Monday, April 30, 2007

Some interesting developments to watch for ...

Umesh Kumar Singh reports in ToI [Thanks to Chitta for the pointer through this comment]:

The Central Information Commission has directed IIT Kharagpur, which conducts the joint entrance exam for the engineering courses, to furnish all the details regarding cut-off marks and the procedure to reach to the cut-offs, the model answer sheet and so on by May 15 to a candidate, Eklavya's parents.

Note the candidate's name!

* * *

The IITs (and other institutions, too!) have always hoarded the huge wealth of information that's available with them regarding the students' background, their performance, number of previous attempts, and so on. The stuff they have is an ideal playground for freakonomics-types to show off their skills. [I have ranted about this before.] But even with the meager information put out in the public domain by the IITs, we can look forward to some data that are likely to throw light on some of the questions we have been grappling with in the past week. Here's the scenario:

While JEE allowed three attempts until last year, it allows only two attempts from this year on. Thus, one should expect a somewhat better rate of success for the first timers. Moreover, it will also allow one to test Falstaff's model [fn 1], in which men's advantage accrues to them because they keep taking the exam again (and again), whereas women essentially stop with just one attempt [Is there any empirical evidence for this? We should ask the IITs. Sigh!]. If the model's view of the situation is right, it would imply that the fraction of women in the list of successful candidates will be greater as well.

We will wait and watch. The next few months promise to be quite interesting ...

* * *

In Falstaff's model, the agents are identified only as X and Y. I have 'translated' the terminology to suit my purpose here.

Women in engineering: What about international comparisons?

Vivek has done a great job of collecting a lot of interesting data women in engineering for many countries (but mostly in the West). They all point to a low figure of 20 percent for the ratio of women among engineers.

A first look at these data might lead one to despair; there seems to be a grim sort of determinism at play: as development progresses and India too becomes more and more like the West, this 20 percent may be the "attractor" towards which India too will move inexorably. But, this grim view is unnecessary. There are big differences between the West and India, and the path we take need not take us to the same destination that the West has reached now. Let's look at some of these differences. In discussing these differences, I don't mean to underplay the problems women face in the West, but to point out that since the underlying causes are different, the solutions must be too.

* * *

1. In India, engineering courses (along with medicine, law and accounting where the overall numbers are small) are highly sought after; so much so that many students are willing to attend some no name, tin pot college to study computer science (and pay good money too!), instead of attending a good, reputed college to study science/arts/commerce. In the West, on the other hand, there are many, many options for an incoming freshman; not getting into engineering does not handicap a student when it comes to the job market, where there are plenty of opportunities for non-engineering majors.

This difference is reflected in the debates as well. In the US, for example, people talk about what the institutions (and their people and practices) must do to "attract" more women; alternatively, they talk about how the current practices drive women students away. In India, on the other hand, we are (at least I am!) talking about the ways in which our institutions are keeping bright and very interested women out, and why they must change their practices.

2. An 18-year old in the West is expected to choose his/her career path; others may offer advice and guidance, but the responsibility for the final choice is largely on the individual. In India, on the other hand, college related decisions have significant -- and in many cases, decisive -- inputs from the parents (and the rest of the family). [When a student rebels against the choices made for him/her, it is considered sufficiently unusual for people to talk about it!]

3. In the West too, societal pressure works to deter women from entering S&E programs in college. But this pressure is largely from peers ("math is uncool", "physics is for nerds", etc); the pressure from parents, teachers and other significant elders is subtle and covert. In India, I don't know of detailed studies, but my guess is that the pressure comes mainly from the parents and other family members. Vivek himself identified quite a few problems. In addition, Govar points to parents' concerns about overqualification that makes it difficult for them to find someone even more qualified to marry their daughters off. On a different note, Gopal points to parents' concerns about their daughters' hostel stay (since many of our top colleges have their own fully residential campuses), etc. Happily for us, many of these society- and culture-imposed problems are on the losing side. At least in cities. Increasing participation of women in computer science and electronics programs is indicative of this trend. Will other fields -- metallurgical engineering! -- to catch this trend?

4. The differences in the underlying societal causes for women's underrepresentation in engineering imply that remedies are also different. Thus, in the West, one tries to figure out how the 'peer effect' can be countered; in India, on the other hand, one looks at how parents' attitudes can be changed. However, in both places, there are problems at the institutional level too. In the US, Zuska, Janet Stemwedel and Sean Carroll devote considerable space for discussing this issue. It is this kind of discussion we are engaged in here.

5. Finally, institutions in the West (at least some of them in the US, about which I have better knowledge), are acutely aware of their inability to attract women into S&E careers. And some of them are doing something about it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I linked to this NYTimes piece about the efforts of top computer science departments to attract more women to their undergrad programs.

Moving emphasis away from programming proficiency was a key to the success of programs Dr. Blum and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon instituted to draw more women into computer science. At one time, she said, admission to the program depended on high overall achievement and programming experience. The criteria now, she said, are high overall achievement and broad interests, diverse perspectives and whether applicants seem to have potential to be future leaders.

“In this more balanced environment, the men and women were more alike than different,” she said. “Some women are hackers and some men are hackers, and some women love applications and some men love applications.”

With the changes at Carnegie Mellon, women now make up almost 40 percent of computer science enrollees, up from 8 percent, Dr. Blum said.

In the comments section of his own post, Bill, who is from the very department mentioned in the above quote (and who is also an IIT alumnus), has this to say:

I was at CMU where they have become concerned by the low number of women entering CS (did you see the Times article just over a week ago?) and are in the middle of seeing how they can modify the situation. Their tweaks over the last five years have slowly but steadily increased the number of women applying, and also, getting admitted. Of course their entrance procedures are very different but my point is does IIT even recognise this as a problem? I, for one, see no evidence of that.

In India, Dilip talks about BITS-Pilani going through an exercise in soul-searching, because women's enrollment dropped precipitously when that institution introduced an entrance exam in 2004. A similar point was raised by Tobacconist on Vivek's original post. Here's the relevant part from Dilip's post:

  • Over the years, BITS admitted an ever-increasing number of girls, still on school-leaving marks. When I visited the campus in early 2004, the sex ratio was more like 2:3. (Still f:m). I believe part of that increase is explained by hugely expanded hostel space for girls.
  • In 2004, BITS introduced their new online admissions test, BITSAT. The immediate fallout was a drastic drop in the number of girls admitted. I believe the ratio among 2004 entrants was something like 1:10, uncomfortably like in my time.
  • This drop is of serious concern to BITS authorities, who I believe are examining (among other things) if the test itself has or encourages gender bias.

Let me get back to Bill's question here: Do our top engineering institutions think of women's underrepresentation as a problem?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

IITs and women: A recap

This post is going to be long. Very long. Don't complain that I didn't warn you!

Also, this post is unlikely to have anything that I have not said before. But I still want to write this post because I want to get all the arguments and data -- and links, too! -- in one place.

A couple of things before I start. First, I want to say a big "Thank You" to all of you who came by and commented on the previous two posts. The number of comments on this post is a record for this humble blog. The comments on the bleg post, where many of you gave me some data on the proportion of women in your engineering class, were interesting, and I found them very useful in refining my own thinking on this issue. And finally, my special thanks go to Bill for writing a very thoughtful post on JEE's bias against women.

Second, just as low numbers of women in science and engineering (which become even lower in IITs as well as at higher levels of education) bother me, I am sure they bother many of you too. Given these low numbers, and given that we would like women's participation in engineering (and other fields, too!) to grow, we are interested in finding the underlying causes, so that suitable remedies can be found. The lack of agreement between Vivek (and some commenters) and me (and some other commenters) is essentially in the latter realm -- of understanding the reasons for women's under-representation; but the gap in our positions will continue to shrink as we keep this discussion going, and as we get more data to look at. On some observations, there's already some agreement: that our society doesn't value women's education as much as it does men's, and that high quality educational opportunities (IITs, AIIMS, NLSUI, etc.) are too few.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's move forward.

