Insights from our first Book Club

Posted by on December 4, 2023  /  0 Comments

Since starting at LIRNEasia a little over a year ago, I’ve been exposed to semi-frequent journal clubs and colloquia where we discuss, dissect, and analyze both our internal research findings and those of external scholars. These intellectual gatherings have helped me discover many interesting articles containing views of scholars published in various academic journals. They’ve also helped me learn to apply it into the work we do at LIRNEasia. Being a part of these journal clubs has been like stepping into a knowledge blender, but in the best way possible. Imagine a room filled with people bringing all sorts of experiences and various fields of expertise to the table: a potluck of ideas. These shared insights go deep, making me re-think topics in ways I hadn’t before. The book club seemed a natural progression from journal clubs, with the added benefit of incentivizing us to read more books, and do so more intentionally.

The first installation of the book club was based on the book ‘Whole Numbers and half Truths: What data can and cannot tell us about modern India’ by Rukmini S. The book was an exploration of the data landscape in India by answering ten fundamental questions about how India operates – from what India ‘thinks, feels, and believes’ to how much money it earns and spends, to how its demography is changing. The book not only sifts through data from various sources but uses interesting anecdotes that provide context and paints a picture of the multifaceted tapestry that is modern India with a blend of data investigation and storytelling.

While learning about the inner workings of the country, we reflected on how these insights relate to, or compare to Sri Lanka. India, apart from being a rising global superpower, is Sri Lanka’s closest neighboring country with deep ties to its culture, religions, and other aspects of society. It was certainly interesting to discover that whereas rural Indians spent more on fuel & light and clothes than they did on education and fuel & light, Urban Indians spent more on education and rent. By contrast, Sri Lanka’s spending on education, despite free education at primary, secondary and university levels, was higher than their fuel and light expenditure in 2019.

We were all intrigued by this book, and not just because it offered a deeper understanding of India, one of the key countries where LIRNEasia operates and conducts research. It also delves into the world of data – something that’s not just a buzzword for us, but the very foundation of our bread-and-butter work in evidence-based policy research.

Given that LIRNEasia is an organization that engages in primary data collection before analyzing and disseminating findings, the quality and integrity of data is critical to us. We discussed that data analysis begins with what is being measured and how it is defined, by whom, and with what changes over time – something people rarely pause to question. For example, as the book states, it would be difficult to interpret India’s crime statistics without knowing the ‘principal offense rule’. This is where the National Crime Records Bureau picks the ‘most heinous crime’ reported in each First Information Report (FIR), meaning a deadly sexual assault will only be counted in the statistics as a murder.

While the fundamental question of ‘what is measured?’ matters, asking the right questions to extract the selected indicators too is paramount. Take, for example, Rukmini’s dive into India’s voting motivations. That got us thinking about the tricky art of asking people about their political preferences in a way that actually gets honest answers. It’s a challenge because voters might not be willing to divulge this information, and in some cases might not even be fully aware themselves. What has worked in India, according to the research pointed towards in this book, seems to be survey experiments and random response techniques over direct questioning.

Finally, this book allowed us to explore the data presented in it with the aim of uncovering the real stories concealed within the numbers. One incident Rukmini describes struck a particular chord – a politician citing a statistic of 25% of households having access to tap water in Kerala during his election campaign. At first glance, this may seem alarming. Yet, household surveys revealed that majority in the state were in fact, getting access to water from their own private wells. A local is quoted saying “Tap water use is low in Kerala because everyone has a well…I will not use tap water even if it comes to my house”.  The lesson learned being: approaching statistics with a detective-like curiosity allows us to unearth the genuine stories that they encapsulate.

While data has inherent limitations in presenting the complete picture and is largely up for interpretation, it remains essential for a well-functioning democracy. This significance is emphasized by the book. A key takeaway for me is that investigating and being critical about data sources and methodologies used during analysis is essential. This is required to maintain credibility and assess comparability of findings over time. Further, the detrimental impact of selective data usage on public trust underscores the importance of oversight and open dialogue on this topic.

Unlike our formal journal clubs, the book club imposed fewer restrictions and gave us more space for exploring ideas. This allowed for more meandering into different territories and travelling down a number of tangents into making some unexpected connections. It complemented the more formal aspects of knowledge sharing at LIRNEasia, helping us foster a culture of critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and meaningful dialogue within a more relaxed framework.

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