The adventures of Fallacy Man

Science advances one funeral at a time

A friend pointed me to this existential comic (click through for the full thing)


There are several layers to the humour in the Fallacy Man strip, which is always good to see. As is usual with humour, there is a larger point to be made here. For me, the point to be made is about how science is done.

Proof is hard to come by, in science. We all know the great asymmetry between evidence for and against a scientific theory: you can gather all the evidence in the world in support of your favourite theory, but one observation that doesn’t fit with your theory renders it false. This is the Popperian view of science as falsifiability.

But science research in practice hardly ever works like this. I mean this at two levels. The first is more obvious and less cynical than the other: most people who find outlier data in the lab assume not that the theory they are testing is false but that they’ve made an error somewhere. This is true of first year undergrads who ‘discover’ with their simple pendulum that the local value of g is 8ms-2; nobody concludes that Newton’s theory must be wrong1. It is also true of sophisticated experiments that show neutrinos travelling faster than light. The first thought physicists had wasn’t ‘Einstein was wrong’, but ‘there must be something wrong with the experiment’2.

The second, more problematic, sense in which Science doesn’t work in the Popperian falsifiability way has to do, as I see it, with the role of authority. Science today is, for better or worse, so vast and varied an enterprise that it’s impossible for one person to know more than a sliver of all knowledge 3. This is uncontroversial. This means that for anything that doesn’t fall within the sliver in which a scientist could claim expertise, he has to rely on other people.

What happens when the experts are wrong?

That question isn’t hypothetical. Experts (or people who fashion themselves experts) are routinely wrong. Sometimes because they overestimate what they know (think Linus Pauling and Vitamin C); sometimes because the questions they are trying to answer have no good answers (just on the subject of human health: is coffee good for you? is red wine? how about running?)

This is to say nothing of when experts are ‘deliberately’ wrong. Is fat good for you or bad? For 50 years, we’ve thought fat-free (which means artificially loaded with sugar) was the way to good health because researchers at Harvard were paid off by the sugar industry.

Science advances one funeral at a time, said Max Planck. That’s an observation that’s deeply, fundamentally, at odds with the idea that science is the search for evidence contrary to the hypothesis being tested. Can the objectivity of the scientists be separated from the objectivity of science itself?

I don’t want to go overboard with the postmodernist idea that science is no more objective than any other way of knowledge. But, except in physics or chemistry, where the presence and influence of the human element can be controlled for, or even eliminated, it seems to me a warning worth paying heed to4..


1. What might the student have done to get this value for g? Assuming g is 9.8 ms-2, this value of g would mean the student was enthusiastic about the pendulum’s amplitude of oscillation. See here.

2. The error was, needless to say, in the experiment, and not the correctness of Einstein’s relativity. There was a fibre-optic cable that wasn’t attached correctly.

3. “Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” – Konrad Lorenz

4. Does this make physics or chemistry “purer” sciences than biology or psychology or (gosh!) economics? That’s akin to arguing that studying spherical cows (with ellipsoidal perturbations?) is the only pure way of doing science.

Grounds for Divorce

Hold the outrage, please.

You may have read recently about a case in which the Supreme Court granted a man’s request for divorce from his wife, in a case that has been in court for almost two decades. (Think about that for a second… two decades of a person’s life–in addition to the money and effort–wasted trying to just move on with life.)

There’s more than one article calling the judge a regressive moron who saw fit to lecture the world on how the ideal daughter-in-law should behave, although from how little of the judgement they quote, I’m not sure anybody’s actually read the entire judgement.

I did. It was 17 pages of baby-kangaroo-Tribbiani English.

The central question the judge had to answer was this: did the woman, by accusing the husband repeatedly of infidelity, by harassing him about living separately (i.e. not with his parents), and by threatening to (and actually attempting) suicide, act cruelly towards the husband? In particular, did this “cruelty” cross the legal threshold of grounds for divorce? The Court finds that it did. And there the matter should have ended.

But no. We can’t just let a judgement of the Supreme Court go without some outrage. (Me included: my knee-jerk reaction was to react with outrage too.) This, I think, is a case of the outrage machine gone nuts. I’ll talk about The Wire‘s article (by Ratna Kapur) on the matter in particular, although many more exist.

