## Correlation and causation

So I have this lecture on “smelling (statistical) bullshit” that I’ve delivered in several places, which I inevitably start with a lesson on how correlation doesn’t imply causation. I give a large number of examples of people mistaking correlation for causation, the class makes fun of everything that doesn’t apply to them, then everyone sees this wonderful XKCD cartoon and then we move on.

One of my favourite examples of correlation-causation (which I don’t normally include in my slides) has to do with religion. Praying before an exam in which one did well doesn’t necessarily imply that the prayer resulted in the good performance in the exam, I explain. So far, there has been no outward outrage at my lectures, but this does visibly make people uncomfortable.

Going off on a tangent, the time in life when I discovered to myself that I’m not religious was when I pondered over the correlation-causation issue some six or seven years back. Until then I’d had this irrational need to draw a relationship between seemingly unrelated things that had happened together once or twice, and that had given me a lot of mental stress. Looking at things from a correlation-causation perspective, however, helped clear up my mind on those things, and also made me believe that most religious activity is pointless. This was a time in life when I got immense mental peace.

Yet, for most of the world, it is not freedom from religion but religion itself that gives them mental peace. People do absurd activities only because they think these activities lead to other good things happening, thanks to a small number of occasions when these things have coincided, either in their own lives or in the lives of their ancestors or gurus.

In one of my lectures a few years back I had remarked that one reason why humans still mistake correlation for causation is religion – for if correlation did not imply causation then most of religious rituals would be rendered meaningless and that would render people’s lives meaningless. Based on what I observed today, however, I think I’ve got this causality wrong.

It’s not because of religion that people mistake correlation for causation. Instead, we’ve evolved to recognise patterns whenever we observe them, and a side effect of that is that we immediately assume causation whenever we see things happening together. Religion is just a special case of application of this correlation-causation second nature to things in real life.

So my daughter (who is two and a half) and I were standing in our balcony this evening, observing that it had rained heavily last night. Heavy rain reminded my daughter of this time when we had visited a particular aunt last week – she clearly remembered watching the heavy rain from this aunt’s window. Perhaps none of our other visits to this aunt’s house really registered in the daughter’s imagination (it’s barely two months since we returned to Bangalore, so admittedly there aren’t that many data points), so this aunt’s house is inextricably linked in her mind to rain.

And this evening because she wanted it to rain heavily again, the daughter suggested that we go visit this aunt once again. “We’ll go to Inna Ajji’s house and then it will start raining”, she kept saying. “Yes, it rained the last time it went there, but it was random. It wasn’t because we went there”, I kept saying. It wasn’t easy to explain it.

You know when you are about to have a kid you develop visions of how you’ll bring her up, and what you’ll teach her, and what she’ll say to “jack” the world. Back then I’d decided that I’d teach my yet-unborn daughter that “correlation does not imply causation” and she could use it use it against “elders” who were telling her absurd stuff.

I hadn’t imagined that mistaking correlation for causation is so fundamental to human nature that it would be a fairly difficult task to actually teach my daughter that correlation does not imply causation! Hopefully in the next one year I can convince her.

## Religion and survivorship bias

Biju Dominic of FinalMile Consulting has a piece in Mint about “what CEOs can learn from religion“. In that, he says,

Despite all the hype, the vast majority of these so-called highly successful, worthy of being emulated companies, do not survive even for few decades. On the other hand, religion, with all its inadequacies, continues to survive after thousands of years.

This is a fallacious comparison.

Firstly, comparing “religion” to a particular company isn’t dimensionally consistent. A better comparison would be to compare at the conceptual level – such as comparing “religion” to “joint stock company”. And like the former, the latter has done rather well for 300 years now, even if specific companies may fold up after a few years.

The other way to make an apples-to-apples comparison is to compare a particular company to a particular religion. And this is where survivorship bias comes in.

Most of the dominant religions of today are more than hundreds or thousands of years old. In the course of their journey to present-day strength, they have first established their own base and then fought off competition from other upstart religions.

