Monday, August 20, 2007

The Treachery of Historical Analysis

(An excerpt from Monty Python’s Holy Grail)

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake-- her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite,
held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by
divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why
I am your king!

Man: (laughingly) Listen: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords
is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power
derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some... farcical
aquatic ceremony!

This small piece nicely illustrates the absurdities and contradictions that arise when one tries to interpret history in a modern context. More specifically, I have always suspected that analysing history in a “mathematical”, strictly logical manner is most often useless, perhaps even dangerous.

I had written a bit about this in one of my older blogs. This blog is meant to elaborate that idea. (For those who have read it already my apologies. Skip the part that is given in quotes and continue reading from thereon.)

“It is very interesting to speculate on the evolution of the University system since many of the rituals (if you can call it that) in a typical ceremony like the Convocation where degrees are awarded, do not fit into an Indian context at all. The use of Latin, the robes themselves and the whole atmosphere all seem to be vestiges of practises dating to perhaps, the monasteries of the Renaissance period.

Wait, did I say monasteries? Clearly, such a modern custom intended to venerate the sciences could not have its origins in a religious institution! The maximum extent of Science that would one would have expected in a monastery may have been the pursuit of alchemy. Why does this seem strange in the first place? It seems so because we have been trained to think that religion and science are polar opposites. But during the Renaissance, some of the biggest advances in intellectual thought were made by monks. Gregor Mendel of the Theory of Heredity is perhaps the most famous monk-scientist. Another one I recently came across was a Francisan Friar named Luca Pacioli, referred to as the Father of Accounting, for inventing the double entry book keeping system. Bayes’ Theorem is named after a Reverend Thomas Bayes.

I remember reading numerous other names which keep cropping up, especially in achievements related to mathematics. A possible reason could be that before the invention of printing, it was the job of monasteries to make copies of the ancient tomes of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Therefore, monks had an almost exclusive access to these works of great intellectual achievement. Therefore, monasteries may have played more important roles as centres of education.

Then why this divorce between Science and Religion and when did it occur? One can speculate that the separation of Science from Religion had to do something with the notion of separating Church from State which in turn traces its origins to the French Revolution. An interesting question arises: Were the persecution stories of Galileo and Copernicus played up by ideological forces interested in the separation of state and church?”

This is one intellectual tangle. Consider another case of historical analysis – the Aryan Migration Theory.

The logic of the Aryan Theory proceeds thus. It was postulated that one of the earliest settlements in human history was based near the Caspian Sea. Due to some reasons, the people there had to migrate. This settlement broke into three groups. One migrated to what is today India, one to Europe, occupying areas corresponding to modern day Germany and the third migrated to modern day Iran. The theory primarily arose from an observation that there were many similarities in languages between Sanskrit and Latin. Therefore, the people speaking these languages must have had some sort of common lineage. This is the genesis of the Indo-Aryan Language group. One of the leading names associated with this theory was Max Mueller though I do not know the precise nature of his contributions.

After this theory was propounded numerous re-interpretations of the Indian classics were attempted. Ramayana was portrayed as an epic struggle between the Aryan Rama and the Dravidian Ravana. Further supporting evidence was cited from the Epics and the Puranas. There is a story in the Ramayana where Rama and Lakshmana leave with Vishwamithra to get their education under him. As they go into the forest, Rakshasas attack them and those rakshasas are slain by the brave brothers. One interpretation of this goes as follows: It is possible that the migrating Aryans had first settled down in the fertile Ganges Valley in their migration to India. It is now known that King Dasharatha’s capital, Ayodhya is situated in modern day Uttar Pradesh. In their journey with Vishwamithra they may have forayed into areas previously occupied by tribal peoples. The dark skinned tribal people would have looked devilish to the fair Caspian Sea Aryans. This led to their classification as Rakshasas or as evil forces. Therefore, when Rama was vanquishing Raskshasas, for protection, we can also conclude equally well that he was conquering non-Aryans!

