Thursday, December 27, 2018

How do you say, "I don't know" in Discipline X

Performance poet and writer Hannah Chutzpah asked on Twitter:

What are the technical terms, in your field, for 'dunno'? In medicine there's 'ideopathic' [corrected the original, incorrect spelling] In archeology/anthropology there's 'ritual purposes' How do you professionally term 'we haven't got a clue'?

And the answers are a veritable riot!

As they say on Twitter, Thread.

And Fun.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Quotes of the Day

Everywhere around the world, the future is uncertain. But in India, even the past is uncertain.

This quote, from former RBI Governor Y.V. Reddy, has been used by multiple authors (Ajit Ranade, Vivek Kaul) in the context of the revised GDP growth data for 2004-11 using the new methodology. [I managed to track this one to the book, Who Moved My Interest Rate: Leading the Reserve Bank Through Five Turbulent Years by Reddy's successor, D. Subbarao.]

Another favorite, this one from Ronald Coase, has been used (also in the same context) in today's column by A.S. Panneerselvan, the Readers' Editor at The Hindu:

If you torture the data long enough, it will confess [to anything].

Finally, Ashok Desai has some seriously sarcastic things to say in his Economic Times column (which is also a great explainer for what has just happened). A couple of examples:

[The lower GDP growth rates for 2004-11 in the new methodology are] obviously because some new activities have grown very rapidly in recent years. Kumar gave a long list of the modifications. Some of them are so serious that even a PhD thesis might be insufficient to justify them.

... and

Maybe the government has created not only new GDP statistics, it has even invented anew economics, turning old economists into chaiwallas. Anything is possible in a country that manufactured airplanes three millennia ago.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Annals of Ranking: Which decades produced "better" Nobel Prizes in Science?

Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen have the click-bait article of the month in The Atlantic, Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck, with the following summary (abstract?):

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

Here's their methodology:

we ran a survey asking scientists to compare Nobel Prize–winning discoveries in their fields. We then used those rankings to determine how scientists think the quality of Nobel Prize–winning discoveries has changed over the decades.

As a sample survey question, we might ask a physicist which was a more important contribution to scientific understanding: the discovery of the neutron (the particle that makes up roughly half the ordinary matter in the universe) or the discovery of the cosmic-microwave-background radiation (the afterglow of the Big Bang). Think of the survey as a round-robin tournament, competitively matching discoveries against each other, with expert scientists judging which is better.

For the physics prize, we surveyed 93 physicists from the world’s top academic physics departments (according to the Shanghai Rankings of World Universities), and they judged 1,370 pairs of discoveries. [...]

Collison and Nielsen did this decade-wise comparison of Nobel winning discoveries across nine decades spanning the years 1901-1990 [The authors note that "[the prize-winning] work is attributed to the year in which the discovery was made, not when the subsequent prize was awarded"].

Not surprisingly, the two following decades (1911-1930) get the best ratings.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Graduate students as slave labour

Let's begin with the post titled Cruelty in Academia from December 2006. That was about grad students in several Indian universities.

Fast forward to a US university in 2018, and we get this: Professor used students as servants. UMKC knew and didn’t stop him. The report by Mará Rose Williams and Mike Hendricks is about Ashim Mitra, an Indian-origin professor in the University of Missouri at Kansas City:

The [Kansas City] Star found that over Mitra’s 24 years as a leader in the UMKC School of Pharmacy, the professor compelled his students to act as his personal servants. They hauled equipment and bused tables at his social events. They were expected to tend his lawn, look after his dog and water the house plants, sometimes for weeks at a time when he and his wife were away. [...]

Through Mitra’s hints and direct threats, students said they feared he would have their visas revoked if they did not comply with his demands. [...]

When Kuchimanchi once told Mitra he wouldn’t be a servant, “he threatened to kick me out of the university and force me to lose my visa and lose everything. That was his ammo. Either fall in line or you would be thrown out. You didn’t want to be in that situation where you have to go back home empty-handed.” So he continued to do what Mitra asked.

