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Friday, January 21, 2022

Shared Mythology for the 21st century: Pathway to a Shared Sacred Mother Earth (3)

 We now have better understanding of the physical aspects of this Universe, our planet and of life. Our scientific advances have helped spawn several new technologies which were never even dreamed of, except by a few science fiction writers and visionaries. These technological advances have enriched our lives. They have contributed to elimination or better control of diseases, longer life, rapid travel, rapid communication, space travel etc.,

For example, when I traveled to USA from India in 1958, the duration of the journey had already been shortened from several months by ship to a few days by planes. Yet, the jet age had not arrived, and the travel took multiple hops and three days. We can now fly, even without supersonic speeds, in about 16 hours.

And humans can now fly to the moon and be back safely and can take a space flight around the earth if one can afford to pay.

In the 1950’s I did not have any phone communication with my family for 5 years (from 1958 to 1963).  For one thing everyone in India did not have personal telephone line. Besides the transatlantic underwater cable collections were poor and the costs were prohibitive.

Where are we now? I know of daughters who live in USA now who are on Facetime or Skype with their mothers in India to get cooking instructions. Music lessons are conducted online. We can see and talk with anyone, anywhere in the world at any time. Meetings, Conventions and Conferences attended by hundreds of participants are conducted on virtual platforms.

In the 1950’s, when I was working on research projects, we did not have the internet. To do my literature research, I had to go to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia which had the largest collection of medical journals going back to the late 1800’s. Journals from each year were bound into volumes and kept in their stacks in the basement of the building. We could not go to the stacks and pick out the volume we wanted. We had to go to the beautiful large reading room at the College and fill out a request slip with the details of the name of the journal, volume number and the year. An attendant will go down to the stacks and bring the volume we requested. Since I was in training, the only days I could go to the College of Physicians Library were Saturdays. I usually waited till I had a list of 10 or more references to look up before I went there.

 

Fast forward to 2021, what is the status now?  I can sit in my own study and look up almost any research article I need by scrolling the computer screen and clicking! Indeed, that is how I obtained data on Infant Mortality and Life expectancy for an earlier paragraph.

 

But science and technology have come with their own burdens. In other words, they have contributed to human welfare; but they have also contributed to some of the dangers we face today.

 

We develop evidence-based approaches and new technologies to solve specific problems. But every problem cannot be solved by scientific and technological solutions because every technology will have its “downside” unless we use them wisely. As quoted by Garrett Hardin in his classic article on Tragedy of the Commons (Garret Hardon, 1968), when Wiesner and York were asked to advice the US Government on the problem of nuclear proliferation and the arms race, they said that “ If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation." The implication was that we must change our human behavior to solve some of the problems. This is true for our current problems such as climate change, disappearance of species, rapid spread of both viruses and misinformation.

 

What are the strengths and weaknesses of science and technology?

 

Facts and objectivity are the strengths of science. But it tends to ignore, marginalize, or minimize the importance of emotions and subjective experience.

 

Measurements and quantitation are its strengths. But it tends to quantify even qualities which cannot be measured. Putting a number on a quality and measuring does not make it scientific.

 

It breaks down a field of knowledge into parts and makes it understandable. But it struggles to make a whole from its parts. It knows the trees, but not the forest. As pointed out by Vine Deloria, “…..modern man has foreclosed the possibility of experiencing life in favor of explaining it”. (God is Red, Grosset Books, 973, page 298)

 

Demonstrable evidence makes the conclusions arrived by scientific method reliable and useful for better understanding. But complete knowledge requires the faculties of our body, mind with its reason and emotion and the spirit. Science does not allow for information from two of those four domains.

 

Science helps us to know about a thing as perceived, but not a thing as is.

 

By its very nature, conclusions arrived at by scientific inquiry are tentative. They do change and should change when new facts emerge to give a better explanation. This is its strength. But this strength is misunderstood as weakness (“scientists do not know. They keep changing their mind” is the way some folks see) and this misunderstanding is used to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the public by politicians and industries.

 

Scientists are often not able to bring their knowledge to the common folks in a language they can understand. Sometimes they even look down upon common folks. By insisting that everything gets approved by “science”, they tend to ignore the wisdom of the native and indigenous people and their “lived” experiences. In short, science is making the same mistake religions did for a long time insisting that everything – even evident facts – had to be approved by the religious heads. (Remember what happened to Galileo)

 

To the common man, scientific knowledge appears to be too objective, too cold, sterile, and value-less.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Shared Mythology for the 21st century: Pathway to a Shared Sacred Mother Earth (2)

 What other factors influenced me to plan this activity?

Even before these two reports, I was moved by the catastrophic and civilization-changing impact of the COVID 19 pandemic which has exposed the vulnerabilities of our society, widening gaps between socio-economic groups and polarization of people. I wrote a piece with the title Cooperation, Collective Welfare, Common Good and Common Purpose on June 19, 2020 (Athreya B, 2020) at my blog site.