1. First, the numbers

Vivek has unearthed an interesting document -- a report from the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) -- about the status of women in science (and engineering) in India [[I too had linked to it in a recent post]; it covers both higher education and employment. For the present purposes, the key data are in Tables 2, 3 and 4 (on pages 7-8) in Part I (pdf), covering college enrollment.

Among the college-goers, only 39.4 percent were women; more pertinently, just 21 percent of the engineering students were women. The only fields that do worse (in terms of women's participation) are veterinary science (20.9 percent), law (20 percent) and agriculture (17.4 percent). In most other fields (science, commerce, arts, etc), women's participation was around the overall average: commerce and management (36.5), science (39.4), medicine (44), and arts (44.2). Education is the only field in which women (51.2 percent) outnumbered men. All this is from 2001.

If you look at the trend from 1996 to 2001, the fraction of women increased in all fields. While percent of women went from 36 to 39.4 across all fields, it went from 16 to 21.5 in engineering. An encouraging sign.

Let's move down to Classes X and XII. At the level of Class XII, boys outnumber girls, but only by a slim margin in CBSE. While it is possible that in other exam boards boys may outnumber girls by a bigger margin, it is also true that girls outperform boys in these exams. So, when you look at the stream of students coming out of Class XII, boys may enjoy, at best, a small advantage in numbers.

But at the college level, the INSA report shows clearly that men have a 6-to-4 edge; indicating that more girls than boys drop out of the education pipe at this important transition point.

Let us now turn to the data specific to engineering. The subjects that a student has to take at Class XII to get into engineering are mathematics, physics and chemistry (MPC). It is possible that the boys/girls ratio gets skewed in favour of boys in classes with MPC. Further, in most states, there are many, many single-sex schools. It is possible that boys' schools in those states outnumber those meant for girls, introducing some additional skew in favour of the boys. I can't put a figure on the exact extent of this skew in Class XII with MPC.

When you come to engineering itself, the distribution of women is uneven. Some disciplines, such as computer science and electronics engineering, seem to have a fairly high fraction of women (30 to 50 percent); see the comments on the previous post (specifically, here, here, and here). On the other hand, in 'traditional' engineering subjects such as mechanical engineering or my own field, metallurgical engineering, there are typically very few women.

Given the trend during 1996-2001 when women went from 16 percent to 21.5 percent, and given that the fields in which women participate in large numbers are also the fields that have been experiencing higher growth rates in output, I wouldn't be surprised if the fraction of women in engineering is close to (or, even above) 25% now.

[Aside: A couple of commenters have alluded to reservation for girls in engineering colleges [Orissa, AP]. Frankly, I was unaware of it. In these states, girls do go into disciplines such as mechanical engineering and metallurgical engineering in not insignificant numbers!]

Given that engineering is a discipline that continues to grow quite rapidly, and given that girls compete successfully to get into the more rapidly growing disciplines, we come to the rather happy conclusion that the number of women is increasing at a faster pace (albeit from a low base) than that of men.

The bottomline

The proportion of women decreases as they move from Class XII (where they have perhaps a small disadvantage in numbers) to college (where they are outnumbered 4 to 6). In college, their proportion is smaller in engineering (21.5 % in 2001, and perhaps 25% now). Their proportion is much greater than this average in fast-growing engineering disciplines than in traditional ones.

The society's impact is fairly self-evident in this trend: women's education receives less family attention and support, and certain engineering disciplines are seen as less desirable for women. Vivek made essentially these points in his first post on this subject; while he has been right about these societal effects, I believe that he overestimates their influence, leading him to deny that JEE might have a built-in bias against women. It is this we turn to next.

* * *

2. Let's look at JEE now, shall we?

Women constitute between 2 and 8 percent of IITs undergraduate student body. In 2005, this fraction was 6.3 percent (321/5092). In 2006, however, "there [was] only marginal increase in successful female candidates as compared to JEE-2005." The total number of successful candidates, on the other hand, went up from 5092 to 6343. Clearly, the fraction of women among the successful candidates in 2006 was likely about 5 percent. [Here too, I would like to see some studies giving figures for all the IITs since their inception.]

Thus, in a random selection of students in 2005 or 2006, women are three to four times less likely to be found in IITs than in other engineering colleges. This, by itself, does not constitute an evidence for (a plausible) bias in JEE against women. For that, we have to show that the fraction of women in the eligible pool of candidates is far higher than that in the IITs.

[A related argument is the following. Think about the trends in the number of women in engineeing colleges: it is increasing quite rapidly (albeit from a small base). What about the IITs? Their absolute number hasn't gone beyond 500! ]

Since IITs are premier engineering institutions in the country, its students would be from the pool of top students in Class XII. What do we know about this cohort? Consider the CBSE results for Class X in 2006: among those with 90% marks and above, there were nearly as many girls as boys, and among those with 95% marks and above, girls outnumbered boys 9 to 8. [I would love to get my hands on a detailed study of Class XII results!]

A second metric, which Falstaff prefers, is the fraction of women among those taking the JEE. In 2005, it was about 15 percent (30,000 out of 200,000), and in 2006, it was about 20 percent (60,000 out of 300,000). [Given the past history of women's success in JEE, Falstaff also wonders if women self-select out of this exam -- particularly in the second attempt. I too think it's possible; but again, there's no data.]

A third metric is the fraction of women among those entering engineering colleges in a given year. From the INSA report, we know that as of 2001 it was around 21 percent; I would put the current figure at around 25%.

If you use any of these metrics, the fraction of women in IITs is far lower than what one would reasonably expect from a consideration of the eligible pool of candidates. Does this establish a plausible bias in JEE against women? I think so.

Does this bias represent a second level of handicap over and above that imposed on women by our society? I think so.

[Heck, even a very badly skewed model proposed by Falstaff leads to an estimate of 13 % for the disadvantaged group!]

* * *

3. Is JEE (in its current format) really necessary?

In principle, there is no need for any entrance exam if we had some way of normalizing the students' performance in exams conducted by India's many different Boards. The students' (normalized) marks themselves could be used for rank-ordering them, and they could then be assigned to go to different institutions based on their rank and their choice.

Thus, the use of an entrance exam (other than, of course, as a mechanism for normalizing across many exam boards) needs a clear articulation of the need for it. For example, one should be able to say, "engineering requires certain special skills, and not only does JEE test students on those special skills, the board exams do a poor job of it."

Remember, this utility of JEE cannot just be asserted. It should be backed up with data from serious, large and long-term studies, which I don't believe the IITs have done [in case you are interested, here is my rant on this topic]. But I know of one study (and I don't know how broad a data-set it used), that produced some very interesting findings:

  • ‘‘There is a strong correlation between the marks of Classes X, XII and the CGPA during B Tech. The correlation factor is close to 1.’’ This means, the chances of a good student in school doing well in B Tech is almost 100 per cent.
  • ‘‘There is little correlation between marks in Class X, Class XII and AIR.’’ That is, good performers in school are not likely to get good AIR in the present selection system.
  • ‘‘There is little correlation between AIR and CGPA.’’ This means, toppers in the JEE are not at the top during their B Tech programme.

This (probably limited) study is a strong indictment of JEE as a filter-exam. It indicates that the exam cannot claim any superiority in discovering those special people with even more special skills which are to be honed further in the IITs. I'm not sure if we can define such special skills in a sufficiently precise and testable manner that will be useful for all the programs that IITs offer: from computer science to mining to agricultural engineering. [The US universities seem to be happy with standardized but relatively general-purpose exams such as SAT for admitting students into all kinds of undergrad programs.]

