Friday, June 30, 2006

Just how do economists reach their conclusions?

Here's a primer:

Let's start with how economists reach our conclusions. Non-economists might be forgiven for presuming that we construct our arguments in the same way that they do: apply their preferred mixture of values and interests in order to decide whether or not they like a policy, and then assemble arguments to support that position. This might explain why many would view economists as opponents: by the simple act of disagreeing, aren't economists making it clear that we don't share the same values?

Except that's not how we work. Our starting point is always a model: a stylized representation of how the economy works. Once we're satisfied that we have a model that incorporates the main features of interest — this step necessarily involves a certain amount of subjective judgment — we compare what the model would predict if the policy were in place with what would happen without it. The difference between the two predictions is the effect of the policy.

After describing the problems that arise from this fundamental misunderstanding, the author (Stephen Gordon of the University of Laval at Quebec City) goes on to offer some suggestions about what can be done:

Clearly, economists can make a more concerted effort to explain to non-specialists what it is they are saying, and why. This isn't a simple task — economics is a difficult and technical subject — and it's made more complicated by the fact that there are any number of commentators who have built their careers on misunderstanding and misrepresenting what economists have to say.

But it would be easier if progressives made an effort to set aside their distrust of economists and actually listen to what we are trying to say. Yes, you may be forced to re-examine some long-held opinions, but is that really a bad thing? And you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that we too are preoccupied with finding solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality.

* * *

Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0; if this is not a good time to make a plug for my other blog, what is?

An analysis of the results of JEE-2006

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has issued a press release about the results of the new, improvedTM Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) conducted in April 2006 by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). It's clear that the Ministry wants a positive spin on the outcome, but it's equally clear that a lot of the news is not all that great. Let's take a look:

Bias against first-timers:

The number of candidates qualified in their first attempt is 2,761, which is 43.50 per cent of the total qualified candidates. This proportion is significantly greater than the corresponding value (28.49 per cent) in JEE-2005. The high proportion of first timers reflects the success of the changed pattern of examination in JEE-2006 in getting more number of students who have been equally good performer in qualifying examination (10+2). Hence, the main purpose of introducing a new examination pattern emphasizing on the importance of school education has been successfully fulfilled. ...

Bias against rural students:

The proportion of successful candidates belonging to towns and villages has also increased to 30.67 per cent [1943 students were from towns (1328) and villages (615), while 4400 were from cities], as compared to 28.02 per cent in JEE-2005 while the percentage has decreased in case of cities from 71.98 per cent in JEE-2005 to 69.37 per cent in JEE-2006. The proportional increase in the percentage from smaller towns further emphasize the success of the new JEE system and indicate reduced dependence on coaching centers which the candidates from town and village have no access to.

Bias against girls:

The application fee for female candidates was half (Rs.300/-) of the fees for male candidates (Rs.600/-). In this respect the new JEE system has also ensured a higher participation of female candidates as evident from the total number of registered female candidates of 58,997 in JEE-2006 as compared to 29,291 in JEE-2005. However, there is only marginal increase in successful female candidates as compared to JEE-2005.

Clearly, there has been significant 'progress' only in the share of seats that went to the first-timers. Progress made by non-urban students is small, but it's at least in the right direction. In the girls' share of IIT seats, the progress may even be deemed 'negative', since their number increased only marginally in spite of a near-doubling in the number of girls who applied for (and presumably, took) the JEE.

The JEE still has a long way to go before it can be held up as an ideal for the other entrance exams to emulate; right now, I would view it only as a deeply flawed exam with in-built biases against girls, first-timers and the rural and the poor.

IMHO, IITs should strive to convert JEE into an exam that fulfills -- at the least -- two primary requirements: (a) It should be a standardizing exam, in the sense that it should allow one to compare the relative levels of different school board exams, (b) it should be a standardized exam, in the sense that its results are less noisy and more predictable. Better yet, the IITs should merge it with AIEEE conducted by CBSE, and seek to make that unified exam conform to these two requirements.

* * *

Let me list a few related posts for future reference:

How good are our entrance exams in 'discovering' merit?

Critiques of JEE by two professors of IIT-K

Women in IITs

Consistent performance

Entrance Exams

Quit smoking ...

Over at Cyborg's Contemplative Corner, Swati is moved by recent news about the terminal illness of a dear one to write a strongly worded post urging smokers to quit smoking. The combined effect of reason and emotion in her post is powerful indeed.

Let's get this straight: THERE IS NOTHING COOL STYLISH OR TRENDY ABOUT SMOKING.Those who in a fit of mistaken bravado continue to smoke in the face of overwhelming evidence about the harm it causes have absolutely no idea of the misery of being afflicted with a deadly disease. Both for themselves, and for their family members. They have no idea of the excruciating physical pain of cancer and its treatments, and the emotional pain of dealing with terminal illness in the prime of life. ...

if you continue smoking, there's a 50 per cent chance that you will die of a smoking related illness. None of us would ever drive a car which has a 50 per cent chance of spontaneously catching fire. None of us would ever consume food with a 50 per cent chance of poisoning you. And yet, many of us would continue smoking, oblivious to the grave risk it poses to ourselves and those around us.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Defending B-schools

Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, defends B-schools in his column in the Financial Times (the link will go behind the pay-wall soon, so read it now).

Why, then, is the US adding productivity growth when so many other big economies see negative growth in productivity? Those who say the answer is technology have spent too little time in Tokyo, Seoul and Berlin. The fact is, technology is better in many other countries. So US companies did not become more productive by simply buying faster computers. They became more productive by having managers and entrepreneurs who knew how to integrate these investments with new business models to raise productivity. These abilities to think strategically are teachable; and the central classroom for teaching leaders to “pick these locks” is the business school.

The FT link comes via Mark Thoma's Economist's view, which has an extended quote.

Value addition: Check out this great video produced by the students of CBS. Glenn Hubbard is (sort of) featured there! [link via Selva].

Watchful eyes

Neat experiment, with amazing results:

Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers, told New Scientist.

Sitaram Yechury on CPI-M's stand on quotas

Via Locana's Anand: Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India - Marxist clarifies his party's stand on quotas:

... Mere appeals for a change of heart or behaviour cannot and will not eliminate this obnoxious system [of caste-based social oppression]. In order to do so, we require to bring about a radical realignment in the economic empowerment of these sections. This means the implementation of sweeping land reforms that will empower the vast majority of the socially-oppressed sections. With economic assets as the basis, the struggle against social manifestations of caste oppression can be conducted.

Mere moral outrage or even a correct understanding of the social roots of the problem cannot lead to its elimination unless sweeping agrarian reforms are implemented. It is precisely this that the dominant political leadership of Independent India did not do. It is precisely this that communists seek to achieve. The implementation of land reforms in West Bengal and Kerala may not have eliminated caste identity but have surely led to a quantum decline in caste-based social oppression.

Since we continue to work for such changes elsewhere in the country, our support for reservations, therefore, cannot be seen as the final solution for ending caste oppression. Reservations in the present conditions are a necessity that offer some relief to some individuals in these communities, enhance their confidence in their advance and seek to make them more equal in the vastly growing unequal society in India. However, by themselves, reservations cannot be the final solution to the problem. The final solution can come only with a sweeping agrarian revolution that economically empowers these sections. [...]

Clearly, ... the benefits of [reservations] should naturally reach the most needy sections within the OBCs. Introduction of an economic criteria, which the CPI(M) alone had suggested in the Nineties, was mercifully upheld by the Supreme Court in its definition of the ‘creamy layer’. This will have to be integrated with the OBC reservations in higher education.

The CPI(M), while supporting reservations, is engaged in strengthening the struggles on the larger agenda of the economic empowerment of these sections. This alone can render the caste system and the associated caste oppression as an ‘anachronism’ in modern India.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Affirmative Action: the South African model

The latest issue of Outlook takes a look (there's also an accompanying interview of Mathews Phosa, a black businessman):

... Outlook studied South Africa's experience of reversing the debilitating impact of apartheid. In South Africa, though, AA means more than job reservation and seats in universities. As government spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe explains, "In trying to restore the dignity of the Black majority, which includes Africans, Coloured people and Indians in South Africa, AA took on a much broader meaning."

At the heart of AA in South Africa is the government's endeavour to apply the principle of equality embodied in the Constitution. This has been done by introducing a slew of legislations to ensure that all sectors of the society reflect, over time, the country's racial demographics, and, consequently, rectify the skewed structures of employment and business ownership inherited from the apartheid era. Today, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), Africans make up 79.3 per cent of the population, Whites 9.3 per cent, Coloured people 8.8 per cent and Indians 2.5 per cent. Ideally, in an equitable South Africa, these numbers should be reflected in all aspects of South Africa's socio-economic life.

Laws, such as the Employment Equity Act (No 55 of 1998), have been passed to realise the avowed objective. But the cornerstone of AA in South Africa is the broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act. It intends to increase Black ownership and control of businesses and ensure that the workforce, including senior management in each entity, reflects the country's racial make-up. The government can issue codes of good practice and set specific AA targets for various economic sectors.

For example, in the healthcare sector, about 25 per cent of businesses should be in Black hands by 2014, and 30 per cent of senior managers have to be Black by 2010, rising to 60 per cent by 2014, with half of them being women. The mining sector's objective is to achieve 26 per cent Black ownership of mining firms in 10 years. The agriculture sector's 2014 target is to pass 30 per cent of agricultural land to Blacks, as well as provide a further 20 per cent to them through leaseholds.

I have said this before, and I will say it again: from the point of view of non-beneficiaries, affirmative action is no different from quotas. If diversity is the goal of AA, for example, just how would you assess its outcome? By monitoring the number of beneficiaries from the disadvantaged groups, and comparing that number against some target to see if the progress is satisfactory. The South African example is illustrative.

Eisenhower and the US Interstate Highways

On the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highways in the US, CR4 (a site that looks and feels so much like slashdot) has a five part series that looks at the history, politics and engineering of this grand system of highways. Fascinating stuff.

Part 1: A Giant Nationwide Engineering Project

Part 2: Roots of the Roads

Part 3: The Politics of Passage

Two more should be out later this week; I will add the links when they are published.

MSNBC also has a story on how the highways "moved America into another lane".

* * *

Thanks to Krish for the pointers.

