Saturday, March 22, 2008

Left-hand statistics

In "Horrendous Journalism" I recently wrote about the absurd misuse of statistics in journalism. Recently Mr Sitaram Yechury has provided an interesting new example in HT, March 20. I usually enjoy Mr Yechury's reasoned and thought-provoking articles, providing an antidote to the cheerfully irresponsible Vir Sanghvi school of journalism (motto: "let them eat caviar"). But, as the great historian (and TIFR mathematician!) Damodar D. Kosambi is alleged to have once said, "Marxism is not a substitute for intelligence". Herewith Shri Yechury:

"globalisation... has been accompanied by growing economic inequalities... Forty percent of the world's population living on less than $2 a day accounts for 5 percent of global income while the richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of the world's income."

I have no dispute with the numbers, for which he cites the Human Development Report 2007-08 and which are grim and tragic. The problem is, they don't prove his point that inequalities are growing. By citing the statistics for a single year, how can you possibly show that inequalities are growing?

Possibly recognising this deficiency, he goes on later in the article to provide some numbers for different time periods: "the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005. This increased from 19 percent in 2004 and exceeded the previous high of 20.8 percent in 2000. In contrast the bottom 50 percent earned 12.8 percent of all income, which was less than 13.4 percent in 2004 and 13 percent in 2000." (I have taken the liberty of correcting a typo, the published article had "2.8 percent" instead of "20.8 percent").

So what to make of this? Let's re-phrase the confusing presentation as a (good) scientist would, in the form of a table:

Rich (% owned)20.81921.2
Poor (% owned)1313.412.8

This shows that in the period 2000-2004 things actually got better. The rich owned less and the poor owned more. In the subsequent year the trend got reversed. Now unless globalisation was officially launched in 2004, this does not prove Mr Yechury's point. More important - from his article were you able to read off that things got better over a 4 year period? Or did the fuming tone and confusing presentation serve to conceal the facts from you?

I do want to emphasise in conclusion that this should not distract us from the overall tragic picture. Is this horribly skewed income distribution - leading to so much suffering - the best that human beings can manage after so many centuries of religion, philosophy, ethics, science and engineering?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Human Rights in China

I don't feel I'm enough of an expert to comment on political affairs in detail (in contrast to some people I know, who freely supply their expert opinions on subjects they know nothing about!). But when it comes to China... something really gets on my nerves badly. At a talk I once attended at my institute, TIFR, Amartya Sen cautioned us not to be too enthusiastic about China's economic progress given that it executes more people per year than all other countries put together (the facts bear him out: Wikipedia says 1010 of 1591 official executions in 2006 were in China). I've always been uncomfortable with the way the West does business with China and effectively condones - even assists - their disgraceful censorship.

This morning I read this gem: "Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has accused the Dalai Lama of masterminding recent violence in Tibet's main city, Lhasa. Speaking at the close of parliament, Mr Wen also said that the exiled Tibetan leader's claim of "cultural genocide" in Tibet was nothing but lies."

This is the limit! Mr Wen Jiabao, may I respectfully suggest that "masterminding violence" and "lies" are subjects on which your government is the acknowledged expert. Shame on you for the censorship and the wholesale killing of your own peacefully protesting citizens - in Beijing on June 4 1989 and now in Lhasa, and a few times in between too. Your public abuse of the Dalai Lama just heightens your shamelessness, does it not?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Horrendous journalism

From time to time I feel the urge to comment on journalism in India. Much of it is so horrendously awful (this is not to detract from the few journalists I know who (i) have brains (ii) know something (iii) can write well). I realise that my comments, liable to be blunt and unforgiving, could annoy people and also make me come across as a cranky old f**t. I'm happy to plead guilty to all that. Journalism governs so much of what we think, know or believe, that we must not let rubbish pass uncontested.

My nominee for horrendous article of the day: Ankur Gupta's column "Open Mind" in the Hindustan Times, titled "The 80/20 Principle". This is about the so-called Pareto Principle which supposedly states that "20 percent of something is always responsible for 80 percent of the results". Pareto himself only observed that 80 percent of wealth in Italy was owned by 20 percent of people, which sounds likely and presumably was backed by his own studies. But Mr Gupta goes on to generously (and with not a shred of evidence) apply this to things like "80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your clients". Digging himself in, he then suggests that "we wear 20 percent of our favoured clothes 80 percent of the time". And finally, now mired deeply in his nonsensical ideas, he delivers the punch line: "you can score 80 percent of your marks by answering just 20 percent of your question paper".

Really! And I thought the most you could get by answering 20 percent of a question paper is 20 percent marks! Silly me!

If the article could have gone on forever, one wonders what else the creative Mr Gupta might have concluded? That you can drive 80 percent of the distance on 20 percent of your fuel? Or have 80 percent of your baths using 20 percent of your soap?

Curiously in the very same issue of HT, Indrajit Hazra - whom I always enjoy reading and is occasionally very funny - lampoons fake statistics. I laughed out loud when I read his opening line "83 percent of Gujarati housewives do not know how to make passable dhoklas" - and then he gets funnier: "A worrying 8 percent of tampon-users in Tamil Nadu are not women"! So there are journalists who understand statistics cannot just be made up - I'm happy to know that.

Start of the blog

My blog finally gets going on March 16 2008, a couple of days after Einstein's 129th birthday.

What will this blog be about? Will anyone read it? Let's leave both questions open. One may answer the other, and I'm not even sure in which order.

Still, let me tell you how I conceive this blog. The name, "tantu-jaal" (hindi: तन्तु जाल) literally means a web of strings. It also means "complexus" which in turn means "an aggregate of parts" (it has a medical meaning too, as a muscle at the back of the neck). Finally, tantu-jaal can mean "cobweb", which is of course a particular kind of string web. But I like to think of it metaphorically as the stuff that slowly expands to fill up our mind, whether we like it or not.

The main reason I chose this name is that I'm a string theorist, that is to say a physicist who does research on string theory. In addition I once wrote a paper dealing with "string webs" within this theory.

But the blog is not going to be mainly about theoretical physics. The world around us is a complex web of interacting situations. Our constant struggle is to simplify and make sense of this web. In the course of trying to understand the world, I find I keep talking to myself. Henceforth I will talk to my blog. I hope you find this interesting - but of course you are not obliged to.