Thus, I believe JEE should be replaced with an exam that has as its primary purpose the simple job of normalizing the scores across exam boards. Yes, this does imply that the questions must be standardized (pre-tested on a sample of students, with more difficult questions carrying a greater weight). More importantly, it also implies that it must stick to the syllabus that's actually used in Classes XI and XII -- both in breadth and depth.

[Aside: Some -- notably, RC -- have argued that since JEE is a 'selection machine' that has no prior conception of differences among candidates, it's not biased. This is a pretty lax yardstick with which to judge the fairness of a selection machine; by this yardstick, even a lottery is a fair machine! More seriously, however, we do have many other selection machines -- er, entrance exams -- that do a far better job of allowing women to succeed.]

* * *

4. How will the new format help?

The main problem with JEE -- that makes it biased against women, students from poor families and rural areas -- is that it is pitched at such a high level that students need external help through coaching centres. Some have asked how the need for coaching affects women. I see at least two ways: (a) coaching centres don't come cheap, and to the extent families value women's education less than they do men's, women get less money to spend on coaching, implying that many women who could benefit from coaching get insufficient amounts -- or none -- of it; and, (b) 'reputed' coaching centres are far away (Kota, Hyderabad), or they have classes during early mornings or late evenings (and one centre in Mumbai even tried all-night classes!): all these are clearly unfriendly for women.

Would a modified version of JEE really help in getting more women into the IITs? To the extent that performance in JEE tracks that in CBSE exams (for example), it is clear that more -- many, many more! -- women will make it to the IITs.

* * *

5. How about your objection about the coaching centres?

Will the new form of JEE reduce the corrosive role of coaching centres? Several (including Vivek and Tabula Rasa) seem convinced that it won't. The argument goes like this: "since the competition is so intense, even a small advantage due to these centres will help; thus, if boys have an advantage now, they will be able to carry it over to the new regime too." Not so fast! Consider this: schools themselves can train students for tackling both board exam and the new JEE; teachers can offer extra classes for motivated students.

I am willing to concede that the clamor for every possible advantage -- gettable at a price, of course -- will ensure that coaching centres will not go away. But, the extent of help can certainly be minimized by an exam that tests students at their level.

[Why doesn't this -- coaching at schools by the regular teachers -- happen now? In the current set up, with an extremely tough and high-level JEE, teachers and schools are unable to play this role, because they are ill-equipped to handle the college-level material demanded by JEE. (In fact, the format of JEE invites students to devalue their regular school education!)]

* * *

6. Anything else?

Yes, in its normalizing avatar, the new, improvedTM JEE can also become a uniter. It can replace all the other entrance exams. Currently, an aspiring engineering student needs to take the current JEE, AIEE, and one or two state-level entrance exams as well. They all have different emphasis, and require different kinds of preparation. In the new scheme of things, JEE is all there is. Our youth will be spared the pain of juggling conflicting requirements of many entrance exams.

What about concern that solving JEE level questions is a joy for some students? I suggest these exalted souls participate in Olympiads, the intellectual counterpart of the Olympic Games. When they do, it will be because of the love and joy of solving some super-problems; not because some frustrated professors thought up a crazy way to terrorize hundreds of thousands of innocent students. Though these Olympians do not need any incentives, we can still think of some: I suggest that the IITs set aside, say, 500 seats under the "Olympiad quota".

The rest of the students can get on with their lives in relative peace.

* * *

As I said, I have collected here several different strands that were scattered in various posts and comments. Thank you for reading all the way down here; you deserve an award!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Nanopolitan Bleg: Women and Engineering

One of the key disagreements is in sharp focus now: Either women are averse to engineering (due to whatever reasons, including their parents' old-fashioned ideas) or they aren't.

Observation: Women constituted just about a fifth of all JEE takers in 2006; this fraction was even smaller in 2005!

Possible explanations: May be women don't like engineering. May be women don't want to pursue engineering. Their social conditioning and their parents may conspire to make them view engineering as a less than desirable career to get into. This is a rough paraphrase of Vivek's point, which seems to find quite a few takers. If this is true, there's nothing IITs can do except to wait for the society to unscrew itself. [Update: This paragraph was edited to reflect Vivek's views better. See his comment below.]

Here's a different view (mine!): while women may not be applying for JEE (for example, they have given up on the IITs, due to their past (abysmal) record of admitting women students!), they do get into other engineering colleges in large numbers. So, this 'aversion to engineering' is a myth.

In his comment on my post, Falstaff says, "I noticed your claim that girls attend other engineering colleges in large numbers, but I'd need to see some figures on that - so far it's just a claim."

Well, I don't have the numbers. But, I do have wonderful readers, and I know many of you went to engineering colleges. So, can you please -- please, please -- help us resolve this issue? All I'm requesting you to do is to leave a comment with the following information: the college name, engineering discipline, year of graduation, the number of women, and the number of men.

Many thanks in advance. Here's some example data for my class (just to get this exercise going):

IT-BHU -- Metallurgical Engineering -- 1985 -- 0 women -- 25 men.

Yeah, I know, IT-BHU took -- and still takes -- students through JEE. I will let you decide where the bias was! If you comment under your real name, I promise to buy you a drink the next time you are in Bangalore ...


  1. In these post Virginia Tech days, don't get too 'emotional' in your creative writing or English assignments. If you do, consequences can be pretty bad.
  2. Dani Rodrik on globalization and (procedural) fairness: "... [M]ost of us would care about the manner in which the distributional change occurred--i.e., about procedural fairness. The fact that the shock created a net gain ... is not enough to conclude that it is a change for the better. "
  3. Vedanta University's website is up; it's looking for someone to become its Provost and Chief Academic Officer. The first line of its faculty page -- "Vedanta University’s academic strength is drirctly dependent on the caliber of faculty" -- indicates that it should hire a proof reader first. [Thanks to reader-commenter AS for the pointer.]
  4. Students (and at least one faculty member) at a university protested the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney. So what's the big deal? It happened at BYU. Here's a post by the faculty member who joined the protest.
  5. Wicked (and made up) words of wisdom that will make you feel "overflowing with this sense of goodness". Raj brings us Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mother Theresa and many other luminaries. Here's a sample:

    As Abraham Lincoln put it seven scores and five years ago, "a man who does not make a difference is indifferent".

  6. Gawker brings us news with this headline: Patent application approved, Indian men to have exclusive rights over Indian women.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


In heaven all the interesting people are missing.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

JEE's bias against women

In my post about JEE-bashing I pointed out that this exam has several biases built into it, with the worst being its bias against women. There are other biases too, but let me stick to this one for the moment.

First of all, it doesn't take genius to figure out that this bias exists: the fraction of women in the IITs is abysmally small -- typically less than 10 %. This number was this low when I entered college 25 years ago, and it has stayed there to this day.

I have tried to illustrate this bias using the results of board exams -- CBSE and ISC, in particular. Last year's data show that girls did better than boys in both CBSE and ISC exams. The CBSE results also showed that, in the Class X exams, girls outnumbered boys 9 to 8 among those scoring 95 % or higher. While we don't have the data for Class XII, I would be surprised if girls' performance dropped so drastically at Class XII as to 'justify' their small numbers in the IITs.

Girls also do well enough to get into all medical colleges and non-IIT engineering colleges in large numbers. [I do not have exact numbers for places like AIIMS and JIPMER (for medicine) and NITs and university engineering colleges (for engineering). If you know where I can get this information, do please let me know].

Given the large participation of women in highly sought-after professional courses, and given their minuscule numbers in the IITs, the conclusion is quite evident to me: there must be something in JEE that makes it hostile to women. The question is which specific aspect of JEE is behind the poor representation of women in the IITs.