Of International Advisory Boards and Dabbawallahs

Two interesting news reports today from the world of B-schools.

Today's Economic Times reports:

The Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A) board on Monday decided to form an International Advisory Council (IAC) — the first by any Indian B-School — to examine, discuss and recommend IIM-A’s long-term strategic orientations. [...]

Several reputed universities and business schools have such councils. Such bodies do not have any decision-making powers and they function purely as advisory bodies. The mission of IAC, which will be a body of leaders from the fields of education, business, management and academia with wide international experience and perspective, would be to examine, discuss and recommend IIM-A’s long-term strategic orientations.

This is a great move, and I hope it catches on. In a post from a year ago, I noted two similar initiatives: an academic audit at Mysore University, and an (external) scientific advisory board at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

* * *

ET also reports that the Indian School of Business (ISB) invited the dabbawallahs of Mumbai to lecture to its students:

When ISB invited the dabbawallahs to speak to their students and share some of their trade secrets, the least they expected was a power point presentation . But Raghunath Medge, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Carriers’ Charity Trust and Gangaram Talekar, the secretary, showed how deceptive appearances can really be.

The budding management graduates sat riveted as Medge explained that the 5,000-strong workforce that confronts traffic and crowds in Mumbai everyday to deliver about two lakh lunch boxes is actually illiterate or semiliterate. [...]

“There were three main things that I gathered from the lecture. The first one is, keep things very simple; do not complicate stuff. Secondly, make use of the available infrastructure. Do not try and do things out of the box, things that are not available to you, and thirdly , always have a back-up . That is the best resource,” said Indira, an ISB student .

The dabbawallahs also discussed how their organisation had become a subject of study in top B-schools in Indian and abroad, and how they recently secured Six-Sigma ISO certification.


Ashutosh Varshney on Affirmative Action

Via an e-mail alert from Shivam Vij: An interesting debate about the Malaysian version of affirmative action between Ashutosh Varshney and Pratap Bhanu Mehta. I don't really have any comment to make, but I am thankful to both of them for their informative pieces.

Ashutosh Varshney's article, which also has some info about the Sri Lankan version of affirmative action.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta's critique.

Finally, Ashutosh Varshney's rebuttal.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Kumari L. A. Meera Memorial Trust

My friend and colleague, B. Ananthanarayan, requested that I spread the word about the Kumari L.A. Meera Memorial Trust:

Last November saw the 20th anniversary of the tragic death of L. A. Meera at the University of Pennsylvania in a senseless act of homicide. She had been a first year graduate student at the Physics Department there and the event took place over the Thanksgiving weekend. She had studied in St. Stephen's College Delhi and at IIT Madras, first for her M. Sc. in physics and then for an M. Tech in computer science, and then wanted to switch back to physics.

Meera's father founded a Trust in her memory, and recently the Trust established a web site that describes the activities of the Kumari L. A. Meera Memorial Trust. There is an extensive description of its activities. Here's a quick quote:

The Trust has instituted awards and prizes for the encouragement of excellence of Physics in the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and other educational institutions. The Trust organises Public Lectures, Seminars and Meetings in many parts of the country. These have been of interest both to experts and to the lay public.

Meera's personalilty and brief life touched the lives of many who are now scattered all over the world. The trust welcomes contributions from donors who would like to foster the activities of the sort the KLAMMT is involved in. The best way of getting in touch with the Trust is by mail, since there is no one managing the e-mail link at least at the moment.

A professor's whine

Disrespect in the classroom is rampant. Many students don't even know their professor's name or how to pronounce it by mid-term, much less recall the names of faculty members from the previous semester. During a timed lab exercise recently, I had a student call out to me across the room, "Hey, dude!"

Once, while discussing the nature of classroom manners and decorum, I had a woman pipe up from the back row: "Listen, man, I paid $300 for this class, and if I want to sit here and trim my toenails, that's what I am going to do."

From this rant by a pseudonymous professor in the Chronicle. The serious, relentless rant ends on a positive note, though:

just as you feel the bitterness becoming more than you can stand, you get a reminder of what keeps you in the business.

Just today, I got not one, but two such reminders -- e-mail messages from former students thanking me for my rigorous approach to education. Looking back, they said, it not only has helped them in their careers, but in their lives.

I suppose teaching is, like golf, a maddening endeavor. In golf, even after 50 bad shots, if you accidentally hit a beauty, life is good and you love the game and you don't throw the clubs in the lake after all. In teaching, even if you get 50 students who don't care, it's those one or two each term who keep you coming back.

Reminded me of one of the reasons why parents feel that their kids make them happy!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Veerappa Moily on the way forward

Update: The interview is available online.

Veerappa Moily, Chairman of the Oversight Committee that will recommend how the new reservation policy is to be implemented, says a lot of interesting things in an interview with Shekhar Gupta. Just look at the list of ideas that he says are under consideration by his Committee:

Increasing faculty salaries beyond the limits imposed by the Pay Commission, pushing for more public-private partnership in the education sector, ensuring almost a three-fold increase in higher education enrolment and reinforcing “global” brand equity of institutions of excellence.

I have already commented about Moily's management jargon in another interview. There is a bit of it in this interview too:

“I am not just going to fill (the) potholes but build a knowledge superhighway,’’ said Moily.

Confirmation bias

Scientific American carries a wonderful article by Michael Shermer on confirmation bias, which we all suffer from and which makes us "seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence." The article starts with this quote from Francis Bacon:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises ... in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

The article recounts the results of recent brain imaging studies, and their implications. You can get all the details there, but here's a section where Shermer talks about the 'self-correcting' machinery used in science that allows us -- biased mortals -- to avoid pitfalls such as confirmation bias:

In science we have built-in self-correcting machinery. Strict double-blind controls are required in experiments, in which neither the subjects nor the experimenters know the experimental conditions during the data-collection phase. Results are vetted at professional conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. Research must be replicated in other laboratories unaffiliated with the original researcher. Disconfirmatory evidence, as well as contradictory interpretations of the data, must be included in the paper. Colleagues are rewarded for being skeptical. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Warren Buffett's class act

Buffett has pledged to gradually give 85% of his Berkshire stock to five foundations. A dominant five-sixths of the shares will go to the world's largest philanthropic organization, the $30 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose principals are close friends of Buffett's (a connection that began in 1991, when a mutual friend introduced Buffett and Bill Gates).

The Gateses credit Buffett, says Bill, with having "inspired" their thinking about giving money back to society. Their foundation's activities, internationally famous, are focused on world health -- fighting such diseases as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis -- and on improving U.S. libraries and high schools.

Awsome. Wonderful. Inspiring.

Lookin' up from the grave

Via DesiPundit and Absolute Lee, we get this great advertisement by the Cancer Patients Aid Association.

Good deeds by IIT alumni associations

This ET report recounts some of them (it covers IIM alumni associations, too):

IIT and IIM alumni associations are increasingly becoming more than just a convenient way of keeping in touch with batchmates. These associations are now serving as platforms, that enable ex-students to contribute to their alma mater and the society as well.

The class of ’06 at IIM-Ahmedabad has decided to raise Rs 1 crore by ’10-11, while the IIT Bombay Heritage Fund, a non-profit organisation set up by the US-based alumni of IIT-B, has helped raise over $20m over the past 10 years.

The funds have been used to finance infrastructure, scholarships, awards, funding for research, funding for inviting distinguished academics from foreign universities.

Amidst a sea of good deeds by the alumni associations, you also find a reference to their intervention into "policy issues that have a direct bearing on their institutes"; their anti-quota stand is mentioned as an example. This is a neat exercise in framing their political agenda within a larger set of things that are nice and warm. All I can say is, "Nice try; but, you will have to try harder."

For a different, more critical take on the IIT alumni associations' quota position, read my earlier post. While we are on this topic, I should pass along a link to this article by Ashish Chadha, a graduate student at Stanford, about an anti-quota protest held recently in the Silicon Valley.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Of 'unfinished' minds and psychological neoteny

Apparently, "grown-ups are more immature than ever". A rather extended formal education phase seems to be the culprit.

A “child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge” is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, [Bruce Charlton] believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

“The psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product — the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity,” he explained. ...

"When formal education continues into the early twenties," he continued, "it probably, to an extent, counteracts the attainment of psychological maturity, which would otherwise occur at about this age.”

It made you go "Huh?", didn't it? The following paragraph in the same article made me go "Uh, oh!".

"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact,” [Charlton said].

You can get more of it here. Link via Slashdot.

* * *

On an unrelated note, the internets are being blamed, partly, for "a drastic decline in the number of close friends that Americans have" [this link too is via Slashdot].

New technology links people over greater distances, but cuts into face-to-face meeting time, the researchers said.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Quota policy and institutional autonomy

Quite a few people I know are aghast at the brute-force implementation of quotas by the UPA government. Not (just) because they are against quotas, but because the policy is being thrust down the unwilling throats of institutions that will now have to deal with the policy's fallout (much of which is being perceived as adverse to the health of these institutions). In a little noticed (in the blogosphere, at least) article, Pratap Bhanu Mehta asks many probing questions:

... [There] is a whole range of questions at stake in reservation. Are they more effective than alternative ways of providing access? Do they displace the responsibility of the state onto institutions that are not equipped to carry them out? Have they become a substitute for the state discharging its real duties? Do the beneficiaries deserve reservation? How do we reconcile reservation with the autonomy of institutions? Do OBCs have the same historical claims as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes? Reservations are not about the single issue of merit alone. [bold emphasis added]

It's just as well that Mehta uses 'institutional autonomy', and not 'academic freedom'. I make this point because some have confused these two issues. Clearly, the quota policy has some serious consequences for the former but, equally clearly, it has no consequence at all for the latter. In other words, this policy is not going to trample on people's freedom to pursue whatever research they wish to pursue, and the State is not going to dictate what they should think, teach, research. And, finally, academic freedom is not about choosing whom to teach; for example, you can't refuse to teach some people because they are from a background you don't like (for whatever reason).

