Where’s the science, President ?

When I first started this blog with my friend about 2.5 years ago, it was with an intention to put forward our ideas about science and math. I remember the high school days when we used to discuss vague topics in science, often baffling people around us. Never do I recollect talking about politics though. This blog followed the same trend with scores of articles about astronomy, statistics, economics but hardly any political commentary.

But the extraordinary events going on in the name of the great 2016 American Election have made me sit up and take notice. Everyone of us has an opinion about Donald Trump. I am not here to do any general Trump bashing. Much of that is available on youtube and probably in a more entertaining manner than I might present things here. The angle which I want to cover here is the amazing disregard for science and math that this presidential race has shown.

I have been living in the U.S. for more than 3 years now. Many things have surprised me about this country, but one aspect that has been reinforced is the level of scientific progress here. Countless researchers are involved in working on ground breaking technologies and discoveries all over the country. U.S accounts for more than 30% of scientific publications in the world annually. Equally impressive is the staggering number of students assisting in the endeavor.

But judging from how the presidential campaign is going on, one would hardly think that science is even a subject taught in high school. Right from the primaries, the focus has been on immigration and economics. In the primary debates, the only scientific topic that came up was climate change. It is perhaps the most important concern facing humankind right now. But most of the candidates treated it how a child treats the last 2 problems of his/her homework; they just want to finish it off quickly so that they can go out and play with their buddies.

A look at Hilary Clinton’s webpage shows only a tiny section about climate change as a representative for science. Donald Trump’s page doesn’t even have a mention about it.The whole point of this election has become about two grownups coming close to retirement age squabbling like 10 year old kids over petty issues. Important topics like space exploration, new manufacturing techniques and renewable energy development have been left in the dark.  We can make the world a better place if we give greater impetus to these, but they are almost absent in the hate and blame rhetoric that has characterized this election.

My other big concern is about how numbers and statistics have been blatantly disregarded. Much of this blame has to fall on Trump. Trump has often sought to use his cult of personality to make statements which are blatant lies. One of the many examples of this is how he claims that U.S. unemployment is growing worse. He once claimed that U.S. employment stands at a grand total of 42%. For people who believe in him, that might set big alarm bells ringing. Upon closer examination, his numbers actually include anyone who doesn’t have full time 40hr employment, and that includes high school, college or graduate student, a stay-at-home parent, a job-training participant and even retired senior citizens ! Factor all that out and the harshest number that you can come up with is 16%. That is more than 2.5 times smaller than Trump’s claims. Facts should be the cornerstone of our social lives and if we get blinded by rousing emotions and charisma of the person in front of us, then it can paint a very wrong picture of our society.

Now you might think that a President has nothing to do with science. Let’s leave all that to the universities and industries, shall we ? Well, that’s way off the mark. Let me redirect your attention to Mohamed Nasheed, former president of Maldives, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean. Realizing that rising sea levels due to climate change could potentially sink his country, he launched a huge campaign to battle against climate change. He lobbied with leaders of countries far more powerful than Maldives to implement pro-climate measures. He also implemented policies to make Maldives a carbon-neutral nation by 2020. Today he is regarded as a climate change hero all over the world for his tenacity.

If any of the two candidates shows even a fraction of the regard for science as Nasheed showed, U.S could go a long way in helping solve not only the nation’s but the world’s problems, Instead of spreading communal hatred and mistrust, people need to be encouraged to believe in the power of reason and scientific truth. J.F.K’s words in 1961 about sending a man to the moon may have been driven by the cold war, but they revolutionized NASA and has led to a huge boost to space technology which is positively impacting lives all over the world. This once again shows what strong political will can achieve. As Carl Sagan once said, “The earth is but a pale blue dot”; Instead of wasting time on communal tensions, we can let science and math guide our way into a better future.

What is the purpose of society?

Ants are fascinating little creatures. You drop one little piece of food on the floor and in no time, a swarm of ants will be all over it. Follow their path and somewhere along the line, you will be treated to one of nature’s most interesting formations – an ant colony. This huge pile of earth is like the mirror image of the world that we humans inhabit.

The human society is an organization, much like an ant colony. It is a system that allows us to achieve certain things we otherwise couldn’t have achieved individually. Humans have lived in some sort of society for a long time now. A society serves many purposes. It has helped in hunting-gathering, protection from predators and as human culture evolved societies became more complex.

The main aim of any society is to create a better life for it’s inhabitants. Now better is a qualitative term, every individual’s definition differs. How then can society work towards making lives of its citizens better?

Nature’s great truth – Inequality

Civilization has evolved and throughout history, the structure of the society has existed on a spectrum from closed societies which are authoritative and stress on the “collective” on one extreme to open societies which believe in providing “individual freedom” to citizens or maximizing the utility of an individual on the other. We believe that open societies lead to more productive economies thus benefiting the whole world.