To me at least, the fact that JEE cannot be cracked without intensive coaching is an important (if not the main) source of its bias against women. Given that engineering and medicine are so much in demand, those who can afford it would always go for some extra coaching help for facing the entrance exams. But, the other entrance examinations differ fundamentally from JEE in that it is possible for a bright -- and diligent -- student to crack them even without the help of coaching classes. In other words, the extra edge that one gets out of coaching is fairly small.

In JEE, however, intensive coaching is *the* only way one can hope to get through. To the extent that coaching facilities are not available or accessible to certain groups of people (women, students from poor families and rural students), well, shame on the IITs for sticking with an exam that demands such an intensive (and expensive) coaching.

Now go read Vivek's post rebutting the idea that the JEE is biased against women.

Do we have any data on the ratio of number of boys to girls in Science/Maths classes (at Std. XII) to that in IIT-JEE? Without that kind of comparison, it is a rather weak claim to allege gender bias in IIT-JEE.

Let us also not forget that parents, in general, discourage girls from taking up engineering because the term “engineer” still evokes the image of someone working in a factory or at a dam. Not to you. Not to me. Certainly not to most people who are capable of reading and writing blogs. But one just needs to take a walk through any Indian town to see evidence for this attitude of parents. And this is when I am talking about parents who are educated and aware enough to allow their daughters to get any sort of professional education at all. For every such enlightened parent, there are thousands of others who force (condition?) their daughters to take the BA/MA/Marriage route. Most parents are unwilling to spend substantial sums of money on their daughters’ education because they want to save it for their dowry, or they consider it a waste to spend money on girls because they are “paraya dhan” (someone else’s - read husband’s - property) anyway.

With such deep-rooted gender bias in the society, it is nothing but sheer escapism to blame IIT-JEE for dismal number of women at IITs. Yes, there must certainly be cases where parents do not send their daughters to late-night coaching classes (who would?) but that number fades in comparison to the number of women missing because of reasons outlined in the previous paragraph. In any case, most coaching classes these days have some arrangement with local schools which allows students to bunk classes and attend daytime coaching sessions.

In short, then, the argument is that the society is screwed up, so what are you doing here complaining about bias in JEE. And, hey, show me more data.

This is beyond silly. First of all, I have cite data that I think are relevant. Sure they are not comprehensive (heck, they would be if only our public institutions like CBSE take their jobs seriously and produce detailed reports and put them in public domain). To call my claim "rather weak", you have to show why the data I cite are irrelevant. You will also have to prove that more nuanced data -- ratio of boys to girls in science classes -- are absolutely essential for proving things one way or the other. But Vivek does neither. He simply asserts that "it's a rather weak claim to allege gender bias in JEE".

But tell me, is there anything that happens between Classes X and XII that leads to a magically different boys-to-girls ratio in science classes? From the limited knowledge I have -- I do interact with high school kids for this quiz -- I don't believe the boys-to-girls ratio in science classes are badly skewed in favour of the boys.

Further, not only do girls do quite well in high school, they also enter engineering colleges (and medical colleges, too, which are even more competitive) in fairly large numbers. And they do very well there too -- just look at the medal winners every year. Thus, the assertion that the pool of girls interested in engineering [because parents "force (condition?) their daughters to take the BA/MA/Marriage route"] must be junked -- at least as irrelevant.

Further, more than 58,000 of them (about 20 percent of the exam-takers) took JEE last year; this number was double that of the previous year! But the number of students who made it to the IITs barely budged! These pieces of information indicate clearly girls' lower JEE-preparedness (attributable, at least in part, to the need for specialized coaching).

Finally, since when have we started allowing our public institutions to hide behind the society moral shortcomings? If the society is screwed up, I would argue that our publicly funded institutions -- prestigious premier ones, in particular-- should do everything to counteract the social ills. Perversely, the JEE seems to be accentuating the corrosive effects of society's immoral treatment of some of its members.

* * *

There seems to be a basic misunderstanding about the role of JEE. Let me illustrate it using an exam that I get involved in once in a while: GATE. This is an exam that all the undergrad students who aspire to do graduate studies in India have to take. At IISc, for example, we take all our M.E. students only through this exam.

The primary purpose of GATE is standardization: since we don't know the standard of education (curriculum and teaching) students receive in different universities, we need one common exam in each discipline. Moreover, as representatives of 'premier' institutions in India, we also use the GATE question papers for sending a signal about the kind of things that (we think) an undergraduate student should know (or, should have learnt). This implies that we ask questions at the undergraduate level.

In particular, it also implies that we do not -- I repeat, we do not -- ask questions that require advanced knowledge and analyzing problems. If we do, there will rightly be a huge hue and cry. From a practical angle too, there will be a problem: how do we assign ranks to thousands of students whose marks range, say, from 10 to 30?

Now, tell me, in what way is JEE different from GATE? Doesn't JEE too have the primary purpose of standardization across the numerous high school exam boards we have in this blessed country of ours? Doesn't JEE too have the responsibility of signaling what it is our premier institutions expect a good high school student to have learnt and mastered?

Instead, what does JEE do? Does it pose questions at a level at which our high school boards cover physics, math and chemistry? Hell, no! Does it have questions that a good student can even attempt to answer without any specialized coaching? No again.

What does it do, then? It provides excellent employment to a great number of people working in coaching centres that exploit parents' paranoia about their kids future in this hypercompetitive world. It demoralizes a huge number of bright kids, not because they get lower marks than their successful counterparts, but because the exam humiliates and mocks them, making them feel ignorant. It devalues schools and renders them -- in the eyes of students and their parents -- inferior to coaching centres. It makes a vast army of students forego their usual adolescent activities (fun and games!), converting their lives into one monomaniacal pursuit.

* * *

Is there a place for a tough exam such as the JEE? Shouldn't a society challenge some of its youth in intellectual affairs? The answer is "Yes!". The Math and Physics Olympiads serve precisely this purpose. The analogy with the Olympic Games is fairly straight forward: (a) most of us 'normal' folks don't take part in these games, (b) those who do take part require intense training under the watchful eyes of an expert coach, and (c) winners receive a PRIZE (and fame!).

In its current form, JEE is like a "Prize" exam. It should not be. Because, a seat at an IIT should not be a "Prize". Many of us seem to think that it is, but it should not be. IITs are about education, and should stay that way. As premier institutions, they should dump the current format and go for one that does the simple job of standardizing across India's many school exam boards.

Pankaj Jalote asks IITs to dream big

In his Economic Times op-ed, Pankaj Jalote mentions Georgia Tech as a possible model for the IITs to emulate:

It is time for IITs to start aspiring to become world class technical institutes both in quality and quantity, and both in teaching and research. Each IIT should aspire to be like Georgia Tech and have about 20,000 students, 1,000 faculty members, large research staff, and many more programmes and disciplines.

Imagine what will be the impact of these institutions on industry as well as on the youth of the country if we have this type of capacity. If this target is set, and support provided to upgrade the infrastructure and redesign the campuses to handle this scale, there is no reason why it cannot be achieved in about 10 to 15 years.

* * *

In an earlier piece (from May 2005), Jalote suggested several other possibilities for IITs' evolution. Looks like he has settled down on the Georgia Tech model. I prefer the Real   University model myself.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

First day at school ...

This post is not about our son's first day at his new school, it went swimmingly well, thank you. This is just a link to this post about Alfred Prufrock's daughter's first day at her new school:

First day of 'big school' and Very Small Person was quite excited. Not quite three years old but already a veteran, having started play school last June. The first week of play school had been traumatic for all of us. As we approached the door that first day, we were greeted by a chorus of wails and laments. VSP had been quite upbeat about the experience, but bawling is infectious among kids. Do you know how it feels when your child clings to you and howls? It went on for a week, and every day I felt like the veriest Herod for deserting her there.

Within a month her point of view had changed to "WHY won't you take me to school today?" (on Saturdays!) Perhaps she has a future in coalition politics.

So on the first day of 'big school' she was the seasoned veteran, wiping the tears of other babies for whom it was the first day out without their parents, even consoling them. ...

