Discussing an editorial

I generally refrain from commenting on editorials and opinion pieces. I recognise that there are points of convergence as much as there are points of divergence between the newspaper and its myriad readers, and even within the newspaper itself. These conversations lend plurality to the newspaper and they should not be viewed from any narrow ideological prism. However, I have to break from this norm to discuss the editorial “Number theory” (Nov. 30), which generated some sharp and divergent reactions.

Independence of the editorial

The arguments against the editorial were varied. Some took an ideological standpoint, while others interpreted the events that led to the release of the GDP back series. I would like to reiterate that my role as the Readers’ Editor is not that of a pre-publication censor, but of a post-publication evaluator. I do get complaints about The Hindu ’s editorial policy, which is defined by the editor and his editorial team. I can explain the policy but I cannot interfere with it. It is vital to support the independence of the editorial. The acid test for the Readers’ Editor is how he conducts himself when his own opinion is at variance with that of the paper. Can he be an effective advocate for free speech, tolerance and plurality if he lacks these democratic traits? Hence, the issue I am discussing is not about the ideological thrust of the editorial but its fundamental assumptions.

The assertion of the editorial that “robust, updated data are, in fact, insurance against politicians hijacking what is essentially an economic exercise” seems like a statement yearning for an ideal reality rather than one that is based on reality. The sequence of events since the creation of Niti Aayog seems to point at a complete politicisation of numbers. Some facts lend credence to the criticism of the numbers put out by Niti Aayog. One, the government had failed to appoint a Chief Statistician for nearly eight months after the retirement of T.C.A. Anant in January. Two, it has had a tense relationship with the Reserve Bank of India. Three, a set of data presented by the committee set up by the National Statistical Commission was withdrawn. Four, the Agriculture Ministry backtracked on a report showing the adverse effects of demonetisation on farmers. Five, there’s the timing of the new data, which many see as a desperate ploy to distract people’s attention from the trenchant criticism of demonetisation by the former Chief Economic Adviser. The line between the Central Statistics Office and Niti Aayog is blurred, thereby lending a political colour to an essential economic exercise.

The practice of data torture

If the editorial is read along with the explainer “What’s with the back series GDP data?” (December 1), it is clear that the editorial jumped the gun to grant the benefit of doubt to the latest exercise and suspended essential journalistic curiosity. The explainer deals with the problem of finding matching data for the older series to the present MCA-21, which is available only since 2011-2012. As a journalist, my entry points for understanding a range of subjects have been science and literature. About pure qualitative methods and number crunching, one of the finest historians of science, Thomas Kuhn, observed that “nature undoubtedly responds to the theoretical predispositions with which she is approached by the measuring scientist.” The Anglo-American economist, Ronald Coase, gave an interesting economic reading of this statement: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.” It is true that governments and institutions do indulge in data torture, a practice of repeatedly interpreting source data until it reveals a desired result.

The editorial seems to be oblivious to this caution from the Nobel laureate. Its statement that “during earlier instances of backcasting of GDP data, the political environment was not as deeply polarised as it is now, and so the exercise remained more academic” fails to capture the full picture. In all the earlier changes, the methodology was not only robust but also transparent, and incomparable parameters were hardly used to deduct a number to understand macroeconomic reality. This was an editorial of forking paths, for how do we reconcile the assertion that “the release of the back series by the Niti Aayog goes against convention and is bad in optics” with the conclusion that “this should not be reason to contest the integrity of the new numbers”?

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 4:29:20 am |