Having gotten the red herring about academic freedom out of the way, let's get back to the real issue: institutional autonomy. I want to pose this question: What is sacrosanct about institutional autonomy? Sure, it's a good thing to have, defend, protect and celebrate. But, can it demand absolute immunity from intervention from a stake-holder? No way! After all, the wisdom of the 'institutional crowds' could be 'wrong', no? Want an example of the 'wrong' kind of wisdom? Let's listen to Kenneth Arrow, a Stanford economist and Nobel winner [link to the interview via Tyler Cowen].

... [There] was a concern at one time that there would be repression of the left. And now there are concerns that the left is taking over. It’s hard for me to judge, of course, but I must say that my department contains a number of Republicans. And they were appointed by a democratic group, whose members said these guys are good, and we’ve got to hire them. And so far, I have not seen it work the other way, but I’m a little concerned about where it could swing. In this case, the criticism seems to be just wrong, because I think the departments hire on the basis of merit. And I think it’s nonsense to say that we’re discriminating against Republicans. We hire them all the time. On the other hand, there was a department here that until the 1960s would not appoint a Jew. And, finally, the university did interfere, you see, in that case. The dean took over the department. He took away the power to appoint from the department and changed its composition in three or four years. In fact, I was amazed how rapidly he was able to turn things around to strengthen an already very good department. To defend the autonomy of that department would not have been something I would have been very happy to do. [bold emphasis added]

Note that in the first part of the quote above, academic freedom -- in the sense of one's ideological inclination -- is the issue, while the second part is largely about institutional -- or, departmental -- autonomy.

Now, there is also another circumstance -- the default, really -- when a stake-holder might be justified in interfering in an institution's affairs. This is best illustrated in the following quote from an article by Paul Root Wolpe (a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania) in the journal Cell (since the article requires subscription, I suggest you read this commentary by Janet Stemwedel; I took the quote from her post). In his article, Wolpe warns that "the scientist who opts out of thinking about ethics is taking a risk":

Science has become one of the most powerful and pervasive forces for change in modern society. As the professionals at its helm, scientists have a unique responsibility to shepherd that change with careful ethical scrutiny of their own behavior and thoughtful advocacy of scientific research. If scientists find reasons not to do so, the public will find ways to do it for them, and the results may not always be in the best interests of science or society. [bold emphasis added]

Though this quote is about ethics in science, it's clear something similar has happened with quotas. Our institutions always had the autonomy to design inclusive admission policies that bring in more students from disadvantaged groups; but, they never exercised their autonomy (except for some honorable exceptions such as JNU), vacating the social justice space to be filled by the others -- most notably, politicians. These institutions have only themselves to blame for their current plight.

Even at such a late stage, have our institutions come forward with an original plan to make themselves more inclusive? Have they offered to take another look at their exam-centric admission policies? Or, havet they lent their support to existing plans such as those by Purushottam Agrawal or by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande? Either individually, or collectively, why aren't our institutions participating in the on-going debate, offering their (possibly better) proposals? Isn't their collective silence deafening?

On the other hand, consider what the quota policy does to a place like JNU. It is being asked to replace its fine-tuned AA policies with a far less nuanced and a demonstrably inferior one chosen by the government. This, to me, is the real tragedy.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Rashmi Bansal's advice on the choice of institution to study in: an IIT or a non-IIT

Update(28 June 2006): Second part of this two-part series is here.

Rashmi Bansal has a Rediff piece addressing the question of which institution one should choose to study in: an IIT or a non-IIT? Under what circumstances is the latter choice actually 'better'? Here's how she sets up the problem:

... Clearing the JEE is a 'dream come true' for any engineering aspirant in India. But, once the initial euphoria fades, reality bites. Clearing is good, but topping is better. Without a good rank, you will never get the branch of your 'choice.'

And what are the branches the heart most desires? Computer Science, Electronics, Telecom, Electrical Engineering. The ones with the most 'scope'.

The mind says it's the branch of study that matters -- so, if you're getting admission into another excellent college, take it. But the heart desires the IIT chhaap.

Rashmi then analyzes the reasons for why one should choose a second tier institution under some circumstances (you love subject X, but your JEE rank does not allow you to study X), and goes on to rebut some of the objections to this view. I would endorse Rashmi's advice that if it is a particular field of study that you are after, why, you should pursue it in the best college that would admit you into that program. But, but ...

  • How many 17 year olds are sure about the field that they want to pursue? If at all they have such an intense interest in a field, I would bet that for a large number of them, it is one of the sciences!
  • How many 17 year olds can withstand the pressure (to choose an IIT) from their peers and their parents?

Since the most probable answer to each is "perhaps a few", I guess none of the 'lesser' disciplines in the IITs need to worry about students shunning them en masse.

* * *

Two (further) comments. First, remember the thought experiement about a similar question we conducted sometime ago? And its results? Well, Rashmi's prescription would, on the face of it, be opposed to the preferences expressed by many commenters and me. However, there's a crucial difference. In our little experiment, choice of field was not the main consideration; one's future academic performance was. So, the results (and the prescriptions that flow from them) are not all that contradictory.

The second comment is related to the following two quotes used by Rashmi in her article:

Sumit Sharan, an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus, advises low rankers to be 'intelligent' in their choice of branch at IIT. "I would recommend the person goes for a branch like Maths & Computing (it's a five year MSc course offered at IIT-Kharagpur) instead of Civil, Metallurgy, Mining in present times.

My son's rank in IIT --- JEE is 2288 and therefore he can opt for branches like Civil, Metallurgy, etc. Under such situation will it be a better choice to go in for Computer Sc from some other college?

As someone who studied metallurgy, I just went "Ouch!", and "Ouch!"

Women faculty at Harvard

A year after Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, promised a major effort to make the faculty more diverse amid a controversy about his remarks about women in science, a university report released yesterday indicated that most of the work remained to be done.

Women represent considerably less than half of the faculty in all but one of Harvard's schools, and while the number of women in tenure-track positions grew slightly from the last academic year to the current one, women still make up a small fraction of the university's tenured professors.


In the natural sciences, 25 percent of the faculty on a tenure track were women in this academic year, the report found, compared with 22 percent a year ago. But among the tenured professors in natural sciences, only 8 percent were women.

The proportion of tenured faculty in natural sciences was lower than at some comparable universities, like Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the report said, while the proportion of tenure-track professors was similar.

Women represent a substantially larger proportion of the Harvard faculty in other departments and schools. At the Graduate School of Education, 80 percent of the faculty on a tenure track are women, as are 38 percent at the School of Public Health and 48 percent in the social sciences. But women make up a considerably smaller portion of the tenured faculty in these schools and disciplines. In the education school, 39 percent of the tenured professors are women. In the social sciences, 21 percent are women.

From this this NYTimes report from ten days ago. Harvard's official press release is here. Full text of the report (pdf) and an executive summary (pdf) are also available online.

* * *

Inside HigherEd, on the other hand, has a different take on the same report. It chooses to run with the childcare angle.

Child care in Boston isn’t exactly cheap, and child care at Harvard University isn’t exactly ideal.

In a survey last fall of 244 faculty members, child care was ranked as the “least effective” policy or practice at Harvard. As part of a push to make Harvard more family friendly and more appealing to female faculty members, Harvard announced Tuesday that it will expand its child care offerings and strengthen parental leave policies.

In praise of the Kerala model of development

Amrit Lal is doing the praising:

The buzz may be about Brand Buddha and Bengal. But a silent revolution has been taking place in another Left bastion. Burying fears about the sustainability of the state's development model, Kerala appears to have entered a phase where its achievements in social sectors are matched by sustained economic growth.

Since 1987-88, Kerala's economy has grown at a rate on a par with, or higher than the all-India average. The state's per capita net domestic product has been above the all-India average in the 1990s.

Industrial strength universities

First it was Anil Agarwal (of Sterlite Industries Vedanta Resources):

Vedanta Resources has submitted a proposal to the Orissa government to set up a world-class university in the state at an investment of $1 billion.

Anil Agarwal,executive chairman of Vedanta group, on Thursday met Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik and his team of officials at the state secretariat and made a presentation on the blue-print of the proposed university - pegged as a world class institution on the lines of Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities.

Agarwal said the autonomous university would start with 25,000 students and sought 5,000 acres of land near Chilka lake for the project.

A related report is here.

That was several months ago. Now, it's Mukesh Ambani's turn to propose setting up a mega university in Gujarat.

... Mukesh Ambani is planning to unleash another magnum opus. This time it will be a mega-university, which will produce 10,000 grads every year.

The one-of-its-kind ‘world-class’ university is proposed to be set up in the stretch between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar.

Sources said that Ambani senior is busy giving finishing touches to the project. A team of Reliance executives is expected to meet Gujarat education department officials on Friday to discuss the matter. [...]

Gujarat already has two private universities with UGC recognition, and both were started by industrial houses: Reliance and Nirma. These are the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information & Communication Technology and Nirma University of Science and Technology.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

10 years of ...

Slate and

There are quite a few articles that look at how the internet has affected the news (and magazine) business. These are noteworthy: Michael Kinsley, Patricia Sullivan and Jay Rosen.

This is bizarre

Via Crooked Timber: Here's the BBC report:

Up to 1,000 fans had to watch Friday's game against Ivory Coast in underpants after being denied entry because they were wearing the orange lederhosen. [bold emphasis is not in the original report]

Exam fraud: Yet another 'India vs. China' story

Read this from three months ago.

And, read this from three days ago.

AP High Court does the right thing

The Andhra Pradesh High Court on Wednesday quashed the State Government's order prohibiting the screening of The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown's best-selling novel. It also imposed costs on the Government for resorting to such "irresponsible" action.


Citing the protests lodged by Christians and Muslims, the Government banned the film. They held that the film's story attacked the basic tenets of the Holy Gospel. The Government contended that the film might hurt their religious sentiments and lead to law and order problems.

Rejecting these arguments, Mr. Justice Raghu Ram, in his 48-page judgment, said, "The Constitution does not confer or tolerate such individualised hyper-sensitive private censor intrusion into and regulation of guaranteed freedom of others."

Read about it in today's Hindu [link via Krish].

This is your brain on ...


Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix.

The "click" of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. ...

"While you're trying to understand a difficult theorem, it's not fun," said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"But once you get it, you just feel fabulous."

Like many new findings in psychology, this one too must somehow be grounded in evolution, right? So, what might be the evolutionary explanation for this 'Eureka fix'?

