What is academic freedom?

Note: I originally wrote two versions of this article for The Wire; one, a 'newsier' version, was published in June 2020. I'd intended to publish the version below, which is more of a discussion/analysis, sometime last year itself but it slipped my mind. I'm publishing it today, shortly after rediscovering it by accident. Since the…

Magic bridges

The last two episodes of the second season of House, the TV series starring Hugh Laurie as a misanthropic doctor at a facility in Princeton, have been playing on my mind off and on during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of its principal points (insofar as Dr Gregory House can admit points to the story of his…

SSC: Addendum

It’s wonderful how the mind has a way of cultivating clarity in the background, away from the gaze of the mind’s eye and as the mind itself is preoccupied with other thoughts, on matters considered only a few days ago to be too complicated to synthesise into a unified whole. Recap: On February 14, the New…

Slate Star Codex: No time for malice

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel. To the uninitiated: Scott Alexander Siskind is a noted member of the international community of rationalists and wrote the once-celebrated blog Slate Star Codex. I use the past tense because Siskind used to write this blog from the relative obscurity afforded by using only his…

UAE’s spaceflight shortcut to making history

Mars. Credit: NASA

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel. In an hour or so, the UAE's Hope probe, currently en route to Mars, will beam a signal to Earth about whether it managed to get into orbit around the red planet. Thanks to the Indian experience of the same feat, achieved in 2014,…

Pandemic: Science > politics?

set of medical syringes filled with medication on pink desk

By Mukunth and Madhusudhan Raman Former Union health secretary K. Sujatha Rao had a great piece in The Indian Express on January 14, whose takeaway she summarised in the following line: Science, evidence and data analytics need to be the bedrock of the roll-out policy, not politics and scoring brownie points for electoral advantages. However,…

Poverty, psychology and pseudoscience

From the abstract of 'Why Do People Stay Poor? Evidence on Poverty Traps from Rural Bangladesh', November 24, 2020: There are two broad views as to why people stay poor. One emphasizes differences in fundamentals, such as ability, talent or motivation. The other, poverty traps view, differences in opportunities stemming from differences in wealth. We…

The overlay bias

I'm not very fond of some highly popular pieces of writing (I won't name them because I'm nervous about backlash from authors and/or their supporters) because a part of their popularity is undeniably rooted in technological 'solutions' that asymmetrically promote work published in the solution's country of origin. My favourite example is Pocket, the app…

Science prizes, wealth location and social signals

One count on which I almost always find myself to be an outlier in India is my opinion that the Nobel Prizes and their derivatives belong in the gutter. But while many people in other countries share this opinion of the Nobel Prizes, and often put their weight behind advancing this view, there are very…

Super-spreading, mobility and crowding

I still see quite a few journalists in India refer to "super-spreaders" vis-à-vis the novel coronavirus – implying that some individuals might be to blame for ‘seeding’ lots of new infections in the community – instead of accommodating the fact that simply breathing out a lot of viruses doesn’t suffice to infect tens or hundreds…

On resource constraints and merit

In the face of complaints about how so few women have been awarded this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, some scientists pushed back asking which of the male laureates who had been selected should have been left out instead. This is a version of the merit argument commonly applied to demands for reservation and quota in higher…

The climate change of bad news

This post flows a bit like the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. As one friend put it, “It starts somewhere and then goes in a different direction.” This year hasn’t been beset by the same old steady drizzle of bad news we have every year – but has borne the brunt of cyclonic storms, each one…