This part of the report nails it:

At best, critics say, Mitra’s demands violated ethical standards and university policy. At worst, a U.S. immigration official told The Star, coerced off-campus labors would be tantamount to human trafficking.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Vijaysree Venkatraman has a nice article on Prof. G.N.Ramachandran's work at the University of Madras in the fifties and the sixties: How a Madras scientist won the global race in the ’50s to crack the structure of collagen. An excerpt:

First, he needed to find a source of collagen. The shark fin collagen from the biochemistry department on campus didn’t yield great images. Good quality pictures were essential to cracking the collagen puzzle, he knew. Leather, it occurred to GNR, was largely collagen.

Not far from the university campus was a new institute – the Central Leather Research Institute. GNR decided to pay his neighbours a visit. As he made his way there, the leather choices in GNR’s mind were Kangaroo Tail Tendon or Beef Achilles Tendon. The deputy director of CLRI turned out to be a kindred soul, happy to help a fellow scientist. The beef sample was easy to obtain locally. But if kangaroo collagen was going to yield the best diffraction images – as the scientific literature said – the deputy director promised to get GNR samples from Australia.

Thus, GNR found himself some purified marsupial collagen to work with.

The only information available on the fibrous protein collagen was this: one-third of its total amino acid content was glycine. Using this fact, looking at the pictures he had taken, GNR made an intuitive leap. [...]

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Infosys Prize ...

Congratulations to our colleagues and friends Prof. Navakanta Bhat and Prof. S.K. Satheesh on winning the Infosys Prize in Engineering and Computer Science, and Physical Sciences, respectively. They join Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy (PS, 2011), Prof. Jayant Haritsa (EaCS, 2014), and Prof. V. Kumaran (EaCS, 2016) in the list of prize winners from IISc.

This year's other winners are Prof. Kavita Singh (JNU) in Humanities, Roop Malik (TIFR) in Life Sciences, Prof. Nalini Anantharaman (University of Strassbourg) in Mathematics, Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan (University of Chicago) in Social Sciences.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Predatory journals face intense scrutiny

In a great example of collaborative journalism, The Indian Express partners with several other big names in the news business to shine a bright and harsh spotlight on predatory journals. Its global partners include broadcasters NDR and WDR (Germany), and newspapers Suddeutsche Zeitung (Germany) and Le Monde (France), and the magazine The New Yorker (USA); IE says International Consortium of Investigative Journalists provided the platform for the over 60 journalists to share their findings.

There is just way too much that has been brought to light, so I will just provide a link to the stories [Update: Links to the entire series of news stories in The Indian Express are collected at this page]:

Friday, July 20, 2018


  1. FY Fluid Dynamics on Dead salmon swimming.
  2. Editorial in Nature: China sets a strong example on how to address scientific fraud. "New measures introduce what could be the world’s strongest disincentive for misconduct so far."
  3. David D. Perlmutter in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Academic Job Hunts From Hell: Keep on Script. "The job interview is not a spontaneous exchange, it’s a minefield."
  4. Debraj Ray and Arthur Robson in Vox EU: Certified random co-authors. "This column -- whose authors both have surnames starting with R, one of whom was once recommended a “wonderful paper” on which he was a co-author -- proposes a new mechanism for co-authorship. It involves a coin toss to order co-authors, and an institutionally ratified symbol to signal random order. Such a mechanism would be fairer and more efficient, and it would displace alphabetical order through voluntary participation alone."
  5. Leonie Mueck in Nature Nanotechnology: Report the awful truth!. "Negative and null results are routinely produced across all scientific disciplines, but rarely get reported. The key to combat the biases arising from this mismatch lies in disseminating all details about a work." rather than just positive results."

Saturday, June 16, 2018

ToI's Analysis of Medical College Admissions in 2017

I am not thrilled to see the word "merit" being used so casually, but Rema Nagarajan's ToI news story captures the essence in its title: Money, not quota, dilutes merit in medical admissions:

It is not caste-based reservation but money that compromises merit in medical admissions.

