Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Overcoming superstition - Persuasion lessons for rationalists

Rahul Siddharthan in The Hindu

The Indian Constitution is unique in listing, among fundamental duties, the duty of each citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” (Article 51A). Jawaharlal Nehru was the first to use the expression “scientific temper”, which he described with his usual lucidity in The Discovery of India (while also quoting Blaise Pascal on the limits of reason). And yet, decades later, superstitious practices abound in India, including among the highly educated.

Superstition exists

India may be unusual in the degree and variety of superstitious practices, even among the educated, but superstition exists everywhere. In his recent Editorial page article, “Science should have the last word” (The Hindu, February 17), Professor Jayant V. Narlikar, cosmologist and a life-long advocate for rationality, cites Czech astronomer Jiří Grygar’s observation that though the Soviets suppressed superstitious ideas in then-Czechoslovakia during the occupation, superstition arose again in the “free-thinking”, post-Soviet days. Superstition never went away: people just hesitated to discuss it in public.

Similarly, China suppressed superstition and occult practices during Mao Zedong’s rule. But after the economic reforms and relative openness that began in the late 1970s, superstition reportedly made a comeback, with even top party officials consulting soothsayers on their fortunes. In India, the rationalist movements of Periyar and others have barely made a dent. No country, no matter its scientific prowess, has conquered superstition.

On the positive side, internationally, increasing numbers of people live happily without need for superstition. The most appalling beliefs and rituals have largely been eradicated the world over — such as blood-letting in medicine to human sacrifice, and in India, practices such as sati. This is due to the efforts put in by social reform campaigners, education and empowerment (of women in particular). Yet, surviving superstitions can be dangerous too, for example when they contradict medical advice.

Explaining it

Why is it so hard to remove superstitions? Fundamentally, a belief may be difficult to shake off simply because of deep-seated habituation. In his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the physicist Richard P. Feynman wrote about being hypnotised voluntarily (hypnosis is always voluntary) on stage, doing what was asked, and thinking to himself that he was just agreeing to everything to not “disturb the situation”. Finally, the hypnotist announced that Feynman would not go straight back to his chair but would walk all around the room first. Feynman decided that this was ridiculous; he would walk straight back to his seat. “But then,” he said, “an annoying feeling came over me: I felt so uncomfortable that I couldn’t continue. I walked all the way around the hall.”

We have all had such “uncomfortable feelings” when trying to do something differently, even if it seems to be logically better: whether it’s a long-standing kitchen practice, or an entrenched approach to classroom teaching, or something else in daily life. Perhaps we are all hypnotised by our previous experiences, and superstition, in particular, is a form of deep-seated hypnosis that is very hard to undo. It is undone only when the harm is clear and evident, as in the medieval practices alluded to earlier. Such beliefs are strengthened by a confirmation bias (giving importance to facts that agree with our preconceptions and ignoring others) and other logical holes. Recent research even shows how seeing the same evidence can simultaneously strengthen oppositely-held beliefs (a phenomenon called Bayesian belief polarisation).

Disagreement in science

Dogmatism about science can be unjustified too. All scientific theories have limitations. Newton’s theories of mechanics and gravitation were superseded by Einstein’s. Einstein’s theory of gravity has no known limitations at the cosmological scale, but is incompatible with quantum mechanics. The evolution of species is an empirical fact: the fossil record attests it, and we can also observe it in action in fast-breeding species. Darwinism is a theory to explain how it occurs. Today’s version is a combination of Darwin’s original ideas, Mendelian genetics and population biology, with much empirical validation and no known failures. But it does have gaps. For example, epigenetic inheritance is not well understood and remains an active area of research. Incidentally, Dr. Narlikar in his article has suggested that Darwinism’s inability to explain the origin of life is a gap. Few evolutionary biologists would agree. Darwin’s book was after all titled The Origin of Species, and the origin of life would seem beyond its scope. But this is an example of how scientists can disagree on details while agreeing on the big picture.

How then does one eradicate superstition? Not, as the evidence suggests, by preaching or legislating against it. Awareness campaigns against dangerous superstitions along with better education and scientific outreach may have some impact but will be a slow process.

Today, the topic of “persuasion” is popular in the psychology, social science and marketing communities. Perhaps scientists have something to learn here too. Pascal, whom Nehru cited on reason, wrote on persuasion too. He observed that the first step is to see the matter from the other person’s point of view and acknowledge the validity of their perception, and then bring in its limitations. “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

Such a strategy may be more successful than the aggressive campaigns of rationalists such as Richard Dawkins. Nevertheless, “harmless” superstitions are likely to remain with humanity forever.

Monday, 26 February 2018

India's' Rohingya' Problem in Assam?

Michael Safi in The Guardian

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, authorities in the north-east Indian state of Assam published a list of 19 million names. But not Hanif Khan’s.

Early the next morning police found Khan, a taxi driver from Cachar district, dead from an apparent suicide. “I am sure he killed himself after he found his name missing,” his wife Rushka says.

Two years ago, Assam, a lush state bordering Bhutan and Bangladesh, embarked on a vast exercise: to identify every resident who could demonstrate roots in the state before March 1971.

And deport anyone who couldn’t.

An unfinished draft was released on 31 December – minus the names of 14 million other residents. Officials have stressed the final list will include millions more names, but the process is sparking anxiety in Assam, and warnings Indiamight be about to manufacture tens of thousands of stateless people.

Khan, 40, had grown increasingly tense in the weeks leading to the publication of the draft. Though he was born in Assam to an Indian mother, his father was an Afghan national who had long since drifted home.

Hanif Khan, a driver from Cachar district in Assam, India, who was found dead on 1 January, 2018. Photograph: Supplied

“He told me many times that the documents he presented to prove he was a citizen of India were perhaps not enough,” his wife said.

Assam is building a new detention centre to process the “foreigners” it plans to evict in the coming years. At least 2,000 people are already detained in six facilities across the state.

Khan often mentioned the detention centres, and had started to panic at the sight of police cars near his home, Rushka says. “He was extremely frightened. Every day he told me that police would arrest him and push him to Bangladesh.”

By December he was skipping meals and turning down driving jobs in unfamiliar places. Five hours before the list was published, his wife says, he vanished.

The eastern Indian border with Bangladesh traverses five states and more than 4,000km. For centuries until the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, human traffic flowed freely across the territory. In smaller numbers, people have continued crossing in the decades after: Indian security agencies estimate about 15 million Bangladesh citizens work and live in India without authorisation.

Just as with porous borders elsewhere, the flow of migrants from Bangladesh inflames Indian passions. Border guards were accused of gunning down nearly 1,000 people, most of them suspected smugglers, in the decade to 2010. A barbed-wire fence, bolstered in parts by floodlights and cameras, has been under construction since the mid-1980s and will eventually stretch more than 3,300km.

Resentment has been most acute in Assam, where it sparked an anti-migrant movement in the 1980s that paralysed the state and eventually won government. It also fuelled one of India’s worst single-day massacres since partition: a frenzied seven-hour pogrom in a clutch of Muslim villages that left at least 1,800 people dead.

“Here, foreigners are like people from a different planet,” says Aman Wadud, a lawyer who represents people accused of migrating illegally.

Assamese residents complain thousands of migrants have found their way onto voting rolls and take jobs and land from locals. “In the past two decades, loads of Muslims from Bangladesh have settled around us,” says Pankaj Saha, a retailer from Dhubri district.

