Some years ago, I wrote a book that turned a sceptical eye on certain oft-repeated aspects of Indian history. And I enjoyed it very much. So much so that I decided to go back to university and train to become a proper historian. I have talked about this before in these… err… webpages. So far I have enjoyed this "mature student" lifestyle very much. And I am currently eagerly looking forward to moving up from a postgraduate course to a doctoral programme next month (there is a small matter of a master’s thesis in between. But let us ignore that for now. Hashtag Crie).
The course has done many things. For instance, it has made me realize how half-baked that original book was. History is not something, I have realized, that you can fact-check in a pat, 3,000-word essay. Things are a bit more complex than that.
The course also made me a person with more humility. Listening to far more learned people speak with self-doubt made me realize what an idiot I was with my certitudes and flawless ideologies.
The course has also made me a much more competent sceptic. In other words, I am now in possession of a fairly sensitive bullshit radar. This is a crippling thing for an Indian columnist/editor/journalist type to have (you can never switch it off in this profession). Also, compounded with self-doubt, being a full-time sceptic gives people the impression that you don’t stand for anything or believe in anybody. Which is fine. It ruins Twitter for you (which is great for productivity in general). But when you do choose things to rally behind, it gives you a position borne of out a more fundamental, authentic conviction.
But this raises two questions. First, do I believe in anything? And second, how do you actually come to own and operate a finely-tuned bullshit radar?
In this week’s letter, let me share a few thoughts on this.
First, personally I try to distinguish between scepticism and cynicism. In my personal dictionary, a sceptic is convinced that some things are total crap. While a cynic is convinced most things or perhaps everything is total crap. Your definitions might vary. So a sceptic does believe in things, as it were, but just likes to ask for proofs often. But without getting mired in semantics: yes, I believe in lots of stuff. And people. And ideas. And science. And evolution. I think some ideas are more established than others. Et cetera.
Secondly, how do you function as a sceptic? Let me share a handful of tips and techniques I use in my everyday life to keep my bullshit radar functioning in top form. Your mileage may vary.
1. Nothing is because of one thing: If someone tells you the Sensex went up or the GDP growth rate went down because of this or the other reason, alert alert alert. The latest trends might confirm your political leanings, but causations, especially in a country like India, are rarely clean or unambiguous. And the greater there is aggregation in the thing you are looking at, less is the chance that that thing was because of just one or two other things.
2. Degrees of separation: Seen with some detachment, a surprising amount of the stuff you see in the news, in the press and even read in books is quite similar to that trope from your school days: my friend’s friend’s cousin’s dad is a RAW spy. But in fact he is an inspector in the department of food adulteration. The closer you get to the source of data, the better. Photos need citations. Videos need attributions. Charts need references. It doesn’t matter if your grandfather sent you something on WhatsApp. Pro-tip: the words “is it true?” are the oldest trick in the truth-manufacturing book. Ignore immediately.
3. Ask for footnotes: Yay, your country just went up thirty places in the World Economic Forum’s International Ranking Of Fragrant Nations? Congratulations. But wait. Read the footnotes. Check the methodology. Figure out the factors that go into the rankings. That is not to say that these rankings are useless. They are not. But many are not nearly as useful as they seem. Particularly, keep an eye out for things governments can do to manipulate ranks easily.
4. Survey the survey, inspect the index: 85% of Indians say that tomatoes are the best vegetables in the world. Superb. Until you check the methodology and realize the pollsters spoke to 13 people they found in a Cafe Coffee Day near Carter Road. I cannot reiterate this enough: check every survey, index, poll, etc. Especially the ones that show wide variations between nations and between years.
5. Weasel words: Most, many, almost all, several, a large number, majority… these are all words frequently used to make trends appear where they don’t. Beware. Especially in news headlines.
6. Trust your instincts: Most people have excellent bullshit radars already inbuilt (some people are hopelessly gullible). So when that little alarm goes off… pay heed. Sometimes the radar goes off in undesirable ways. But that is the price of being a sceptic. Better to be aware of the weaknesses of one’s position, than to believe in it blindly.
7. Finally, choose your battles: Not everything is worth being sceptical about. Politicians are hypocritical. Famous people say stupid things. National heroes were sometimes cowards. Great cricketers were terrible people. Great doctors were terrible taxpayers. Good historians are bad columnists. Or whatever. You don’t have to spend all day fact-checking every trivial thing. In some cases, that is precisely why falsehoods are manufactured. To keep smart people engaged in fighting useless battles. That bullshit radar is a piece of precision engineering. Use it wisely.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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