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Running on scepticism

Drawing a line where mass participation should end and expertise take over is not an easy matter. To have everybody participate is to risk a policy hodge-podge, writes Kaushik Basu.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2007 23:59 IST

I plan to write on various things in this column, if not of sealing wax, at least of shoes, ships, cabbages and the policy decisions of those who run India. But I want to begin elsewhere, by putting in a good word for the philosophy of scepticism.

Democracy runs on participation, and we Indians are good at that — argumentative, demanding and, should the need be and, at times, even if the need should not be, disruptive. But surely there can also be something called over-participation. In many policy matters there is a fine balance between articulating preferences and taking decisions in hand. Take for instance the Indo-US nuclear agreement 123. This is a matter of great complexity and one has to commandeer a lot of information before one digs in one’s heels. It is clearly not a matter that should be decided by popular support.

This is a problem that economists have to contend with more often than other professionals, such as engineers. No one would suggest designing a plane by taking into account majority preferences. But when it comes to designing an industrial policy or setting a target exchange rate or adopting a currency convertibility system, everybody feels that he or she has an opinion that ought to count.

Drawing a line where mass participation should end and expertise take over is not an easy matter. To have everybody participate is to risk a policy hodge-podge. To leave it all to the expert is to risk policies being hijacked by small interest groups that the expert may, openly or covertly, be a part of.

I do not know what the right solution is, but feel that we human beings would contribute to saner decision-making if we entertained a little bit of scepticism — an awareness of how little we know.

We would have fewer fundamentalists if we could be modest enough to admit that the world is full of unknowns and wonders, and realistic enough to know that there is no book of the ultimate secrets of life.

The first known practitioners of scepticism were the Greeks of around 300 BC. There were Anaxarchus, Timon and, the best known of them all, Pyrrho of Ellis. Legends have grown around these characters. Pyrrho, during his 90 long years of life (360 to 270 BC), did not write anything because he felt all knowledge was open to profound doubts.

There is the famous story of Anaxarchus falling into a ditch, when Pyrrho passed him by with complete equanimity, making no effort to rescue him. After some other passing students pulled Anaxarchus out, Anaxarchus expressed the greatest pride, however, in Pyrrho for being a true practitioner of scepticism. Presumably Pyrrho felt that there was no reason to believe that his guru would be better off outside the ditch than in it.

Evidently, these sceptics pushed their philosophy to somewhat absurd limits. But it is interesting that they considered themselves to be not the finest practitioners of this philosophy. Both Anaxarchus and Pyrrho had visited India with Alexander’s army and met some Indian mouni sadhus, who not only did not write anything but did not even say anything! As Pyrrho later remarked, he was chastened by these Indian ‘philosophers’, whom the Greeks referred to as ‘gymnosophists’ (especially the ones who renounced not just speech and writing, but also clothing), who, he felt, were a step ahead of his own peers in the practice of scepticism.

We do not have to go to such extremes, but in this age of ideological dogmatism — left or right — and religious bigotry and fundamentalism, it is worthwhile remembering this fascinating branch of philosophy, which has its origins partly in India.

Of course, we have to express opinions (and I will in this column) and take decisions, but those opinions and decisions would be much better and more dependable, if underlying them was an awareness of the ultimate uncertainty of nature.

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University.