Tuesday 30 August 2011

Skeptics in the Punjabi

Dr Narendra Nayak
A Blog Post by Patrick Redmond

On Saturday I had the pleasure to meet Narendra Nayak. He is, amongst other things, the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalists. He was on a tour of the UK and had already met up with Skeptics in Glasgow and Edinburgh and was taking part in an event organised by the Asian Rationalist Society of Britain to promote critical thinking and encourage blood and organ donation amongst the Indian community. I went along for the end of the day and it was brilliant.

I slipped in at the back and watched an entertaining doctor present an excellent talk on quack remedies, the placebo effect and the need for critical thinking that would not have been out of place in any Skeptics in the Pub meeting. Dr Dihal’s lecture slipped between English and Punjabi and although  my Punjabi is non-existent the accompanying PowerPoint and what I already know of the subject filled in the gaps. The people in the room were entertained and the atmosphere was great.

I chatted quietly to one of the people next to me about the group and he said it had been going for some time but each year got bigger and stronger. The reason for this, he figured, was education. He was born in India but raised in England and he didn’t believe in all the superstitious stuff. Because he was educated his children also don’t believe in it and then in turn their children won’t. We know that educated or not there are still plenty of people able to be convinced of all kinds of magic and nonsense, but I think that he’s right, education is the key and that is what this group is about.

Debunking is an important aspect of their work. In between speakers Dr Nayak slipped out and we recorded a quick interview that will go out on the podcast soon. However difficult we might think the role of the skeptic is over here, in western society, it’s very different in India. Superstition and religion are far more significant factors in daily life. Holy men perform miracles persuading people of their supernatural abilities to advise and heal. Amidst all this non scientific medicines are not only available but given governmental approval. Rationalists have to face much more the powers of religion and the powers of state in their battle. If you search YouTube for Narendra Nayak you will see many videos of him replicating the feats of these so-called holy men  to demonstrate that their power is anything but divine and that their effect is to stop people seeking medical or professional help when it is needed with all the consequences that might hold.

Ash Performing Psychic Surgery
Lottery Tickets from Eggs
I’d missed his earlier demonstrations of psychic surgery, an ordeal I had performed on me by Edinburgh’s Ash Pryce only a few months ago, but I did watch him cracking eggs open to remove lottery tickets from their centre and reading minds.

The mood was one of amusement but the message was serious, as was the underlying main theme of the meeting. The religious beliefs of many in the Asian community prohibit them from donating organs or blood. The need for these organs is urgent and the supply isn’t there. Superstition is directly leading to preventable deaths as opportunities to save lives are lost.

One of the aims of Dr Nayak’s visit was to help unite groups within the rationalist community. That was why he made contact with the Birmingham Skeptics and I’m really glad he did. Here on our doorstep is the main office of the Asian Rationalist Society of Britain. I’m ashamed to say that I’d totally missed their existence and it took a visitor from another continent to get us together. They made me very welcome. Now that we’ve made contact I’m very much looking forward to working with them in the future.

Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) - Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub.


Bayani said...

Great to see this happening; I can only imagine the problems having to combat woo like Homeopathy there.

narendra said...

Thanks Patrick. They are planning for a training program to get more people ready for demonstrating these so called miracles and explaining them. That is the best way to convince people and get them to think.
We will have more interactions next time I come there for that purpose.