Biederman hypothesized that knowledge addiction has strong evolutionary value because mate selection correlates closely with perceived intelligence.

Mate selection. Of course. Now, that gave me a high!

* * *

While we are on 'Eureka!', I just wanted to link to Dilip's post on Archimedes, "who first showed the world that the thinkers could defeat the thugs."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nostalgia: Pittsburgh, Chi-Chi's and "virtual joint family" dinners ...

We desis in the Carnegie Mellon area, Pittsburgh, existed those days like one big monolith. A virtual joint family. Every desi did exactly what every other desi did. We all patronized Salim’s pita bread, had the same design on our Corelle plates and shaved off our sorry mustaches the same eventful week in spring. – and we began to flock to Chi-Chi’s like there was no tomorrow.

Chi-Chi’s was where Anurag ‘treated’ us for his summer internship and brought a closure to the whole issue. This was where Abhishek Bacchan (not his real name) first noticed how cute Aishwarya Rai (again, not the real name) looked and proceeded to romance her and marry her eventually. This was where Arti Gupta’s brother who came from out of town met with R. S. Srinivas’s friend, who had also come from out of town and discovered that their respective (desi) advisers were blood brothers.

What would start out as a romantic evening by a desi couple would evolve into a major social event, with the Squirrel Hill gang deciding to show up as well. We broke all kinds of records for the number of people in our party. When the waitress (who would be dressed like a bridesmaid in a society wedding) took our orders, we would go ‘tampico, tampico’ like a jury handing out its verdict. We consumed so many tampicos like they were going out of fashion. And finally, at the end of each session, Manohar Rao would use his abacus brains to crunch the numbers to the second decimal point and settled accounts then and there...

Well, well. That's from Ramesh Mahadevan, the most famous son of our 'virtual joint family' in Pittsburgh. He weaves a wonderful tale around our regular visits to the Chi-Chi's restaurants. Great stuff!

You can grab many other great articles by Ramesh -- a desi icon right from the (pre-internet) 'Soc.Culture.Indian' newsgroup era -- at his website.

Perils of being a professor in America

To learn about one of them, read this.


... These results show that caffeine can increase the extent to which people systematically process and are influenced by a persuasive communication.

That's from the abstract of the paper on the Effects of caffeine on persuasion and attitude change.

I learnt of this work through Cosma Shalizi's link-ful post, in which he uses the findings of the above study to speculate (jokingly, of course) about the possible connections between coffee-houses and Enlightenment and the 'rise of the public sphere'.

Still sticking with science ...

Rob Knop has a nice post on how simulations can never be "better" than experiments (er, in the sciences). For people like me whose professional work is centred on simulations of physical systems, this is a mantra that's worth repeating many times a day, just to keep our over-enthusiasm in check. While there are tons of neat (and advantageous) things about simulations (and many, many good reasons why simulations are important and worth doing), the meme that "simulations might (somehow) be 'better' than experiments" is not one of them.

My favourite quote about simulations:

No one gets wet in a simulated thunderstorm.
-- Cosma Shalizi

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why study physics?

Top ten reasons, compiled by Mark Trodden (of Cosmic Variance).

They have been chosen from a larger set of entries suggested by the readers in response to this post.

75 years of physics

The American Institute of Physics was founded in 1931, and Spencer Weart (Director of the Center for History of Physics at AIP in College Park, Maryland) looks back at the last 75 years to "guess where physics will be 75 years from now." What strikes us immediately in the section on the state of physics in 1931 is the youthful exuberance of it all:

Physicists had understood for two decades that atoms were composed of electrons and nuclei, but at that point they had gotten stuck. Now in 1931, Paul Dirac proposed that the electron has an antiparticle, what would come to be called the positron. This was a hint that particles come in families with positive, negative, and perhaps neutral members. Dirac was a year short of his 30th birthday. Younger still, at 26, was Caltech student Carl Anderson, just getting into the cosmic-ray studies that in 1932 would demonstrate the positron's existence.

All kinds of bizarre ideas about particles were in the air. Wolfgang Pauli, for example, was developing the neutrino hypothesis, although he wasn't quite ready to publish it. On the experimental side in 1931, Ernest Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley, completed a little prototype cyclotron that accelerated protons to 1 MeV on the way to higher energies that he hoped would break into the nucleus. He had just turned 30; so had Robert Van de Graaff, who was developing another type of particle accelerator.

The article mentions quite a few young ones who were already stars (or, were marked out for stardom): Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Eugene Wigner, Frederick Seitz. Which brings me to something that belongs in the annals of academic put-downs; this quote appears in a NYTimes review of books on Robert Oppenheimer:

American Prometheus does capture the world in which Oppenheimer established his credentials: thick with future Nobelists, bristling with innovation, cattily competitive. (As one of his fellow scholars remarked about another: “So young and already so unknown.”) [via]

Weart's article has this to say about the 'progress' in the training of physics graduate students:

Physics is not just an intellectual exercise, but also a community of people and their institutions. The first step we should look at in the physicist's career is education. The students of 1931, transported to a physics department of comparable size today, would find many familiar things in the setup of textbooks, courses, examinations, seminars, and thesis mentoring. For better or worse, graduate education in the 21st century retains most of the structures that originated in 19th-century Germany.

So, what is the largest sub-field of physics today? The honour goes to Condensed Matter Physics, with which my own field, Materials Science (and Engineering) has rather intimate connections:

Today the largest field in physics, encompassing more than a fifth of all the PhDs granted in the last decade and a still higher fraction of physicists' careers, is the study of "condensed matter." The term replaced "solid-state" in the 1960s following successes in the study of fluids. Since then, the rubric "materials science" has been added, pointing toward the proliferation of practical applications.

Weart then goes on to say how physics has become revitalized by growing tentacles that he calls hyphenated fields: astro-physics, geo-physics, bio-physics, medical physics, etc.

To me, the interesting part of the article is the one about the future. Weart hedges his bets by saying, "Historians will tell you that the one thing you can learn from history is that it's unpredictable. You can't project every linear trend forward." Then he offers his ideas on the way forward:

[Here] are at least two obvious paths forward. On the one hand, we are challenged by deep unknowns in the fundamental nature of matter. On the other hand, we can go much farther in straightforward understanding and manipulation of the immediate material world. On the first path, we can hope for strange insights into both fundamental particles and cosmology, with unforeseeable uses. On the other, we can hardly fail to find more wonders in the physics of condensed matter, and beyond in the realms of nanophysics and biophysics.

What about advances that we can't predict? In the past we have seen many unanticipated discoveries. And most of them—from lasers to dark matter, from medical physics to climate change—depended on new instrumentation (including computers) and extensive observational programs. Today's student should pay special attention to new developments in instrumentation and collaborative organization. We could try to predict what new instruments and programs may come along in the next couple of decades. Beyond that we can only be confident that they will keep coming, each building on what came before.

Weart covers a lot of ground, and as they say, you really ought to read the whole thing.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Daniel Gilbert on Father's Day

Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, has a blog in which he has been posting his newspaper and magazine articles. What is really nice about the blog is that he provides references to the research he cites in those articles. His posts are short and sweet, and they are on a topic that I have been keen on learning more about: Happiness.

His first post has his NYTimes op-ed on the kinds of tricks our minds play when we judge ourselves to be unbiased and others to be highly biased. [we linked to it here]

His second post is on choices (or, variety) and happiness. Money quote: "The secret of happiness is variety. But the secret of variety, like the secret of all spices, is knowing when to use it."

His post on "children and happiness" (published in Time) is interesting. Here's the thesis:

Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away. When the popular press invented a malady called "empty-nest syndrome," it failed to mention that its primary symptom is a marked increase in smiling.

Gilbert goes on to suggest ways of explaining this rather counter-intuitive (to me, at least) finding. This one -- his second explanation -- sounds the most plausible:

if the Red Sox and the Yankees were scoreless until Manny Ramirez hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, you can be sure that Boston fans would remember it as the best game of the season. Memories are dominated by their most powerful—and not their most typical—instances. Just as a glorious game-winning homer can erase our memory of 8 1/2 dull innings, the sublime moment when our 3-year-old looks up from the mess she is making with her mashed potatoes and says, "I wub you, Daddy," can erase eight hours of no, not yet, not now and stop asking. Children may not make us happy very often, but when they do, that happiness is both transcendent and amnesic.

You could also replace the baseball analogy with one to the current World Cup; while most of the games have been rather lacklustre (if not downright boring), we are likely to remember (probably fondly) this year's edition just because of THE GOAL.

Diversity in newsroom

After this and this from India, we have two interesting reports.

The first one is from the US (link via Pradeepkumar):

...[The] percentage of minorities working in newsrooms crept up from 13.42 to 13.87 percent.

Though newspapers are increasing their hiring and retention of minority journalists, newsroom diversity is falling behind the nation’s rapidly changing demographics. A third of the U.S. population is now minority, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

There's a lot of data available from the same organization; they can be accessed from this page.

The second is from the UK. Hasan Suroor writes in today's op-ed in the Hindu:

[Sutton Trust's] research, released last week, shows that a whopping 54 per cent of Britain's top newspaper and television journalists — editors, columnists, anchors, executives — were educated at expensive private schools, which cater for only seven per cent of all school-going children in the country. Thirty-three per cent came from grammar schools where admission is based on selection, and only 14 per cent from state-funded comprehensives that 90 per cent of the country's children attend.

Among the journalists who went to university, nearly half the top brass went to Oxford or Cambridge.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Preventing fraud in news reporting

Byron Calame, Public Editor at the NYTimes, has a column on the changes implemented in the Times' newsroom that would have nipped the Jason Blair scandal in the bud:

The first is a simple procedure with far-reaching impact: The standards editor conducts weekly random checks of articles containing anonymous sourcing to make sure that an editor knows the name of the source. Let's assume Mr. Blair had been forced to tell an editor the name of each anonymous source he relied on in a December 2002 article that listed evidence pointing to young Lee Malvo as the primary triggerman in the Washington sniper case. The random checks could have given the editors a much better chance to detect that two pieces of evidence didn't exist — as The Times noted in a subsequent correction.

Planning and funding India's infrastructure

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission and "the most prominent non-politician liberaliser in the government", gives his views in this Outlook interview:

From the point of view of the government, the critical issue, no doubt, is that of generating resources. Where is the money needed to create this higher level of infrastructure going to come from, FDI?

