The Space Cadet Fixation

Farce is funny when staged deliberately. It borders on the tragic when it is splashed across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and is eagerly slurped up by the gullible even in high places.

Just the other day I was taken to task for not high-lighting the successes of Indians and instead focusing on problems that we need to solve to be a real nation of some consequence. I was told to focus on the amazing achievements of Indians across the globe and told about the kid from UP who topped “international exam held by NASA for discovering top scientists”. I would have to get up pretty early in the morning to fully debunk the sheer idiocy of that bit. Do scientists exist in remote unexplored territories that they have to be “discovered” like some exotic new species by enterprising biologists and anthropologists? And why is it that Indians have a fixation with NASA that they have to invoke it whenever they want to impress upon the gullible that someone has any merit? Is it because they have a “rocket scientist” as the president? This is what I call the “Space Cadet Fixation”. Want to indicate that someone has arrived in the world of science and technology? OK, make that person a NASA scientist. Case in point: the movie Swades.

As it happened, someone finally did some homework and figured out that NASA has no record of having conducted any exam in which any UP boy has topped. But that was not soon enough for the gullible in high places. The President of the country met with the boy and his family. I don’t know what transpired in that meeting but I wonder if the matter of the President having ranked 7th in the same fictitious test some years ago ever came up. Perhaps in all the excitement of the moment, that inconvenient fact was lost.

Wait, there’s more. NDTV.com reports:

To help the boy with his studies, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav had announced an award of Rs five lakh. [This is roughly US$ 11,000]

The UP legislative council had also promised the boy a month’s basic salary of its 100 members. [I estimate that to be around US$ 20,000 for the whole lot.]

Feeding frenzy of the gullible with lots of egg on the face to show.

I have noticed a curious fact. The more outrageous the claim of scientific and technological breakthrough made by an Indian, the more shrill is the press in reporting it and more eagerly do the gullible lap it all up. Herbal petrol is one previous case in point. It was reported that some chap in India has made an astonishing invention/discovery which involved dipping some sticks in boiling water and magically the water would turn into petroleum. Absolutely incredible, but to the so-called scientists and engineers of some institutions, it was totally credible.

Why do we do this? Why do we fall so easily for these scams repeatedly? What sort of basic insecurity drives this will to believe in stories that make one feel good but are patently untrue from the get go? Why this need for magical thinking?

When I am insecure or depressed, or am not feeling too well, I am prone to wishful magical thinking. Is collective wishful magical thinking a symptom of collective insecurity and sense of inferiority?

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

7 thoughts on “The Space Cadet Fixation”

  1. I completely agree with you Atanu. Its the insecurity we Indians feel makes us belive in these kind of stories. Sometimes when I feel depressed I go to news website and just search for good news. This insecurity in us makes us belive in aliens, clairyoyants etc. When we feel depressed, we hope someone with magical power comes and take away all of our problems. We know we are far behind from western countries in many aspects. This inferiority makes us to wish somebody with magical capabilities comes up and lift us. More insecure we are, more vulnurable we are to these types of frauds.

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  2. I did have a hearty laugh at the whole episode! From today’s Indian Express: “Even the ultimate proof of his achievement — the NASA certificate that he now flaunts — is pathetically fake. ‘Aeronautics’ has been misspelt as ‘Aeronatics’ and the name of the NASA Administrator — Sean O’Keefe — has mistakenly been written as Cin K. Kiff. It looks like an amateurish copy that came from a home printer”.

    Atanu, you did well to remind us of the equally hillarious episode of Ramar Pillai and his herbal petrol. So called scientists (with sketchy credentials) eagerly jumped onto the bandwagon, claimed they observed his demonstrations, and validated his outlandish claims. The Tamil Nadu government feted him with lavish gifts (including land allotment by the honorable Chief Minister Karunanidhi), and there were rumblings about his achievement being discredited by IIT and IISc only because he wasn’t a forward caste! Even better, the Indian Institute of Petroleum in Dehra Dun issued him a
    certificate stating the product was not petrol, positive validation, he claimed, of an alternate fuel 🙂

    In both these episodes, the Indian press ought to cringe in embarassment. If credible and quality reporting is rare in the West, it is non-existent in India.