“Twenty years ago, Hindus formed 75% of my town’s population. Today, the Muslims are in majority.”

Proving the identities of more than 30 million people – many bearing handwritten records, or none at all – has fallen to Prateek Hajela, a senior civil servant. “We have received around 65 million documents,” he says from his office in Guwahati, the Assam capital.

The fate of those who fail to win citizenship is outside his control, he says. “What happens to those people who have applied and are not found to be eligible, I can’t say.”

Yet this is the question dogging the process. Tribunals have already declared about 90,000 people in Assam to be foreigners, according to statistics obtained by IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative.

Only a few dozen have been deported in recent years – Bangladesh and India have no formal repatriation agreement – and officials admit many turn around and return at the first opportunity.

Another 38,000 of those declared to be foreigners in Assam have disappeared into the community, according to police records. Thousands more claim to be wrongly accused and are awaiting citizenship hearings.

The prospect of being suddenly arrested as a foreigner and languishing for years in a detention camp is worrying Bengali Muslims in particular. “There is enormous fear and apprehension in the community,” Wadud says.

Other than Hanif’s, at least two others suicides have been linked to the process. “I am telling people, we need to wait for the second list,” says Subimal Bhattacharjee, an analyst who runs welfare schemes in the state. “A significant number of names will be added. Verification is still going on.”

When the government finally publishes the full list of citizens on 31 May, the ranks of foreigners in Assam could swell by tens of thousands – with no clear plan yet of what to do with them.

The Assam chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, said in an interview last month that foreigners would lose constitutional rights. “They will have only one right – human rights as guaranteed by the the UN that include food, shelter and clothing.”

The issue of deportation, he said, “will come later”.

Officials in the Indian home ministry declined to comment on the record but said their expectation was that Bangladesh would take back any of its citizens, as it currently does on a case-by-case basis.

Bangladesh says it is not aware of any citizens living illegally in Assam, and that India has never raised the prospect of mass deportations from the state. An official at the country’s high commission in Delhi confirmed this position was unchanged.

“Deportations will never happen,” Wadud says. “Bangladesh will never accept these people. I can’t imagine what will happen to them. They will become stateless people with no rights whatsoever.”

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Inevitability of Pain and Suffering

Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Music: Daan Singh

वो तेरे प्यार का ग़म, एक बहाना था सनम अपनी किस्मत ही कुछ ऐसी थी के दिल टूट गया ये ना होता तो कोई दूसरा ग़म होना था मैं तो वो हू जिसे हर हाल में बस रोना था मुस्कुराता भी अगर, तो छलक जाती नज़र अपनी किस्मत ही कुछ ऐसी थी के दिल टूट गया वर्ना क्या बात है तू कोई सितमगर तो नही तेरे सीनेमें भी दिल है, कोई पत्थर तो नही तूने ढाया है सितम, तो यही समझेंगे हम अपनी किस्मत ही कुछ ऐसी थी के दिल टूट गया

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Imran Khan on his third marriage

Im The Dim in The Friday Times

From hat on head, to dupatta on brow, to naqab on face, I have been through several lives and several wives. I have finally reached the pineapple of nirvana because I have seen the light. I might however see a few more lights, now and then. But for the moment, I am delighted to announce my wedding, which took place on January 1, er sorry I meant February whatever, witnessed by my closest comrades, whose names escape me. And Pinky’s mum and five kids, whose names escape me.

Unlike my previous marriages, this is an everlasting bond, not bondage. Henceforward, kinks will be replaced by Pinks. And good times will be replaced by Godly times. Above all, Pink is the new Black.

Back to politics: the best thing Nawaz Sharif can now do is to leave Pakistan for another decade or so. He should leave governance to me. I have some very creative ideas on how to tackle the budget deficit. I will get hefty sponsorships for everything, especially great state institutions. Hence forward, it will be Sunsilk General Headquarters, Bahria National Assembly, Rose Petal Pakistan Navy, Coca Cola National Accountability Bureau, Masterfoam Supreme Court, Pepsi Election Commission and so on. There will be a huge influx of money from these sponsorships and the deficit will go up in a puff of smoke, unlike me who’s stopped puffing and smoking and am in the Pink of health as a result.

I’ve now gone so thoroughly native that I’ve dropped all my old friends in London. The editor of Tatler, Lady Patricia Pitbull-Terrier called to interview me about my new marriage but I didn’t take her call. Then she got her secretary Eliza Dolittle to ring, no response from me. Then she got her hairdresser Vidal Sassoon to call, no response from me. Then she got her photographer the late Cecil Beaton to call me, still no response. Finally, she got my old friend Mick Jagger to call me and try and make conversation by asking what I thought of Teresa May’s new Abortion Bill, “Oh for God’s sake, Mick, just pay it!

Friday, 23 February 2018

Zombie companies walk among us

Tim Harford in The Financial Times

For vampires, the weakness is garlic. For werewolves, it’s a silver bullet. And for zombies? Perhaps a rise in interest rates will do the trick. 

Economists have worried about “zombie companies” for decades. Timothy Taylor, editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, has followed a trail of references back to 1989, noting sightings of these zombies in Japan from the 1990s, and more recently in China. The fundamental concern is that there are companies which should be dead, yet continue to lumber on, ruining things for everyone. 

It’s a vivid metaphor — perhaps a little too vivid — and it is likely to be tested over the months and years to come if, as almost everyone expects, central banks continue to raise interest rates back to what veterans might describe as “normal”. 

Claudio Borio of the Bank for International Settlements recently gave a speech in which he worried about the tendency of low interest rates to sustain zombie companies. Mr Borio has consistently been concerned about the distorting effects of low interest rates, but the zombie element of his argument adds a new twist.

Researchers at both the BIS and the OECD, the club of wealthy nations, have found evidence that low interest rates seem conducive to the existence of zombies, which they define as older companies that don’t make enough money to service their debts. As interest rates have fallen around the world, such zombies have become more prevalent and have also shown more endurance. 

On average, across the US, Japan, Australia and western Europe, the proportion of firms that are zombies has risen fivefold since 1987, from 2 to 10 per cent. The zombies walk among us. 

Why should we worry? One obvious answer is that zombies absorb resources. If a zombie retailer occupies a space on the high street, that makes it harder and more expensive for a start-up or a successful competitor to move in. The same goes for any resource from advertising space to electricity, and of course it goes for staff, too. 

We would usually expect a thriving company to be able to outbid the walking dead for anything necessary, from a finance director to a unit in an industrial estate. But the status quo always has a certain power, and in some cases, the zombie might be at an unfair advantage. 

Consider a zombie bank, propped up by a government guarantee but basically insolvent. Gambling on resurrection, it tries to expand by offering high rates to depositors and cheap loans to creditors. In the late 1980s, Joseph Stiglitz — later to win a Nobel memorial prize in economics — proposed a “Gresham’s law” of savings-and-loan associations based on this tendency: bad associations crowd out good ones. 

More recently, the collapse of Carillion, a large British outsourcing and construction firm, showed a similar dynamic. The more Carillion struggled, the more desperate it became to win new business — which meant aggressive bids in competitive auctions, dooming Carillion while starving competitors of business. 

Having written an entire book about the importance of failure, I am naturally sympathetic to Mr Borio’s argument. Modern economies have a low failure rate — probably too low. Still, one should not be too cavalier about this point. To ordinary ears, bankruptcy sounds unambiguously bad. If you spend too much time thinking about zombie firms and economic dynamism, bankruptcy starts to sound unambiguously good. 

