On Social Science Research

A few days ago on my way to work, I glanced at the book a fellow passenger on the train was reading. It was a 12th grade book and the subject was nuclear physics. It had diagrams of protons, neutrons, and electrons orbiting the nucleus and all that sort of stuff. After a bit, I asked the teenager why he was reading nuclear physics. He said that it was required. But, I asked, was he interested in the subject. No, he wasn’t but he was in the science stream and therefore he had to learn that. Did he study any economics, psychology, history? No, that was not part of his curriculum.

I went back to my newspaper. On the op-ed page of the Business Standard of 18th November was Prof Kirit Parikh’s opinion: Needed — Indian institutes of social sciences. “We need to set up institutes of social sciences on the same high standards as the IITs,” said the sub-title. The piece started off with the observation that the returns to R&D are very high in areas of science and technology. Admitting the excellent results of insitutions such as the IITs, CSIR, ICAR, etc., he noted that the number of researchers per million population was not very impressive for India compared to other countries. In the mid-1990s, he reported, India had 150, Japan 4,900, Singapore 2,300, Korea 2,200, Mongolia 900, and China 450. Very interesting.

Then he went on to write:

We have had strong political support for science and technology. A strong case can be made for government support for research, for basic research, for crop variety research, for birth control or for environmental research, for defence or research related to critical so-called dual-use products and research in special areas that require the concerted efforts of many institutions. …

… We need social science research to promote good governance. Economic and political research can help identify policy options and alternatives. It can also assess the costs and benefits of alternatives that help in selection of policies… social science research is as important for development as scientific and technological research…”

With due respect to Prof Parikh, I would have to disagree. Mind you, I am not disagreeing with him on the importance of research. I am questioning the wisdom of spending resources on research when we have not yet neither learnt nor used what is already available for free in any well-stocked library.

Let me use an analogy. Suppose I have a very large stock of very nutritious basic food sitting at home unused. Suppose my family is starving. Further suppose that I am broke. And now suppose I decide to go out and spend money on buying expensive food which will be delivered in a few months to feed my family with. Would you call me stupid or what?

The stock of knowledge that is available for almost free is stupendous. We have yet to apply even a little bit of that in our policy making. We don’t teach those fundamentals to our kids. They grow up to be intellectually uni-dimensional morons who cannot have an innovative idea in their heads. And then we propose that more research be done at more ivory tower institutions spending scarce resources that have a very high opportunity cost.

Coming back to that teenager: he will probably be able to rattle off the value of the electrical charge of an electron from memory. Or tell you the chemical structure of a sugar molecule. But he would not be able to solve a simple problem involving some degree of problem solving abilities. He probably has not the faintest clue about how markets work or how people interact. Imagine going easy on the structure of the atom bit, and giving him a bit of understanding of the prisoner’s dilemma. Knowing the structure of an atom is important, but it should not be more than an afternoon’s work at best to get that across. However, understanding what the prisoner’s dilemma is and then considering the implications of that would take a lot of time and would teach very valuable skills to the student.

Why this dismal state of affairs? Because the teachers themselves are clueless uni-dimensional card-board cutouts. They are as capable of entertaining an original thought as I am capable of holding a tune. It does not surprise me in the least that the Indian educational system is a sad mockery of an institution that forms the bedrock of any sustainable society.

Is there a way out? I think there is. What we have to do is to actually create the curriculum ourselves. Then we have to get the content (create or aggregate already available content). After that, we have to use tools that are fortunately available from information and communications technologies to deliver the content. And I have a sneaky feeling that all this can be done profitably.

George Bernard Shaw had once remarked that when he wants to read a good book, he writes one. I think our desire to have a well-educated society must motivate us to educate our society well.

Misplaced conclusions

“My uncle died sadly due to his habit of drinking tea?”

“That’s amazing! I have heard of people dying because of alcohol. But tea?”

“Yes, tea lead to his death. He was crossing the road to get himself a cup of tea, and a bus ran over him. Tea caused his untimely demise.”
Continue reading “Misplaced conclusions”

The Four Noble Truths

Little drops of water
Little grains sand
Make the mighty ocean
And the beauteous land

I think the time has come to speak of little things. Things that add up like little grains of sand and little drops of water. Individually, they seem irrelevant and inconsequential. But they matter very much in the end.