In other words, when Dominic talks about “religion” he is only taking into account religions that have displayed memetic fitness over a really long period. What he fails to take account of are the thousands of startup religions that get started up once every few years and then fade into nothingness.

Historically, such religions haven’t been well documented, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. In contemporary times, one can only look at the thousands of “babas” with cults all around India – each is leading his/her own “startup religion”, and most of them are likely to sink without a trace.

Comparing the best in one class (religions that have survived and thrived over thousands of years) to the average of another class (the average corporation) just doesn’t make sense!

## Firecrackers and the Hindu religion

There was massive controversy in India last month when the Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers in and around Delhi, in an ostensible Move to cut pollution.

As one might expect, the move drew heavy criticism on the grounds that the court was ruling against a fundamental tenet of Hindu religion. In return, other people pointed out that bursting firecrackers on the occasion of Deepavali is a rather recent tradition, and thus has nothing to do with the “fundamental tenets of Hinduism”.

As it happened, the ban continued to stay, though reports say that both noise and air pollution levels in Delhi were unaffected by the ban. Here’s my humble attempt to argue that why modern traditions such as bursting firecrackers is important to religion,

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, religion in general and festivals in particular are memes, in the traditional Richard Dawkins sense of the term.

Religion and festivals are basically ideas that compete in an ideas marketplace, and people propagate the ideas that they like the most. In one sense people like what they find useful – which is why imagined orders such as democracy or public limited companies continue to propagate and thrive.

At a more personal level, though, people will choose to associate with and propagate ideas that they simply like, and at a very basic level, enjoy. In other words, the more fun people find a concept, the more heavily they’ll adopt and propagate it.

Hence religions evolve, and (in what can be seen as parallels to mutation), pick up ideas from outside that can make them more fun. So the American Christians picked up and appropriated thanksgiving from the red Indians. Even further back Christianity picked up and amalgamated the idea of Christmas. Hare Krishna people picked up wild dancing. Bombay people picked up Ganesha processions. And so on.

By incorporating fun practices from outside, religions make themselves fitter, as they open up leeway’s for new recruits (such as kids). Short of coercion, without fun practices there’s little chance that religion can pick up new recruits.

Crackers on Deepavali, or colours on Holi, are aspects that have come into the hindu religion that have made it more fun. That theee aspects make the religion more fun mean that it’s easier to co-opt new recruits, especially the young kind. This makes the meme that is the hindu religion fitter.

So it doesn’t matter how ancient a practice is – as long as it’s fun, and increases the memetic fitness of a religion, it remains a fundamental part of the religion.

Without firecrackers the idea of Deepavali might lose its identity and people might stop celebrating it. And it being one of Hinduism’s most celebrated festivals, a weakening Deepavali meme leads to a weakening hindu meme.

So the banning of firecrackers in Delhi on the occasion of Deepavali was indeed injurious to the hindu religion.

Just keep in mind that culture (using memes) evolves much much faster than organisms (which use genes)!

## On cultural appropriation

Over the last few months, I’ve come across this concept of “cultural appropriation” several times. I don’t claim to get it completely, but I think I understand it enough to comment about it.

Going by Wikipedia, cultural appropriation

is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture

The list of celebrities who’ve been accused of cultural appropriation runs way too long to list here, but it’s basically a popular topic of outrage among the modern left, commonly described by their detractors as “social justice warriors” (SJW).

In any case, my attention to the topic was drawn by a recent essay on the topic by philosopher Kenan Malik. In “In defence of cultural appropriation“, first published in the New York Times, Malik writes:

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

In fact, reading the rather long essay, it was hard for me to disagree with him. In fact, it started to make me wonder why cultural appropriation is a matter of debate at all – controversial enough that at least three editors who defended it have lost their jobs (per Malik). In fact, Malik himself was victim of significant online abuse and trolling following his article.

So thinking about this topic during a work break the other day, I found compelling evidence about why the concept is bullshit – basically, it’s one-sided.

The whole concept of “cultural appropriation” hinges on there being a “superior community” and a “marginalised community”, with members of the former not allowed to adopt practices of the latter. This is a one-way street – if you turn the argument around and say that a person from a traditionally “marginalised community” should not adopt cultural practices of a “superior community”, you’re essentially being racist or casteist or whatever.