Cut down those zombies and let highly productive new firms grow in the rich soil, fertilised by those zombie corpses, sounds like — forgive the play on words — a no-brainer. But should we really be so pleased that so many of the UK’s coal mines, or the auto suppliers of Detroit, have been successfully killed off? If nothing has replaced them, there is nothing to celebrate. 

One of the lessons of recent economic research by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson has been that productive new firms do not necessarily spring up as we might have hoped. Mr Autor and his colleagues have, in a series of influential papers, tracked local areas subject to the sudden shock of competition from imported Chinese products. Their conclusion: recovery is neither quick nor automatic. 

Nor is it always easy for laid-off workers to stroll into fresh jobs: if you have worked for several years stitching soft toys, then the obvious next step when the toy factory lays you off is to start stitching shirts or trousers instead. Unfortunately, that is also the obvious next move for the importers, or the robots. 

We can make a long list of policies that might help new productive firms to get started and expand: education, infrastructure, flexible regulations, small-business finance and so on. There is some evidence in favour of these policies, but no checklist can guarantee results. 

Still, that is where to focus our attention as the zombies start to expire. The easier it is to start a new idea, the more hard-nosed we can be about killing off the old ones. It is necessary that the zombies must die, but that cannot be where the story ends.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

How to stop Brexit

Simon Kuper in The Financial Times

I’m not a natural activist, because I’m too pessimistic, but the other evening I helped gather some stop-Brexit people in a room in London. Much as I love them, they looked like a Daily Mail cartoon of the cosmopolitan elite. Going home on the bus afterwards, I read The Daily Telegraph’s story that the whole event had been funded by international investor George Soros (obviously no offshore plutocrats backed Leave). In fact, though, Stoppers come in several mutually suspicious groups, only one of which is financed by Soros. Most Stoppers are highly self-motivated. One man told me: “I want to be able to tell my children later that at least I tried to block it.” 

You’d think Stoppers have no chance. Flawed though the Brexit referendum was, everyone agreed its rules in advance. After Leave’s victory, most Britons almost instantly switched off. Since July 2016, Google searches for Manchester United (or for Chelsea or Arsenal football clubs) have always outnumbered those for Brexit. Yet Stoppers finally feel they can win, perhaps this autumn. I think their best chance will be in 2020. 

This autumn, parliament will vote on the government’s “withdrawal agreement” with Europe. MPs won’t vote the bill down. Most think they lack the legitimacy to stop Brexit, since “the people” have spoken. However, MPs might just vote for a second referendum that gives voters final approval over the terms of withdrawal. Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn is a Brexiter, but he knows his party is now overwhelmingly Remain. “Crablike, he’s moving in that direction,” says Andrew Adonis, a chief Stopper and former Labour minister. If Labour and 20 Conservative MPs vote for a referendum, that’s probably enough. The EU would give Britain time to hold one, because it’s committed to letting each state follow its democratic processes before enacting a treaty. 

Meanwhile, Stoppers are trying to shift public opinion through mostly youth-led campaigns. Already, polls since last summer show a consistent if slight lead for Remain over Leave. Now Stoppers need to persuade voters they aren’t simply the liberal elite, says Adonis. That means promising radical policies to help left-behinds. 

The problem is that a narrow win for Stop in a second referendum would hardly put the Brexit issue to bed. Anyway, the EU probably wouldn’t halt Brexit to readmit a divided UK. 

But even if the withdrawal bill passes parliament, the fight continues. The key point is that the bill will be almost content-free. The government cannot say what kind of Brexit it wants, because then it would split. So the bill, after its thrilling front page (“The UK will leave the EU on March 29 2019”), will be just another fudge. It will say something like: “After a two-year transition, we will leave the single market (though possibly not the customs union), having negotiated new arrangements giving us full access to European markets.” 

But everyone knows Britain can only have full access by staying in the single market. So the bill will simply delay to 2021 the unanswerable question: what kind of Brexit does Britain want? The issues will be the same as today: a hard Brexit would cause economic pain, and could be vetoed by the Irish Republic. A soft Brexit would anger hard Brexiters. 

From March 2019 through 2021, the UK will have officially left the EU, but won’t have chosen its future status. Meanwhile, during the transition, it will remain in the single market and customs union, and keep paying into the EU budget, only without any say in European decisions. 

Nobody will like that. So, in 2020, Stoppers can say: “You’ve been negotiating Brexit for four years and got nowhere. Meanwhile, demographic change means the electorate is now clearly Remain. How about a second referendum on whether to jump off the cliff?” 

Reversing Brexit in 2020 would be logistically doable given that the UK would never have abandoned European rules. Northern European states — led by Ireland and the Netherlands — would press for Britain’s readmission. The EU would demand guarantees that Britons wouldn’t try Brexit again for a generation. It could then trumpet Brexit’s failure as proof that there’s no life outside the EU. 

There’s a third, more painful scenario in which the Stoppers ultimately win. This entails the UK achieving a genuine Brexit. The day Brexit happens, the British political argument changes. For now, all the country’s problems are blamed on Brussels and immigrants. After Brexit, all problems will be blamed on Brexit, even if they have nothing to do with it. The Stoppers — by then Reversers — will ask every day: “Where are the sunny uplands that the Brexiters promised?” 

Rejoining the EU should be feasible given that the EU is already reluctantly starting to accept that it’s not a union but several coalitions of states, each moving at different speeds. The divides between countries such as Finland, Hungary and Italy are simply too big to permit unity. A returning UK could rejoin the northern ring of anti-federalist states, stay outside the Schengen passport-free zone and the euro, and finally try tackling its real problems.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Robots + Capital - The redundancy of human beings

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

Human beings are being made redundant by something they created. This is not a humanoid, robot, or computer but money as capital

We have all read stories, or seen films, about robots taking over. How, some time in the future, human beings will be marginalised, effectively replaced by machines, real or virtual. Common to these stories is the trope of the world taken over by something constructed of inert material, something mechanical and ‘heartless’. Also common to these stories is the idea that this will happen in the future.

What if I tell you that it has already happened? The future is here!

The culprit that humans created

In fact, the future has been building up for some decades. Roughly from the 1970s onwards, human beings have been increasingly made redundant by something they created, and that was once of use to them. Except that this ‘something’ is not a humanoid, robot, or even a computer; it is money. Or, more precisely, it is money as capital.

It was precipitated in 1973, when floating exchange rates were introduced. As economist Samir Amin notes, this was the logical result of the “concomitance of the U.S. deficit (leading to an excess of dollars available on the market) and the crisis of productive investment” which had produced “a mass of floating capital with no place to go.” With floating exchange rates, this excess of dollars could be plunged into sheer financial speculation across national borders. Financial speculation had always been a part of capitalism, but floating exchange rates dissolved the ties between capital, goods (trade and production) and labour. Financial speculation gradually floated free of human labour and even of money, as a medium of exchange. If I were a theorist of capitalism of the Adam Smith variety, I would say that capitalism, as we knew it (and still, erroneously, imagine it), started dying in 1973.

Amin goes on to stress the consequences of this: The ratio between hedging operations on the one side and production and international trading on the other rose to 28:1 by 2002 — “a disproportion that has been constantly growing for about the last twenty years and which has never been witnessed in the entire history of capitalism.” In other words, while world trade was valued at $2 billion around 2005, international capital movements were estimated at $50 billion.