Bear in mind the following: “cruelty” is one of the (ten listed) grounds for divorce defined in law. As divorce becomes more accepted in society, we will necessarily see some shoehorning of cases into one of these categories. There isn’t a category of “unresolvable differences”, for instance. And in order to grant divorce for “cruelty”, the judge has to show why some behaviour is “cruel”: i.e. why a husband may have been aggrieved that a wife badgered him about leaving his parents. In such cases, the done thing is to appeal to “the average citizen”. This isn’t the Court saying this is how it should be; only that this is how it usually is, and that the husband is justified in feeling aggrieved.

Put differently: if the man wants to take care of his parents who have no source of support apart from him, and the wife wants him not to, and this disagreement is unresolvable, would you grant the husband’s request for divorce? If you say yes, and you’re the judge, you’ve to justify your “yes” by saying why; i.e. by filing this divorce under one of the allowed grounds.

With me so far?

In her article, Ratna Kapur says:

the Indian Supreme Court has just handed down a decision that reinforces male privileges and subordinates the role of women in the family.

The decision that a Hindu son has the right to divorce a Hindu woman who does not subscribe to the position that a Hindu son should support his parents, is not only alarming, it reeks of nothing less than a narrow, repressive mentality that reinscribes Indian/Hindu women as second class citizens.

Did the decision say a Hindu man can unilaterally divorce his wife for disagreeing with him about whether he should support his parents? No. It pointed to paranoid accusations of infidelity, and threats of suicide, in addition to harassment about leaving his family (see above). Making it seem as if the decision only talked about the one thing you want to rant about is misrepresentation.


The judge’s views fit within a mindset that continues to regard Hindu (and non-Hindu) women as not only less than human, an appendage to men, but also allocates their rights according to the performance of their familial roles as good wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. Furthermore, it renders Hinduism as a restrictive, discriminatory and regressive tradition, where Hindu women’s roles are only ever understood as serving the husband/Hindu son, and ensuring that her behaviour does not upset his “tranquility and peace of mind.”

I think messing up my peace of mind should be grounds for divorce. But since the law doesn’t allow it, we’ll call it “cruelty”. The judgement doesn’t say “a woman’s job is to ensure her husband’s peace of mind and not vice-versa”. That’s Ratna Kapur putting words in the judge’s mouth.

Some more:

The bench has exposed its gender and deeply myopic religious biases, exemplifying the need for the training and education of judges not only in how to treat women as equal citizens of India – rather than as someone’s wife, daughter or sister – but also in India’s heterogeneous cultural histories.

Where did daughter or sister come in? This citizen of India badgered this other citizen of India until he couldn’t take it any longer. He wants divorce. Do you give it to him or not?
The point about heterogeneous cultural histories is also moot, for the reasons of appeals to “the average citizen” I noted above.

Even more:

Justice Dave’s unsolicited views in this case continue to favour a hegemonic understanding of Hinduism as well as the assumption that the dominant family form that exists within India is and should remain heteronormative, Hindu, joint, and based on male privilege. By validating this family form, he negates the diverse and heterogeneous ways in which people live their lives in India and also undermines the pluralistic features not only of Hinduism, but of all faiths, where Indian society cannot and should not be equated exclusively with “Hindu society.”

OK, first, the judge’s views on the case were quite literally solicited. But never mind that. The judge’s statements about whether a wife asking that her husband not give money to his parents was “cruel” only applies to this case. The judge’s opinion on how society should be are irrelevant.

This case is a drag anchor on women’s rights and represents a shameful display of the gender and religious biases of the judges. The decision suggests that the court was more interested in sending a political message that a specific family form must be rescued from potential disintegration as well as addressing the anxieties over what this would mean for men. In the process, it has eradicated the hard fought for space for the recognition of multiplicity and different family forms as well as the struggle for the recognition of gender equality within these diverse forms. The importance of family does not rest in Justice Dave’s singular conception, but in the different perceptions and experience of family by different caste, class, religious and sexual sub-groups. It becomes a bastion of strength when such groups are under siege from a majoritarian politics that is intent on eradicating difference and diversity. The court’s reductive and narrow holding just made the work of gender equality and the recognition of difference all the harder.

If you remove references to the court and the judge, you could copy-paste this paragraph into literally any article about society. It’s as if there’s a pre-written script and we’re all playing mad-libs.

Aside: I’m still stuck on why it could possibly take 20 years, and a Supreme Court judgement, for a man to get a divorce. Mindboggling.

The burkini ban, the uniform civil code

Democracy abhors dress-codes.

France’s ban on the burkini and India’s ongoing debate over whether to implement a uniform civil code seem to have a common thread.