Consider this, for example – “Dalits should not recite the Vedas because by doing so, they are appropriating the culture of caste Hindus“.  It is unlikely that any self-respecting SJW would condone this statement. But turn the communities around, and the outrage on cultural appropriation become legit!

This makes the entire concept problematic, since it rests on a prior of certain communities being “marginalised”. In other words, it rests on a prior of a partial ordering of “communities”, with some considered more advanced than the other. Take away any such ordering or hierarchy, and the concept of cultural appropriation falls flat.

To me, the outrage about cultural appropriation smacks of a sort of “white man’s burden” among SJWs in an attempt to seemingly protect seemingly marginalised communities. All this achieves, as Kenan Malik mentions in his essay, is to empower the self-appointed leaders of these marginalised communities.

## Explaining the lack of dishwashers in India

For the last four weeks, after landing in Britain, we’ve been using the dishwasher fairly regularly. On an average, we run it once a day, and the vessels come out of it nice and shiny – to an extent that is nearly impossible when you wash them by hand. Last year when we were in Spain, too, we used the dishwasher fairly often.

Considering the convenience (all your dishes done in one go, and coming out nice and shiny), I’ve been wondering why the dishwasher hasn’t taken off in India. The requirement for water and electricity doesn’t explain it – the near-ubiquity of the washing machine in upper middle class households suggests that is not that much of a problem. It’s not a function of our using steel plates, either – if that were the only constraint, people would have switched plates to get the benefit of this convenience.

The real answer lies in the archaic concept of the enjil (saliva; known as jooTa in Hindi), and theories on how saliva can get transmitted and contaminate stuff. To be fair, it’s a useful concept in a way that it doesn’t allow anyone’s germ-bearing saliva to contaminate things around them, except for roads and sidewalks that is! Specifically, the enjil concept ensures that food doesn’t get remotely contaminated by someone’s saliva. But it takes things a bit too far.

For example, sharing plates, even when you’re using separate spoons (let’s saw when sharing dessert at a restaurant), is taboo. When you double-dip your spoon into the plate, germs from your saliva get transmitted there, and can potentially contaminate people you are sharing your food with. Or so the theory goes. The exceptions are in childhood, where a child is allowed to share plates with the mother, and after marriage, when couples are allowed to share plates! Go figure how that works.

Similarly, traditional Indians eschew the dining table, and the concept of keeping serving bowls on the same surface as plates. Again, the concept is that saliva can somehow “transmit” from the plates to the serving bowls and contaminate everyone’s food.

Next, there is an elaborate protocol to deal with used plates. They are not supposed to be washed in the same sink as other vessels. Yes, you read that right. When I was growing up, the protocol for used plates was to first rinse them in the bathroom (after throwing leftover food in the dustbin) before dropping them in the sink. It didn’t matter how well you rinsed the plate in the bathroom – that water had fallen on it after your usage would indicate that it was now purified, and fit to sit with all the other unwashed vessels.

Now consider the dishwasher. To achieve economies of scale at the household level, and to ensure vessels don’t pile up, you put all kinds of vessels in it at the same time – plates, spoons, forks, serving bowls and  cooking vessels! In other words, “saliva-bearing” dishes are put into the same contraption at the same time as “saliva-free” cooking dishes, and the “same water” is used to wash all of them together.

And that clearly violates all prudent practices of saliva management and contamination avoidance that we have all grown up with! And trust me, it takes time to get over such instinctive practices one has grown up with. And so I predict that it will at least be another generation (20 years or so) when there are sufficient households with adults who grew up without a strong concept of enjil, and who might be willing to give the dishwasher a try!

## Andhra Meals in Religious Rituals

A long time back I’d compared massage parlours in Bangkok to Andhra meals, where there is a “basic menu” (the core massage itself) which everyone orders, on top of which other add-ons (such as happy endings) can get tagged on.

Today, while performing a religious ritual (it’s 10 days since my daughter was born, so there was some ceremony I’d to perform), I realised that every religious ritual, happy or sad, also follows the “Andhra meals” principle.