How can there be capital movements in such excess of trade? Adam Smith would have failed to understand it. Karl Marx, who feared something like this, would have failed to imagine its scale.

This is what has happened: capital, which was always the abstract logic of money, has riven free of money as a medium of exchange. It no longer needs anything to exchange — and, hence, anyone to produce — in order to grow. (I am exaggerating, but only a bit.)

Theorists have argued that money is a social relation and a medium of exchange. That is not true of most capital today, which need not be ploughed back into any kind of production, trade, labour or even services. It can just be moved around as numbers. This is what day traders do. They do not look at company balance sheets or supply-demand statistics; they simply look at numbers on the computer screen.

This is what explains the dichotomy — most obvious in Donald Trump’s U.S., but not absent in places like the U.K., France or India — between the rhetoric of politicians and their actual actions. Politicians might come to power by promising to ‘drain the swamp’, but what they do, once assured of political power, is to partake in the monopoly of finance capital. This abstract capital is the ‘robot’ — call it Robital — that has marginalised human beings.

I am not making a Marxist point about capital under classical capitalism: despite its tendency towards exploitation, this was still largely invested in human labour. This is not the case any longer. Finance capital does not really need humans — apart from the 1% that own most of it, and another 30% or so of necessary service providers, including IT ones, whose numbers should be expected to steadily shrink.

Robotisation has already taken place: it is only its physical enactment (actual robots) that is still building up. Robots, as replacements for human beings, are the consequence of the abstract nature of finance capital. Robotised agriculture and office robots are a consequence of this. If most humans are redundant and most capital is in the hands of a 1% superclass, it is inevitable that this capital will be invested in creating machines that can make the elite even less dependent on other human beings.

The underlying cause

My American friends wonder about the blindness of Republican politicians who refuse to provide medical support to ordinary Americans and even dismantle the few supports that exist. My British friends talk of the slow spread of homelessness in the U.K. My Indian friends worry about matters such as thousands of farmer suicides. The working middle class crumbles in most countries.

Here is the underlying cause of all of this: the redundancy of human beings, because capital can now replicate itself, endlessly, without being forced back into human labour and trade. We are entering an age where visible genocides — as in Syria or Yemen — might be matched by invisible ones, such as the unremarked deaths of the homeless, the deprived and the marginal.

Robital is here.

Ramanujan and Salam — what inspired them?

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Dawn

SRINIVISAN Ramanujan (1887-1920) and Muhammad Abdus Salam (1926-1996), two intellectual giants of the 20th century, were born in the same corner of the world. Of humble origin and educated in local schools, they nevertheless rose to dizzying heights in the arcane world of theoretical science. Few others on the subcontinent enjoy their iconic status.

What I shall address below is that both attributed their works to some divine agency. Some of their devotees see this in validating their own respective belief system. With the rise of Hindutva in India, and the violent persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan, these claims assume considerable importance. Hence a careful, impartial examination is called for.

No mathematician has a story more romantic than Ramanujan’s. Many books, plays, and movies — such as The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015) — dwell upon this enigmatic figure. Drawing upon deep intuition, Ramanujan created new concepts in the theory of numbers, elliptic functions and infinite series. Even full-blown mathematicians take years to grasp his complex ideas.

Exceptional genes plus fortunate circumstances is why some become maths-science superstars.

Born in Madras to a low-level clerk, this young Brahmin boy was steeped in tradition, sang religious songs, attended temple pujas, and was a strict vegetarian. But by age 12, he was inventing sophisticated theorems and unwittingly duplicating some results of European mathematicians of the previous century. He flunked college twice for lack of interest in anything but mathematics — in which he excelled. His awestruck teachers could not decide whether he was a genius or fraud.

At 16, encouraged by one of his teachers, Ramanujan sent off a letter to the renowned pure mathematician G.W. Hardy at Cambridge University. It was accompanied by theorems densely packed into nine pages. Hardy was stunned and arranged for him to travel to England. Ramanujan duly obtained permission from the family goddess Namagiri, consulting appropriate astrological data before his voyage overseas.

At age 32, Ramanujan was dead. He had returned to Madras exhausted, half-famished and fed up with English winters. But even on his deathbed, his pen scrawled out profound results. A century later these still intrigue the brainiest of mathematicians and string theorists. He attributed his exceptional qualities to the psychic visitations of Namagiri who would whisper equations to him. Sometimes, he said, “she wrote on my tongue”. He told colleagues, “An equation for me has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God.”

This was how Ramanujan saw it. But how does one explain that Euler, Bernoulli, Gauss, Cantor, Hilbert and Gödel were non-Brahmin mathematicians who stood still taller? The edifice of modern mathematics owes largely to them, not to Ramanujan. Some were ardent Christians, others agnostic or atheistic. Nobody knows how to explain their feats.

Curiously, Abdus Salam, then a 19-year-old student at Government College Lahore, wrote his very first paper proposing a simpler solution to an intriguing mathematical problem posed about 20 years earlier by Ramanujan. He ended his paper by triumphantly declaring: “His [Ramanujan’s] solution is much more laborious”.

This was Salam’s debut into the world of high mathematics. Born into a conservative religious environment in Jhang — then a village-town — this child prodigy rapidly outpaced his teachers. Fortunately they bore him no grudge and helped him move on to Lahore. The next stop was Cambridge, where he excelled. By the early 1960s, he was one of the world’s top particle physicists, ultimately winning 20 international prizes and honours including the Nobel Prize in 1979.

In his later years, Salam gave numerous public lectures and interviews, recorded on camera and in print, locating his source of inspiration in his religious belief. In particular he said the concept of unity of God powered his quest for the unification of nature’s fundamental forces as well as his search for ever fewer numbers of elementary particles.

For me, to engage on a sensitive matter with one so senior and superior was not easy. But sometime in 1986 I picked up the courage to ask Salam the obvious question: both he, who thought himself a believer, and Steven Weinberg, an avowed atheist, had worked independently on unifying two of nature’s four fundamental forces and yet had arrived at precisely the same conclusions. How?

Salam gave his answer in the preface he wrote for my book on Islam and science (1990), where he stated: “I can confirm that he [Hoodbhoy] is right…”, and then went on to explicitly clarify that any bias towards the unification paradigm in his thinking was only unconsciously motivated by his religious background.

There is not the slightest doubt that Salam used exactly the same tools as Weinberg did — principally quantum mechanics and relativity theory — and did physics exactly as other physicists do (but better than most). His political and religious views were irrelevant to his work. Let’s note that although they are giants of physics, Salam and Weinberg stood on the shoulders of still greater giants — Einstein, Pauli, Dirac, Wheeler, and Feynman — whose personal philosophies of life vastly differed from each other.

Salam sourced his inspiration to his religious beliefs, while Ramanujan claimed direct transmission from his gods. These claims cannot ever be proved or disproved. It is also irrelevant here that Salam thought of himself as a Muslim whereas, by Pakistani law, he is not.