For the uninitiated: this is a burkini. Wearing a burkini in public was made a punishable offence by the governments of several towns and cities in France; these laws got the support of France’s socialist Prime Minister, whose argument is effectively that the French feel icky around women in burkinis and shouldn’t be made to. The ban has now been struck down by a high court in France as being against basic human rights.

I haven’t seen many cogent arguments for why the government should be able to tell somebody else what to wear, and still be allowed to call itself democratic. Doing both sounds to me like rank hypocrisy; or at least like not enough thought has gone into it.

I read a particularly interesting take on the burkini ban at The Ex Muslim (TEM). I agree with most (see footnote 1) of what is said there, as I’ve said before (here, here). This, coming from a muslim woman who has personally suffered, is poignant:

Looking at the woman who insists she wasn’t made to conform tells you nothing about the woman who didn’t want to conform, and hasn’t anything resembling the visibility to say so.

In India, each religion has its own laws for marriage, divorce, inheritence, etc, and the adoption of a common set of laws governing all Indians is a constitutional directive which we haven’t yet found a way of instituting. It won’t be easy. Recent legal challenges to triple talaq have gone predictably, with “liberal” commentators behaving exactly the way TEM says they do.

The only moral argument against the implementation of a uniform civil code is something TEM points out about the burkini ban and how it is counterproductive:

Let’s pretend (lolsob) that I am one of these women directly victimized by the very regressive ideology of modesty being opposed here. I have a bit of freedom being allowed to go to a pool in a burkini by my restrictive and intolerant family and community. And you’re going to ban me from that??? Thereby making it so on top of all my other restrictions I can’t swim too?

I think this should be the central question we ask ourselves in the debate in India over the uniform civil code: would implementing the uniform civil code make the lives of muslim women more difficult? I don’t have an answer, one way or the other. The arguments I’ve encountered that a uniform civil code might make life worse for women have been unconvincing, but that may be because I have a privileged armchair to sit on and philosophise from.

Footnote 1: My one quibble about TEM’s post is her characterisation of the false-equivalence that she says “liberals” resort to (in the service of cultural relativism, let’s say). She claims that liberals argue that muslim women in burqas and women in the west in bikinis are the same. I don’t know if people claim this, but by TEM’s metric, this is a crappy analogy:

When a woman’s community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriageability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.

However, consider what I think is a fairer (…and lovelier?) analogy: women in the west are made to wear make-up in public; “made to”  through cultural norms and relentless social badgering. People went after an olympic athlete because her hair was frizzy

It still isn’t an entirely fair comparison, I don’t think; I’ve never heard of a woman stoned to death for not wearing make-up (or even disenfranchised). But it’s closer to what a self-hating liberal might argue than the burqa-bikini equivalency.

Vandana Shiva on Monsanto and Bt Cotton

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. Vandana Shiva raises none of them.

G. Padmanaban, the former Director of IISc and a biotech administrator and activist if there ever was one, gave a talk at JNC about the promise of genetically modified crops–and necessary precautions to take in their use. Padmanaban pulled no punches, and laid out the pro-GM position as clearly as I’ve heard it. (Disclosure: I changed my position on GM crops about a year ago on the basis of the scientific consensus on their safety. I do not think GM crops are a cure-all; the ecological impact of every new GM crop should be assessed carefully before widespread use is authorised.) His talk cleared up several misconceptions I had about GM crops simply because of where I (mostly) got my information from.

Vandana Shiva is a high profile opponent of globalisation in general and Monsanto’s monopoly over Bt cotton (and Bt brinjal, if the time comes). She says that the government should “control the price of Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds”. This on the eve of an expected announcement from the central government on GM crop royalties. Her article is typical of articles written against GM crops, in that it’s vague, argues circularly, and would probably misinform the unwary reader.

OK, I’ll assume some explanation is necessary.

Monsanto added the gene from Bacillus thuringienesis(Bt) to the cotton plant’s genome, creating Bt cotton. Monsanto ‘owns’ Bt cotton, in that only Monsanto can decide who (else) gets to make or sell Bt cotton seeds. Monsanto charges such seed companies a royalty for using their technology. The companies presumably pass this on to farmers who buy seeds from them.

This is much like somebody making a song or a movie, and charging licensing fees for you to use them. (Several Indian) seed companies have licensed the Bt cotton ‘technology’ from Monsanto Mahyco, the subsidiary of Monsanto that owns Bt cotton rights in India.