Resources can be raised in a number of ways. It can come in as foreign direct investment (FDI) or from domestic savings or even through market borrowings. The name of the game is not to focus on FDI but rather to create a policy framework that attracts investment. I do not have any sectoral targets of FDI for the country. If we have the right environment, all the domestic investment can get sucked into infrastructure, which will vacate space for foreign investments in other sectors. And if domestic investments go to other sectors, it will make space for FDI in infrastructure. Hence, we need two kinds of policies: the general policies that will make India an attractive destination for investment and another, more specific, one for infrastructure.

Wars ...

... of the Programming Language kind:

The remarkably wide range of programming languages would seem to offer something for everyone. We could celebrate diversity. We could let a thousand flowers bloom. What actually happens, more often, is that we launch a crusade to convert the infidels—or else exterminate them.

In 1975 Edsger W. Dijkstra, a major figure in the structured-programming movement, wrote a memo titled "How Do We Tell Truths that Might Hurt?" The "truths" were mostly Dijkstra's opinions of programming languages; how he told them was very bluntly. Fortran is "an infantile disorder," PL/I "a fatal disease," APL "a mistake, carried through to perfection." Students exposed to COBOL "are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration," he said. "The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offense." When the memo was published a few years later, defenders of COBOL and BASIC replied in kind, although none of them were quite able to match Dijkstra's acid rhetoric.

Handy tips for effective cheating

Alex Halavais offers some useful tips on cheating (via Savage Minds):

I would prefer that students don’t cheat. Yes, they really are mostly cheating themselves, so fine. But it also reflects poorly on the community. Rationally or not, what particularly irks me is that it is disrespectful: of me, of their fellow students, of the university, of the institution of learning, and of themselves. And—did I mention—of me? It is particularly irksome when their cheating implies (reminds?) that I am a fool.

So, to help students across the country cheat better, saving themselves both from easy detection and from incurring the wrath of insulted faculty, and leading to a much more harmonious school environment, I offer the following tips, based on recent experience.

Here's one of the tips:

7. Borrow from someone who writes as badly as you do.

Don’t do what one of my graduate students did, and steal a text on Korean feminism from someone who wrote slightly better English than he did. I’ll notice the slightly better writing, even before I notice that you have expressed no interest in or knowledge of feminist perspectives in the past. (Once kicked out of our program, he applied to the English department. No kidding.)

Over at Savage Minds (from where I got the link to Halavais' post), Oneman recounts this incident:

Last semester I had my crowning glory as a catcher of plagiarism. I’m reading this paper, and it’s so good, I’m stunned. I feel so proud; I’m actually thinking “wow, this student gets me!” At the risk of sounding immodest, the paper was so good and so spot-on about what anthropology is all about that it was like I had written it myself.

Of course I had written it myself—it came straight off of my Intro website. Not only was it plagiarism, but a violation of my Creative Commons “Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike” license—no attribution!

A different kind of overdose

An anonymous commenter chides me (here) for the "overdose of merit and reservations" on this blog. So, let me see if I can spend one full day without blogging about these issues. Let me start with a bunch of links to discussions of human sexuality by academics.

Mind Hacks:

The study found that erotic images differently activated the mid part of the female prefrontal cortex (the red area in the image on the left) when compared to other images, within 185ms. Interestingly, this was regardless of how arousing or emotionally strong the images were.

185ms is an incredibly short time for the brain to differentiate between image types, and is almost certainly an automatic response. The prefrontal cortex is known to be involved in attention, and the authors suggest this activity reflects a vigiliance for socially relevant visual scenes.

Pure Pedantry links to a study that found:

The results of the study are striking. As the women were stimulated, activity rose in one sensory part of the brain, called the primary somatosensory cortex, but fell in the amygdala and hippocampus, areas involved in alertness and anxiety. During orgasm, activity fell in many more areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, compared with the resting state [...]

Cognitive Daily, inspired by the movie Bride and Prejudice, goes hunting for comparative studies:

Since arranged marriages and the values that surround them are still common in Korea, Jungsik Kim and Elaine Hatfield decided to survey American and Korean students about their attitudes about these two types of love and their relative levels of happiness. Like love, happiness can be divided into two types: life satisfaction (long-term), and positive emotions (short-term). [...]

And, finally, on this Father's day, Tyler Cowen re-posts an earlier post (by the Marginal Revolution guest blogger Robin Hanson) on "why many women prefer to be courted by cads" [as opposed to dads], a topic that brings out, in the comments section, all kinds of 'theories' to explain this 'phenomenon':

A standard story says that women like cads for short term relationships, to get good sex (i.e., genes), and dads for long term relationships, to get security and comfort (i.e., resources to raise kids). Of course some men are good in both roles, but most men are thought to be better at one role than the other.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Veerappa Moily, the management guru

Though you maintain that the task ahead is possible, you concede that it is onerous. What are the greatest hurdles?

Mindset. We refuse to think out of the box. Revolutionary thinking will have to be introduced. Nothing is impossible in these days of technology. Once the mindset is liberated, we will be on our way.

Six management cliches in just a few lines; it just can't get better than this! Do read this interview of M. Veerappa Moily, Chairman of the Oversight Committee for implementation of 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in central educational institutions.

He mouthed "knowledge society" eight times in that interview; the politician in him made his presence felt through the use of the word "inclusive" -- twice.

Not in our backyard, and not now

A group called PanIIT Alumni Association, claiming to represent "approximately 150,000 alumni of the seven IITs worldwide", has written a letter to the President of India and the Prime Minister (among others) about the proposed OBC quotas. After the preamble, the letter states the following right at the outset:

The PanIIT alumni organizations, are strongly supportive of affirmative action and creating equal opportunity for all. [...]

After making this refreshing admission of its support for affirmative action, the group goes on to pour bucket-fuls of cold water on the OBC quota proposal. In the second part of the letter, it restates its commitment:

The PanIIT Alumni association is united in its commitment to the need to work with underprivileged groups. We will bring the resources of our association to work with the government to help implement programs that achieve the goals of social reform.

The group follows this up with some of its ideas about how "the goals of social reform" can be achieved. What are these ideas?

a. Increased access to primary and secondary education in backward areas: This action will create opportunities for people from all classes from backward areas to be better prepared for the Joint Entrance Examination to the IITs. Such focused schools may adopt a process for identifying �gifted and talented� students for special education, and consider having them participate in summer programs at IITs.

b. Creation of institutions similar to the IITs but focused on vocational education, and highly-skilled workers: We see a big gap between the IITs and India�s ability to produce good technicians. We recommend the creation of institutions similar to the IITs but focused on vocational education, and highly skilled workers. As India encourages the growth of the manufacturing sector, we believe the demand for such services will greatly increase and, thus, offer new economic opportunities.

c. Implementing programs at IITs for regular and after-hours classes: Post- graduate students should be encouraged thru Teaching Fellowships to teach tutorial classes and after�hours programs that are designed for SC/ST/OBC students who are competent but unable to compete effectively in the JEE. Distance learning classes using Edusat and the internet should be adopted for offering preparatory tutorials to enable such students become fully capable to compete in JEE.

d. All course work from the IITs should be made available for free on the Internet: Such a program would give unrestricted access to all individuals who want to follow the daily classroom lectures at the IITs, greatly expanding the reach of the existing facilities. Students who follow this program may be able to supplement their Internet-based education through private or public institutions leading to an Associates Degree, recognized by the IITs.

Well, there you have it. That's the PanIIT Alumni Association's agenda for social reform.

* * *

I want to restrict myself to just three comments.

First, if you read the letter, you will realize that the group's grouse (I don't think all the IIT alumni share this group's views, notwithstanding its grand claim that it represents "approximately 150,000 alumni of the seven IITs worldwide") is not just with the proposed OBC quotas; not-so-well-hidden in the letter is the message that the group is against all quotas -- including the existing SC/ST quotas.

Second, the group continues to swear by the sanctity of the Joint Entrance Examination. Remember, this is an exam that "getting increasingly closer to the syllabus of science graduate programmes, making aspirants more and more dependent on coaching classes", and hence has an in-built bias against the poor and rural students (more on this in an earlier post). Finally, this is an exam that's so exquisitely designed that it manages to bring in a nearly all-male student body (in spite of the fact that women do about as well as men in their high school exams). Clearly, PanIIT AA doesn't believe that JEE might need to be re-jigged, or that IITs need a re-examine their JEE-centric admissions policy.

Finally, just read PanIIT AA's second idea ("Creation of institutions similar to the IITs but focused on vocational education, and highly-skilled workers"). It's one thing to propose such an idea in the broader context of education reforms in India; but, it's an entirely different thing -- with seriously nasty connotations -- when this proposal is made as one of the alternatives to quotas for OBCs.

Cash incentives for academic publications?

Nature, a leading science journal, doesn't like the idea [link via Pradeepkumar]. The immediate provocation is the plan by South Korea to introduce such awards. Here's the relevant quote from its editorial:

But there are some powerful arguments against the widespread adoption of the practice. Cash bonuses tied to specific publications are likely to exacerbate corrupting tendencies in the scientific community. Debates over who should be included on author lists, and who should be the first author and the corresponding author, will surely get even more vicious when a chunk of money is on the line. A scientist struggling to meet a mortgage payment might be more willing to forgo a potentially fantastic result for a quick cash-earner. And a researcher measuring science in terms of dollars might even be more tempted to plagiarize or fabricate data.

All this is quite sensible; but, it's important to keep in mind that publications in high impact journals lead to many other rewards: better chance of funding for your future projects, awards and recognition (some of which come with cash prizes), and early promotion (with its built-in cash incentive). Thus, an explicit award for each publication just happens to extend this trend (which, by the way, is quite common in industry, where cash incentives are given for patents, and sometimes, also for papers). So, I don't see any great reason to get worked up about it; I mean, I don't see any important principle at stake here.

I want to highlight something else in the editorial. This sentence (which appears just after the above quote) betrays a shady motive:

In countries recently damaged by high-profile cases of scientific corruption, where it is all the more essential to develop a culture of integrity, the award of large sums of money for high-impact publications is even less desirable.