Pankaj Jalote and B.N. Jain on creating new IITs

Here's their ToI op-ed:

... The key difficulty today in starting an IIT is attracting and retaining good faculty.

To attract quality faculty, we need good students, a vibrant research environment and attractive compensation. Good students are available in plenty in India, at least at the undergraduate level. The challenges lie in the other two areas, and they cannot be met by promoting new IITs exclusively in the government sector due to resource and management constraints in the present model.

In an era of public-private partnerships (PPP), it is worth extending the PPP approach to starting new IITs. Private sector dynamism and long-term social commitment of the government can come together to create quality institutes. A modified BOT (build-operate-transfer) model can be applied here.

20 new IITs!

Oops! Sorry, it's the IIITs (Indian Institutes of Information Technology) and not the IITs. Rediff's report (taken from PTI) really screwed it up! The Press Information Bureau's release clearly states that "Proposals have been submitted to the Planning Commission for starting 20 new IIITs so as to cover each major State."

Thanks to Chitta and Yogesh for pointing out the error in Rediff's report.

* * *

Here's the original post:

There are more goodies: an IIM (Shillong), an IIIT (Kanchipuram), two IISERS (Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram), and two schools of planning and architecture (Vijayawada and Bhopal).

The report goes on to say four new Central Universities were created last year. Does anyone know where they are located?

Smarts != Wealth

Here's the bottomline:

"The smarter you are, the more income you have," explains economist Jay Zagorsky of Ohio State University. ... "For wealth, there is no relationship.

Read the rest here.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta asks IIM directors to grow a spine

His Indian Express column is pretty hard-hitting:

... Of course all institutions, even autonomous ones, have to negotiate with government. But to see the premier institutions put aside all logic, morality and reasonableness to comply with a unnecessary and illegitimate government order, to see them become party to the government’s disrespect for institutional proprieties, was shocking indeed. The public would have sided with you; neither pro- ,nor anti-reservationists would have had reason to disagree with the solution you proposed. Yet you chose to cave in. Is it because you don’t trust your own judgment? Is it because you are no longer capable of providing leadership? Is it because institutional propriety has ceased to matter?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Industry funding and research

... [T]he scientist needs the industry’s money to maintain her research and affiliation with a university and, thus, her credibility, at the same time that the industry needs that scientist’s research and that affiliation to protect its wealth against regulatory interventions and costs that might otherwise accrue. The mutual dependence all takes place under the cover of “scientific method” and “peer review,” and absent any evidence of “bad apple” scientists, as if the marketplace of ideas isn’t influenced by the very funds that the scientist craves and the industry provides.

That's from the good folks at the Situationist. Their post excerpts an LATimes story about a UCLA researcher who received funds from tobacco industry and whose research produced results that are, um, "industry-friendly".

While we are on this topic, I must recommend that you take a look at this NYTimes review of Ethics, the Medical Profession and the Pharmaceutical Industry by Howard Brody:

Many individual problematic drugs make an appearance here. Chloromycetin, a toxic antibiotic from the 1950s, was relentlessly promoted by its manufacturer for routine use until the day its patent expired. (Still available in generic form, it is now used only as a last resort.) Thalidomide never caused an epidemic of birth defects in this country, as it did in Germany, only because a single stubborn F.D.A. officer was dissatisfied with the drug’s safety profile, despite the manufacturer’s repeated assurances that everything was fine.

The epitaph of the recently withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, whose virtues were subtly spun to the medical community in prestigious research journals, is still being written in litigation around the country.

“Research that is driven by marketing rather than by scientific aims would seem, in the end, to be low-quality research,” Dr. Brody comments mildly about the Vioxx fiasco.

His overall conclusion is similarly low-key: “A profession is not just a way of making money; it’s a form of public trust. ...Medicine has for many decades now been betraying this public trust.”

Adolescent medicine

If you thought -- like I did -- geriatrics is a young field, here's a sub-specialty that's even younger (and even less popular!): adolescent medicine:

“We do dermatology, sports medicine, psychology, gynecology, orthopedic issues, psychosocial issues, substance abuse and address problems of developing sexuality,” said Dr. Brown, a specialist in adolescent medicine who is chairman of pediatrics at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland, Pa.

“We’re highly trained generalists for a specific population — like gerontologists,” he said. “But either we’ve done a poor job of marketing ourselves or there is something about the field.”

Here's why pediatricians -- mere 'baby doctors'! -- are just not good enough to tackle 'adolescent problems':

Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society for Adolescent Medicine recommend that primary-care physicians monitor teenagers for drug and alcohol use, smoking, sexual activity (including disease prevention and use of birth control), physical activity, nutrition, depression, school behavior and social pressures. Yet various studies have shown that many pediatricians feel inadequately prepared to address most of these issues.

A father in Indianapolis, who did not want to identify himself to protect the privacy of his shy 12-year-old daughter, said: “Our pediatrician is a great guy around everyday things, but he’s not adolescent-focused. He won’t ask her about sex or alcohol or drugs. It’s just not in his repertoire. He’s a baby doctor, oriented toward the quickie office visit.”

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bashing the Joint Entrance Exam of the IITs

* * *

I have an update on JEE's bias against women.

* * *

Outlook's Sugata Srinivasaraju has collected several strands of complaints against the dreaded -- and dreadfully brutal -- Joint Entrant Examination of the IITs. And in a welcome development, several IIT faculty members have come forward to voice their strong views against this "gruesome" examination that "reduces young people to automatons" who "[rely] on pattern recognition":

But what is the chief complaint about the JEE system and quality of students getting into the IITs? The JEE tests are said to be of an irrationally high standard, which makes students depend on intensive coaching at the cost of systematic scientific education and normal teenage activities.

Take a look at the critique of three IIT Kanpur professors on the JEE system in an in-house journal. Prof Vijay Gupta writes: "Teaching and coaching are two different kinds of things. Even the best coaching does not attempt to clarify concepts. It does not inculcate the spirit of inquiry. It does not train persons in starting from first principles. Instead it relies on pattern recognition. Do enough problems so that when you see a problem in the exam, you can recall the special trick required to obtain the answer.... Most entrants into IITs have not read a single book in their last three years or so." Prof B.N. Banerjee touches upon his classroom experience: "JEE has spawned a system that reduces young people to automatons, in more senses than one. They not only become robots in academics, as all of us can see in our core teaching encounters, they even resemble one another in personality. Gone are the sparkling eyes and scintillating engagements that used to be the teacher's joy..."

When the inputs for getting into IITs is itself flawed, how could one expect the finished product to be a bright spark? "One cannot get a diamond out of clay or ordinary stone, however much it is polished," says Prof M.R. Madhav. In a mail exchange, a IIT-Madras professor admitted: "One thing my colleagues and I seem to agree is about the damage that the gruesome entrance exam causes to the motivation of a student to study seriously after entering the campus. Having seen fellow students decades ago and my students now, I should say there is a deterioration."

I have linked to Prof. B.N. Banerjee's critique of the JEE from seven years ago; here are some excerpts:

Across the IITs, there is a deep-rooted belief that because JEE is the examination of the IITs, it must be of a standard that is much higher than that of other institutions. I have repeatedly heard the argument that the JEE question papers have helped in raising the standards of education in our country. Another argument often heard is that the coaching establishments are providing education of a high standard. These arguments fly in the face of the obvious fact that the average standard of our students has been falling over the past decade and a half. JEE has spawned a regime of science education through problem solving, in which comprehension is equated with the ability to work out the answers to outlandish, tricky problems. The more such problems that a student knows, the more acceptable he is to JEE. The little exposure that I have had to the methodology of the coaching establishments tells me that they do not educate; they break up the material into little modules that consist of problem types and the student learns to recognise and deal with hundreds of such problems. Understanding of the concepts has nothing to do with it. [...]

