Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Number of the day: 30 million

That’s the number of followers PM Modi has on Instagram—making him the most followed political leader in the world. And he is way ahead of former US president Barack Obama (24.8 million) and Donald Trump (14.9 million). But on Twitter, he is still significantly behind both of them. As for the number of people Modi follows: zero. 

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The Indian economist who won the Nobel prize

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer were awarded the Nobel prize in Economics for their pioneering work in poverty research. In India, their achievement became—as always—the subject of political bickering.

Meet the winners: All three economists are based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And two of them are married to each other.

  • Abhijit Banerjee was born in Mumbai, and educated at the Presidency College in Kolkata. He received his post-graduate degree from JNU and later Harvard University. He is the second Indian to win the Economics Nobel after Amartya Sen in 1998. He is married to Duflo and they both work at MIT where they run the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
  • Esther Duflo is French-American and was born in Paris. She earned her PhD in Economics from MIT—which is also where she met Banerjee. At 46, she is the youngest person—and the second woman—to win an Economics Nobel.
  • Michael Kremer received both his Bachelor's degree and PhD from Harvard University—where he is currently an endowed professor. 

A brief intro to their research: The three were awarded the Nobel for a “new experiment-based approach” which transformed development economics. Traditional approaches rely on macro-economic theories—and therefore sweeping national policies—to solve large-scale problems like poverty. Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer pioneered a very different methodology: Randomized Control Trials (RCTs). 

What is this? Quite simply, RCT takes the random testing methods used in natural sciences—especially medicine—and applies it to economics. The first step is to create two test groups of randomly selected people almost identical in income, education etc—one receives the ‘treatment’ while the other does not. The ‘treatment’, in this case, would be a policy intervention—such as free school lunch or reduction in class size. The results are then used to make policy decisions. So one might find that reducing class size doesn’t actually help students—i.e there is no difference between the two groups. But offering extra tuition to weaker students is highly effective and a better use of public money. 

And this is revolutionary? Yes, and for the following reasons:

  • The methodology focuses research practices on the actual lives of poor people—who were often viewed by traditional economic theory as a faceless class defined by their income (or lack thereof). As Duflo told reporters, “It starts from the idea that the poor are often reduced to caricatures and even the people that try to help them do not actually understand what are the deep roots of (their) problems.”

  • It imports a more rigorous criteria to determine cause-and-effect from natural sciences. For example, a policy intervention (free lunch) may be correlated to a particular outcome (better grades) but one may not actually cause another.  

  • The end result is that their approach has tied policymaking far more tightly to real-world outcomes. As one economist told the New York Times, “They provided a way to objectively check if a project has the benefits it says it is going to have.”

A brief intro to their critics: Not everyone is convinced of the merits of RCTs, which some economists say have a number of potential flaws: 

  • It is just harder to create truly random samples of near-identical human beings, and ensure there is no external contamination when testing policies—as one might be able to do when testing a new medicine in a lab, for example.

  • The methodology also doesn’t help answer larger macro-economic questions, such as whether to increase the interest rate etc.

  • Also, given the enormous influence of local culture and environment, a test that delivers brilliant results in one city, state, village etc. may not be as effective in another. 

  • The biggest challenge to the use of RCTs is that we simply don’t know enough about human behaviour and psyche. Scientists can be fairly sure that most human bodies behave and respond the same way—and so can presume a common starting point. We can’t say the same about human beings themselves.


And yes, there’s a political angle:Banerjee has been a fierce critic of demonetisation. He and Duflo were among 108 economists and social scientists from across the world who wrote an open letter asking the government “to restore access and integrity to public statistics”—in response to the fracas over the government suppressing employment numbers earlier this year (explained here). Banerjee was also one of the key economists who advised Rahul Gandhi during the elections on his minimum basic income (NYAY) proposal. 

So did the PM congratulate him? Yes, he did but four long hours after the announcement—which led to heated speculation on Twitter. And the congratulatory tweet was, er, lukewarm: “Congratulations to Abhijit Banerjee on being conferred the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. He has made notable contributions in the field of poverty alleviation.”

What about Rahul? He took the opportunity to gloat: “Abhijit helped conceptualise NYAY that had the power to destroy poverty and boost the Indian economy. Instead, we now have Modinomics, that’s destroying the economy and boosting poverty.”

Learn more: about the economists and their research:

  • New York Times offers a good overview of their achievement. 

  • Business Standard carried a deep dive into their research and why it is critical to helping the poor around the world.

  • Economist Vivek Dehejia in Mint offers an extended critique of their methodology. 

  • Juggernaut editor Chiki Sarkar in The Telegraph offers a personal account of her friendship with Duflo and Banerjee. 