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Saturday evening plans included meeting friends for drinks at the Cricket Club of India near the Churchgate station. Karthik said it was so close to the station that anyone would be able to tell me. I asked but there was no address he could give me. I arrived at the Churchgate station well on time. Then for the next 25 minutes I tried to get to the Cricket Club of India.

It was not more than 10 minutes walk from the station. But not having an address, I had to rely on asking people. They generally waved in various, often contradictory, directions. Finally, after a couple of mobile calls to Karthik, I arrived about 10 minutes late at the CCI.

It does not take a genius to figure out that without numbers and addresses, it is difficult to locate a place; that it is wasteful and frustrating. It is not as if addresses and numbers are a modern new-fangled invention that requires all sorts of fancy high-tech equipment and massive amounts of capital spending to put in place. Any idiot with half a brain can figure out that without a proper addressing scheme, people waste time and effort needlessly. Yet, I notice the almost universal lack of a rational street addressing in India.

Sure, in business cards you see addresses printed. But it is not an address but rather a description of the general neighborhood. “In front of this, and behind that, and near to the other, and opposite something else, close to the cinema.” The addresses generally run into 4 or 5 lines. Even then you are not likely to find it in a hurry.

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This morning, I thought I would call the Confederation of Indian Industries offices in New Delhi. I am invited to speak at their 6th Social Summit Dec 17-19 “National Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility” in Bhopal. It was supposed to be just a simple call to ask for a list of participants.

After over an hour of my time and significant costs in long distance charges, I still don’t have that information. I had no idea of how difficult it was going to be. I dialed the number, it kept ringing and then the phone system finally timed-out. I called again a few minutes later. It was busy. I tried all four listed numbers; they were either busy, or were not answered. I tried again after a while. This time someone answered. They mumbled something, as if they were answering the phone while asleep.

“Hello, is this CII?”

“Yes.”

“I am trying to reach Ms. xyz.”

Without a word of reply, I find myself listening to muzak. It goes on for few minutes. Finally, someone picks up the phone. I could hear the person talking to someone else in their office with the phone off the hook and I was kept waiting. I hung up after a few minutes. After a while, I re-started the whole process. After another 20 minutes, I was finally speaking to someone. Left a message asking for information.

Later in the afternoon, when I still had not heard back from them, I started the whole thing once again. This time I lost my cool. When the operator answered, I said, “Listen to me carefully, and don’t transfer me before you fully comprehend what I am looking for.” Then I carefully explained her job to her.

To cut a long story short, this was not a 2-bit fly-by-night operation I was trying to reach. It was an industry association representing thousands of firms. One would have expected a little bit of professionalism. They don’t even know how to answer the phone. Their shabbiness is astonishingly blatant. Surely, this is no professionally run organization.

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The two anecdotes illustrate a larger point that I would like to make. I submit that for India to develop, there has to be a change in our outlook. We need to think very carefully about what exactly the problems are and then think very deeply about what are the appropriate solutions for them.

Economists like to remind people that learning by doing is a very powerful device. If you are at the fore-front of some technology, the only way to learn is by doing and making mistakes and so on. But I believe that if you are not at the cutting-edge, then learning by imitating is the way to go. It does not require a rocket scientist to keep ones eyes open, note very carefully how others have solved a specific problem, and simply copy that solution if it is applicable. That way you don’t have to pay the price of having to discover the solution and yet you get the benefit of having the solution. This is the advantage that can come of being a late-comer. Among siblings, it is often the case that the second born appears to be sharper than the first born because of this learning by imitation.

Development economists often wonder about the so-called convergence hypothesis, that is, developing countries grow faster than developed countries and eventually catch up. One of the factors that governs the rate of growth of an economy is the level of knowledge. Information internalized leads to knowledge. Now these days information is no longer a really big secret: it speeds around the globe at electromagnetic speeds. Why is it then, one wonders, that the poor countries cannot use the information effectively to increase their growth rates and pull themselves out of poverty?