How can prodigious talent blossom in the absence of rigorous scientific training? Two factors explain Ramanujan’s and Salam’s successes. First, nature sometimes gifts an individual with exceptional innate mathematical ability. This is associated with brain circuits in the parietal lobe and acquired through genetic transmission. Second, by good fortune, Ramanujan and Salam managed to escape into a scholarly environment — Cambridge Uni­ver­sity — where their genius could flower. Had either stayed back home he would be unheard of today.
It is usual to take pride in the geniuses belonging to one’s own tribe. The ancient civilisations of China, India, Greece, Arabia, and modern European civilisation all claim superiority over others because of the creations of their most brilliant minds. But in fact an individual’s exceptional genes and fortunate circumstances — not some supreme transcendence — are the real reasons. While sources of inspiration do differ, empirically and logically deduced results don’t. Science and its heroes belong to all humankind, not to any one tribe.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Florida school shooting proves we need to arm every child over the age of six months for their own protection

Mark Steel in The Independent

After yet another shooting in a school in America, surely the time has come when we have to listen to the arguments of ordinary Americans and issue every child over the age of six months with a gun.

The only way to keep kids safe is to make sure they’re heavily armed as soon as they’ve developed the ability to grip. Obviously this leaves smaller babies vulnerable, so they should be given voice-activated flame-throwers that scorch anyone within 20 yards whenever there’s a gurgle.

Then the teachers can get on with the job of teaching kids how to shoot things. When a college student goes wild with a Heckler and Koch 9mm pistol, instead of telling them off like we do at the moment, they can offer advice, and say, “Watkins, WHAT have I told you about lining up your target? You did very well to murder three boys in the doorway but you completely missed Mr Nolan the caretaker.”

This shooting in Florida was the eighteenth such event in an American school this year. Soon there will be so many they won’t be news; they’ll be read out like the football results each Saturday afternoon. The announcer will say: “Here are this week’s shooting sprees in schools: Kansas 3, Wyoming 1, Montana 2, Texas FOUR.”

Then, instead of moaning about these incidents, they can be incorporated into lessons. A maths teacher might say, “This morning there were 28 of us in the classroom. Now four of us are lying in a pool of blood. Express as a fraction the amount of us who have survived.”

The National Rifle Association and opponents of gun control used to be a bit sheepish after each shooting. They’d stay quiet for a week, then mumble a statement such as, “In the light of events, maybe we shouldn’t say anything until we know the facts, as it might be that the gunshot wounds weren’t caused by a gun.”

So it’s good to see they’ve got over that timid phase, and now they respond to a massacre by saying, “Yeeeehahhhh, did you see what that dude was using? Awesome.”

Then they emphasise that a critical clause in the original constitution of their country asserts the fundamental right of every citizen to carry a gun. That makes sense, as the founders of the nation ensured the common man should have the right to oppose the tyrant, and protected the right of the colony to defend themselves against a foreign dictator, by enshrining in law the power of the governed to resist unfair governance. And that’s exactly the same as protecting the right of a bloke who sits in an attic for eight months at a time playing computer games who thinks he’s been sent to earth by the Mighty Thor to buy a semi-automatic rifle so he can blast everyone in a shoe shop in Wyoming.

Americans’ insistence about their right to own guns is sometimes difficult for outsiders to comprehend. But it’s linked to their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and we should respect that, because when Jesus was asked what he would do if someone slapped him on the right cheek, he said, “Load my A15 semi-automatic rifle and fire at random strangers in a shopping centre in Nazareth.”

Indeed if there is a cheery side to this latest slaughter, it’s the excellent publicity it’s provided for the AR15. Because it was not only used in this shooting, but in the Sutherland Springs school shooting in Texas, and for the one in Las Vegas. So the manufacturers will rush out an advert that goes: “Hi, I’m a lunatic who eats raw squirrels and lives in a bedsit with the Devil, and when I go crazy in a school playground I always take my AR15 – it’s guaranteed to slaughter like it oughta.” Then Charlton Heston can say: “AR15: the choice of nine out of 10 fruitbat gunmen across the United States.”

The main argument we’re used to hearing from gun-toting Americans is that each new massacre proves not how dangerous guns are but how dangerous it is to not have a gun. Because the best protection against a wild gunman is a gun.

And this is true. Similarly, not many people get killed by crazy people driving their tank through a school or a shopping centre. This might be because it’s quite tricky, even in America, to buy a tank. But there is a more sensible way of looking at this, which is that if someone were to go berserk with a tank, the rest of us would have no protection. So we should immediately make it legal to possess your own personal tank.

Within a couple of years, tanks would be as easy to buy as guns are now. You could get 2 for 1 during happy hour at Hank’s Tanks, and some days you’d get one free when you bought an Aero, and before long, millions of people would have tanks so no one would need worry about tanks.

So the only problem is how to make us as safe globally from the danger of guns as they are in America. The answer must be to give other countries more guns. Trump must start giving shiploads of them to Syria and North Korea, so we can all stop worrying.

And the National Rifle Association, along with the rest of the gun lobby, will all join Isis, as the Islamic caliphate is the nearest to a society where everyone has a gun.

Then at the current rate there will soon be thousands of shooting sprees a day, until there are only three people left alive in the whole of America, each pointing guns at the heads of the other two, unable to work or hold any food, so they live by nibbling berries and never falling asleep, and at last they’ll be safe.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The end of an era of cheap money?

Nicole Bullock, Eric Platt and Alexandra Scaggs in The Financial Time

For more than a decade, Mike Schmanske made a living trading “volatility” — betting on the size and speed of moves in the US stock market. After 2014, the market was calm for so long that he spent much of his time sailing a Swan yacht. He got his adrenalin flowing in a different way: on his first trip from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island, he raced a hurricane back to port and made it with 12 hours to spare. 

Now, a new bout of turbulence is pulling him back to Wall Street. A sharp outbreak of volatility has written more than $5tn off the value of global stocks in less than two weeks and Mr Schmanske is talking to his old trading buddies about getting back into the market. 

“This is the most calls I’ve taken in years,” says Mr Schmanske*, a pioneer of some of the first volatility trading products while at Barclays and now a consultant. “Things were slow. I was literally on a boat a few weeks back.” 

The catalyst for the volatility surge came at 8:30am last Friday when the US government employment report showed a surprisingly strong rise in wages, prompting bond yields to shoot upwards and the price of those bonds to fall. Within hours, the losses in the $14tn Treasury market had spread to stocks, setting the stage for Wall Street’s worst week in two years.** By Thursday, US equities had entered what is known as a correction — a fall of at least 10 per cent. Many investors who had piled into esoteric instruments that enable them to bet on continued calm in the market had been wiped out. 

The ructions over the past week have attracted so much attention because they strike at the question that has haunted markets for the past two years — what happens when the economy returns to normal? Since the financial crisis, markets have been boosted by an unprecedented mixture of ultra-low interest rates and asset-buying by central banks in a bid to fend off the threat of deflation. But with global growth robust and inflation beginning to re-appear, central banks are pulling back. 

The question investors are trying to answer is how much of the sharp drop in share prices is due to a technical reaction driven by a much-hyped niche in the market that bets on volatility, versus part of a broader adjustment to a different economic reality. 

“The system has changed,” says Jean Ergas, head strategist at Tigress Partners, who said the market had made more of a “rethink” than a correction. “This is the unwinding of a massive carry trade, in which people borrowed at zero per cent and put money into stocks for a yield of 2 per cent.” 

The year began on a euphoric note as a large cut in US corporate tax prompted investors to mark up their expectations for earnings growth. The economy was already humming around the world for the first time since the financial crisis. 

