Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why reading news every day might be getting in the way of your understanding things

A lot has happened in my life since the time I last blogged – lots that I really can’t get into right now. One of the other notable events has been the crashing of my laptop and the threat of losing everything I wrote in the past two years which still hangs with it. As some of you have suspected, yes, I am trying to pen something bigger than 3 sentenced-short stories; it has been part of the reason why I have not blogged.

My days are still meandering – I still spend half my working day chasing numbers which get irrelevant by the end of the day, the other half is spent in the smoking corridors talking about office politics and how big an asshole somebody is. Evenings are spent alone in the apartment with meanderings on the net, discursive readings and thinking, and lots of sleeping.

Part of the reason I have not blogged is that I’m not doing any readings on current affairs. My morning papers get dumped to the climbing pile of trash without a glance at even the back-page. To illustrate, I did not follow the entire follow-up to the elections and was totally unaware of the pre-poll alliances which different parties had engaged in. I am very ashamed of my lack of awareness of the relevant and have serious concerns in the efficacy of my future credibility in discussions if much of what is happening in my life is whizzing off my head without even my hearing their whiz.

I have no excuse, but let me come to some of the things that might be underlying my otherwise clueless state. For one, I have followed news quite intently for some years and the thing is – it never stops; and it seems to run around in circles. It might add credibility to my participation in stairwell discussions, but does it really make sense following pre-poll alliances when these alliances are alliances of pure convenience and not ideological, and hence subject to change with the context, as I have seen them change again and again.

It's difficult for me to give more than a couple of hours of reading every day and, in that space, blogs, wikipedia, news and books slog it out. In this space, I want to be abreast with what is happening and also form a more informed picture about the world I inhabit. Unfortunately, the endless pounding of news flashes, which might serve to keep me updated on the latest (and mostly the inconsequential), they obstruct many a times the second purpose.
I want ot understand the first principles of the ideologies underlying the social structure and consciousness, than their nth-order effects.

There was a time when I assiduously followed the morning paper but even after years of it I find myself half-informed on the range of topics I've followed. For all the years of diligently following the headlines, about a score of terror attacks – with reading of all the analyses, opinions and editorials – and a million stories of rape (which I now suspect are put more for their titillating and shock effect than any concern regarding violation of rights), I have neither any informed understanding of the mechanics of terror, why people are convinced enough to kill themselves to kill a few other, nor do I understand the human mind inured to cruelty. For all the years of following successive governments, I do not understand what democracy really means; for all the Left-bashing, I still do not understand dialectical materialism.

As part of preparation for CAT, I read a lot of editorials. The good thing about editorials and guest columns is that they offer not only a set of facts but also a point of view associated with them and hence, like pre-masticated food, are easier and faster to incorporate into the arsenal of world-views which makes an “informed” man.

But now I am beginning to understand that the analysts come from the same world that I do, a world where a million things are happening every second, and only a dozen have to vie for your attention in tomorrow’s newspaper’s headlines. Hence, if there is a terror attack in some city tonight, the analyst has to discuss that tomorrow and, if the next day, a nobel laureate dies, the analyst has to discuss the day after. It’s like a giant aeroplane with a dozen snags happening at random every day and hogging the headlines, and in the process, your mind, the day after. Next day, different set of snags, different occupation of the mind. You never get to sit back and understand the underlying mechanics of the plane which will predict these snags by themselves. Your mind is never free enough to think and understand the unity of themes which underline many of the effects we are reacting towards. We do not get the time to study history, how the same themes have been always present there, how they have evolved, and how some of the best minds have judged them then.

Worse, even the analyst’s mind is not free anymore and pushed into the reactive mode. So much of the analysis is dependent on the results of what happened!

The way truth is tested in statistics is that you make a hypothesis, you test it and then based on the significance of the expected results (how often they happen in a given random sample), you accept or reject it. Of course, the same rigor cannot be expected in human affairs. I cannot imprison a hundred people and subject them to conditions to test my hypotheses; but I do expect a formulation of a thesis independent of events before it is tested in the proof of the events. Instead, I see the reverse happen many a times – an event happens, then an extenuation is hesitatingly forwarded, that extenuation becomes an explanation, that explanation becomes a fact. The bigger analysts proceed straight from events to facts nowadays. Tharoor’s article on why engineers become terrorists is a good example to illustrate how sometimes even the better minds are driven to utter drivel by the pressures of 2-minutes analysis.