It is argued that, if the examination were any easier, it would be impossible to discriminate and select students. The fact is that, even now, we are not doing a very good job of discriminating. The examination is so hard and the scores so low, that chance plays a very big part. Who would be so brave as to assert that, of two low-scoring students in a low scoring examination, one is better than the other? Or that the student who just missed the cut is inferior? In my opinion, the successful candidates of JEE can be divided into three groups. These divisions would be, roughly, the first three hundred ranks, then the next five or six hundred ranks and finally all the others who are ranked below, say, nine hundred. On another day, the members of this third group may not make the cut at all.

Why have we been so singularly ineffective in reforming this examination which Newsweek magazine has recently referred to as "this notorious examination"? I do not have all the answers, but some explanations are obvious. I believe that the most significant factor is our inability to appreciate that the candidates for JEE are school students, coupled with our ignorance of the standards of school examinations. Perhaps we have the subconscious notion that we are testing IIT material. Perhaps we are shackled by the level at which we teach our core courses. Another possible factor is our constant phobia about the coaching institutions. The race between these institutions and the JEE paper setters is a vicious and self-nourishing cycle. [...]

What we need is one, single, standardized exam whose primary goal must be, well, standardization of curriculum and teaching in India's many school examination boards. Ideally, this exam should be organized multiple times a year (it should preferably be available on tap -- anytime, anywhere); and statistical weighting of questions -- standardization! -- should minimize the role of luck.

The IITs have exhibited a curious lack of vision by refusing to take the lead in creating and developing such a standardized exam. They have chosen instead to stick to a deeply flawed model that has many kinds of bias -- the worst being the bias against women.

* * *

Thanks to an anonymous commenter for the pointer to the Outlook piece.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Links ...

The mass murder at VTU

Blue points us to this story about how Cho Seung-Hui took a break between bullet-spraying episodes to mail in a DVD containing disturbing images, video, and a 'murderer's manifesto'. Here's a NYTimes story on this psychopath.

Barbara Oakley recounts a scary episode from her academic life, and raises questions about how the universities usually handle potentially dangerous students. However, privacy laws in the US leave universities with little leeway in dealing with mentally troubled youth.

Gawker compares "the routes ... followed by various trains of thought after their departure from their respective stations of nationality and ideology." Very perceptive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Women in Computer Science

Moving emphasis away from programming proficiency was a key to the success of programs Dr. Blum and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon instituted to draw more women into computer science. At one time, she said, admission to the program depended on high overall achievement and programming experience. The criteria now, she said, are high overall achievement and broad interests, diverse perspectives and whether applicants seem to have potential to be future leaders.

“In this more balanced environment, the men and women were more alike than different,” she said. “Some women are hackers and some men are hackers, and some women love applications and some men love applications.”

With the changes at Carnegie Mellon, women now make up almost 40 percent of computer science enrollees, up from 8 percent, Dr. Blum said.

From this NYTimes report on the declining number of women opting to study computer science. It goes on to talk about some initiatives (such as that of Carnegie Mellon) that have had some success in getting more women enrolled in their undergrad CS programs.

Coming back to India, do our elite institutions -- the IITs for example -- even think that gender imbalance in their student bodies is a problem? This imbalance is atrocious considering the fact that women do very well in high school (Class XII) exams; in CBSE, for example, girls actually do better than boys.


To be intelligent means many things of course. For the present purpose, I’ll underscore that intelligence is knowing how to weigh the evidence that flies in the face of steadfast assumptions. It means to know when causality can be inferred and not, to know when the weight of correlational evidence must be taken seriously, to know that a replication is worth much more than a single demonstration, to know that when new methods divulge strange truths about us and our brethren, it may be the theory that has to go. The moral obligation to be intelligent requires that we keep abreast of discoveries that require old views to be bagged and put out on the curb for recycling – every week.

From this essay (in two   parts) titled The moral obligation to be intelligent by Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard.

Sad day for Virginia Tech

Two handguns. A deranged man. 32 young lives, extinguished.

It's a sad day for all of us.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Wear your seat belts!

Just wear them. If you need reasons, you will get a whole lot of them from Jim Macdonald, whose post leads off with this:

Do you know how we can tell the difference between people who were wearing their seatbelts and those who weren’t, at the scene of an automobile accident? The ones who were wearing their seatbelts are standing around saying “This really sucks,” and the ones who weren’t are kinda just lying there.

Abandoning the 'trickle-down' theory: A follow-up

An anonymous commenter chides me (here) for not linking to Greg Mankiw's response to Robert Frank's NYTimes column which concluded that the 'trickle-down' theory "is ripe for abandonment." Even before I located Mankiw's response, he had already posted Frank's rebuttal to his critique!

Mark Thoma has all the relevant links, along with some comments of his own. Some parts of the discussion get decidedly technical, but Frank's rebuttal is, like his original column, lucid and largely accessible. I learnt a new phrase from it: "context externality"

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Annals of unexpected educational outcomes

Here's the abstract:

Students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not...

And, here's the set-up for taking this experiment to the next level:

Officials said one lesson they learned from the study was that the abstinence message should be reinforced in subsequent years.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Plagiarius: A museum devoted to counterfeit goods

The museum is in Cologne, Germany. The Business Week story is here.

The Museum Plagiarius, housed in a converted railway building, will permanently exhibit 300 original products together with seemingly identical rip-offs. These items range from fashion and household products to electrical and medical equipment. They come from the annual Plagiarius awards, presented by the museum's co-founder Professor Rido Busse at the world's largest consumer-goods trade fair Ambiente, which takes place each February in Frankfurt. For 30 years, an independent jury convened by the designer and university lecturer has awarded the Plagiarius to a handful of unscrupulous copies, each submitted by the exasperated original designers. “The idea is to shame the con men and help the general public realize how widespread the problem is -- it's not just limited to Louis Vuitton bags,” says Professor Busse. Click through to see this year's 12 award winners -- and their original inspirations.

You can check out this year's 12 award 'winners' in a slideshow. Here.

The essential wrong-ness of 'trickle down' theory

In his latest Economic Scene column in the NYTimes, Cornell economist Robert Frank examines the validity of the 'trickle-down' theory:

The surface plausibility of trickle-down theory owes much to the fact that it appears to follow from the time-honored belief that people respond to incentives. Because higher taxes on top earners reduce the reward for effort, it seems reasonable that they would induce people to work less, as trickle-down theorists claim. As every economics textbook makes clear, however, a decline in after-tax wages also exerts a second, opposing effect. By making people feel poorer, it provides them with an incentive to recoup their income loss by working harder than before. Economic theory says nothing about which of these offsetting effects may dominate.

If economic theory is unkind to trickle-down proponents, the lessons of experience are downright brutal. [...]

And here's the conclusion:

... [T]rickle-down theory ... is supported neither by theory nor evidence ... . This theory is ripe for abandonment.

Strong words, aren't they? Do read the whole thing. Here.

Sociology of sex: Then and now

Q. How has your field changed over the decades?

A. For one thing, studying sexuality has become more acceptable. Back then, it was like if you studied sexuality, it meant you had a sexual problem. Everyone thought there’d have to be some bizarre reason why you’d studied it.

Another thing: there’s more money for research now. Research into sexuality had been poorly funded. But in the 1980s with H.I.V./AIDS, there was, suddenly, money. Epidemiologists understood that you couldn’t contain AIDS without understanding why people engaged in certain practices, why they took risks.

What didn’t change much was the difficulty of finding governmental money to study pleasure. If you wanted to discover why some women didn’t have orgasms, for instance, you were likely to have a tough time finding funding.

Q. Is that still true?

A. Yes and no. There’s a lot of pharmaceutical money now in sex research. Viagra. Once Viagra earned millions of dollars, the pharmaceutical companies saw how sexual pleasure could be monetized. I think the industry discovered there was a longing for sexual performance throughout the culture.