At its peak on January 26, the market values of S&P 500 companies had surged by $5tn from a year earlier, while global stocks were up by nearly $14tn. The gains lured small investors into the market, with more than $350bn pumped into equity funds in the year, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. 

But cracks had already appeared in the bond market. Investors were starting to make noise and demand higher yields. Bill Gross and Jeffrey Gundlach — two well-known money managers in fixed-income markets — both declared last month a new era after a 36-year “bull market” in bonds, which had seen yields driven steadily lower. 

It was against that backdrop that markets reacted to last Friday’s news of a 2.9 per cent rise in US wages — not dramatic in a different era but still the largest year-on-year rise since the financial crisis. Inflation fears rose. Investors began marking up the odds that the Federal Reserve could tighten policy by a full percentage point this year, more aggressively than previously thought. Robust growth in Europe and Japan also raised the question of when the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan would begin to remove crisis-era stimulus. 

“Inflation fears running back into the market and hitting basically all assets in a market that had run up significantly is a pretty plausible, simple story,” says Clifford Asness, co-founder of AQR Capital Management. “You do not have to go looking for Alger Hiss in this pumpkin.” 

By the end of last Friday, yields on benchmark 10-year US Treasuries had hurdled above 2.8 per cent for the first time in nearly four years. For the year, yields had risen more than 40 basis points, increasing the appeal of bonds relative to stocks. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 666 points — an unsettling omen for religiously minded traders. 

“Optimism over synchronised global growth and supportive macro conditions led to outsized gains in equity markets to start the year,” says Craig Burelle, macro strategies research analyst at Loomis Sayles. “But more recently, some investors worried the economic momentum was too much of a good thing, and optimism gave way to concerns about the future path of inflation and interest rates.” 

Before long, the anxiety had gone global. On Sunday evening, many Americans were watching the Philadelphia Eagles upset the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl: at the same time, Asian markets were opening on Monday with a spike in bond yields. 

“On any other Sunday night you might have been more anxious about what you were seeing,” says Matt Cheslock, a trader at Virtu and a 25-year veteran of the New York Stock Exchange. “The game provided a nice distraction.” 

Monday morning in the US added a new source of uncertainty with the swearing in of Jay Powell as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, bringing a relatively little-known face to lead the central bank. For much of the day, Wall Street avoided serious losses. Then, a big drop seemed to come out of nowhere. About an hour before the closing bell, the Dow slumped more than 800 points in 10 minutes. 

“The adrenalin kicks in,” says Mr Cheslock. “Everyone gets sharper. The complacency is long gone.” 

Customers rushed to log into their accounts at Vanguard, TD Ameritrade, T Rowe Price and Charles Schwab, straining websites. Some were unable to place orders. 

“As the volatility picks up and the indices plummet the rumours start to swell,” says Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors. “Folks are wondering the classic Warren Buffett line about when the tide goes out, you see who is not wearing swimming trunks.” 

Over the past week, the investors who have been left most exposed are those who had made bets on subdued volatility. As share prices slumped, Wall Street’s “fear gauge” — the widely watched Cboe Vix volatility index — spiked. 

Trading strategies that profited from the calm in markets during 2017 quickly unravelled. Two exchange-traded products that enabled investors to bet on low volatility lost nearly all their value on Monday. 

After the bell on Monday, the Vix continued to rise and shares in vehicles related to Vix also fell. 

On Tuesday morning, Nomura, the Japanese bank, said in Tokyo that it would pull a product that was pegged to S&P 500 volatility. Within half an hour, the Nikkei 225 had fallen 2.5 per cent, which, in turn, prompted a bout of selling in bitcoin. The digital currency — worth more than $19,000 as recently as December — dropped below $6,000 just after 2:45am in New York, as traders in London and Frankfurt were getting to their desks. Stock markets in both countries would open 3.5 per cent lower. 

As US investors slept, the turbulence continued. At 4am in New York, a number of exchange traded products related to volatility were halted. By 7:11am, more than two hours before the US open, the Vix volatility index shot above 50 — only the second time it has done so since 2010. The turbulence forced bankers to postpone a number of bond sales planned for the day. Then Credit Suisse said it would close an exchange traded note, known by the ticker XIV — which is designed to move in the exact opposite direction to the Vix each day, and had thus collapsed as volatility rose. 

“People had forgotten that stocks don’t just go up,” says Adam Sender, head of Sender Company and Partners, a hedge fund. “Corrections are a normal process. This was inevitable. Interest rates rising was the trigger, but short-volatility was the fuel.” 

The volatility subsided amid a Tuesday afternoon rally in New York, and world stock markets survived much of the next day without incident. But then at 1pm on Wednesday in New York, signs of nervousness re-emerged. Demand at the auction of US Treasury bonds was weak, a signal that investors were worried about inflation and a rising budget deficit, and would therefore only buy at higher yields. Stocks ended the day in the red, and when investors in Tokyo returned on Thursday, prices dropped quickly. Heavier selling ensued on Wall Street. By Friday morning, the main indices in the US, Germany and Japan were all down more than 10 per cent from their January highs. When trading finally closed for the week after another rollercoaster day, US losses were shaved to about 9 per cent. 

For some, the shock created by the collapse of the volatility products has been salutary. “It’s always good to be reminded of these things with accidents that aren’t of systemic importance to the entire economy,” says Victor Haghani, founder of London’s Elm Partners and an alumnus of Long-Term Capital Management. “It’s a gentle reminder from the market.” 

However, many investors believe the questions raised over the past week go well beyond the products connected to the Vix index. “We’ve gone from a market used to playing checkers — rising earnings, low rates equals higher prices — to being forced to compete in grandmaster three-dimensional chess: worries over growth versus rates, equity valuations, and the strength of the dollar, and now market structure concerns,” says Nicholas Colas, cofounder of DataTrek, a New York research group. 

While some investors talked of a buying opportunity, believing that faster economic growth and a modest uptick in inflation represent a positive backdrop for equities, many headed for the exits. Investors pulled more than $30bn from stock funds in the week to Wednesday, the largest week of withdrawals since EPFR began tracking the data at the turn of the century. 

The slump in share prices put the White House on the defensive, given that President Donald Trump has taken pride in the stock gains under his administration. “In the ‘old days,’ when good news was reported, the Stock Market would go up. Today, when good news is reported, the Stock Market goes down,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “Big mistake, and we have so much good (great) news about the economy!” 

Others were less confident. “This is not yet a major earthquake,” said Lawrence Summers, US Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton. “Whether it’s an early tremor or a random fluctuation remains to be seen. I’m nervous and will stay nervous. [It is] far from clear that good growth and stable finance are compatible.” 

Some strategists expect the recent declines to lead to further selling, as computer-driven funds that target volatility are forced to shed more equities. Analysts put the amount of automatic selling from the recent turmoil at about $200bn, and more could be on the way unless markets simmer down. 

Jonathan Lavine, co-managing partner of Bain Capital, says a drop in share prices was not a surprise in itself. “It was the ferocity of the move, not triggered by any material news and propelled by a small corner of financial markets,” he says. “You have to ask yourself what would happen in the event of real bad news.”

Thursday, 8 February 2018

A simple guide to statistics in the age of deception

Tim Harford in The Financial Times

Image result for statistics

“The best financial advice for most people would fit on an index card.” That’s the gist of an offhand comment in 2013 by Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago. Pollack’s bluff was duly called, and he quickly rushed off to find an index card and scribble some bullet points — with respectable results. 