This is obvious from the difference of about 140 marks, or close to 20 percentage points, between the average NEET scores of admissions to over 39,000 government-controlled seats and those to the over 17,000 management and NRI quota seats in private colleges where fees determine admission.

TOI analysed details of nearly 57,000 students admitted to 409 colleges last year. The average NEET score of students in government-controlled seats was 448 out of 720, while the quotas under private control averaged just 306.

Incidentally, the average score of students admitted under the SC quota in government colleges was 398 and the overall average for SC students in all colleges was 367, both much higher than the overall average for privately controlled seats.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Inder Verma Resigns

Meredith Wadman in Science [following up on her explosive report from six weeks ago]:

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Zimbardo's Lie

From this week's must-read article: Ben Blum's The Lifespan of a Lie -- The most famous psychology study of all time was a sham. Why can’t we escape the Stanford Prison Experiment?:

Despite the Stanford prison experiment’s canonical status in intro psych classes around the country today, methodological criticism of it was swift and widespread in the years after it was conducted. Deviating from scientific protocol, Zimbardo and his students had published their first article about the experiment not in an academic journal of psychology but in The New York Times Magazine, sidestepping the usual peer review. Famed psychologist Erich Fromm, unaware that guards had been explicitly instructed to be “tough,” nonetheless opined that in light of the obvious pressures to abuse, what was most surprising about the experiment was how few guards did. “The authors believe it proves that the situation alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject, submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists,” Fromm wrote. “It seems to me that the experiment proves, if anything, rather the contrary.” Some scholars have argued that it wasn’t an experiment at all. Leon Festinger, the psychologist who pioneered the concept of cognitive dissonance, dismissed it as a “happening.”

A steady trickle of critiques have continued to emerge over the years, expanding the attack on the experiment to more technical issues around its methodology, such as demand characteristics, ecological validity, and selection bias. In 2005, Carlo Prescott, the San Quentin parolee who consulted on the experiment’s design, published an Op-Ed in The Stanford Daily entitled “The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” revealing that many of the guards’ techniques for tormenting prisoners had been taken from his own experience at San Quentin rather than having been invented by the participants. In another blow to the experiment’s scientific credibility, Haslam and Reicher’s attempted replication, in which guards received no coaching and prisoners were free to quit at any time, failed to reproduce Zimbardo’s findings. Far from breaking down under escalating abuse, prisoners banded together and won extra privileges from guards, who became increasingly passive and cowed. According to Reicher, Zimbardo did not take it well when they attempted to publish their findings in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

“We discovered that he was privately writing to editors to try to stop us getting published by claiming that we were fraudulent,” Reicher told me.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018


Two links [hat tip to M. Madhan]:

  • Ben Guarino, Emily Rauhala and William Wan in The Washington Post: Health & Science China increasingly challenges American dominance of science

    The United States spends half a trillion dollars a year on scientific research — more than any other nation on Earth — but China has pulled into second place, with the European Union third and Japan a distant fourth.

    China is on track to surpass the United States by the end of this year, according to the National Science Board. In 2016, annual scientific publications from China outnumbered those from the United States for the first time.

    “There seems to be a sea change in how people are talking about Chinese science,” said Alanna Krolikowski, a Chinese science expert at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Foreign observers, many of whom were once condescending, now “are rather in awe at what the Chinese policies have accomplished.”

  • Dalmeet Singh Chawla in Nature Index: Italian scientists increase self-citations in response to promotion policy:

    Italian scientists have been citing themselves more often since a controversial law came into effect in 2010 demanding academics meet productivity thresholds to gain promotion. Economic and managerial engineering showed the greatest leap in self-citations from 2010 to 2014 of the four fields examined.

Friday, May 04, 2018

UGC strikes back: INSA's Indian Journal of History of Science is not an "approved" journal!