The concept of gothram is cited another evidence to this theory. The term gothras implies a set of people who are bound together as a tribe. The “go” in the gothras perhaps refers to the importance the set of people ascribed to cows. Therefore, the Aryans migrated from the Caspian in groups, in search of better sites for pasture. Migrating southward one group found India. In this migration, at times due to the lack of food, these people had to resort to eating cattle meat, which is why the Vedas records instances of sages eating beef. Once they came to a fertile place, like the Gangetic Plain, they settled down and the communities started venerating cows again as they were instrumental for the ploughing of land. This explains why some sects of Hinduism are vegetarians or at any rate, they oppose cow slaughter.

The Aryan Migration Theory propounded this way has had a deep effect on Indian history and world history. The Theory provided much ammunition to the anti-brahminical stance of the Periyar Movement as well as ideological inspiration for many a Hindu bigot. Hitler also conveniently embraced the Aryan theory to portray the German people as having a deeper heritage and culture than they had previously imagined. He then extended the theory to imply the racial purity of the now “Aryan” Germans.

The reason the theory caught on was because of its explanatory appeal. A lot of myths were supposedly “rationally” explained, rationality defined in the context of modern human thought. When I first heard the "Rakshasa angle" presented this way, I found it extremely convincing. Even today, there are many elites who subscribe to this theory, consciously or unconsciously.

However there is only one hitch. Linguistic evidence is not strong enough grounds for formulating such a theory. Linguistic similarities may have arisen due to commerce, trade or cultural interaction. We can find the word bazaar in Indian usage and English usage. Does that imply racial similarities? By no means. Consider this example.

Imagine the following scenario. Some catastrophe happens that destroys pretty much most of modern civilisation. One small, isolated settlement somewhere in Thailand or India, survived, spawned a new civilisation which gets sufficiently advanced that they get interested in archeology. An enthusiastic archaeologist discovers two DVDs while excavating. The new civilisation somehow cracks the technology of DVD and expectantly pops in these two DVDs. One DVD shows a black rapper talking while the other shows a white Eminem rapping away. If this civilisation does not know English, the two will appear to be extremely different but for the linguistic similarities! Therefore, they postulate that once upon a time, there was one set of people who came in two varieties black and white, but they were essentially the same. Then someone will point out that in the modern civilisation there was a disproportionately larger number of brown people seeming to imply that the present civilisation was purely derived from the intermingling of the two races. Such a theory will sell like hotcakes because it is almost impossible to prove or to disprove that black people and white people need not give birth to disproportionately large number of brown people. Why do I say that? Even if this modern civilisation knew genetics it may not be able to find sufficient evidence to do the test.

At this stage most people fall victim to what is called a “confirmation bias”. The test of a theory is how it stands up in the face of attempts to disprove it. The logic is that just because you have some cases for which the theory works, that still does not "prove" it. The theory is still vulnerable in the sense that someone may come up with one counterexample and the theory is declared invalid. However on the top of the head, most of us regardless of our levels of education will try to prove our theory by giving supporting evidence. It is important to note that predictive power of a theory is an important test no doubt, but the falsification test is a stronger condition. That is why despite the predictability power of the Aryan theory; it still fails because it fails on the falsification test.

Therefore, in all possibilities, the theory of “one people in two colours” or the bi-colour people theory will be embraced by the new civilisation to explain its origins!

Consider another common analytical mistake. How many times have you heard someone say “If only I had done this!” The cliche that the saddest words to say are “If only...” is not only tiring, it is also logically wrong as my friend Srivats once pointed out. Imagine if one says, “If I had studied for three more hours I would have cracked the exam!” This is wrong for two reasons. One, you did not know what would have come in the exam. Someone could have studied just as much as you had, but scored better because (s)he covered different topics. But that is secondary. More importantly, people know an outcome, trace the cause and change one variable and expect that everything else would have worked out just as it did. When you go back in time and change an instance, you are in essence stepping into a different universe, the outcomes of which you, or for that matter, any human being cannot comprehend because the evolution of the infinite variable cannot be understood.