So the “meals” part is the stuff they teach you to do as part of your daily “sandhyavandane” ritual immediately after your thread ceremony. Starting with the aachamana (keshavaaya swaaha, narayanaaya swaaha etc), going on to reciting the Gayatri mantra, repeating the aachamana several times in the middle, and then ending by apologising and atoning for all the mistakes in the course of the ritual (achutaayanamaha, anantaayanamaha, govindayanamaha, achutanantagovindebho namaha).

This is the basic sandhyaavandane you’re supposed to perform three times every day, and the interesting thing is that most other rituals are add-ons to this. Be it a wedding ceremony, worship of a particular god on a particular festival or even a death ceremony, all these parts remain and don’t go away. What changes from ritual to ritual are the add-ons, like the meats you might order during Andhra meals.

And so in the wedding ceremony, there is the wedding itself. In a death ceremony, there’s all the part where you wear the sacred thread the wrong way round (praacheenaavEti) and build rice-til balls (piNDa – have you noticed how similar they are to sushi?). While worshipping a particular god, you perform the worship in the middle of the regular sandhyaavandane ritual. And so forth.

I must say I’m fairly impressed with our ancestors who devised this “modular form” of performing rituals. What rocks about this practice is that pretty much everyone who wants to perform these rituals will know these rituals (the “basic Andhra meals”) bit, which makes it that much easier to “consume” the “extra fittings” appropriate to the occasion.

## Good things do happen to those who wait

So once again I’ve taken myself off Twitter and Facebook. After a three-month sabbatical which ended a month back, I was back on these two social networks in a “limited basis” – I had not installed the apps on my phone and would use them exclusively from my computer. But as days went by, I realised I was getting addicted once again, and losing plenty of time just checking if someone had replied to any of the wisecracks I had put on some of those. So I’ve taken myself off once again, this time for at least one month.

This post is about the last of my wisecracks on facebook before I left it. A facebook friend had put an update that said “good things do happen to those who wait”. I was in a particularly snarky mood, and decided to call out the fallacy and left the comment below.

In hindsight I’m not sure if it was a great decision – perhaps something good had happened to the poor guy after a really long time, and he had decided to celebrate it by means of putting this cryptic message. And I, in my finite wisdom, had decided to prick his balloon by spouting gyaan. Just before I logged out of facebook this morning, though, I checked and found that he had liked my comment, though I don’t know what to make of it.

Earlier this year I had met an old friend for dinner, and as we finished and were walking back to the mall parking lot, he asked for my views on religion. I took a while to answer, for I hadn’t given thought to the topic for a while. And then it hit me, and I told him, “once I started appreciating that correlation doesn’t imply causation, it’s very hard for me to believe in religion”. Thinking about it now, a lot of other common practices, which go beyond religion, are tied to mistaking correlation for causation.

Take, for example, the subject of the post. “Good things happen to those who wait”, they say. It is basically intended as encouragement for people who don’t succeed in the first few attempts. What it doesn’t take care of it that the failures in the first few attempts might be “random”, or that even success when it does happen is the result of a random process.

Say, for example, you are trying to get a head upon the toss of a coin. You expect half a chance of a head the first time. It disappoints. You assume the second time the chances should be better, since it didn’t work out the first time (you don’t realise the events are independent), and are disappointed again. A few more tails and disappointment turns to disillusionment, and you start wondering if the coin is fair at all. Finally, when you get a head, you think it is divine retribution for having waited, and say that “good things happen to those who wait”.

In your happiness that you finally got a head, what you assume is that repeated failure on the first few counts actually push up your chance of getting your head, and that led to your success on the Nth attempt. What you fail to take into account is that there was an equal chance (assuming a fair coin) of getting a tail on the Nth attempt also (which you would have brushed off, since you were used to it).

In my comment above I’ve said “selection bias” but I’m not sure if that’s the right terminology – essentially when things go the way you want them to, you take notice and ascribe credit, but when things don’t go the way you want you don’t notice.