After many people pointed out that the University Grants Commission's "White List" of "approved" journals had many, many predatory journals (see, for example, this recent report in The Hindu), UGC tried to make amends by issuing another list [pdf], which now consists of all the journals which are "removed" from the list of "approved" journals.

What is really galling is that in this pruning process, which killed some 4000+ journals, UGC has gone way too far on the other side, and removed a whole bunch of legitimate journals. [see this report from today's The Hindu].

I just learnt that The Indian Journal of History of Science, published by the Indian National Science Academy, has also been kicked out of the "approved" list!

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Obituary of the 100 Dollar Laptop

Way back in March 2014, OLPC News, which used to track all the OLPC-related news and developments, bid farewell to this pipe dream riding on poor people's money. Earlier this month, Adi Robertson penned a formal detailed obituary in The Verge: OLPC’S $100 laptop was going to change the world — Then it all went wrong. Buried deep within Robertson's essay (actually, right at its end), we find this:

There’s surprisingly little hard data about the long-term impact of OLPCs on childhood education, though. Zamora points to some case studies for individual countries, and says OLPC wants to commission more comprehensive research in the future. But the organization has mostly focused on anecdotes and distribution numbers as markers of success. “OLPC was always very averse to measuring how well they were doing versus the traditional school system,” says Gros. “There have only been a very limited number of attempts to actually measure how well students were doing with OLPC versus not, because it was very hard to do.”

Ames thinks that OLPC’s high-profile failures helped temper the hype around ed-tech programs. “There was a lot of worry that OLPC would crash and take everything with it — that there would be no funding in [educational technology], there would be no funding in tech development,” says Ames. “I think ed-tech in particular can still really draw on some of the same tropes, and hasn’t fully learned the lessons that OLPC should have taught it. But both of those spaces did have to mature to some degree, and stop being quite so naive in their tech utopianism.” Non-OLPC student laptop programs are still contentious. Maine Governor Paul LePage trashed his state’s initiative as a “massive failure” in 2016, and while it’s still running, its results have been ambiguous and difficult to measure. Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall project won a $1 million TED prize in 2013, but critics say he still hasn’t published any rigorous studies of its effects. Bender isn’t convinced that Mitra’s minimalist computing project proved anything. “We already knew that kids could learn to use computers. They’ve been doing that since day one,” he says. “What the project did not demonstrate is that kids could use computers for learning.”

Ames says the real question isn’t whether laptop programs help students, but whether they’re more effective than other programs competing for the same money. “I think that given unlimited funding, absolutely ... Learning about technology is very important,” she says. “That said, there’s always a tradeoff. There’s always some project that will be defunded or de-emphasized as a result of this.”

Thirteen years ago, OLPC told the world that every child should get a laptop. It never stopped to prove that they needed one.


... [B]ad papers take a lot of time too, so let us just write a good one.

Attributed to the Princeton economist Dilip José Abreu by his junior colleague Markus Brunnermeier, as reported in Rohit Lamba's essay on Prof. Abreu and his key contributions.

The full paragraph presents the context in which these words were uttered:

In the late 1990s, as Abreu started to develop an interest in financial markets, a young Markus Brunnermeier, now a leading financial economist, joined Princeton. The duo teamed up to write a paper that explained why financial bubbles sustain. Investors are uncertain of when others will start trading against the bubble, making it worthwhile to continue riding it until its painful burst. For example, in the prelude to the 2008 financial crisis, banks kept issuing subprime mortgage backed securities, even as it was becoming clear that the mountain of debt was going to collapse. The then chief executive officer of Citigroup, Chuck Prince, uttered the now iconic words, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” Bubbles emerge and persist in many such situations, breaking the hypothesis that prices internalize all possible information. It was as if Prince had received the Abreu-Brunnermeier memo, but a tad late. Brunnermeier is effusive in his respect for Abreu: “He has been a mentor… He sets very high standards for himself. As we worked through many models of bubbles and I grew anxious as an assistant professor, he joked that bad papers take a lot of time too, so let us just write a good one.” And boy they did.