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Lies versus the truth, the choice is ours

190421 - Open page_lies vs truth  

A few months ago, I visited a museum of history in Berlin called the Topography of Terror. The exhibits in this indoors-and-outdoors museum portray heinous crimes committed by the Nazis. Here, the thought that came to me was of tolerance and conflicts of interest. Topography of Terror is funded and managed by the German government — proof that Germans are fine with self-reflection and criticism.

In many leading democracies, such introspection and criticism are tolerated. Consider the recent Boeing 737 MAX aircraft crashes. It was the U.S. media — including The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today — that were in the forefront of debates on certain technical flaws in the software used in the aircraft that could have led to the accidents. An article in The New York Times (March 23, 2019) even said it was Boeing’s relentless competition with its European rival Airbus for orders from America’s own airlines that led to security lapses. American airlines were considering placing orders for hundreds of jet aircraft with Boeing’s European rival Airbus, which forced Boeing into a frenzied rush, and in record time it developed and deployed the 737 MAX 8, even overlooking certain key safety features. Americans, like Germans, aren’t afraid of such self-criticism.

Can I even imagine a museum in Delhi portraying some of the mistakes Indians have committed, in line with Topography of Terror? A museum on sati, the caste system, honour killings, mob lynching and so on? Tolerance for criticism and dissent vary substantially across time and space. Our own level of tolerance, while far below that of the majority of developed countries, is still higher than that of many West Asian countries, China, and so on.

A few decades ago, our own tolerance level was arguably higher than it is today. Consider, for example, how Jawaharlal Nehru reacted to certain political caricatures criticising him, done by cartoonist R.K. Laxman. One morning, Laxman was surprised to receive a call from Nehru. The Prime Minister told him he had so enjoyed his cartoon that morning, and asked if he may have a signed copy of it.

Tolerance for criticism, introspection, learning from mistakes and feedback loops are indeed hallmarks of Baconian logic and scientific methodology. If we don’t criticise other people’s mistakes and our own past acts, and, more important, learn from the mistakes, how can we progress? If Germans and Americans can criticise their own past actions and make remarkable progress in terms of education, health and standard of living, why can’t we do it too? Let’s accept that we have made mistakes in the past (and make them in the present time, too), in order to move forward by learning from the mistakes, to march towards a better India.

The other viewpoint

Conversely, in Germany I also met a youngster who, instead of acknowledging the mistakes of his country, swore by his opinion that the Holocaust never happened, and that the whole story was only propaganda created by Jews and a leftist lobby. “Have you been to Topography of Terror?” I asked. According to him, everything in that museum comprised doctored, fabricated lies. Hitler and the Nazis were good people. Later I found there are hundreds of people like him, those who subscribe to the theory of Holocaust denial, considering it to be in the nature of a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are everywhere. Perhaps the best-known among them is the moon-landing hoax, which pronounces that the Americans never landed on the moon; all six moon landings were staged, manufactured lies by NASA’s Apollo programme. Other examples include flat earth (thousands of people still swear by the theory (the earth is flat, not round!) and intelligent design (god created the world in a period of a week some thousands of years ago). There are dozens of conspiracy theories in India, including the glorification of our past, and giving credit to the vedas for the discovery of aircraft, plastic surgery, the Internet...

When even some established historians and academics swear by such conspiracy theories, and when such theories are fed in as facts into mainstream scholarly literature and textbooks, the situation becomes more serious — an unethical practice called historical revisionism.

The fight between history based on evidence and historical revisionism is analogous to that between science and pseudoscience — the ignorance that wears the white-lab coat of an experimental scientist and masquerades in public as ambassadors of real science while evading Popper’s falsifiability and appealing to the public through emotion and anecdotes rather than evidence-based and reproducible claims. Of course, we have countless “scientists” who consult horoscopes and astrologers for the arranged marriage of their children, and consult homeopaths. One example of historical revisionism is the controversial revision of textbooks that occur in India from time to time.

All of it boils down to Yin and Yang — the carnal struggle between two extremes; one that is retrogressive, stubborn, not open to criticism and is not evidence-based (historical revisionism and pseudoscience), and the other that is progressive, flexible, open to criticism and evidence-based (scholarly history and science). Lies vs. Truth. The ultimate choice is ours.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 2:13:07 PM |

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