The Indian government decided, in May this year, to cap prices for seeds. They also decided that royalties should be capped at 10% of the seed price for the first five years, and should decrease after that. The order also said that any company that wants to produce Bt seeds should be given a licence (much like the compulsory licensing for life-saving drugs that India enforces). The Indian government then withdrew the order, presumably under pressure from the industry, and said they’ll tell us what they’ve decided in three months, i.e. some time this week.

A wide range of positions on intellectual property is possible in a democracy, and the government will find some middle ground, as governments do. That the government used the essential commodities act instead of something else has been called into question, with people pointing out that seeds constitute about 5% of input costs for farmers and that setting royalty limits only serves the intermediaries between Monsanto and the farmers.

The misinformation about GM crops, on the other hand, is staggering. Vandana Shiva’s article, for instance, is an incoherent muddle. Her central point that the Indian government should control the price of seeds is clear enough. But her article doesn’t even mention seed companies, consistently making it seem as if farmers are directly indebted to Monsanto!

The article is rife with bad arguments and specious analogies. I made a list:


300,000 farmers have killed themselves because of seed royalties.

About 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. But no clear link exists between farmer suicide numbers and the adoption of Bt cotton. If it’s true that seeds are 5% of the total input cost, though, a link seems unlikely.


By claiming to be the inventor of these seeds, Monsanto claimed to be the creator and owner of generations of seeds that reproduce themselves for life and the right to collect royalties from farmers.

Monsanto claiming ownership of the seed because it had the tools to shoot a gene with a gene gun into the cell of the plant is the equivalent to a doctor who has facilitated in-vitro fertilisation claiming parenthood and ownership not only of the child thus born, but of all its descendants in the future. Society will surely reject such a claim.

I wouldn’t blame you if you came away from Vandana Shiva’s article thinking that farmers owe royalties to Monsanto, crop after crop, season after season. This is, as far as I can tell (and I’d happily stand corrected; down with the evil corporation and all that), absolutely untrue. Farmers do have the right to save their seeds and replant them. That the next generation of hybrid Bt cotton won’t be quite as resistant to bollworm as the first generation is called the loss of hybrid vigour, and is a feature of all hybrids, not just GM hybrids.


By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, such corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds which have now become their property.

Seed is the source of life. Life forms, forms of life – plants and seeds – are self-evolving, self organised sovereign beings. They have Intrinsic worth, value and standing. They multiply and reproduce.

If the assertion is that patents related to living organisms should be regulated differently from patents for other things, I think that’s all right. But it is a line-drawing exercise. Experiments on animals are allowed for example; certain kinds of experiments on human beings aren’t. We can debate where the line should be drawn for patenting.

On the other hand, “plants can evolve on their own” is only a valid argument against patenting Bt cotton if cotton plants could somehow evolve a/the gene that provides bollworm resistance.


In Argentina, a judge rejected Monsanto soya bean patent, saying: “The writer of a book cannot claim to be the inventor of a language.”Monsanto is not writing the book of life. It is just scrambling the letters in total ignorance of what its “genetic modification” means at the level of the organism, the seed or the eco system. Claiming patents on seed and patents on life is therefore equivalent to claiming destruction as creation, ignorance as innovation.

The writer of a book has rights to what he’s written. That’s intellectual property. We can decide democratically whether, and how strictly, we want to enforce IP rights. But saying “the writer didn’t invent those words” in defence of plagiarism, say, is laughable. There’s a clear legal distinction between what’s patentable–the technology to add the Bt gene into cotton–and what isn’t–cotton itself.

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. If GM crops turn out to be invasive, what ecological impact would that have? Sans proper farmer training/education, are we risking pesticide resistant super-pests? Vandana Shiva raises none of them in her article.

Abdul Kalam

Snark is easy.

Among the most visited posts on the blog is a flippant piece on a speech our late President APJ Abdul Kalam made. In the post, I make fun of Kalam’s flubbing some grammar; I make fun of the circular nature of his prescription for world peace. I make fun of his earnestness.

I made fun; it’s easy to make fun.

Most of the pushback has been equally childish. “Go kill yourself” is not an argument, to say nothing of being ironic coming right after ‘how could you say such mean things’?