One of the major concerns in a society is the notion of inequality. Inequality is inherent in nature. We can be strong, we can be weak, we can be born rich or poor, we can ace the IQ tests or fail them. Inequality in abilities naturally leads to inequality in returns. But that is not the problem. For a society to exist, it is essential that performance and ability are rewarded. But what a society should aim for is not equality in returns, but equality in opportunities.

Be the creator, be the created

The acclaimed investor, Warren Buffet has a very interesting viewpoint on this issue. Lets see what he thinks:

Let’s say you are given the freedom to design a society structure for the whole world – yeah something like how Morgan Freeman gave the reins of the world into Jim Carrey’s hands in Bruce Almighty (note: you should watch the movie if you haven’t. It’s quite funny).

But there is a catch. You yourself lose your identity and have to pick a slip randomly from a bowl which has 7 billion slips each having the characteristic of a human from the current population. There it is. You could get any slip – A male or a female, A rich guy in America or maybe a poverty stricken person in Congo.

Now this changes things, doesn’t it ? How would you frame the rules of society knowing that you could end up being anyone ? You wanna excessively reward the highly skilled ? What if you turn out to be one of those who isn’t so good ?

So you want to design a society that gives everyone the opportunity to be able to succeed, not knowing what slip an individual gets. As you can guess, it is gonna be a very delicate balancing act. The boundaries of incentives for performance and security for the less-abled are blurred.

Open society

A society striving to move towards the open end of the spectrum, therefore must provide a safety net for the people at bottom, let the top take risk in such a manner that the result of their failure does not affect the general public. Look at the hedge fund industry for example. No player is too big to fail. The industry gains from failure as only the top performers stay in business and are allowed to take risk. The failure of several others does not affect the whole industry like the failure of big investment banks on wall street affected the whole global financial system leading to anger in general public about inequality between the rich and the poor. The middle should be left as it is because they more or less have the same opportunities as anyone in America.

Now the American system may have its faults but it has worked fairly well for many people for centuries.The current political scenario may not be the most efficient in years, but that is where team-work and reconsidering incentives becomes essential.

To create a system that works for everyone, policymakers must put aside their divisive party issues although such games increase their popularity with certain factions of society. Everybody wants different things. Therefore you can lump people in groups, in terms of demographics, race, religion, geography, etc. and appeal to their common issue. But one group’s issue of interest may be radically opposed to another group’s opinions. How does a politician then resolve this conflict of interest so that the policies he puts in place that benefit one group do not harm other conflicting groups? A political campaign can be based and won by focusing on a certain issue that appeals to people’s emotions. But when the politician takes office his policies cannot be divisive, in the sense that they benefit one group at the expense of others. That is being short sighted because in the long run things will normalize and other issues he didn’t tackle carefully will also present themselves decreasing the politician’s popularity.

Only when a politician is capable of thinking of all of these qualities that the“true” population of citizens may be distributed across will he understand the disadvantages of being so short sighted by putting in place policies that put a certain group at an unfair advantage.

Now the unfortunate part is that the politician might get away with being short-sighted, depending on the level of transparency and bureaucracy in the system, the appeal of his political campaign may mask his shortcomings. Therefore incentives are important. So that everyone is accountable. For example, if unchecked deregulation in the markets is believed to be the cause of excesses leading to a bubble and then panic eventually popping the bubble and causing enormous damage to the economic system like the most recent recession did, then policies must be put in place that regulate these excesses no matter how much a particular interest group lobbies to have policies set up their way. This is because judging from history, its the taxpayers that eventually end up paying for the repercussions of greed in society.

The system is too complicated and there are lots of variables to get it right the first time, but we must strive to work on incentives that influence people’s behavior. Because only governments can set the rules which lead to excesses and only government can set the rules that minimize the ill effects of excesses.

  1. http://blogs.rhsmith.umd.edu/davidkass

India-Pakistan…Why war may not be the solution

The spark for the fire..

26th November 2008, a horrifying day for the people of India. For three days, horror unfolded as people watched 10 armed terrorists ravage the Indian city of Mumbai by attacking some of its iconic landmarks. This attack which targeted people of all races, religions and cultures indiscriminately, brought India’s ‘financial capital’  to a halt. Military assistance was called in to stabilize the situation and many civilians lost their lives or were injured. After learning that the perpetrators were from a Pakistan based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-taiba, most of India wanted only one thing – revenge against Pakistan. This was the breaking point for many Indians. A rage that had been boiling over for years because of frequent acts of terrorism (most of which had been attributed to Pakistan based terrorist outfits) now had its biggest outpouring.

