31 December 2015

The Charter on Free Inquiry as antidote to political quackery

The Island of December 30, 2009 reports that the Ministry of Health has decided to ‘crackdown on quacks’.  Apparently the Ministry has received over 6000 complaints about quack doctors operating in all parts of the country.  They are for the most parts, according to the report, ‘retired pharmacists, dispensers and others who have served under qualified doctors’. 

I suppose one could add to this kattadiyas and faith-healers since both categories of persons are snug within the definition of quackery: the deliberate misrepresentation of the ability of a substance or device for the prevention or treatment of disease; also applicable to persons who pretend to be able to diagnose or heal people but are unqualified and incompetent.  Where relevant certification is absent diagnosis and prescription cannot be sanctioned. 

I am intrigued by quackery because it is a term that is applicable to a lot of things.  Teaching, for example.  It is a profession and one would think that those without professional qualifications should not be allowed to teach.   One can have a degree in, say, Economics, and have a decent enough grasp of the subject matter.  Still, knowing doesn’t necessarily imply ability to impart knowledge. That takes specialized training. 

The vast majority of our teachers are not qualified (by training) the day they start ‘teaching’.  That training is typically picked up later.  This is a horrendously flawed state of affairs.  It is like allowing a second year medical student to check out patients, engage in diagnosis and prescribe a course of treatment.  Just as one would hesitate to subject oneself to examination by such an individual, so too should one hesitate to put one’s child under the tutelage of an unqualified person, especially if the child is very young. 

What would we be sanctioning in this manner?  We would be fooling ourselves that the particular teacher and indeed the entire learning process is what it is said to be because ‘ability’ has been ‘misrepresented’ to us.  If we would not suffer a quack doctor, why should we suffer a quack teacher?  And yet we just ‘grin and bear’ don’t we?  Smaller risk, is that the reason?  But is the risk really less?  Where there is no proper and professional nurturing and instruction, children can pick up all kinds of bad habits.  Their entire approach to learning, to people, the world and life could be blue-printed in an erroneous manner. Just because it is more difficult to extrapolate repercussion (compared to a medical situations where the outcome could be more clearly and quickly apparent), it is no less problematic.     

The issue is simple: if the Ministry of Health can go after quack doctors, can’t the Education Ministry streamline affairs so that children are not risked with quack teachers?  In other words, is it not possible and indeed imperative that proper training and relevant certification should precede appointment?  The Ministry of Health will go after all those who pose as ‘doctors’ but don’t have proper qualifications.  Will the Ministry of Education also institute a system where all teachers, in state schools and private schools as well as those who are in the tuition business have proper qualification?

I wish sometimes that there was a Ministry of Politics, i.e. some kind of institution that can approve or reject a person’s application to contest elections.  We can rule out the issue of ‘intelligence’ and ‘ability’ because representative democracy should be exactly that: representative.  If we are nation of morons, then there is nothing wrong in electing a moron.  On the other hand there should be some kind of benchmark, you know, a minimum set of attributes that a candidate should have. 

I know it is hard to legislate but there have been attempts, citizens’ initiatives, to make sure that decent people get elected and not self-seeking thieves.  In some countries, a group of eminent persons, thoroughly screen candidates and give them what would be equivalent to an approval rating.  Something like the following: ‘such and such a person gets a ‘thumbs-up’ and that one gets ‘two thumbs-up’ while Mr. So and So is such a sorry case that he gets two thumbs-down’. It’s a black-balling mechanism which, if it gains popularity and mass acceptance (like all decent rating systems), can help the voter when it comes to pick-and-choose time. 

We do have some rudimentary screening mechanisms such as asset declaration and checking criminal record, but there are too many loopholes. Moreover, it is all hush-hush. The voters, criminally, are left out of the relevant disclosures.  What is the result?  Proper and effective screening is replaced by a political free for all where candidates use all loopholes available to vilify one another.  In the end we get candidates and eventually elected representatives who are larger than life (or smaller as the case may be) and the public really has no clue about what to expect.

Forget the negative element of the process, isn’t it true that if electoral politics is about anything, it involves the ‘deliberate misrepresentation of the ability of a substance or device (read ‘party’ and/or ‘politician’) for the prevention or treatment of disease (read ‘societal ill’)’?  Isn’t it about naked quackery, since politics is full of persons who pretend to be able to diagnose or heal society but are unqualified and incompetent?

It is hard to legislate against these things, just as it is not easy to legislate against faith-healing nutcases who will read the riot act pertaining to ‘religious persecution’ to literally get away with murder.  In the end it comes down to our ability as a citizenry to exercise utmost vigilance and to employ reason over emotion. 

This is not the first time that I am recommending this and it won’t be the last, but I am yet to find as compelling an insurance policy against quacks and quackery as the Buddha’s Charter on Free Inquiry, the Kalama Sutra.

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, "The monk is our teacher." Kalamas, when you yourselves know: "These things are good; these things are not blameable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness," enter on and abide in them.'  (Anguttara Nikaya III.65 - Kalama Sutta). 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com.