Tharoor says that engineers produce more terrorists because they’re not trained in social sciences. His first hypothesis that engineers make more terrorists (instead of the better brains of the generation, as somewhat captured in academic tests, drifting towards the ideology of extreme, and who happen to come more from the engineering stream because, let’s accept it, most of the people who get into social sciences are those who couldn’t get into engineering) is itself dubious. It smacks of this logic – two terrorists killed were wearing imitation Levis Tshirt; hence, people wearing imitation Levis are more inclined to be terrorists. A deeper thinking would recognize that more than what was printed on the Tshirt, it is the imitation which is important, belying the economic strata the terrorists came from. Let us not get into the reason how Tharoor explains this proclivity, because I like the guy, and if his mundu fell off somewhere, let us not step on it and prolong his butt-naked misery.

To come to more recent news, going into the IPL final, where the two leading captains were – Kumble, a spinner, and Gilly, an Australian – and the previous IPL was won by an Australian spinner, I shuddered at reading analyses that day which would underline how IPLs were won by teams led by captains who were, based on the result of the final, a spinner or an Australian; as indeed it happened.

A similar newsbyte concerns the Indian debacle at world Cup. IPL is being cited as the reason for the failure – so easy for a coach to deflect responsibility. But wasn’t this very IPL held the reason for the success in the previous World Cup? Frankly speaking, I believe a sporting contest is very simply judged – it’s a test of will and skill – and the rooting spectators are aware of that. Injured athletes winning championships have been the fodder of a thousand myths. Analysts need to keep analysing the finer points for the same reasons why TV channels need to retelecast old matches endlessly – to appease the demand. Without meaning to sound deliberately disparaging, I feel that most of these columns (analysts like Prem Panicker excluded) fulfil the same function that pornography does – it satisfies a compulsion and there is nothing ennobling (insightful) in it.

But I do not intend to focus on cricket analysis. I indulge in it too – in the same way as I watch pornography and I engage in the same discussions everyday on the stairwells touting the same arguments ad nauseum.

My point is that even where analysis is on topics which we seek to understand and not part of our daily fodder of compulsions: news like random terror attacks or something like Nithari, the analysis are in themselves flawed.
The thesis underlying its arguments derives from the results and hence in the absence of a suitable antithesis already foregone in its conclusion.

Hence, the first argument against daily news analysis is that the method of production of that analysis is too compromised for it to be taken seriously in many cases.

The exceptions are actually that: exceptions; I read Indian Express and except for Pratap Bhanu and Shiv Vishwanathan, I've not seen much mind-stirring insights in most other analysts.
Sudheeran, the BJP thinker, in fact underlines the monomanic vacuity to which such prestigious columns have fallen to.
Not surprisingly, Shiv Vishwanathan writes 4 articles a year, while Sudheeran writes 4 articles a month.

The next argument is that why, in a million events a second world, do only a score be considered news-worthy?

This, I would believe, is something everyone would have thought of by now – especially after the Chand-Fiza saga refuses to end even now. I’m reasonably sure that you would have, at some point of time, thought, “Who fucking cares?”; and that you would have suspected that what is news is news only because it titillates. Entertainment over substance.

Hence, I would assume that you agree that most of what is news is news because it helps the paper sell better, rather than being the most meaningful statements of our times.

A few words on how some of the great thinkers thought true knowledge works.

Socratetic dialectics aims to arrive at the first principle by the process of dialogue. A thesis is put forward – black people are inferior to white people. An antithesis is found and quoted – Jesse Owens beat white pure-bred Aryans in a fair contest. A synthesis happens – most black people are inferior to white people.

Note, that “all” is now “most”. If a mind thinks long enough, a synthesis might be ultimately reached which says – “Race has got nothing to do with it.” That is, race is not a fundamental principle of judging capability.

News analysis – anchored as it’s on the shifting, transitory character of “news” – mostly never lets the thesis meet an antithesis.

This thesis today, that tomorrow.

Engineers terrorists today, all Telugu businessmen corrupt tomorrow.

In seeking to keep us always engaged by following issues as and when and where they keep popping up, it gets in the way of our thinking through an issue.

Hence, even after these years of reading, I still feel totally unable to understand why the world is the way it is.

I am trying to correct that now.


TradeExpress said...

nice analysis. it was terribly annoying to see "WHAT WENT WRONG PART 1" splashed on the IE sports page. I rather sympathized with Dhoni's indignant "arre yaar kabhi haar bhi jaati hai team!!!"

ramya sriram said...

welcome back.

Faiz said...


Faiz said...

also .. comp ok now?? .. in that case i'll start bugging you about the 'favour' you are doing me :)))