My contention is that merely having knowledge is not enough. The system has to be attuned to make use of that knowledge for it to be useful. In a very broad sense, it is larger ecology of the society that determines whether a give bit of knowledge or technology will be useful in a society or not. The tranfer of knowledge is a much harder problem than the transfer of technology.

In other words, you could very easily import a million PCs and tons of software from some advanced industrialized country. Or you could import the technology and build them locally. Will that have an effect on the growth rate of the economy? Marginally at best. But for real change, you would also have to the way things are perceived. That is a much harder problem to crack. It is harder because it is a soft issue — it deals with people, their belief systems, their emotions, their understanding of who they are, their ambitions and hopes, their fears and insecurities.

I come back to my original position: ICT merely provides the tools. How to effectively use the tools is not part of the software package. That cannot be imported in a box any more than merely stacking books on quantum physics in your living room makes you a physicist.

We have to change our view. Two and a half millennia ago, the historical Buddha Gautama had outlined an Eight-fold Path as the Fourth Noble Truth. While all of them are important, the most important in my opinion is that of Right View. We have to find the right way to view the problems we face. Only then can we take the first steps to fixing them. My fear is that we are too eager to rush in with technological fixes to problems that are primarily sociological.

It is ironical that we have not learnt a lesson that was taught in this land by the Buddha. He was unhappy about something. So first he decided to fully understand what the problem was and state it unequivocally. That was the First Noble Truth, the truth about dukkha. Then he figured out the cause and called it the Second Noble Truth. Then he did what I would call an existence proof, that is show that a solution does indeed exist. That was the Third Noble Truth. Finally, the Fourth Noble Truth with its Eight-fold Path.

The lesson we should have learnt is that of the systematic application of reason to any problem. First, define the problem, then understand the cause, then show that the cause can be eliminated, and then finally outline the solution.

So my advice to all those who are ICT-trigger-happy, think before you fire up the internet browser. The answer may not be there at all.

The Zurich Axioms

Many years ago I had come across the Zurich Axioms on the usenet. Here it is for the record.

A set of simple (major and minor) rules devised by a set of Swiss investors, on how to succeed on the Stock Exchange – but which are generally applicable to any situation of selecting and managing risk.

The Zurich Axioms. Max Gunther, Unwin Paperbacks: ISBN 0-04-332126-7

THE (bare) AXIOMS

1: ON RISK Worry is not a sickness, but a sign of health. If you are not worried, you are not risking enough.

1.1: Always play for meaningful stakes.
1.2: Resist the allure of diversification.

Continue reading “The Zurich Axioms”

Solar Power Super Power

Here is an item of interest that I got from Reuben’s weblog.

Bajaj Auto’s 3-wheeler utility vehicles are about to be released in the US.

Now that is precious, ain’t it?

A number of interesting lessons can be drawn from that. First, and foremost, that Indian innovation is not something that can be easily dismissed. Indian firms can come up with solutions that have wide applicability. Second, that of learning by doing and the importance of a large domestic market for creating comparative advantage. Third, the need to think and act locally and then move to act globally. Continue reading “Solar Power Super Power”

Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are benchmarks of progress in a global attempt at alleviating poverty. The eight goals and their associated targets clearly address a complex set of effects the fundamental cause of which is poverty.

For the record, here are the MDG:

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
2. Achieve universal primary education.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
4. Reduce child mortality.
5. Improve maternal health.
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
8. Develop a global partnership for development.
Continue reading “Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals”

India’s NRI (Network Readiness Index)

Global Information Technology Report 2002-2003 – Readiness for the Networked World

The Global Information Technology Report is the most comprehensive assessment of “networked readiness” — how prepared an economy is to capture the benefits of technology to promote economic growth and productivity. As the world experiences an economic slowdown, the Report highlights that the use and application of information and communication technologies (ICT) remain among the most powerful engines of growth. This year’s Report benchmarks the performance and monitors progress in networked readiness of 82 countries.

Finland ranks numero uno in the NRI — Networked Readiness Index — followed by the US. India is somewhere in the middle (number 37th of the 82 countries listed) because “of its immense pool of trained IT manpower”. China is ranked 43rd. This came as a bit of a (pleasant) surprise to me.