Since we were all stuck in isolation and since positive thinking is good for mental health, I started a dialogue with some of my friends on three questions:

1.What have we learned from this pandemic?

2. What are the areas we need to focus in rebuilding our society with emphasis on values?

3. What are some of the values on which future should be built on, values that are most likely to be useful for the future generations?

My own answer to the third question led me to the observation that at present, our transactions are dominated by competition, individual advancement, individual happiness, and legal relationships. Based on this observation I thought that,

For a peaceful and just society, competition must be moderated by cooperation.

The word happiness should include collective happiness and spiritual happiness. Individual happiness must be moderated by universal welfare. Pursuit of happiness should include not only pursuit of material happiness but also happiness of others and spiritual happiness.

Morality and ethics should matter and, morality must take precedence over legality. Even if the law allows, one should not practice what the “inner light” says is immoral.

Only individuals are capable of conscience and responsibilities; groups are not. Responsibilities and duties of the individuals and of organizations and the government should be considered covenants, in which the more powerful in the transaction takes care of the welfare of the weaker participant; and not mere legal contracts, buried in small prints and disclaimers, which can be manipulated by the rich and the powerful.

At a practical level, I also concluded that hunger prevention and violence prevention demand special attention given the effects of the pandemic and the “infodemics”. What are the steps individuals can take? And what values should guide the individual? How can these values be shared values of the entire humanity and not parochial ones?

We need facts to know where we are now (and why) and we need facts supported by the mind, heart and spirit to develop our ideas on where we want to go and how to get there. The articles referred to earlier at the beginning of this essay document all the facts adequately.

At present, all the well-known human frailties are exposed quicker and spread faster due to the combination of human activities and technology. The technology driving this trend is the social media with its emphasis on individualism, equal weight for all information factual or not (fictions and conspiracies), and monetized algorithm. The human frailties are uninhibited individualism at the expense of group welfare and erratic and often, irrational group behavior endangering the individual the society and the entire humanity.

Science has helped us understand nature better and has improved the quality of life in all parts of the world. Yet, inequalities abound. Amidst distractions and information disorder, we are struggling to find future direction.

There has been enormous progress in science in the past 200 years.  In my own professional field of medicine, the advances we have made over the past 100 years is mind-boggling. In my medical school days, I had seen every known infectious disease known to mankind from diphtheria to rabies. Indeed, there were special hospitals for infectious diseases in every major city in the world. There are none today. We knew by inference that viruses cause some of the diseases, but no one had grown the virus or seen it. Now, we know how each virus looks like, what it is made of and its genetic composition. In earlier era, even after we knew how to grow the viruses, it took several decades to develop vaccines, test them for safety and efficacy and produce them in mass scale.   Look at the rapidity with which the genetic structure of not only the original COVID 19 virus, but its mutants, are recognized in few weeks and effective vaccines are developed within a month or two.

In the 1950’s we did not even know that humans carry 46 chromosomes. Now we know the structure of DNA and can manipulate the DNA at precise locations.

A child diagnosed with acute leukemia in the 1960’s rarely lived more than one year after the diagnosis. Now there are several adults, survivors of childhood leukemia, who are battling secondary cancers.

In my medical school days, we knew the word “immunity”, but we did not know its components. When I was involved in research with the polio virus in Dr. Coriell’s laboratory, we knew about serum antibodies as made of globulins. But we did not know that there were Immunoglobulins G, M, A, D and E. We certainly did not know the cellular components of the immune system.

I had seen scores of children with severe malnutrition in India and elsewhere. Although undernutrition is still a problem, severe malnutrition is fortunately rare in most parts of the world.

Infant mortality rate in India used to be over 150 per 1,000 (189 to be exact) live births in 1947. Now it is still high, but at 29 per 1,000 live births. In the 1950’s life expectancy in India used to be 31 years and now it is 69 years. Life expectancy used to be 36 to 46 years in the 1950’s in many parts of the world. Now it is over 70 in many countries.

The corresponding figures in USA are infant mortality rate of 29 per 1,000 live births in 1950 and 5.9 in the year 2000. Life expectancy used to be 68 years in 1950 and it is 79 now.

Granted that all these advances are not just due to medical science, but due to other advances such as in public health, medical technology, and agricultural methods.  Yet, progress is undeniable, thanks to science and technology.


Friday, January 7, 2022

Shared Mythology for the 21st century: Pathway to a Shared Sacred Mother Earth (1)

 Wish you all a Happy, Healthy and Safe New Year.

With passing of each day, the number of days remaining for people at my age are shrinking. That is reality. For people like me, it also gives a sense of urgency to share what we know and do something for the welfare of future generations. This is particularly important for me personally since I spent my professional life with children, and care greatly about their welfare.

This series of essays is probably the most important message I have for children of the future. The central message of this essay is my legacy for the future generations. It is to introduce the idea of shared mythology for the entire humanity and a pathway to get there.