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  3. If I may digress a little, I wonder if folks recollect the bouhaha surrounding the Ambati brothers. Balakrishna and Jayakrishna, child prodigies, who (genuinely) graduated from medical school in the US, when they were 17.

    When I was at IIT Madras in 1990, they both visited and presented a research paper on AIDS. The younger brother had just secured admission in medical school at that time. What the point of coming to IIT was, other than perhaps adding an irrelevant line to their resume, I never fathomed.

    You may recollect that these guys got a bum rap after that. When the older guy was about 20, the parents visited Andhra with family, to get the older boy hitched in an arranged marriage. What the girl’s age was, don’t ask. The night after the wedding, the bride’s dad complained to police that there were dowry demands being made from Mom Ambati (the amount claimed was a pittance: Rs. 50,000!). In Jayendra Saraswati like haste, the police arrested them all.

    The case made the press, but we hardly heard of what happened after that. It transpires that the police had no real evidence to present in court. Among other violations, they crossed state lines without a warrant (the Andhra police arrested them in Karnataka). They did not inform the US consulate of the arrest, violating the Vienna convention. 20 of their claimed material witnesses never materialized. The two who showed up recanted their testimony. Like that wasn’t enough, father Ambati secretly recorded a cassette tape of the bride’s dad demanding $500,000 to drop all charges. The Karnataka court where the trial dragged on over 3 years, allowed submission of the cassette as evidence. A few days later, the bride wrote a letter to members of parliament (as irrelevant an audience as AIDS research is to IIT!) dropping all accusations. Three and half years after the incident, mother Ambati was given back her passport to leave India with a full acquittal for the family. In a further twist, the investigating police officer, Konappa Reddy is himself now facing murder charges for a custodial death of Mr. Gopalappa, who was accused of stealing Rs. 60 of tomato seedlings!

    Mera Bharat Mahan 🙂

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  4. Call me a fool but I bought that story when it did its rounds on NDTV.com. For me sitting here in the US it is really one of the few reliable sources of info. The fact that they didn’t corroborate the facts that they collected in the case puts a big question mark on their credibility.
    Suddenly politicians with their “I was misquoted” sound more credible. 🙂

    I also feel we shouldn’t suddenly read too much into this story. A kid making it big at an International Competition is a good human interest story. People buy it not because they are insecure but because they think it is true. You can’t expect such an incident to reflect on the Indian psyche. More importantly I don’t think it is fair to generalize. Every society celebrates a winner.

    If anything has to come out of this it has to be better standards of reporting in the media. In their eagerness to get there first they are compromising on a lot of facts and I guess blaming Indian “insecurity” just shifts focus from this lack of accountablilty on part of the media.

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  5. Hi Atanu,
    I would like to know how you are doing with RISC and its project implementation. Is there anywhere where I can track its progress like a blog or smthg.
    I would love to know how you are doing and how you are going about it and lessons learned at each stage. Being a believer in your plan and wanting to follow your plan (there are thousands of them out there ) I will like to know more about it.
    Best Wishes,
    Rock.

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  6. I totally agree with Sanketh. 1)People buy it not because they are insecure but because they think it is true. 2) More importantly I don’t think it is fair to generalize. Every society celebrates a winner.

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  7. I dont see any reason to be cynical about the whole of the success thingy.

    Success is idolised everywhere. Everyone loves success, a news of success. I still not sure if a rocket-scientist is not a point to prove that he has arrives whether in US or in India or any other place!

    The case in point however, does not point to the psyche of the people, but at a premature media hyping every news that comes through trying to cater to a 24×7 audience without verifying facts.

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