This is an ugly, gratuitous attack on the integrity of thousands of sincere and honest scientists in South Korea. We must remember that the Hwang Woo Suk scandal was unearthed by an army of junior researchers in South Korea itself; they don't need this sanctimonious lecture about integrity from the editorial high offices of Nature which, together with its high impact counterparts elsewhere, should be examining their own not-so-stellar role in such scandals.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Unshackle the higher ed system

The Indian education system is one of the most tightly controlled in the world. The government regulates who you can teach, what you can teach them and what you can charge them. It also has huge regulatory bottlenecks. There are considerable entry barriers: Universities can be set up only through acts of legislation, approval procedures for starting new courses are cumbersome, syllabi revision is slow, and accreditation systems are extremely weak and arbitrary. The regulators permit relatively little autonomy for institutions and variation amongst them.

Over-regulation has produced the crisis of higher education that is the context of the current agitation. The shortage of quality institutions is a product of India’s regulatory structures. Increased public investment that the government has promised is absolutely necessary to increase access. But this investment will not yield much if India’s regulatory regime remains rigid.

From this YaleGlobal article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

I sincerly wish Mehta hadn't pushed the National Knowledge Commission into taking a stand on the quota issue. It's a pity that, in the ugly aftermath, he has had to resign his Membership of the NKC; his excellent ideas on how to design and implement a superior higher ed system in India could have formed the right framework for the Commission to build on.

Lani Guinier on Meritocracy

In this inteview by Rebecca Parrish, Prof. Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School talks about her new book (to be published in 2007) titled Meritocracy Inc.: How Wealth Became Merit, Class Became Race, and College Education Became a Gift from the Poor to the Rich. Here's the opening salvo:

Rebecca Parrish: What is meritocracy? What is the difference between the conventional understanding and the way you are using the term in Meritocracy, Inc.?

Lani Guinier: The conventional understanding of meritocracy is that it is a system for awarding or allocating scarce resources to those who most deserve them. The idea behind meritocracy is that people should achieve status or realize the promise of upward mobility based on their individual talent or individual effort. It is conceived as a repudiation of systems like aristocracy where individuals inherit their social status.

I am arguing that many of the criteria we associate with individual talent and effort do not measure the individual in isolation but rather parallel the phenomena associated with aristocracy; what we're calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual's social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry. So, although the system we call "meritocracy" is presumed to be more democratic and egalitarian than aristocracy, it is in fact reproducing that which it was intended to dislodge.

Michael Young, a British sociologist, created the term in 1958 when he wrote a science fiction novel called The Rise of Meritocracy. The book was a satire in which he depicted a society where people in power could legitimate their status using "merit" as the justificatory terminology and in which others could be determined not simply to have been poor or left out but to be deservingly disenfranchised.

Here are two   profiles of Prof. Guinier. The Wikipedia entry is here. An incomplete list of her publications can be found here.

Amartya Sen: Merit and the Good Society

The idea of meritocracy may have many virtues, but clarity is not one of them. The lack of clarity may relate to the fact, as I shall presently argue, that the concept of "merit" is deeply contingent on our views of a good society. Indeed, the notion of merit is fundamentally derivative, and thus cannot but be qualified and contingent. There is some elementary tension between (1) the inclination to see merit in fixed and absolute terms, and (2) the ultimately instrumental character of merit--its dependence on the concept of "the good" in the relevant society.

This basic contrast is made more intense by the tendency, in practice, to characterize "merit" in inflexible forms reflecting values and priorities of the past, often in sharp conflict with conceptions that would be needed for seeing merit in the context of contemporary objectives and concerns. Some of the major difficulties with "meritocracy" arise, I would argue, from this internal conflict within the concept of "merit" itself.

From Amartya Sen's paper on Merit and Justice, published in Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, edited by Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles, and Steven Durlauf (Princeton University Press, 1999). [Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the pointer].

Here's the central thesis:

[The] practice of rewarding good (or right) deeds for their incentive effects cannot but be an integral part of any well-functioning society. No matter what we think of the demands of "meritocracy" as it is usually defined, we can scarcely dispense with incentive systems altogether. The art of developing an incentive system lies in delineating the content of merit in such a way that it helps to generate valued consequences. [...]

The derivative character of merit leads us to the central question as to what the "valued consequences" are and how the success and failure of a society are to be judged. Once an instrumental view of merit is accepted, there is no escape from the contingent nature of its content, related to the characterization of a good--or an acceptable--society and the criteria in terms of which assessments are to be made.

Towards the end of the paper, Sen gets to what he calls "substantial departures" from this view of 'merit', and they are quite interesting:

  1. Personification and genetics: In the incentive approach to merit, it is characteristic of actions, not of people as such. But conventional notions of "meritocracy" often attach the label of merit to people rather than actions. A person with standardly recognized "talents" (even something as nebulous as "intelligence") can, then, be seen as a meritorious person even if he or she were not to use the "talents" to perform acts with good consequences or laudable propriety. This "personal quality" of merits sometimes gets invoked even in a largely incentive-oriented system of economic reasoning, with which the "personal quality" view is basically in conflict. [...]
  2. Deserts and entitlement: An incentive argument is entirely "instrumental" and does not lead to any notion of intrinsic "desert." If paying a person more induces him or her to produce more desirable results, then an incentive argument may exist for that person's pay being greater. This is an instrumental and contingent justification (related to results)--it does not assert that the person intrinsically "deserves" to get more. To return to an illustration used earlier, an incentive argument may well exist even for paying a blackmailer some money to induce him or her to hand over some compromising material, but that incentive argument is not the same as accepting that the blackmailer "deserves" to get that money because of the blackmailer's intrinsic virtue.

    In a meritocratic system, however, this distinction gets blurred, and the established and fixed nature of the system of rewards may generate the implicit--sometimes even explicit--belief that the rewards are "owed" by the society to the meritorious persons. [...]
  3. Distribution independence: A system of rewarding of merits may well generate inequalities of well-being and of other advantages. But, as was argued earlier, much would depend on the nature of the consequences that are sought, on the basis of which merits are to be characterized. If the results desired have a strong distributive component, with a preference for equality, then in assessing merits (through judging the generated results, including its distributive aspects), concerns about distribution and inequality would enter the evaluation. [...]

I have posted this link over at How the Other Half Lives. Comments are welcome there.

Varavara Rao: "You are lucky, you are meritorious"

Via Amit Kumar Singh (see his comment on this post), we have the link to Varavara Rao's poem titled Déjà vu from 1990. Here are a few stanzas from near the end of this poem:

The corpse of your merit
Parades through the main streets
Has its funeral in `chourastas�
Amidst chanting of holy `mantras�

But Merit has no death
You creatively conduct symbolic procession
And enact the mourning `prahasan�
In us
To die or to be killed
There is no merit

We die
With hunger, or disease,
Doing hard labor, or committing crime,
In lock up or encounter
(Meritorious will not agree inequality is violence)

We will be thrown
By a roadside;
In a filthy pit;
On a dust heap;
In a dark forest

We will turn ash
Without a trace
We will `miss�
From a hill or a hole

Our births and deaths
Except for census statistics,
What use they have
For the national progress?

We take birth
And perish in death
In and due to
Miserable poverty
You assume the `Avatar�
When Dharma is in danger
And renounce the role
After completing the job
You are the `sutradhar�

You are lucky
You are meritorious.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

News from Harvard

There is quite a bit this week.

First, we have Larry Summers' last Commencement Address as Harvard's President:

Our world is bursting with knowledge - but desperately in need of wisdom. Now, when sound bites are getting shorter, when instant messages crowd out essays, and when individual lives grow more frenzied, college graduates capable of deep reflection are what our world needs.

For all these reasons I believed - and I believe even more strongly today - in the unique and irreplaceable mission of universities.

Universities are where the wisdom we cannot afford to lose is preserved from generation to generation. Among all human institutions, universities can look beyond present norms to future possibilities, can look through current considerations to emergent opportunities.

And among universities, Harvard stands out. With its great tradition, its iconic reputation, its remarkable network of 300,000 alumni, its unmatched capacity to attract brilliant students and faculty, its scope for physical expansion in Allston and its formidable financial resources, Harvard has never had as much potential as it does now. Thanks to your generosity and the endowment's strong performance, our resources have increased in just the last three years by nearly seven billion dollars. This is more than the total endowment of all but four other universities in the world.

And yet, great and proud institutions, like great and proud nations at their peak, must surmount a very real risk: that the very strength of their traditions will lead to caution, to an inward focus on prerogative and to a complacency that lets the world pass them by.

And so I say to you that our University today is at an inflection point in its history. At such a moment, there is temptation to elevate comfort and consensus over progress and clear direction, but this would be a mistake. The University's matchless resources - human, physical, financial - demand that we seize this moment with vision and boldness. To do otherwise would be a lost opportunity, not only for Harvard but also for humanity. We can spur great deeds that history will mark decades and even centuries from now. If Harvard can find the courage to change itself, it can change the world.

This week's edition of the Harvard Crimson has all kinds of interesting stuff on Commencement'06. Do take a look. Its report on the Summers speech is here; its editorial about Summers' legacy is here.

The Crimson also has special sections devoted to the Class of '56 and the Class of '81 which feature profiles of some of the graduates from these classes. At least two names were familiar to me: Kenneth G. Wilson (Nobel laureate in Physics, 1981) and Susan Faludi (Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and feminist).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Google presents

The complete plays of Shakespeare.

Link via Google Blog, which also provides a link to the blog of the Google Book Search team, whose post on Shakespeare plays is titled:

No Holds Bard

V. Sanil: What is called "Merit"?

In the second installment (the first one is here), Prof. V. Sanil (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Delhi) explores the notion of 'merit'. He informs me that this article too was a result of e-mail discussions with his students and friends.

I am publishing it in full with Sanil's permission. Comments are welcome.

* * *

What is called "Merit"?

Whenever my students bag plum jobs or win cricket matches or top in quiz contests I join in their celebration, by wishing and congratulating them, and on rare occasions, treating them to coffee or ice cream. They have won awards, accolades, recognition from all over the world. While feeling proud of my students and sharing their excitement and enthusiasm, I never realized that I was committing myself to the myth and metaphysics of “merit”. I thought they earned their victory through hard work, imagination and commitment. I did not know that the real secret behind their victory was something twitching within their brain called merit. I did not know that every time they passed a test or won a competition, they were expressing their inherent merit, which not only made them win now, but made them the default winners of all future competitions and tests.