This is not a policy statement but a wish list. It is not for policy-making or political actions – but for individual efforts. It should be a spiritual effort. I hope each one of you will develop your own plan, implement it, and share the message with the younger generation.

 Title:   Shared Mythology for the 21st century

Subtitle:  Pathway to a Shared Sacred Mother Earth 

Two recent reports by leading world experts document with solid evidence that our civilization is at an inflection point (Bak-Coleman et al 2021; Editorial 2021). They are “red alerts” for humanity to act as one unit to save this planet and this civilization for the future generations. As a pediatrician committed to the interests of children, I feel compelled to do a little something. This is my offering to Mother Earth.

In her recent Book of Hope (Goodall, Abrams, Hudson, 2021), the saintly Jane Goodall suggests that it is no use just hoping for the better. Hope must be sustained and implemented with action. That is what I wish to do.

This is also a follow-up of my earlier book on Our Shared Sacred Space in which I defined sacredness and shared sacredness. Here, I wish to develop a pathway, based on compassion and cooperation, to that shared sacredness, leading to collective welfare of not only humans but of all life forms.

The focus of this monograph will be to develop ideas for a Shared Sacred Space for all of humanity to live and to celebrate and to propose a set of Universal Dharma (ethics and morality). Facts and reasoning of the mind, understanding and compassion of the heart, universal human values (called sadarana dharma in the Vedic writings of India) of spirituality will be the guiding lights. I hope that ideas expressed in these passages will be acceptable to people from all nations, cultures, traditions, and faiths.

Great civilizations need lofty ideals to aim for and noble values to be guided by. Here are some suggestions and facts and reasons behind them.

What are the two “red alert” reports referred to in the earlier paragraph?

The first one is an essay with the title: Stewardship of global collective behavior published on June 21, 2021, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (Bak-Coleman, 2021). The authors are scholars in different fields of study, including Philosophy, Ethics, Climate science, Information science, Neuroscience, Biology, Human behavior, Anthropology, Psychology and Engineering. They have all come to the same observation and conclusion which demand our attention.

To quote the authors: “Our larger, more complex social networks now transfer high-fidelity information over vast distances at low cost. The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences. This gap in our knowledge represents a principal challenge to scientific progress, democracy, and actions to address global crises. We argue that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline”.

Since the authors use the word “crisis” we need to look at their observations and conclusions as an urgent matter requiring immediate attention.

Their observation is that our collective behavior in the past few years such as denying climate changes, refusing life-saving vaccines, racism and violence have become increasingly dangerous to our own survival. Our irrational collective human behavior (not individual behavior) is driven by several factors. One of them clearly is the uncontrolled flow of information which any one can create without any requirement for proof or accuracy. 

We live in an age of “information disorder” and “infodemics”.  Misinformation, dangerous information, and wrong information are spread easily through social media. Social media platforms  give priority to the number of “clicks” at their site, not to the contents and the impact of the content on the behavior of people. Algorithms developed by media companies are to maximize their profit. These companies do not control themselves. In the name of free speech and also because these companies are multinational, no government regulation controls them either.

Besides, it is known that false information and rumors spread faster than properly verified news.

Human collective behavior is a complex adaptive system shaped by evolution. Till now information spread slowly and there was time for our societies to verify and adapt to changes over time. But now our world has entered a heavily altered state because of the way false and wrong information spread very fast without any control. 

The authors do not offer any immediate solutions but suggest that we begin by framing “human collective behavior as a complex adaptive system shaped by evolution, a system that much like our natural world has entered a heavily altered and likely unsustainable state”. They suggest further that we study how information spreads through media, why people fall victims to false information and how to spread correct information before the wrong information gets settled in people’s mind and lead them to irrational behavior. We must study how new technologies we adopt today will impact global patterns of beliefs and behavior of people (specifically group behavior) tomorrow. They suggest that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline” just as medicine and climate science have and provide guidance to policymakers and regulators to give proper direction to the creation and dissemination of useful information.

The second paper is an Editorial published on August 10, 2021, in Science with the title Clarion Call from Climate Panel (Editorial 2021). This editorial referred to the Assessment Report No 6 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was written by 234 authors over 3 years based on thousands of comments and reports. The Panel (IPCC) concluded that the contributions of human activities to global warming is “unequivocal” and is an “established fact”. The report also warns that “The window for mitigating the worst projected impacts of global climate change is closing”.

Following this report, we adults, who are supposed to be responsible for the safety and welfare of our children, were scolded severely by “children”. In an Opinion column in the New York Times on August 19, 2021, representatives of children (Thunberg, Calderón, Jhumu and Njuguna 2021) wrote the following words: “The fundamental goal of the adults in any society is to protect their young and do everything they can to leave a better world than the one they inherited. The current generation of adults, and those that came before, are failing at a global scale”. This stung me particularly since I am a pediatrician and care much about the welfare of the future generations.