  • Quartz has a pointed take on why Banerjee is exactly the kind of ‘anti national’ whom BJP supporters love to hate. 

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wastefully throwing all those eggshells away

Amazing women athletes set all kinds of records: Superwoman #1: Gymnast Simone Biles won five gold medals at the World Championships—and now has more world medals than any gymnast. Superwoman #2: Brigid Kosgei set a world record at the Chicago Marathon, finishing the course in 2 hours 14 minutes and 04 seconds. Yes, she is a Kenyan, as well. Superwoman #3: Coco Gauff won her first singles title at the ripe old age of 15. She defeated 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko to reach the landmark. Here is a heart-warming clip of Gauff kissing her first trophy. 

The insanity of this Trump video: has to be seen to be believed. It recreates a scene from the movie ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ and shows Trump shooting, stabbing and killing various journalists and political rivals. No, this isn’t a nasty bit of content being shared by some random troll. The video was aired at a conference for Trump supporters at his Miami resort. Watch the video here. New York Times has the story.


The insanity of this Azad Kashmir video: WTF is going on in this ad? Really, WTF??!! Watch it here.

Sneaky Boris strikes again: Yesterday, the Queen gave a speech announcing the government’s legislative agenda—as is the custom of that strange land. Except the Johnson government is a minority in the Parliament and—in that sense—not a government that can govern in any meaningful sense. And there won’t be one until there is a new election. So Boris has essentially conned the Queen into announcing the Tory Party’s election manifesto. And she is not amused. (Business Insider)

Is the anti-open defecation campaign a good thing? All health experts and well-meaning folks of every political persuasion agree open defecation is a bad thing. But how do sanitation workers view the massive Swachh Bharat drive to build toilets? After all, they will have to clean the sewers. This interview is a useful and timely correction to widely held assumptions. (India Spend

Nirmala Sitharaman’s husband wrote an op-ed: in The Hindu saying—in measured words—that the economy is in trouble, and that the government ought to embrace the policies of Narsimha Rao-Manmohan Singh. Her critics now feel vindicated and the media is running overwrought headlines like: ‘Nirmala Sitharaman's husband hits out at Centre over slowdown, says govt in denial’. Umm, Parakala Prabhakar has a valuable opinion because he is an economist. In other breaking news: spouses sometimes disagree. 

So what really, really drives Jeff Bezos? Think it’s global domination? Think again. Actually, think Star Trek, specifically Jean Luc Picard: “As time has passed, Bezos and Picard have physically converged. Like the interstellar explorer, portrayed by Patrick Stewart, Bezos shaved the remnant strands on his high-gloss pate and acquired a cast-iron physique. A friend once said that Bezos adopted his strenuous fitness regime in anticipation of the day that he, too, would journey to the heavens.” There’s a lot more fascinating detail in this deeply researched—and unauthorised—profile. (The Atlantic)

To spay or not to spay? Growing research shows that neutering your puppies when they are young—especially in the case of large breeds—is not a good idea. And many owners are choosing not to do it all. (Washington Post)

Eat your eggshells already! The hottest new trend in diets is ‘sustainable eating’ which is aimed at minimising food wastage. Here’s your guide to eating everything from egg shells to citrus peels. (Daily Mail)


Why we are rethinking Dian Fossey:  We stumbled on this essay on the gorilla conservationist’s controversial methods of protecting wildlife from poachers—including the use of torture. It’s an older piece but raises important points about whiteness and gender. (Lady Science)

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Unexpected, thought-provoking and always worth your time

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The ‘Toilet Culture’ Edition

Yeah, you read it right. We are going to take a delightful romp through the history and culture of the bathroom—to figure out why the West has got it all wrong. Enjoy!


In praise of ‘Squatty Potty’ 

PLUs may pooh-pooh the ‘Indian toilet’, but it remains deeply wired in our cultural DNA. The truth is that many Indians still prefer to squat—even when they have the option of the other kind. And the amazing success of ‘Squatty Potty’ in the US—now beloved by celebrities such as Sally Field and Jimmy Kimmel—reveals why the porcelain throne may be an overrated Western invention. (Delightful bonus: this Squatty Potty ad that features unicorns and edible rainbow-coloured poop)

Read: Bowel movement: the push to change the way you poo | The Guardian

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Weird Western ways of toilet-ing 

Beyond squatting, there is an array of Western bathroom habits that the rest of the world finds peculiar—and in certain instances, downright unsanitary. This is an amusing ‘compare and contrast’ piece on the cultural diversity of humans—who can’t even agree on how to clean our bums! 

Read: The peculiar bathroom habits of Westerners | BBC

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