Today, I find merit is a matter of contention in the ongoing debate on reservation. Some say merit and merit alone be the criterion for admission to any office. Not many have the audacity to claim, at least in public, that the upper castes are inherently meritorious. They claim that fact that the concentration of merit lies in the upper caste is a matter of chance. The opponents too accept that in the final count it is merit that matters. Their problem is with the concentration of merit within the upper caste. They hold that it is not a matter of chance but the work of systematic exclusion of lower castes over a long period in history, which has led to this concentration. Therefore, since the upper caste skew towards merit is a human creation, it should be undone by human intervention. Reservation is seen to be one such intervention. The sympathizers of this position want a level playing field before the merit game starts. Some radicals may hold that the contemporary standards of merit are based on upper-caste activities like engineering and medicine, and the purpose of the intervention should be to extend the scope of merit to include activities such as sweeping, shaving and tribal art. In sum, all agree that merit is what matters. The debate is about location and the criteria.

It is time we question this consensus on merit. Does merit matter in modern society and institutions? Is merit an adequate concept to understand creativity in modern practices? Does the rejection of merit as myth lead to inefficacy and the celebration of mediocrity? My answer to all questions is the same. No.

Let us begin with the most popular definition of merit. Merit refers to an innate ability to undertake and excel in certain activities, jobs etc. Merit is not a descriptive term. It is also evaluative. Merit demands or commands recognition and rewards. Had merit been a god-given or inborn ability, why should we reward the person who happens to posses it? We respect a person only if he has put in his own efforts to develop and cultivate his inborn abilities. Whether he is born with meritorious qualities or not, it is through his own efforts that he can become a legitimate owner of his merit and worthy of recognition and reward. Here we see merit more as a matter of nurture and less of nature.

Nurturing inborn abilities takes place in society. Hence social factors enter into our definition of merit. The conditions under which this nurturing takes place become crucial for the evaluation of merit. Merit becomes worthy of recognition only of it is nurtured under legitimate conditions. What do we mean by legitimate condition? It is one in which everyone has equal opportunity to develop their inherent abilities. We need a level playing field for cultivating our merit. It is in a society that values equal opportunity that merit becomes worthy of respect. This is where merit meets the claims of social justice. Some emphasize social justice and make it a necessary condition for the identification of merit. Some emphasize merit and claim that possessing and developing in born abilities have primacy over any consideration of the conditions under which such nurturing takes place. Non-interference in the way meritorious people exercise their merit itself is the only criterion for justice. This sets the ground for the merit vs social justice debate.

In my opinion, the best way to solve this merit vs justice issue is to dissolve or de-center the very idea of merit. The question of justice has to meet many challenges. Merit is not one among them. Merit is de-centered not by claims of justice but by the changing conditions of creativity.

There are some inherent difficulties in conceptualizing merit. If merit is an inherent ability then it must be an ability for something. According to this definition JEE selects those who have an ability for engineering. AIIMS entrance test tests your ability to pursue the medical profession. This move to define merit with reference to specific practices has some inherent problems. We can ascribe an ability to do something to a person only if that person is already involved in that activity. At least he should have an active and sincere interest in that activity. Ability for engineering means the ability to do good engineering. Such an ability is discernable only in someone who has a reasonably good idea about the rules, objectives and values governing the practice of engineering. It makes no sense to say that JEE tests the candidate’s ability to do engineering. We know that only a handful of them have any interest in engineering. The same must be true about the candidates selected in AIIMS too. Only a very few of the JEE winners want to take up hard core engineering jobs. Most of our students opt for IITs and AIIMS because they know that a degree from these institutions will ensure them a safe future. Had shoe- polishing or shaving ensured them money and security they would have opted for them. The same entrance tests would have measured their inherent ability to perform these tasks too! A few decades ago, no one could dream of associating merit with an activity such as “managing a hotel”!

One might argue that we can think of inherent abilities without necessarily relating them to any specific activity like engineering or medicine. These are abilities that are needed for excelling in any activity, whatsoever. Logical ability, analytical ability, ability to recognize patterns and memory could be candidates for such abilities. But what is analytical ability if it is shared by an engineer, doctor, artist, cobbler and a panwallah? It could only be something which is as general and universal as human rationality or human linguistic competence. Rationality and linguistic ability are species-level achievements. It makes no sense to see them as merits of individuals. We cannot measure the excellence of a mathematician by referring to some basic logical ability all human beings possess. We cannot understand the magic of a dancer by referring to the human ability to stand erect. So merit, if defined without reference to any specific activity, becomes empty and formal. It might still serve some descriptive function. But it cannot explain why we respect and admire the meritorious.

Some are ready to give some minimal content to merit. Logical ability could be made to mean the ability to crack typical logical puzzles. This tautology is well understood and put to practice by the JEE coaching institutes. They have figured out that JEE measures only the ability to crack JEE! If you practice solving a lot of typical JEE question papers and you can pick up the ability to crack their possible variations. This makes a travesty of the concept of merit.

Entrance tests do indicate some positive qualities. They can give us a good idea about qualities like motivation, preparedness for hard work and concentration, which are important for learning anything at all. However, these qualities do not yield precise quantitative grading. We can safely assume that those who make it to the first 40 percent of the JEE list rate very high on the above qualities. Even if you make the final list by taking a lottery from the first 40 percent, we would not miss out much on the “merit” count.

It is legitimate to specify certain prerequisites for any course. These prerequisites are pieces of knowledge and not abilities. The criteria for such prerequisites are negotiable according to the resources and capabilities of the institution. Some institutions make proficiency in English a prerequisite. Some may admit students ignoring this criterion and provide them with good language courses as part of the curriculum.

Let me summarize. If merit is defined in relation to the ability to perform specific practices it is clear that entrance tests do not measure it. If merit is defined in abstraction from concrete practices it eventually coincides with universal abilities which do not call for any special mention. The only option left is to trivialize the concept by defining it as the ability to solve typical entrance test questions. Hence merit is an incoherent and ill formed concept.

Merit is rendered redundant not through logical arguments but through concrete historical changes in the nature of creativity. Creative accomplishment in modern complex industrial societies cannot be understood in terms of the inherent abilities or merits of the agents. In a traditional society a carpenter’s son becomes a carpenter and a blacksmith’s son becomes a blacksmith. Birth was the entry ticket to a profession. Once you enter with this birth ticket you can strive for excellence. Here merit is not a criterion for entry into a practice. Once you enter through a non merit, hereditary list you can strive for merit within the ongoing conduct of the practice. We all know that modernity and industrialisation changed this birth-based entry. All professions were opened to all. However, it is very important to understand the exact nature of this change.

The idea of merit has its root in a popular misunderstanding of this change. According to this popular version industrialsation replaced the criterion of birth with that of merit. A carpenter’s son would have no privilege in getting a seat in a furniture factory. Instead anyone who has the merit can get admission according to his place in the merit list. But this is not what really happened. Industralisation did not change one set of admission criteria with another. Instead it did away with all criteria for admission! It made it possible that any Tom Dick and Harry could get into any job whatsoever!

This democratization and universalisation of the mode of entry is balanced on the other end by a rationalization of the nature of work. Specific professions like carpentry, smithy, etc lost their inner coherence and distinctive existence. Traditional skill-based production which followed community specific rules and aimed at specific products had to undergo scientific analysis and planning. Work is analyzed and fragmented into some basic elements which can be re-assembled for the production of diverse goods and services. Industrialized society gives us better furniture and better shoes not because those goods are made by a new set of carpenters and cobblers who are more meritorious and skilled than the traditional hereditary ones, but because industrialisation has deskilled the worker. Workers perform some basic and repetitive and anonymous tasks which are integrated at various levels to produce toothpaste on one assembly line and toilet cleaning liquid on another. Thus, industrialisation, through the democratization of entry and rationalisation of work has made merit doubly redundant. This change happened not only on the factory floor but in the design room and the surgery theatre too.

Those who still believe in the myth of merit misunderstand the radical nature of industrial capitalism. They still hold on to a feudal conception of the nature of work. They cannot digest the revolutionary move made by capitalism to open the gates to each and everyone. They think capitalism was all about not restricting jobs to sons and daughters and opening them up to those who have the real ability to perform those tasks. They do not realize that the fundamental contribution of capitalism was in throwing the whole baby of “entry criteria” of all kinds out along with the bath water. The leaders of Indian industry do not believe in the liberating power of capitalism. They too believe that if birth is no longer the criterion for giving someone a job then something else should be there to replace it. Intelligent capitalists do not fall into this trap. Prof. Rahul Varman who teaches management at IIT Kanpur writes about his experience in a campus interview. He asked an IT boss who came to IIT for campus selection about what he looks for in the candidates. He replied that he can select anyone who has seen a computer keyboard! This man must be one of the rare Indian bosses who understand and trust the liberating power of capitalism.

Some critics of capitalism have doubted its ability to accomplish the democratization of the workforce on the one end and the rationalization of work on the other. They claim that these two moves lead to a conflict, inhibiting the growth of capitalism and leading to its eventual overthrow. Whether you believe in this doomsday prediction or not, freeing entry to jobs from any consideration of inherent ability will remain an irreversible achievement of industrial capitalism.

Rejection of merit in no way implies denigration of creativity. In the complex and highly networked modern industrial world creativity no loner resides in any individual’s head. It can be located and celebrated only at certain nodal points in this network. Anything called merit ticking in your neurons is not the enabling condition for anyone to participate in creative acts. This impossibility locating individual creativity has a challenging parallel in taking responsibility for mistakes. Does it make sense to pin point the individual who is responsible for Bhopal gas tragedy or the challenger mishap? It does not. This is not because of any deficiency in our investigation process. Here responsibility is not fixed as a response to the question “have I done anything wrong?” Instead, even before separating the right and wrong everyone, depending upon his or her institutional proximity to the site of mishap, voluntarily participate in taking collective responsibility. The old inquisitional model has no place in either fixing responsibility or ascribing creativity.