When I heard about Pollack’s notion — he elaborated upon it in a 2016 book — I asked myself: would this work for statistics, too? There are some obvious parallels. In each case, common sense goes a surprisingly long way; in each case, dizzying numbers and impenetrable jargon loom; in each case, there are stubborn technical details that matter; and, in each case, there are people with a sharp incentive to lead us astray. 

The case for everyday practical numeracy has never been more urgent. Statistical claims fill our newspapers and social media feeds, unfiltered by expert judgment and often designed as a political weapon. We do not necessarily trust the experts — or more precisely, we may have our own distinctive view of who counts as an expert and who does not.  

Nor are we passive consumers of statistical propaganda; we are the medium through which the propaganda spreads. We are arbiters of what others will see: what we retweet, like or share online determines whether a claim goes viral or vanishes. If we fall for lies, we become unwittingly complicit in deceiving others. On the bright side, we have more tools than ever to help weigh up what we see before we share it — if we are able and willing to use them. 

In the hope that someone might use it, I set out to write my own postcard-sized citizens’ guide to statistics. Here’s what I learnt. 

Professor Pollack’s index card includes advice such as “Save 20 per cent of your money” and “Pay your credit card in full every month”. The author Michael Pollan offers dietary advice in even pithier form: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Quite so, but I still want a cheeseburger.  

However good the advice Pollack and Pollan offer, it’s not always easy to take. The problem is not necessarily ignorance. Few people think that Coca-Cola is a healthy drink, or believe that credit cards let you borrow cheaply. Yet many of us fall into some form of temptation or other. That is partly because slick marketers are focused on selling us high-fructose corn syrup and easy credit. And it is partly because we are human beings with human frailties. 

With this in mind, my statistical postcard begins with advice about emotion rather than logic. When you encounter a new statistical claim, observe your feelings. Yes, it sounds like a line from Star Wars, but we rarely believe anything because we’re compelled to do so by pure deduction or irrefutable evidence. We have feelings about many of the claims we might read — anything from “inequality is rising” to “chocolate prevents dementia”. If we don’t notice and pay attention to those feelings, we’re off to a shaky start. 

What sort of feelings? Defensiveness. Triumphalism. Righteous anger. Evangelical fervour. Or, when it comes to chocolate and dementia, relief. It’s fine to have an emotional response to a chart or shocking statistic — but we should not ignore that emotion, or be led astray by it. 

There are certain claims that we rush to tell the world, others that we use to rally like-minded people, still others we refuse to believe. Our belief or disbelief in these claims is part of who we feel we are. “We all process information consistent with our tribe,” says Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale University. 

In 2005, Charles Taber and Milton Lodge, political scientists at Stony Brook University, New York, conducted experiments in which subjects were invited to study arguments around hot political issues. Subjects showed a clear confirmation bias: they sought out testimony from like-minded organisations. For example, subjects who opposed gun control would tend to start by reading the views of the National Rifle Association. Subjects also showed a disconfirmation bias: when the researchers presented them with certain arguments and invited comment, the subjects would quickly accept arguments with which they agreed, but devote considerable effort to disparage opposing arguments.  

Expertise is no defence against this emotional reaction; in fact, Taber and Lodge found that better-informed experimental subjects showed stronger biases. The more they knew, the more cognitive weapons they could aim at their opponents. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature,” commented Benjamin Franklin, “since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” 

This is why it’s important to face up to our feelings before we even begin to process a statistical claim. If we don’t at least acknowledge that we may be bringing some emotional baggage along with us, we have little chance of discerning what’s true. As the physicist Richard Feynman once commented, “You must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

The second crucial piece of advice is to understand the claim. That seems obvious. But all too often we leap to disbelieve or believe (and repeat) a claim without pausing to ask whether we really understand what the claim is. To quote Douglas Adams’s philosophical supercomputer, Deep Thought, “Once you know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.” 

For example, take the widely accepted claim that “inequality is rising”. It seems uncontroversial, and urgent. But what does it mean? Racial inequality? Gender inequality? Inequality of opportunity, of consumption, of education attainment, of wealth? Within countries or across the globe? 

Even given a narrower claim, “inequality of income before taxes is rising” (and you should be asking yourself, since when?), there are several different ways to measure this. One approach is to compare the income of people at the 90th percentile and the 10th percentile, but that tells us nothing about the super-rich, nor the ordinary people in the middle. An alternative is to examine the income share of the top 1 per cent — but this approach has the opposite weakness, telling us nothing about how the poorest fare relative to the majority.  

There is no single right answer — nor should we assume that all the measures tell a similar story. In fact, there are many true statements that one can make about inequality. It may be worth figuring out which one is being made before retweeting it. 

Perhaps it is not surprising that a concept such as inequality turns out to have hidden depths. But the same holds true of more tangible subjects, such as “a nurse”. Are midwives nurses? Health visitors? Should two nurses working half-time count as one nurse? Claims over the staffing of the UK’s National Health Service have turned on such details. 

All this can seem like pedantry — or worse, a cynical attempt to muddy the waters and suggest that you can prove anything with statistics. But there is little point in trying to evaluate whether a claim is true if one is unclear what the claim even means. 

Imagine a study showing that kids who play violent video games are more likely to be violent in reality. Rebecca Goldin, a mathematician and director of the statistical literacy project STATS, points out that we should ask questions about concepts such as “play”, “violent video games” and “violent in reality”. Is Space Invaders a violent game? It involves shooting things, after all. And are we measuring a response to a questionnaire after 20 minutes’ play in a laboratory, or murderous tendencies in people who play 30 hours a week? “Many studies won’t measure violence,” says Goldin. “They’ll measure something else such as aggressive behaviour.” Just like “inequality” or “nurse”, these seemingly common sense words hide a lot of wiggle room. 

Two particular obstacles to our understanding are worth exploring in a little more detail. One is the question of causation. “Taller children have a higher reading age,” goes the headline. This may summarise the results of a careful study about nutrition and cognition. Or it may simply reflect the obvious point that eight-year-olds read better than four-year-olds — and are taller. Causation is philosophically and technically a knotty business but, for the casual consumer of statistics, the question is not so complicated: just ask whether a causal claim is being made, and whether it might be justified. 

Returning to this study about violence and video games, we should ask: is this a causal relationship, tested in experimental conditions? Or is this a broad correlation, perhaps because the kind of thing that leads kids to violence also leads kids to violent video games? Without clarity on this point, we don’t really have anything but an empty headline.  

We should never forget, either, that all statistics are a summary of a more complicated truth. For example, what’s happening to wages? With tens of millions of wage packets being paid every month, we can only ever summarise — but which summary? The average wage can be skewed by a small number of fat cats. The median wage tells us about the centre of the distribution but ignores everything else. 

Or we might look at the median increase in wages, which isn’t the same thing as the increase in the median wage — not at all. In a situation where the lowest and highest wages are increasing while the middle sags, it’s quite possible for the median pay rise to be healthy while median pay falls.  

Sir Andrew Dilnot, former chair of the UK Statistics Authority, warns that an average can never convey the whole of a complex story. “It’s like trying to see what’s in a room by peering through the keyhole,” he tells me.  