How many times have you heard people going through a happy experience saying they’re going through it “by God’s grace?”. How many times have you heard people curse God for not listening to their prayers when they’re going through a bad patch? Hardly? Instead, how many times have you heard people tell you that God is “testing them” when they’re going through a bad patch?

It’s the same concept of letting your priors (you see God as a good guy who will never harm you) affect the way you see a certain event. So in my friend’s case above, after a few “tails” he had convinced himself that “good things do happen to those who wait” and was waiting for a few more coin tosses until he finally sprang a head and announced it to the world!

Now I remember: I think it’s called confirmation bias.

## Silencing the temple

The temple across the road from my house has really started annoying me. The priest has one tape, of supposedly “devotional” songs and this morning he thought it appropriate to play it on the loudspeaker at 5:30, startling me and waking me up.

This is not the first time he has done so, either. He has been a consistent offender. Earlier, the tape would go on at around 7:30, after we had woken up so it didn’t really affect me so much – I’d put on my own music to drown the offending noise and all would be fine. Of late, though, the bugger seems to be getting to his temple early, and he considers it his sacred duty to wake up the locality with his noise.

Polite attempts (by the wife) to ask him to turn down the volume have had no impact. I’m told over ten years back my grandmother-in-law (known in her time to have been an extremely strong and clever woman) had tried her own methods to silence him, but had failed and given up (one of her rare failures, according to the wife). One of the things she had apparently tried was to threaten to call in the cops. It didn’t work.

As we lay tossing and turning in bed this morning having been rudely woken up by the temple noise, we thought of strategies. One was to write out a police complaint, get neighbours to weigh in with their support and go to the cops. Another was to get in touch with the local politicians (corporator, MLA, etc.) and see if they can do something about it.

One thing bothers me about either approach, though – no there is no risk per se, but I don’t think any of this will really work. The problem is the Indian definition of “secularism” – which is not “each citizen will practice his/her own religion in private and the state will not interfere” but instead is “each citizen can make a big loud show of practicing his/her religion and the state will not interfere”.

And so if I go to the cops or the politicians asking them to intervene, one question that will invariably come up is why the temple priest should shut up when there are no restrictions whatsoever on the muezzin’s call. And if you go to the muezzin and ask him to turn down the volume, he’ll agree on the condition that the loudspeakers at the Ganesh pandals be turned down. And thus we will set off on an infinite loop.

This is the sad story with religion in India. Anything goes in the name of religion. If you oppose something done in the name of religion itself, you are being anti-religion, and that is blasphemous.

Anyway, I still have the conundrum of how to deal with the hooligan priest in the temple across the road from my house!

## Religion, yet again

I think religion is an exercise in finding loopholes. Religious people I think will make great tax consultants.

So this evening I was at an uncle’s place where he had organized a Vedic recital. Some fifty or more people from the Vedic school he goes to (after having retired after an outstanding career as a space scientist) were there and they were chanting the Vedas. Now, today is a Saturday in the Hindu month of Shraavan (bastardized as Saavan), and the devout are supposed to keep fast (which I discovered only this evening) . However, given that it is not nice to not serve food to people whom you’ve invited home, my uncle had arranged for what people in Bombay term as an “upvaas feast”.

It absolutely beats me how rice is considered to be “food” while avalakki or “beaten rice” (which, as the name suggests, is made from rice), is not! No, I’m not joking. So this evening I learnt that as long as you don’t eat rice, your fast is still maintained! So you had the rather devout gurus of the Vedic school who were supposed to keep fast tonight gorging on Bisibelebhath and Kesari Bhath (among a rather long list of items) – just because the former wasn’t made out of rice, and the latter doesn’t contain rice anyway.

I’m reminded of the time some six years ago. My father had just died and (much against my will) I was being forced to perform a hundred post death ceremonies. Now, protocol for these death ceremonies is that you do it on an empty stomach. You only eat once that day, and that is a rather late lunch after you’ve offered the pinDa (cooked rice mixed with milk and curd and black sesame seed), first to your departed ancestors and then to crows and cows. However, during the course of time, people have made exceptions. Apparently you are now allowed to have coffee or milk in the morning before you perform the ceremony. And over the course of time that has come to be understood as “milk with additives”. And so I was fed cereal with milk (lest I revolt on an empty stomach) as I made my way every day for five days to one dirty “tithi hotel” to supposedly ensure my father’s soul went to heaven, and was tied to those of his ancestors.

