Discrediting reason

In the article Why some engineers become terrorists in today’s Sunday Times, Shashi Tharoor asks “Is there something about engineering that makes its most proficient graduates vulnerable to the temptations of violent extremism?”. He goes on to cite a study by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog that reports the presence of a large number of engineers in right-wing extremist groups in general and radical Islamist groups in particular. He writes

“Engineers consider themselves problem solvers, and when the world seems to present a problem, they look to engineering-type solutions to solve it. Engineering, Gambetta and Hertog suggest, predisposes its votaries to absolute and non-negotiable principles, and therefore to fundamentalism; it is a short step from appreciating the predictable laws of engineering to following an ideology or a creed that is infused with its own immutable laws. It is easy for engineers to become radicalised, the researchers argue, because they are attracted by the “intellectually clean, unambiguous, and all-encompassing” solutions that both the laws of engineering and radical Islam provide.”

This is partly true and partly and viciously false. The method of engineering is the method of science. The principles and laws of science are indeed absolute and non-negotiable. But they are not just that. Unlike religious principles, they are objective, evidence-based, verifiable and demonstrably true. To the extent that an engineer is attracted to radical religion, he is denying the validity of the scientific method.

What does one hope to achieve by trying to show a similarity between the method of science and religion? Here is a clue

“…Without the humanities, we cannot recognise that there is more than one side to a story, and more than one answer to a question.

That, of course, is never true in engineering…”

Note that Tharoor never asks the question “Is there anything in religion that makes its practioners violent extremists?” The intent of the article is to discredit the power of reason, the validity of the scientific method and the confidence that they generate. Since it is impossible to do this honestly, one must resort to tying science and religion together so that the effects of religion can be used to discredit science.

What does one hope to achieve by discrediting the scientific method? Since there is not much evidence in the article, that is a question I will leave to my readers to ponder over. In the last line of the article though, there is a hint of a clue.

“…Perhaps the solution lies in making it compulsory for every engineering student to take at least 20% of his courses in the humanities.”

K. M.

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Tolerance vs Censorship

In a recent article Time to stand up for a tolerant society, Shashi Tharoor asks “Is India becoming a playground for the intolerant?”. While the concern is well-founded, the identification of the problem is not. There are two separate issues here, tolerance and censorship.

Tolerance is a moral concept. It applies to individuals and not to society. It means tolerating ideas or actions that one believes to be wrong. Tolerance requires that one suspend one’s judgement of ideas and people. Suspension of judgement betrays the good and sanctions the evil.

Censorship on the other hand is a political concept. It means preventing people from expressing their ideas by force of law. It is only the government that can indulge in censorship. Individual acts of force do not constitute censorship. In a proper system of law, such acts of force should be illegal.

The problem then, is not that people are intolerant. Tolerance is not a virtue. The problem is that there is no respect for rights, neither in the culture, nor in the government. The problem is that instead of punishing violent behavior by vandals, the government succumbs to the vandals’ threats and imposes censorship. The problem is that the laws allow censorship.

Tharoor’s article does not explain why tolerance is a virtue (except by an appeal to tradition), defends censorship (as in the Danish cartoons case), rejects any absolute right to freedom of expression and then bemoans the direction in which society is heading.

If this is the stance taken by an intellectual of Tharoor’s standing, is the direction any surprise?

K. M.

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