The government was under immense pressure to mount an offensive against Pakistan and the terrorist outfits. But it didn’t do so and was widely criticized for it. Pretty understandable when one looks at the emotional turmoil that many Indians had to go through.Not waging war was interpreted as a sign of timidity.

Similar is the case with the North Indian state of Kashmir. It has been a disputed region between India and Pakistan for decades. Both nations claim a part of it which has led to many violent cross border incidents. Pakistan was once a part of India and the two nations have had a long history of violence since they split apart. Major part of Kashmir is largely under India’s control today but faces frequent insurgency from Pakistani militants.

Let us picture a hypothetical scenario where the Kashmir or the cross border terrorism issue leads to enraged public reaction and  becomes a catalyst for a larger conflict between two nations and India decides to attack Pakistan. Its important to remember that we are only discussing possibilities from one nation’s decision making perspective. A conflict in the region will most likely be critically damaging for all the players involved.

Analyzing a potential India-Pakistan war:

Any offensive started by India against Pakistan will most probably lead to Pakistan retaliating and beginning of a war. It is common knowledge that India has more troops and allegedly more nuclear warheads than Pakistan. So India is going to win the war. Sounds so easy, right ? Maybe it is. But there are many indications that it is never so simple. Lets dig a little deeper. We will concentrate on four major points-

The possibility of a ground battle

When it comes to a ground battle between the two countries, India definitely has the upper hand. India is probably much better prepared on the north western borders to repel any Pakistani attacks. The only problem can be Kashmir where the terrain can be a hurdle. But overall, starting a ground war won’t be a rational thing for Pakistan to do as they will only be playing into India’s hands.

The role of United States in Indo-Pak politics

United States has always looked upon Pakistan as a potential ally which can help it combat the Al-Qaeda and other terrorist/militant groups which are so prevalent across Pakistan’s Northwest. Any attack on Pakistan (like India attacking it) will cause Pakistan’s civil state to become even more unstable than it is now. Instability is a natural fuel for militancy to thrive in and we don’t think the US will be very happy with that. India has a lot of international relations with U.S and any kind of sanctions or pressure that the US puts on India could prove to be very harmful.

The potential role that China plays

For many years now, China has been a big ally of Pakistan mostly due to the the feuds that they share with India. China and Pakistan have been collaborating on a lot of military technologies and also nuclear power. Based on a report in Wall Street Journal, Pakistan and China recently agreed a deal in which China will sell two nuclear reactors to Pakistan. It is feared that China has collaborated with Pakistan on Nuclear defense technologies. However true this is, it is definitely worrying for India. Ties between India and China have long been characterized by mistrust. Tensions boiled over into a brief war in 1962, following which China gained control of a 14,600 square mile territory known as Aksai Chin. It’s not in China’s interest to start a war with India under normal circumstances. The repercussions are likely to be costly for China considering it has to maintain ties with rest of the world. But let’s say that there is still a small chance that China with its ally Pakistan might want to start a war with India. Or China can even try to exploit India’s vulnerability in such a situation and attack the disputed Northeast regions of India. In such a case things can go badly for India. India cannot afford to repeat the losses that it sustained in the Indo-Sino war in 1962.

The possibility of a nuclear war

Both India and Pakistan being nuclear armed nations, we cannot rule out the rather extreme (though not improbable) possibility of any conflict escalating into a nuclear war. Now according to International estimates, Pakistan has about similar number of nuclear warheads as India. So we can see that in this case, India is not an an advantage. Also Pakistan has the additional advantage of having a lot of uncertainty over how much control is being exercised over it’s nuclear arsenal and by whom.So it is going to be very hard for India to detect a potential launch. Consequently, the chances of some retaliation plan are greatly reduced especially if Pakistan manage to hit some very important targets where there is a stockpile of nuclear arsenal. India is not fully prepared for having a robust second strike capability when it comes to nuclear attacks. So as we can see, this is a scenario India would be looking to avoid.

Is the risk worth taking ?

We won’t go deep into math and risk functions; But we feel it is imperative for India to assess the risk of choosing the war option for minimizing the occurrences of cross border terrorism.

Society as a whole has a certain “well being” and bad events such as war or terrorist attacks reduce that well being (good events like better healthcare, infrastructure etc increase well being). From the above discussion, we can see that the potential risk for heavy losses in well being from a war situation is higher than that from more frequent random terrorist attacks against the nation. So this potential hostile approach might actually turn out to be far more damaging to India than the current sporadic incidents of terrorism.

Let it be noted that we are not advocating a “soft” approach to minimizing the risk of terrorist attacks. Making a country safe for its citizens is the duty of every government and same applies to India. The objective of this discussion is to impress upon the readers that the solution is not as simple as it is painted. Bill Clinton once described Kashmir as the “most dangerous place on earth”. It is going to require a lot of work to make it a “heaven on earth” again. And hopefully the solution won’t require guns.