Oh, and needless to say, that “only one meal in the day” rule for death ceremonies has been relaxed, too, in the course of time. Now you’re allowed to have dinner also, as long as (surprise, surprise!!) you don’t eat rice!

Then there is the concept of maDi or ritual cleanliness. This evening, my uncle took pains to announce to his guests that the food had been cooked under “strict maDi conditions”. Yet, when I happened to walk in to the kitchen, it was hard for me to walk any more as the floor was insanely sticky, with spilled food, I would guess. Ritual cleanliness I think doesn’t really imply real cleanliness. More significantly, maintaining the conditions or ritual cleanliness gives you an illusion of cleanliness and since you’ve followed the rituals you don’t see any need to keep your kitchen actually clean. It reminds me of what a friend maintains – that the religious are less likely to be moral than the irreligious.

And then I have mentioned on this blog earlier about how during religious functions hosts don’t really bother with serving lunch/dinner on time. For the record, this evening’s dinner was at 9:30, which I’m not sure is a particularly healthy practice (and which is probably I’m still awake).

So the net effect of this is that every time I attend a religious function I get further repulsed by religion. That people don’t answer my questions doesn’t help (I must mention that I’ve stopped asking questions, for I seldom get satisfactory answers. The only person who I still bombard with questions on religion is my mother-in-law who makes a patient and honest attempt at answering them more often than not). It is probably due to my upbringing (I might have mentioned here earlier that my father was atheist. I do one better than him in that I regularly wear my sacred thread, though I probably over-compensate for it by eating meat), but sometimes it actually amazes me that people believe in the kind of things they believe in.

I must consider myself lucky that my long-term gene-propagating partner is quite okay with my lack of religiosity (huge sigh of relief considering that on our first date she had demanded to examine my sacred thread), though occasionally she suddenly declares that we must resurrect our lives and we should “start praying”. Nothing concrete usually comes out of this.

Oh, and this evening my uncle castigated me for serving food while wearing jeans (as the wife remarked later, it was a good thing I was wearing jeans. Wearing a dhoti would have exposed the risk of my dhoti falling into people’s leaf plates).

And I’m still amazed that despite the advent of writing and recordings, people still choose to expend their valuable mental bandwidth in rote learning the Vedas, rather than trying to understand the philosophy behind them.

PS: Here is a post on why I don’t do my parents’ death ceremonies any more

## Pinda

I had written this as a note on facebook a long time back, in an introduction to another of my blogposts. It went largely unnoticed – I claim it is because it made way too many people uncomfortable. For posterity’s sake, I thought it needs to go somewhere more permanent – like this blog, so reprising it here.

One of the several post-death rituals in the Sanatana Dharma is called “sapinDikaraNa” – in which the “pinda” (departed soul) of the deceased is “tied” to the pindas of their ancestors. This is apparently done to make sure that the pinda doesn’t end up as a free radical and come back to haunt its descendants.

I don’t know why I’m thinking about this today, but the way they “connect” the pindas is quite funny. They just tell the gotra and given name of the deceased, and then the given names of the deceased’s father, father’s father and father’s father’s father (for women it is mother-in-law, mother-in-law’s mother-in-law and mother-in-law’s mother-in-law’s mother-in-law).

I think this is a rather poor addressing system, and not one designed for today’s populations. Maybe back in the days when this was invented, not more than one person belonging to a particular gotra had the same name. So this system of addressing worked (like in villages and small towns, houses don’t have door numbers – the postman knows everyone by name). Why is it that the system hasn’t been changed even though there are possibly thousands of people with the same given names and gotras?

If religion truly ever worked, its working would have broken down through the ages when its addressing system became obsolete. Why then, do so many people still “religiously” believe in it?

It’s all pinda wonly, I must say.