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Why social scientists make bad Prime Ministers

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Vijaya Dar
Vijaya Dar
Born in Kashmir. Indic by culture. Occasional writer, avid reader. Love serious cinema, but not TV. Eternal student.

Dr. Manmohan Singh, the economist, who became the accidental Prime Minister of India, and held that office for a decade, is reported to have launched a vicious, venomous attack on his successor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he told PTI that he should be shown the exit door as his five year rule has been “most traumatic and devastating” for India’s youths, farmers, traders, and every democratic institution. Singh has used words like “stench” of corruption peaking to “unimaginable proportions” completely forgetting in the process; the beyond even unimaginable proportions the “mountain” of corruption that his government presided over. I am sure that Dr Singh, whom the Congress party brings out of the museum cupboard whenever it sees its boat sinking, was made to read from another prepared text that his controllers would have provided to him.

Not that Dr Singh is actually possessed of an independent mind! Timid and servile by nature, Manmohan Singh has excellent survival instincts, and it was only due to this quality that he managed to become the first person outside the Family to complete ten years in office as the Prime Minister. Now that Narendra Modi is all but assured of returning to power in the current general elections, the Family is launching a last-ditch attack on him through every possible means; even if it means using a completely discredited individual like Manmohan Singh to talk about corruption without a shred of evidence. As a social scientist, Manmohan Singh has not only brought disrepute to his education but also to an institution that he headed. Dr Singh’s ten years in office are the reason why I say that social scientists make very bad Prime Ministers.

It is over half-a-century since I joined the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Management Sciences. Having come from a background in English literature, I had not envisioned the kind of gruelling drill that I would have to undergo at the IIM-C. Management studies were a new discipline then in India, and my batch was the second to be enrolled at the Institute. Among the basic subjects that we were taught by the faculty, there were courses in Behavioral Sciences, Mathematics, Statistics, and Economics. We were initiated into the rudiments of Business Law, Marketing and Advertising, Operations Research, and the History of Business communities in India. During the two years that were spent at the Institute, the Director and the faculty never missed the opportunity to inform us how lucky we were to be receiving this education, and how we were the cream of the nation that would put the country on the arrowhead of development and prosperity. It was not very difficult for us to believe in this glorification, and quite a few among us thought we were God’s chosen people and would soon spread out to eliminate misery and poverty from the country.

It never occurred to us to question whether the tools we were being equipped with were all that would be needed in the non-simulated world outside the classroom. Most of us, very soon, discovered that while a Medical College generally produces Doctors capable of diagnosing and treating a sick patient; an Engineering College produces Engineers capable of building houses, bridges, dams, aeroplanes, automobiles, etc. etc.; a Management Institute does not necessarily produce Managers who can “manage” complex business situations. It is then that we understood that Management Science is as far removed from Natural Sciences, as are the other Social sciences like Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, and above all, Economics.

The expectation from social sciences is the knowledge to understand, predict and control (not in an astrological sense) the course of life and its future. Social sciences are expected to predict what would happen if society opted for one course of action over another. Economics and Political Science are already assuming that they have achieved this ability. Without any linkage to the natural sciences, the social sciences do not appear to be doing very well, considering the enormous resources at their disposal. A comparison with medical sciences will show that while the scientists engaged in the research to find cures for cancer, AIDS, genetic defects and the other dreaded diseases, are making dramatic progress, the social scientists who are expected to find solutions to reduce ethnic conflicts, prosperity divides, and improve world trade, are struggling in their laboratories. The natural scientists engaged in medical research have formed global information networks through which they share their knowledge and encourage one another, even though they are competitors in the same field.

The social scientists, on the contrary, are suspicious of one another and co-operation is minimal, while ideological disputes occupy most of their time. Despite a huge amount of information and a vast library of statistical techniques available to them, social scientists suffer from disunity and a lack of vision. The hierarchical ordering of knowledge that is at the core of the natural sciences, is largely absent from the social sciences. Split into various factions the social scientists do not speak the same language even though their specialities may be similar. Some of them sincerely believe that their babble is actually the result of some creative ferment. From favouring Marxism-Leninism in the past, they have moved through Social Darwinism, via laissez-faire capitalism to the post-modernist cultural relativism of today. Western Europe is experiencing this cultural relativism in its policy of multiculturalism, also known as identity politics, which believes that ethnics, religious beliefs, all possess subcultures that should be treated as equal with the majority, even though it comes into conflict with a nationally unifying culture.