The true test of a man is in how he treats those he has power over, goes the saying. I work for somebody who saw first-hand how Kalam treated subordinates. Kalam saw right through people, RN says. He saw who could or couldn’t do what, and didn’t put hierarchy before knowledge. He made you feel special for being part of his team. RN’s words, as best I can remember them, were “if you could do what was necessary to get the project to work, he’d treat you like the most important person”. As a recruit into DRDO and then ISRO without a PhD, it took other great men–Satish Dhawan and Vikram Sarabhai (and Raja Ramanna, I think)–to see Kalam’s potential. Kalam’s contributions to the Indian missile defence programme dwarf those of anybody else any of us can name, PhD or not.

All of which is to say I’m thinking of writing again. The first post on my return has gone well. But one does not simply walk into mordor pick up where one left off with no indication of having introspected, of having seen time pass by.

I’ve made apologies for doing dumb things before. I daresay I’ll make them again. Let’s not call this an apology; perhaps that’s too strong a word. Let me say only that the point some commenters made on the original Abdul Kalam post that snark doesn’t always show wit or cleverness is well taken, and will be remembered as I try and get better at whatever it is I’m doing here.

No, “Many Indians” aren’t interested in PV Sindhu’s caste

NewsMinute’s numbers are off. Way, way off.

After the Brexit vote results came out, several news agencies (as well as the “fake” newspeople Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee) focussed on the fact that people were asking google “What is the EU?” the day after voting ended. It turns out that the number of people searching “what is the EU?” was about 1000–i.e. essentially zero compared to the 35 million people who voted one way or another in the Brexit referendum.

I think something similar is happening with a recent story in India on PV Sindhu, India’s silver medallist in Badminton in the Rio Olympics. NewsMinute is running a story that google searches for PV Sindhu’s caste have spiked after she won her silver medal. This is true, and can be checked quite simply by using Google Trends. But, as in the Brexit case above, a spike means very little unless accompanied by absolute numbers.

Newsminute provides one graph on absolute numbers, showing that 150,000 people searched for PV Sindhu’s caste in June 2016. They claim that, based on the recent spike, millions of people are searching for PV Sindhu’s caste. If that number seems suspect to you–as it did me–that’s because it appears it is.


Here are my results from Google AdWords. First, the number of people who searched for “pv sindhu”, and “pv sindhu caste”:











There were about 15,000 searches a month for PV Sindhu, and 170 searches a month for her caste over the last six months. Where newsminute got their 150,000 searches from I do not know, but that number is clearly rubbish. About 1% of all searches for PV Sindhu asked for her caste. This ratio holds even with the recent–and bloody well earned–spike in interest in her, as you can see below. If we accepted the NewsMinute number of 150,000 searches for “pv sindhu caste”, it would mean, with a factor of 100 for the spike, and a factor of 100 between the two search terms, that there were 1.5 billion searches for “pv sindhu”. Bullshit. [Edit (11PM): I realised after I posted this that the 150,000 is per month, whereas the hundredfold spike may have been per day. That means that my figure of 1.5 billion may be wrong. If so, it would mean, however, that on the day of her silver-medal win, there were (150,000/30) * (100 * 100)  = 5 crore searches for PV Sindhu. Which brings me back to: ‘Bullshit’.]


Now, 1% in India is a lot of people, and NewsMinute could be forgiven for saying “many Indians” given that about 20,000 people have searched for her caste. But they have to explain why their numbers are so far off.


Net neutrality nuance

Net neutrality should be inviolable.

However, when Mark Zuckerberg says “Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes,” I agree with his definition of net neutrality.

Allowing companies to pay ISPs so that customers can access their websites for free is not different from allowing companies to set up toll-free phone lines, and does not violate net neutrality. Here’s what would be a violation of net neutrality:
Airtel stops a certain company from signing up for Airtel zero; Or
Airtel charges one company more per unit data than another; Or
Airtel speeds up loading times for one company’s website compared to another;
Or–and this is something they’ve already tried to do once–Airtel decides to charge users extra for data used for VoIP calls.

If the complaint is that people will tend to use the free websites more than competitors’ websites, that’s a question of monopoly, not neutrality. The great thing about the internet, of course, is that it doesn’t cost all that much to sample the field, and the costs are only going to decrease. Ask yourself: if hotmail were made free and gmail continued to cost bandwidth, would you switch (back) to hotmail? If myspace were made free, would you switch (back) to myspace?

This is not to suggest, at all, that companies should be allowed to police themselves. A regulator exists and should be empowered by law to enforce net neutrality strictly. But it helps nobody to confuse terms.