so good.

The problem arose when I started having unlimited access to the internet and started checking up stuff on Google. When Google is your friend, many of your facebook friends might unfriend you. No, seriously. There have been times when I have verified stuff put up by some of my valued friends (not necessarily related to religion) by simply typing the title on the Google searchbar and found that they were plain false. Then, goodnaturedly, I comment on their post saying this is false, and said friends get angry. (Ok, nobody unfriended me as yet, but you can imagine how things went after that point.) Anyway, I digress. The point I wanted to make was that I have this instinctive thing to look up stuff before believing in them. So from then on, (and back to religion  now) whenever someone used a religious anecdote or any other anecdote that I could verify, I did. In fact, whenever they quoted anything I could note down and check, I did. In the process I learned a lot- but sadly 90-95% of their anecdotes were hoaxes. Except the ones from their own lives. Even worse, this was not limited to anecdotes. Many of the "facts" that they used to substantiate their claims were fabrications from propaganda magazines. I will give two examples here, but trust me, there are hundreds more. (Click on "Read more" below for more).

Whenever people talk about the greatness of the Indian culture (by which they mean Vedic culture, because apparently, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and later Muslim invasions never happened!) they often mention how the Vedic people were so advanced in science, they knew much more than we do, they had nuclear weapons and superadvanced healing and so on. Unlike most atheists who would plainly laugh at such stuff, I try to look this up. I have heard enough sensible stuff from both sides to ignore anybody's point outright. While evidence is flimsy on some areas, it is possible that the nutrition, stamina or immunity of people in those times was much higher than now. But of course, that culture thrived on growing cattle and eating natural food, definitely healthier than sitting in front of the computer all day for a profession. And virus and bacteria must have evolved million-fold in these hundreds of years. But the part about medicine is simply not true. (Not continuing on this, but it is fairly easy to verify).

Anyway, you might have heard of the recent lecture at IITM that got a serious argument running. I was one of the people who watched the entire lecture while Googling stuff every few frames. (If you have the time, watch it. I have my own reservations about what the audience did which I feel they should have done differently, but keep that for some other day). So this man claims that Indians had a very advanced "Vymanika Shastra" (Aeronautical science). And the bad part is that simply typing these two words on Google brings up links that prove this is a hoax. The third or fourth link on the results turns up this- a page that takes a long time to load but is a Journal publication by IISC from the 1970's debunking most of the so-called shastra. While I often tell people my knowledge of mechanics sucks big time, I could understand much of the stuff mentioned in the paper. (For e.g., the fact that the vymanika shastra's claims were against the laws of motion. And of course, they work in velocity ranges that should obey the laws of motion. Which makes them impossible , not just impractical, to be implemented.) Of course typing "Vymanika shastra hoax" yields many more interesting links debunking the Shastra itself. So much for the pinnacle of technology card.

More recently, aka today, I started reading a review of the book 'Oh, Mind Relax Please' (the book I think is the English version of "Maname Relax Please" in Tamil- See P.S.). And no, I am not even starting on the poor grammar/punctuation in the title that puts off Grammar Nazis like me. Apparently, the book starts off with some version of the idea "what goes around comes around". Something I personally believe in, though I feel there is no reason to. And so, I thought, good point to start at. The author gives an anecdote to substantiate it - the infamous story about Alexander Fleming's father saving young boy Winston Churchill from drowning. (The story goes that a fisherman saves a young boy from drowning and when the boy's father pays him money, he says he doesn't want anything in return. Instead the father funds the education of the fisherman's son. Later in life, the fisherman's son turns out to be Alexander Fleming and he discovers pencillin which saves the life of the boy his father saved from drowning. And no surprises here- that boy was
Sir Winston Churchill. And thus, what goes around ......) Well, as a reflex reaction, I Googled "churchill and fleming". And no points for guessing- this is a hoax

Now, anyone with any sense who would want to support the author would tell me that the story was only an example, that there are many more examples in life of such incidents and that I am missing the point. They would also tell me that I should not judge the author based on the examples he uses, but look at the arguments beneath them. To give myself due credit, I try. But you know what, it is hard for me to take someone seriously, when the opening anecdote in their book is something I can find to be false SO EASILY. If the guy didn't have the diligence to do some basic looking up on the stuff he is writing (and publishing for money, no less), how can I -someone who checks and double checks the stuff I put up on my simple blog which is neither for money, not particularly popular nationwide- respect anything he says?

Well, the author is from the previous generation and is probably not THAT internet-savvy. And maybe I am too young and unforgiving. But honestly, I have no mercy for people who do not put in effort. No sir, none at all. If you have the audacity to talk/write on a respectable public forum without doing the background work, you disrespect my intelligence and sincerity. If you do not care to look up the stuff you write for publishing (or for presenting at the IIT) I do not care to listen to you. Ok, that's not true- I will be nice enough to listen to you. But you lost your respect in that first instant. And nothing you say, including Nobel-Prize-worthy discoveries of yours, can gain that back. And trust me, I am one of the more tolerant atheists around. (Venting anger out on blog- check).

And THAT brings me to the main point of this post. People who want to convince me (or anyone else) about religion (or anything else), PLEASE make an attempt to know what you are up against. Many atheists are well-read people exposed to many different ideas and faiths. If you want to make any sort of decent case against them, you MUST work harder. Googling is a basic skill (it is not even fancy enough to be a skill, actually) that you must develop. Verify your facts before you write/speak them. Think about your arguments from an alternate point of view before using them. Is there a logical fallacy sneaking in there somewhere? Try to remove it. Trust me, this stuff is basic and not too hard for anyone who tries (I know two members in my own family who try pretty hard, and are good at finding the right arguments! And they are normal people, not theologians per se.) 
Importantly, stop reading from the same sources that circulate the same false stories over and over again. Reading the same thing multiple times makes it sound credible, even if it isn't! Even better, read some atheist blogs/books. And read your hate mail. That might give you some insight about what makes people atheists (As Dawkins says, nobody is born one!) and how you might want to convince them. Of course, in the process, you might stop believing, like I did- which is awesome! On the other hand, maybe you might find some irrefutable arguments for your side- which might convert me back. And that's cool too by me. Because, unlike you, I am more particular about finding the truth than sticking to my own side blindly. (Unsolicited advice on blog- check!)

And remember- if you don't do your basic homework, sir, nobody is going to take you seriously- as they shouldn't!

1. IITM lecture videos: part1, part2
2. IITM article about the lecture: link
3. Nanopolitan article about the lecture: link

4. Article explaining Vymanika Shastra: link (don't miss the section on atypicals and conclusions)
5. Wikipedia: link
6. Journal paper by IISC: link
7. Google Scholar search for Vymanika Shastra: link 
8. Oh, mind relax please: Google Books

Churchill and Fleming story: (unfortunately all the versions I found also talk about why the story is a hoax!)
9. From the Winston Churchill site  
10. From truthorfiction 
11. From wikipedia 
12. A thorough analysis

1. My bad! I should have seen the description of the book first- Anything that starts with "The superficial way of reading this book is through intellectual understanding" and goes on to say that "The deeper way is by feeling the insights of the narration. The deepest way is where these insights and parables light up your mind in your hours of darkness and guide you like a friend." could not have done any better.

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