In short, “you need to ask yourself what’s being left out,” says Mona Chalabi, data editor for The Guardian US. That applies to the obvious tricks, such as a vertical axis that’s been truncated to make small changes look big. But it also applies to the less obvious stuff — for example, why does a graph comparing the wages of African-Americans with those of white people not also include data on Hispanic or Asian-Americans? There is no shame in leaving something out. No chart, table or tweet can contain everything. But what is missing can matter. 

Channel the spirit of film noir: get the backstory. Of all the statistical claims in the world, this particular stat fatale appeared in your newspaper or social media feed, dressed to impress. Why? Where did it come from? Why are you seeing it?  

Sometimes the answer is little short of a conspiracy: a PR company wanted to sell ice cream, so paid a penny-ante academic to put together the “equation for the perfect summer afternoon”, pushed out a press release on a quiet news day, and won attention in a media environment hungry for clicks. Or a political donor slung a couple of million dollars at an ideologically sympathetic think-tank in the hope of manufacturing some talking points. 

Just as often, the answer is innocent but unedifying: publication bias. A study confirming what we already knew — smoking causes cancer — is unlikely to make news. But a study with a surprising result — maybe smoking doesn’t cause cancer after all — is worth a headline. The new study may have been rigorously conducted but is probably wrong: one must weigh it up against decades of contrary evidence. 

Publication bias is a big problem in academia. The surprising results get published, the follow-up studies finding no effect tend to appear in lesser journals if they appear at all. It is an even bigger problem in the media — and perhaps bigger yet in social media. Increasingly, we see a statistical claim because people like us thought it was worth a Like on Facebook. 

David Spiegelhalter, president of the Royal Statistical Society, proposes what he calls the “Groucho principle”. Groucho Marx famously resigned from a club — if they’d accept him as a member, he reasoned, it couldn’t be much of a club. Spiegelhalter feels the same about many statistical claims that reach the headlines or the social media feed. He explains, “If it’s surprising or counter-intuitive enough to have been drawn to my attention, it is probably wrong.”  

OK. You’ve noted your own emotions, checked the backstory and understood the claim being made. Now you need to put things in perspective. A few months ago, a horrified citizen asked me on Twitter whether it could be true that in the UK, seven million disposable coffee cups were thrown away every day.  

I didn’t have an answer. (A quick internet search reveals countless repetitions of the claim, but no obvious source.) But I did have an alternative question: is that a big number? The population of the UK is 65 million. If one person in 10 used a disposable cup each day, that would do the job.  

Many numbers mean little until we can compare them with a more familiar quantity. It is much more informative to know how many coffee cups a typical person discards than to know how many are thrown away by an entire country. And more useful still to know whether the cups are recycled (usually not, alas) or what proportion of the country’s waste stream is disposable coffee cups (not much, is my guess, but I may be wrong).  

So we should ask: how big is the number compared with other things I might intuitively understand? How big is it compared with last year, or five years ago, or 30? It’s worth a look at the historical trend, if the data are available.  

Finally, beware “statistical significance”. There are various technical objections to the term, some of which are important. But the simplest point to appreciate is that a number can be “statistically significant” while being of no practical importance. Particularly in the age of big data, it’s possible for an effect to clear this technical hurdle of statistical significance while being tiny. 

One study was able to demonstrate that unborn children exposed to a heatwave while in the womb went on to earn less as adults. The finding was statistically significant. But the impact was trivial: $30 in lost income per year. Just because a finding is statistically robust does not mean it matters; the word “significance” obscures that. 

In an age of computer-generated images of data clouds, some of the most charming data visualisations are hand-drawn doodles by the likes of Mona Chalabi and the cartoonist Randall Munroe. But there is more to these pictures than charm: Chalabi uses the wobble of her pen to remind us that most statistics have a margin of error. A computer plot can confer the illusion of precision on what may be a highly uncertain situation. 

“It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong,” wrote Carveth Read in Logic (1898), and excessive precision can lead people astray. On the eve of the US presidential election in 2016, the political forecasting website FiveThirtyEight gave Donald Trump a 28.6 per cent chance of winning. In some ways that is impressive, because other forecasting models gave Trump barely any chance at all. But how could anyone justify the decimal point on such a forecast? No wonder many people missed the basic message, which was that Trump had a decent shot. “One in four” would have been a much more intuitive guide to the vagaries of forecasting.

Exaggerated precision has another cost: it makes numbers needlessly cumbersome to remember and to handle. So, embrace imprecision. The budget of the NHS in the UK is about £10bn a month. The national income of the United States is about $20tn a year. One can be much more precise about these things, but carrying the approximate numbers around in my head lets me judge pretty quickly when — say — a £50m spending boost or a $20bn tax cut is noteworthy, or a rounding error. 

My favourite rule of thumb is that since there are 65 million people in the UK and people tend to live a bit longer than 65, the size of a typical cohort — everyone retiring or leaving school in a given year — will be nearly a million people. Yes, it’s a rough estimate — but vaguely right is often good enough. 

Be curious. Curiosity is bad for cats, but good for stats. Curiosity is a cardinal virtue because it encourages us to work a little harder to understand what we are being told, and to enjoy the surprises along the way.  

This is partly because almost any statistical statement raises questions: who claims this? Why? What does this number mean? What’s missing? We have to be willing — in the words of UK statistical regulator Ed Humpherson — to “go another click”. If a statistic is worth sharing, isn’t it worth understanding first? The digital age is full of informational snares — but it also makes it easier to look a little deeper before our minds snap shut on an answer.  

While curiosity gives us the motivation to ask another question or go another click, it gives us something else, too: a willingness to change our minds. For many of the statistical claims that matter, we have already reached a conclusion. We already know what our tribe of right-thinking people believe about Brexit, gun control, vaccinations, climate change, inequality or nationalisation — and so it is natural to interpret any statistical claim as either a banner to wave, or a threat to avoid.  

Curiosity can put us into a better frame of mind to engage with statistical surprises. If we treat them as mysteries to be resolved, we are more likely to spot statistical foul play, but we are also more open-minded when faced with rigorous new evidence. 

In research with Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dan Kahan has discovered that people who are intrinsically curious about science — they exist across the political spectrum — tend to be less polarised in their response to questions about politically sensitive topics. We need to treat surprises as a mystery rather than a threat.  

Isaac Asimov is thought to have said, “The most exciting phrase in science isn’t ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny…’” The quip points to an important truth: if we treat the open question as more interesting than the neat answer, we’re on the road to becoming wiser.  

In the end, my postcard has 50-ish words and six commandments. Simple enough, I hope, for someone who is willing to make an honest effort to evaluate — even briefly — the statistical claims that appear in front of them. That willingness, I fear, is what is most in question.  

“Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic?” said Donald Trump, then presidential candidate, when challenged by Bill O’Reilly about a grotesque lie that he had retweeted about African-Americans and homicides. And Trump had a point — sort of. He should, of course, have got someone to check a statistic before lending his megaphone to a false and racist claim. We all know by now that he simply does not care. 

But Trump’s excuse will have struck a chord with many, even those who are aghast at his contempt for accuracy (and much else). He recognised that we are all human. We don’t check everything; we can’t. Even if we had all the technical expertise in the world, there is no way that we would have the time. 

My aim is more modest. I want to encourage us all to make the effort a little more often: to be open-minded rather than defensive; to ask simple questions about what things mean, where they come from and whether they would matter if they were true. And, above all, to show enough curiosity about the world to want to know the answers to some of these questions — not to win arguments, but because the world is a fascinating place.