If this is correct why should there be entrance tests and job interviews? They are there as purely elimination procedures. Anyone who has seen a keyboard is eligible for a job in the IT industry. But no industry can provide jobs to all those who have seen a keyboard. So you need to eliminate some. You need a fair means for elimination. An entrance test or interview is one such fair means. However, it makes no commitment on the presence of certain qualities in those who are selected and their absence in those who are eliminated. The fairness of means of selection can be judged in terms of some standards which are internal to the selection procedure. For example, the same level of question papers should be given to everyone. No one is allowed to cheat. Everyone gets the same duration to answer a question. These standards too do not find their justification in some positive quality called merit which those who are selected through these tests allegedly possess.

So both the existence of selection tests and the criteria for their fair conduct can be explained without making any reference to merit. In fact these standards of fairness are conceivable only in a society which has done away with assertions of exclusivity – be it of birth or caste or merit. Hence merit is an imaginary construct posited by those who happen to get through a fair elimination procedure to demarcate themselves from those who are eliminated. They fantasize that they posses some positive quality or substance which justifies their selection. They cannot afford to admit that the justification of selection lies purely in the fairness of the selection procedure.

Here you may ask: if merit is a myth why do not we do away with tests and interviews and select people by drawing lottery? Why not? On many occasions lottery is a fair elimination procedure. Between two equal contestants we often select the winner through taking a lot. Why does tossing a coin become more justified as a means of elimination than say a fist fight? The admissibility of lottery as a just elimination procedure testifies to the fact that the essence of tests is pure and fair elimination. It declares that fair tests do not need any justification in terms of the presence of a positive quality. Imagine someone who is declared as winner through a lottery begins to think that he possesses something positive which made him eligible for that victory. Those who defend merit commit this mistake. If you insist on attributing a positive quality to a winner of lottery, call it luck!

You might have read a popular joke circulated by anti reservationists on the imposition of quota in Indian cricket team. From where does this joke derive its pseudo convincing power? What makes it such a vicious example? Isn’t it strange that the arguments on quota in work place get their most vicious example from the domain sports? In fact only sports can provide a pro-merit example because sports is one of the few areas of modern society where work is not yet rationalized. In an industrial society sports commands such popularity because it is one of the few avenues where we can still make a spectacle of an irrational and playful expenditure of human energy. Sports is a huge money-making business, but, unlike cinema or gambling, it has not declared itself as such.

Sports is increasingly under pressure to rationalize and industrialise itself. However, this pressure it is still an external one and sports has no inner motivation or intelligence to internalize this impetus. Frauds like match fixing are symptoms of this half hearted and incomplete commercialization of sports. Industry achieved progress because it underwent rationalisation and freed itself from feudal notions like merit due to its own inner normative demands. De-meriting has come to sports from the external pressure of bookies and advertisers and is killing its inner spirit. A rigged match, if presented properly by the media, can be more exciting and entertaining to the spectators than a genuine one. This fantasy of merit reaches the height of its perversion in American WWF wrestling. There everything – the contest, actions and spectator response – are faked for the media. Merit of the winner too is faked. This fate awaits all sports. I can see only two escape routs for sports. Either it can redefine the “merit” of players in terms of complex and abstract statistics, which is totally abstracted away from the living criteria of sports lovers (eg. Cricket). Or, sports can turn itself into an entertaining media spectacle – all sports going virtual into computer games, is a move in this direction. However, both these ways demand that we give up the notion that sports has anything to do with the pure expression of the inner abilities of the players!

Art has succeeded where sports failed. Cinema is perhaps the first art form which declared itself to be an industry. This does not mean that cinema is purely a money making business. It only means that it has reorganized and rationalised its production process along the lines of industry. Modern art too has totally done away with any reference to the skill and talent of the artist. Aesthetic appreciation makes no reference to the skill of the artist. This is testified by the popular criticism of modern art. Faced with a painting of Picasso or Hussain, many of us feel that they could very well be drawn by a four-year old child! This popular sentiment is totally justified. What makes it a great art work need not have anything to do with the skill involved in making it. Modern art has dethroned the author. A great artist Marcel Duchamp once took a toilet commode from a sanitary ware shop and exhibited it as a sculpture in the MOMA, New York. Jackson Pollack splashed paint on the canvas. All these crazy acts were made possible and respectable by the fact that in modern art, the skill or intentions of the artist have no place of privilege.

Unlike the cricket players, artists do not have, and perhaps can never have, a data-base for rating. Art has done away with all such merit lists. This is surprising. Common sense tells you that art, more than science or industry, is about inborn abilities – to produce pleasant sounds, to draw perfect pictures, to execute graceful movement etc. However it is art which has broken away from such inborn abilities. Modern music is not judged in terms of the pleasing sounds. Modern painting has nothing do with perfect shapes. Modern poetry is not an arrangement of apt words and metaphors. Children with those inborn abilities can be objects of curiosity and fun. However, such abilities have no role beyond child play.

So industry, art and most other walks of human activity have undergone rationalization and have done away with any substantive notions of merit. However our elite educational institutions – IITs, IIMs and AIIMS still live by the rhetoric of merit. Today we are told that the great threat the IITs are facing is the dilution of merit reservation could cause. However had we asked an IIT student or faculty a few days before this reservation phobia they would have given you a totally different account of the crisis of higher education. Such account would have focused mainly on what happens to these meritorious kids after they enter these institutions. They would have talked about how the coaching institutions have made any genuine expression of creative talent impossible, how students, once they enter, manipulate the system, how the competitive grading has killed ingenuity and pleasures of learning, how the cynical awareness that whatever they learn here is useless has led them to skip classes and focus more on future competitive exams and jobs. All this cynicism and self-criticism have been suddenly replaced by a self valorization of merit.

It is traumatic to live with an exalted self description based on merit on the one hand, and a cynical self awareness that merit does not mean anything on the other. Attempts to manage this contradiction has created many perversions in the academic life of these institutions. Ragging is one of the most widely known perversions of this kind. Relating ragging and merit might look a bit far-fetched. However, it is not. Ragging is prevalent only in elite institutions where new comers are admitted with great emphasis on merit. As we all know, ragging the practice of seniors welcoming newcomers through rituals of gratuitous violence and humiliation. Such acts of humiliation exists mainly in elite professional colleges and only derivatively and as a media driven excess in other colleges. Why should the newcomers who have just proved their merit be subjected to humiliation? Anthropology teaches us that such initiation ceremonies are often aimed at establishing social solidarity. In the elite institutions social solidarity between students is established around the rhetoric of merit. But the senior students who have been in the system for some time know that merit is a myth and majority in the system are just average or mediocre and the testimony of entrance examination results meant nothing. This truth has to be communicated to the newcomers without weakening the shrillness of the rhetoric of merit which sustains them. Ragging is an obscene way of sharing this truth about the lie of merit. It is an obscene wink of the eye exchanged between the seniors and juniors indicating the best kept secret of campus life. The juniors are taught how to construct this vacuous substance called merit, which despite its emptiness, can be used to create a hierarchy between them and the majority outside who could not clear the entrance tests. However, through the violent gestures of domination the seniors reproduce this hierarchy within the campus – between juniors and seniors. Both these hierarchies – between juniors and those who failed in entrance exam and between seniors and juniors are equally dubious but they support and reinforce each other. No wonder the senior who rags you most becomes your closest ally.

(“Five Point Someone”, a novel written by an ex-IITian Chetan Bhagat gives a precise insight into the trauma culture of our elite institutions. This novel shows that the best way to remain sane, humane and untraumatisd in these institutions is to pursue mediocrity voluntarily. Be cool, study for your passion for the subject, ignore arrogant faculty, take up not-so eye catching but creative projects and remain an average five pointer!! )

Let me summarise my argument. Merit is logically incoherent and empirically false and pragmatically useless. It is a fantasy created by those win tests in the hope of distinguishing themselves from those who got eliminated. Entrance tests are fair elimination tests and they do not need to find legitimacy in any such fantasy construction like merit. The persistence of the rhetoric of merit in the self description of students leads to previsions like ragging in the academic life of elite institutions. So merit is illusory and dangerous. All domains of modern industrialized capitalist democratic societies have freed themselves from the myth of the merit.

Even those who are patient with me so far might want to pose a question here: If merit is a myth why do we conduct exams and give grades? Why do we congratulate winners? Why do we recognize the accomplishment of others and motivate them for more accomplishments? You are right. I too think that exams and grades have a positive role. We must recognize the contribution and efforts of others. We must congratulate winners and join their celebrations. I want to be proud of my students and motivate them for higher achievements. But I do not think that I need to believe in merit to do any of these.

When we congratulate someone we are recognizing him as an exemplary instance of humanity and human achievement. By joining the celebration we are affirming our solidarity with his aims, values and dreams. We own him up as the best among us and there by elevate ourselves. When I congratulate a student for cracking a tough question I am not showing my admiration for his fully developed neurons. Nor am I telling him that he has inherited better genes compared to others. All that I am doing is to lift him as an exemplary model for other students and for himself and also for me as a teacher to follow. I am telling myself that I should come up with a more challenging question next time. I am telling the class that we expect similar fetes from all of them. Sometimes a student might miss a big opportunity because he scored just one or two marks less than another one. Such instances make any sincere teacher embarrassed and sad about his own evaluation. Instead of defending the objectivity of merit he would normally admit the relativity of grading and try to console the loser that it is just bad luck that he lost this time and assure him that he is equally good and he would get a better opportunity next time. This is the human context of all meaningful evolution. Teaching involves testing. However it should be motivating and inclusive and not eliminative and segregating.

In traditional societies, achievers recognized and celebrated by ascribing their success to god’s grace. To congratulate someone means to wish more and more of such grace to befall him. We can preserve something from this even if we remove its religious and deterministic aspects. This gives the winner his due but at the same time recognize the non-localizability and contingency of victory. In our secular societies celebration of achievement should be an occasion for affirming human solidarity, diversity and creativity. An incoherent and obsolete concept like merit cannot measure up to this challenge.

Exposing the concept of merit in no away implies that everything is hunky dory with the prevalent concept of social justice. The concept of justice has many challenges to meet. All that I tried to argue is that merit is not one among those challenges. It does not merit any serious attention. However, I do not believe the most impressive emancipatory struggles of our time are struggles for social justice. I doubt if justice can capture their ethical and experimental core. We can get into these issues about justice only after we free ourselves from dubious notions like merit.