Viagra could work for some men because, for them, the ability to have performance created desire. The companies wanted to find something similar for women. For most women, however, sex wasn’t a performance issue. Female sexuality is more complicated. So the drug companies funded many large studies into desire in both men and women. They’ve created much new literature and new professional societies to meet and discuss it.

From this interview of Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist of sex at the University of Washington.

This interview is a part of NYTimes's series on Desire. The other articles are here and here (with a video of an interview with Helen Fisher, Rutgers anthropologist and author of Why We Love).

Here's another interview with Pepper Schwartz.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Big Day for Us

Our son Aadhu starts 'regular' school -- Class I -- today. He will go to the Kendriya Vidyalaya on our campus.

The KV system in Bangalore has this tradition of starting the academic year in April; classes go on until the first week of May, and resume at the end of the summer vacation in late June.

I have already written about how happy we have been with the Montessori system Aadhu went to during the last three years. It would have been lovely if he had had an opportunity to continue in that system, but there is no Montessori school in our neighbourhood for Classes I and beyond. So, our choice was made for us: he gets to go to the KV in our campus. And (at least) four of his friends from our residential complex are with him in the same class!

He is excited about his new school. So are we.

Happy news

Altruism is alive and well (in the form of egalitarianism). Yes, really. Even among American college students.

This version is being called the Robin Hood Effect.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, selected and randomly separated 120 students into groups of four. Each subject was arbitrarily assigned a certain amount of money; players knew how much money the others in their group had, but not to whom each amount belonged. Each player had the option of using some of his or her money to purchase the right to have the researchers subtract or award cash to another participant.

Subjects played the "game'' with different people in each of five trials Each time, "players'' adopted an egalitarian attitude when distributing the wealth in what study co-author and University of California, San Diego, political scientist James Fowler calls the "Robin Hood effect." "People want to give rewards to the lowest [paid] member of the group and take away from the highest [paid] member of the group," he says. "I think that we were surprised by the magnitude of the punishment." Nearly 70 percent of the players reduced someone else's income at least once, and three quarters of them gave up a little to help someone in a weaker position. The behavior was consistent across all five trials, meaning people did not decide later to just look out for themselves.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Declining Marginal Utility, Habituation, and ...

Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. Just compare the first and last time your child said "Mama" or your partner said "I love you" and you'll know exactly what I mean. When we have an experience—hearing a particular sonata, making love with a particular person, watching the sun set from a particular window of a particular room—on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage.

From Chapter 7 (excerpts) of Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.

This page lists ten 'intriguing' quotes from the book. (For example, here's No. 9: "To learn from experience, we must remember it, and for a variety of reasons, memory is a faithless friend.")

Happiness links

  1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, is establishing the world's first Ph.D. program in happiness studies.
  2. One more profile of Martin Seligman, who is credited with making 'positive psychology' a major subdiscipline of psychology.
  3. Darrin McMahon on the importance of not giving too much importance to 'pursuit of happiness'.

    ... [O]ne of the most striking developments in Western societies over the last several hundred years is the steady expansion of the hope and expectation of happiness in this life. Concomitant with this expansion has been the steady erosion of other ways of conceiving of life’s purpose and end. If other ways of doing so have not been entirely abandoned — there are those who still live for virtue, honor, one’s homeland, or family name — in a world that places a premium on good feeling and positive emotion, these other ends have nowhere near the power to channel and constrain our choices that they once did. [...]

    On one level, then, we worry about happiness today with such single-minded focus because we can: Inhabitants of the world’s developed nations are the most fortunate creatures to have walked the face of the earth. And yet for all our focus on happiness it is by no means clear that we are happier as a result. Might we not even say that our contemporary concern is something of an inauspicious sign, belying a deep anxiety and doubt about the object of our pursuit? Does the fact that we worry so much about being happy suggest that we are not?

Thanks to PTDR for the pointers.

Here's a Financial Times review of a bunch of books on happiness, including those by Darrin McMahon's The Pursuit of Happiness: A History from the Greeks to the Present, and Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.

* * *

Before I end, let me point to Dave Munger's rant about a science book that made him so unhappy that he decided to use it as a model for his "rules of writing bad science books":

2. Don't scrimp on metaphors. Writing a science book is like flying through a cloud while juggling plates. A metaphor is an excellent way to obfuscate a difficult concept by comparing it to another difficult concept. Don't understand what I'm talking about? Then perhaps another metaphor won't help. Remember, you've got to stay on that bucking bronco and keep your ducks in a row. Now do you understand? I didn't think so. It's like decanting a fine wine: the more metaphors you use, the less clear your writing will be, thus demonstrating your superior knowledge of the complex problem you're writing about.

James Surowiecki on India's skills shortage


There was a time when many economists believed that post-secondary education didn’t have much impact on economic growth. The really important educational gains, they thought, came from giving rudimentary skills to large numbers of people (which India still needs to do—at least thirty per cent of the population is illiterate). They believed that, in economic terms, society got a very low rate of return on its investment in higher education. But lately that assumption has been overturned, and the social rate of return on investment in university education in India has been calculated at an impressive nine or ten per cent. In other words, every dollar India puts into higher education creates value for the economy as a whole. Yet India spends roughly three and a half per cent of its G.D.P. on education, significantly below the percentage spent by the U.S., even though India’s population is much younger, and spending on education should be proportionately higher.

Graphene, the wonder material

In a recent post on herd mentality in science, this is what Ponderer had to say about graphene, the latest 'hot' material that's attracting herds of condensed matter physicists:

... I think it's a rather unique and interesting system worth studying. What I am against is (and I am merely using graphene as a perfect example of this phenomena) that recent reactions from physics community by far exceeds any rational response. It's almost as if graphene is going to cure cancer and turn lead into gold. [...] Any day now I expect Entertainment Tonight to interrupt their Sanjaya's hair or Anna Nicole coverage to update us on recent graphene developments. [...]

This must be one of those rare cases when the NYTimes beats Entertainment Tonight in covering a hot, new thing.

Something needs to be done to take the knowledge of graphene to the masses in India. May be Mandira Bedi could feature this wonder material in one of the remaining episodes of Extraaaa Innings. I'm sure there's a cricketing angle to this material (not that Mandira needs this angle, but still ...): stronger bats, bouncier balls, more protective gloves or head gear ...

Monday, April 09, 2007

Joshua Bell's experiment with "art without a frame"

For an experiment cooked up by the good folks at the Washington Post, Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, agrees to play some of the most exquisite pieces. Not just on any old violin, but one that was "handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period."

And Bell agreed to play for free. Venue? Near the entrance of L'Enfant Plaza, one of the Metro stations in Washington DC.

Read it here.

* * *

Read The Situationist for, well, the situationist angle to this story.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Fashion: A thriving industry without IP protection

Another industry that seems to get along well without intellectual property protection is the fashion industry. Brand names and logos are protected by trademark, but the design of clothing is generally not protected in the United States. [...]

At one time, the fashion industry did have a self-imposed system of intellectual property protection. In the 1930s, the Fashion Originators’ Guild prohibited copying among its members and urged retailers not to sell items from those who copied other designs. The guild was reasonably successful in these efforts. But in 1941, the Supreme Court held that its practices violated antitrust laws, and since then the fashion industry in the United States has had no intellectual property protection for designs.

That's from Hal Varian's column on needlessness of intellectual property rights (at least in some domains).

Psychology links

Can neuroscience make psychology redundant -- or, irrelevant? Greta and Dave Munger -- the bloggers behind the Coginitive Daily -- answer this question:

... With the help of neuroscience, so many advances have been made in understanding the human brain that it's indeed tempting to argue that psychologists aren't needed at all.