Let me extend this idea. Routinely people say, “If India had embraced Gandhism we would be better off” or “if Sardar Patel had been Prime Minister instead of Nehru, the Kashmir problem would have been avoided”. You cannot, I repeat, cannot, know what would have happened. Things would have been different in both the cases, yes, but you cannot use qualifiers like better or worse!If Gandhism had been embraced maybe some problems would have been avoided, but some other problems would have arisen. Police action if initiated on Kashmir just after independence may have worked. But some other related territorial problems may have come up. The point is that such arguments are mischievous and misleading. However, even the most elite succumb to it.

But the ones I have pointed out till now are mistakes made by human beings. There is a deeper fundamental problem with historical analysis. Mathematics is “easier” in this respect. The source of mathematical study is the axioms that are defined. We define what is a point, what is a line, what is 1,2,3... Then we build the structure and work within the framework. That gives us a great degree of control. Why do most buildings have geometrical shapes, predominantly right angles and some circular arcs? The mathematical understanding of these shapes is easier. Why? The way we have defined our framework allows us to understand these things better. In a world where people are taught non-Euclidean geometries, we may expect to see other shapes instead of circles or lines.

In history, the source of knowledge or the starting point is itself biased by the author of that information. Therefore, in a lot of situations given evidence for one point of view from an authentic source, I can almost always find evidence to contradict that from an equally authentic source.

Then what is the way out? Should we just abandon studying history then? No, not at all. We can understand the mistakes of the past or the successes of the past, but we must be extremely careful when deriving conclusions from it and more importantly, the conclusions have to be rigorously tested for falsifiability.

How is all this important? Is all this theoretical stuff? Not at all. In the future, most of you will be required to buy into various ideas and philosophies. If you find these ideas and philosophies rooted in a historical basis, check it and double check it. That is my message.


Ashish said...

Crack of a post... have felt the same thingy about the "if only" phenomenon. On a related side note, people often go to the other extreme as well, citing 'chaos theory' which I think is one of the most (if not the most) abused terms ever...

Btw, interesting point about Euclid, kinda similar to a point Carl Sagan raised about us having a very narrow view of what extra-terrestrial life would look / behave like...

Shankar said...

what-a -post!!! btw, aryan invasion theory is not beleived by many historians ..... i think you can find more info when you google for it. keep more such posts coming.

Srinivas said...

Nice post.. In his book "1984", Orwell talks about a new language wherein words are carefully chosen to desist sedition. The idea was that most of our thoughts/ actions are highly limited by our language. Indeed, the prosperity of a culture is reflected by the depth of their language.

On an unrelated note, you might be interested in reading this:

Suryadeep said...

Outstanding! *bows*

The aryan invasion theory caught my imagination like anything when I was introduced to the works of Michael Madhusudan Dutta and Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (heard their names?) back in high school..should have really given it much more thought before kinda conforming like that...thnx for wakin me up :)

Ajit said...

Stud post da dei :-).. A long one that too! You can get all this published in some journal btw!.. Your thoughts i.e.

FreaKick said...

History is nothing but interpretation of facts. If The Third Reich had lived up to Hitler's expectations of a 100 years, then history would have definitely been changed. Here I must point out that I am not referring to the facts/incidents that would have occurred due to the Nazi regime. Hitler was on a mission of destroying all books which contained anything contrary to his view. So, the next generation would have seen only Hitler's views as the truth. This is the case in Orwell's 1984 where the govt has a Ministry of Truth who changed people's views. Their neighboring country, a friend in the past, is shown in different light. They are portrayed as having being enemies from the very dawn on history. A similar analogy can be drawn to the present day US media where Murdoch and his merry men decide the truth. Scary... ain't it?