The progress of a scientific discipline is evaluated in how quickly the original masters are forgotten. Even the most celebrated physical theorist, Einstein has been continuously challenged and his theories put to test by newer and younger physicists. Most social sciences are still propounding theories that have been enunciated by the original masters. Social scientists today believe that they know how they think, and how others think, and how societies evolve, but most of their understanding is not based on the natural sciences of human biology and even psychology, but on shamanism and folklore; what we may call ‘common sense.”

Even when they produce very sophisticated mathematical and statistical models in support of their theories, the social scientists eventually fall back upon this ‘common sense” to support their pet theories. That is why the social scientists failed to predict the downfall of communism on the one hand and were equally confused when ethnic hostilities broke out among the former constituents of the Soviet empire, so soon after its dissolution. They were unable to foresee the collapse of the Western welfare state, and they are still not agreed on its causes. They have consistently misunderstood Muslim fundamentalism and were unable to predict the rise of Islamic terrorism, ISIS, and hundreds of other Islamic Terror organizations. Social scientists have continuously failed to pay any attention to the foundations of human nature and its deep origins going back millions of years.

Economics is the most celebrated of the Social sciences bearing the closest resemblance to the natural sciences, using sophisticated mathematical models to reinforce its arguments. It even has a Nobel Memorial Prize awarded for cutting edge work in Economic Sciences. Yet, its similarity to real sciences is only superficial. Economists, like the physical theorists, would like to discover a Theory of Everything (TOE) that would provide laws to cover all possible economic arrangements. But they fail to understand that in human behaviour only a tiny set of such arrangements is probable. A general equilibrium theory cannot by itself provide the basis for a stable economic order. The mathematical models of economists do not take into account the complexities of human behaviour and the environment in which they exist. The unaccountable events of history and environmental changes limit the possibility of making accurate predictions. Economic models can no more accurately predict bull or bear markets, except in the most general terms, as they cannot explain decades-long cycles of conflict breaking out in the different parts of the globe.

Making the fewest possible assumptions at the micro level, economic theorists have tried to predict macro level results. In order to achieve the widest possible application, they have constructed abstract models that eventually end up representing nothing more than exercises in applied mathematics. As a result, economic theorists have enjoyed very few successes while they have suffered a number of embarrassing failures. The reason why they still continue to receive so much recognition and regard is that businesses and governments have no one else to turn to. Amartya Sen is a prime example of this undeserved applause that culminated in a Bharat Ratna for contributions that continue to remain shrouded in some esoteric cloud.

All the above should explain the title of this piece. The world has not had too many social scientists leading political parties and only a few of them have been elected or selected to the highest political office of a country. There is a very good reason why economists and other social scientists have been kept away. India’s experience with the economist Manmohan Singh further reinforces this premise. When he was chosen by the late Narasimha Rao as the Finance Minister in 1991, most Indians welcomed the appointment, and to some extent, Manmohan Singh did not disappoint. The country was riding the storm of a huge economic crisis and it needed a skilled hand at the helm. Narasimha Rao, the politician was the captain who steered the ship and brought it to safety. Singh merely followed the orders and performed. When in 2004 he was appointed as the Prime Minister, the country again cheered the selection. Ten years later, we were being driven undersea by a tsunami of unprecedented economic depression; but, fortunately, the people in their wisdom elected a politician to safely bring our ship to harbour.

Dr Ashok Mitra taught us Economics at the IIMC. He was also the Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, and later became the Finance Minister of the Government of West Bengal. He once saw a student on the campus wearing pointed shoes that were very much in fashion in the sixties. Dr Mitra derisively referred to the footwear as “capitalist shoes.” When economic theories are underpinned by such ideologies, how can Economics then be called a science?

The great biologist and natural historian, Edward O. Wilson writes: “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” India is perhaps the only country that has experimented with a Social Scientist at its political helm for a decade. The results of this experiment were a complete breakdown of political morality as Dr Singh sat atop a humungous mountain of financial indiscipline and corruption.

The country desperately needed a synthesizer, and in Modi, it has found him. Hopefully, when the results of the 2019 elections are announced on 23rd May, the people would have rejected Dr Singh’s uncharacteristically vicious diatribe against Modi, chosen wisely, and thrown him and his party out into the political wilderness, never ever to return!

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Vijaya Dar
Vijaya Dar
Born in Kashmir. Indic by culture. Occasional writer, avid reader. Love serious cinema, but not TV. Eternal student.
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