Yet human behavior itself is so complex that trying to understand it from an anatomical perspective alone simply doesn't make sense. You wouldn't try to learn how use a complicated computer program like Adobe Photoshop by taking the computer apart, or even by analyzing the lines of its computer code. [...]

Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer comments:

The mind is the brain. Furthermore, we don't experience this distinction. We don't parcel our mental contents into "software" or "hardware," or perceive any separation between our behavior and our brain. Our psychological experience is unitary, and so should any science trying to describe our psychological experience. The fact that we still find it necessary to divide our mental sciences into different categories should remind us how much we have left to learn.

* * *

Cosma Shalizi points us to a study that found one way of messing up our minds from outside:

Decisions require careful weighing of the risks and benefits associated with a choice. Some people need to be offered large rewards to balance even minimal risks, whereas others take great risks in the hope for an only minimal benefit. We show here that risk-taking is a modifiable behavior that depends on right hemisphere prefrontal activity. We used low-frequency, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to transiently disrupt left or right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) function before applying a well known gambling paradigm that provides a measure of decision-making under risk. Individuals displayed significantly riskier decision-making after disruption of the right, but not the left, DLPFC. ...

* * *

New Scientist has a story on behavioral addictions (internet surfing, sex, gambling, etc. -- and perhaps blogging too!) whose signatures are not all that different from addiction to chemicals (drugs, coffee, nicotine ...) [via The Situationist]:

The evidence that behavioural addictions are very similar to chemical ones is mounting from brain studies too. According to addiction specialist Eric Nestler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, drug addictions and "natural" addictions seem to involve shared pathways in the brain. "Take a person with sex addiction, or a pathological gambler: their brains all show abnormal responses - the same reactions to drugs of abuse," he says. [...]

GrĂ¼sser-Sinopoli and her colleague Ralf Thalemann found that gamers or gamblers experienced cravings, triggered by images from their favourite games, that were comparable to the responses of drug addicts. They had heightened physiological and EEG brain responses to the images, indicating that they were more pleasing and motivationally relevant than they were to inexperienced players. An addict's brain learns to respond much more dramatically to previously innocuous scenes, says GrĂ¼sser-Sinopoli.

They have conducted the same tests in cannabis, heroin and alcohol addicts, casino employees, abstinent gamblers and people undergoing methadone and naltrexone treatment. They found that this EEG response shows up in all addicts, but not in people who are exposed to the same surroundings yet remain unaddicted, such as casino employees. "People may deny they have a craving, but when we expose them to these cues the system is still active," she says.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Satish Deshpande on caste inequalities

Satish Deshpande's Contemporary India: A Sociological View (Penguin, 2003) has a revealing chapter on caste inequalities. The bulk of the chapter is on establishing the reality of significant inequalities using a variety of data (the 1999 NSSO survey data, and employment in government and corporate sectors). In presenting his analysis, however, he makes an important point that the data on matters related to caste are insufficient -- in both quantity and quality. And he uses this point to comment on India's sociologists and their attitude towards the institution of caste:

... [E]ver since independence, the Indian Census has resolutely refused to ask citizens their caste, on the ground that the new state was 'caste blind', and that previous attempts to collect such data were part of the imperial 'divide and rule' policy. So the only reliable data we have on caste is restricted to the three way classification of 'Scheduled Caste', 'Scheduled Tribe' and 'Other'. [...]

The active antipathy towards caste after independence was the joint product of, first, the nationalist movement and its campaign against caste distinctions, and, second, a reaction against what were seen as deliberate colonial policies to create and sharpen divisions among the Indian people. [...]

Whatever the merits of the antecedent causes, the post-independence backlash against caste was strong and sustained. It ensured that one of the paradoxical lessons of modern governance -- that the state must measure whatever it wishes to eradicate -- would not be learnt. As a result, the data we have on caste inequality are not only meager but also reluctant, so to speak, needing to be coaxed into existence, and dependent on the accidents of scholarly interest and statistical convenience. What needs to be emphasized is that unlike other comparable situations, the paucity and poor quality of these data is the result of willful if well-intentioned neglect: we refused to collect such data because we thought we should not collect them and did not need them. However, the irony is that the end result is not very different from what might have been the case had there been a great conspiracy to suppress evidence of caste inequality. [Pages 107-109]

Earlier in the chapter, Deshpande points to how, in this post-Mandal era, Indian sociologists did not have much to say or contribute:

Today, a decade after the bitter controversy over the Mandal Commission report, we may be better placed to appreciate the irony in the fact that this controversy offered us -- albeit by accident -- a rare window of insight into Indian sociology. Given the centrality of caste, an undeniably 'sociological' subject, one would normally have expected the discipline to shed light on the controversy rather than the other way around. Of course, such expectations were not entirely belied. But while some sociologists did gain rare public attention for their comments, the discipline itself gained little in prestige and authority.

That was not because sociologists adopted unpopular stances. In fact, the most prominent among them were vocal in their support for the anti-Mandal position which dominated urban middle-class perceptions of this issue and received wide and strongly sympathetic coverage in the metropolitan media. But, by and large, sociologists were unable to say anything that went beyond popular commonsense.

... By addressing crucial questions which the overnight experts were unable to answer, sociologists could have demonstrated that their discipline provides insights that commonsense cannot. But it seems in retrospect that the sociologists' silence on questions of caste inequality was not so much perverse as prudent. As a matter of fact, despite all its claims to an expertise on caste, Indian sociology did not have the answers, never having shown much interest in macro-analysis of caste inequality. The important point, though, is that this lack of interest was itself invisible because it was so much a part of business as usual in Indian sociology. It took a national crisis as big as Mandal to alert us to this blind spot, and to goad us into recognizing it as a problem. [Pages 100-102]

After pointing out that much of sociology of caste was done at the 'micro-level' -- in the villages (M.N. Srinivas' "field" view of Indian society). But ...

While this has certainly yielded valuable insights, [almost exclusive reliance on fieldwork] has precluded any significant attempts at developing a macro-perspective based on a more broad-based coverage of the field. Survey methods in particular remained underdeveloped.

But most important, perhaps, is the fact that influential sociologists have tended to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on this issue. They have been the first to criticize the methods used and the macro-data produced to track caste inequality ... However, they have also been in the forefront of opposition to initiatives for the systematic collection of macro-level data on caste, even though they have not, by and large, shown any eagerness to suggest alternative methodologies for data collection.

In the early 1990s, for example, mauling the Mandal Commission's report for its weak database and questionable methodology had become something of a professional pastime for sociologists. But rarely were critics willing to specify what available datasets the Commission had failed to utilize, precisely how it could have improved upon its methodology, and, more generally, how it could have done a better job within the given constraints. And yet, a few years later, when the collection of caste data in the 2001 census was being mooted, the same voices were heard denouncing this proposal as not just impractical but pernicious. Once again there was little concern for suggesting alternatives. [Page 104]

One final extract about the sociological significance of macro-perspective:

... Drastic and sustained differences in shares and proportions averaged across very large numbers of individuals from different social groups cannot be explained in terms of differences in individual abilities and circumstances. As Emile Durkheim demonstrated long ago, although every individual suicide is undoubtedly an intensely personal event, the average rate of suicide in a society is a social fact. Explanations for differneces in rates of suicide in two different societies or social groups (numbering in millions) cannot be sought at the individual level -- we must look to social factors that affect the group as a whole. This is why the commonsense approach that seeks to turn data on the under-representation of the lowest castes in the privileged sections of society into evidence of the 'lack of merit' of these castes is sociological nonsense. Any individual member of any caste may do well or not depending on his or her abilities and resources, but when we speak of rates of representation for whole communities with millions of members, all such inter-individual differences are averaged out. If genetic explanations are ruled out -- as they have been for a long time -- the only reasonable explanation is in terms of the social mechanisms (whether intentionally or accidentally created) of systematic discrimination. [Page 121]