A Missed Train, A Missed Boat, and a Science of Error Terms
They say, “There are 3 types of lies – lies, damn lies, and Statistics”. This is what first came to my mind when I sat down to write a blog on Mahalanobis and the evolution of Statistics in India. Muscle-memory I guess! Having been a student of Statistics and economics, I have always armed myself with a collection of all such silly, smart-cute lines to fire away at friends and colleagues at every opportunity. Old habits die hard after all. On top of that, having graduated from the Indian Statistical Institute, from right under the hotspot of Prof. Mahalanobi’s biggest legacy, it was really un-cool among students to express any unnecessary admiration for the man. Especially given that we had to write exams on his works, sitting in a hall named after him. So, we admired him privately, while maintaining a perfect nonchalant, irreverent front before our friends (who, on hindsight, I believe all did the same). Now that we have all grown up (I hope! Or maybe not.. idk.. ), I will make a sincere dash at honesty, however anti-instinctive it may feel. Here goes–
The great Indian poet Tagore, wrote in the first issue (second volume) of the journal Sankhya (Numbers), “These are the dance steps of numbers in the arena of time and space , which weave the magic of appearance, the incessant flow of changes that ever is and is not.”. He was referring to the then budding science of Statistics in India. It was 1933 and India was still a British colony, brewing in the freedom movement. It was a time of courage, revolution, and dreams of independence and nation-building. In the forefront of this group of young scholars – educated at the best universities of Europe and America, who returned home with new ideas and dreams of social, political, and scientific reform – was a young shy Prashanta Chandra Mahalanobis. He had, by chance, come across a journal called Biometrica on his voyage back from London. The story goes that a boat he was supposed to board was late and he picked up a volume of Biometrica to pass the time. He was so intrigued by this new method of scientific inquiry called Statistics, that he ordered the entire collection of Biometrica journals to be delivered to him in Calcutta! On 17th Dec 1931 a casual meeting among enthusiastic colleagues, in Presidency College’s Statistical Laboratory (which was nothing but Mahalanobis’ room at the time) went on to what later became the Indian Statistical Institute, a premier research and educational society/institute/university of national and international esteem. During this time Mahalanobis started the publication of Sankhya, the first Indian journal of Statistics. About the name of the journal, Mhalanobis wrote, “As we interpret it, the fundamental aim of statistics is to give determinate and adequate knowledge of reality with the help of numbers and numerical analysis. The ancient Indian word Sankhya embodies the same idea, and this is why we have chosen this name for the Indian Journal of Statistics”. And thus, Tagore commented on the second volume of Sankhya, describing this new science of data and numbers in his own lyrical and philosophical prose!
Mahalanobis went on to make significant contributions in the field of Statistics, most famous among them being the concept of Mahalanobis Distance, his extensive works on sample survey methods, quantitative linguistics, etc. Although I am a student of statistics, it will be foolish of me to even try to explain to you all his contributions to the field without taking up pages and spending weeks on extensive literature review. It should suffice to say that his works have had a lasting impact on the scientific community, with applications across several disciplines like Anthropology, Meteorology, Econometrics, Data Science, etc.
When Mahalanobis returned to India after his Tripos degree in Physics from King’s College Cambridge, India was churning in the freedom movement, still more than a decade away from gaining independence. However, distant dreams of freedom and nation-building were already on the political horizon. Social and political reforms were already taking shape and Mahalanobis, although shy and socially awkward, took a resolute stance in opposing some of the regressive doctrines of the Brahmo Samaj (which, by the way, were already quite progressive by the standards of the time). Post-independence, he played a crucial role in the planning and development of modern India. He was a member of independent India’s first Planning Commission and made significant contributions to successive 5-year plans. He extended the Liotief Input-Output model in the Indian context to create the two-sector Mahalanobis Model for industrialization in Independent India, which worked very successfully.
Some of the most important contributions of Mahalanobis were his works on large scale sample survey methods. He pioneered the technique of pilot studies in India and started conducting national surveys as early as 1937. Topics included consumer expenditure, tea-drinking habits, public opinion, crop acreage and plant disease, etc. Later down the road, he was instrumental in the formation of the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in 1950. It still remains the most reliable source of survey data in India and conducts several nationwide surveys every year.
Mahalanobis is widely regarded as the father of Statistics in India. But his contributions cannot be limited to academia and education only. His far-sightedness as a national policy maker, his vision of progressive social reforms, and his enterprising foundations of educational and research institutions have had a tremendous effect on India’s development. Perhaps, if you asked him, he would have crunched the numbers and formulated a quantitative measurement of all his contributions, but alas, we are but lesser mortals!
What inspired me to write this blog, you might ask? Of course, as a student of statistics and economics, I find his work fascinating! As an Indian, I am awed and grateful by his tremendous contribution towards nation-building. But most of all his quiet but resolute idealism inspires me. It is almost 50 years since his death (48 to be exact), yet I reap the benefits from his contributions even today! I was able to study statistics during my bachelor’s degree, and graduate from the Indian Statistical Institute with a degree in Quantitative economics, where one of my key projects involved working in collaboration with the NSSO on water level surveys. I would inflate with pride every time his name was mentioned in a graduate course in Statistics/Econometrics when I eventually attended Iowa State University. I also work as a Statistician at Inference Inc. where we perform statistical analysis to data from clinical trials. Now that I pen it down like this, it seems even more amazing how his foundational contributions are so relevant at every step of my educational and professional journey. Perhaps Mahalanobis himself could probably have devised a perfect counterfactual and predicted my life in an alternate reality – a reality where the boat from London was on time and he had never picked up Biometrica and had remained a contented physicist all his life. I wonder how my reality today would be then! Well, better not to think about it. Hence my humble attempt to honor this great man.
And of course, not to mention the years of self-inflicted suppressed admiration that needed expressing!
P.S : Fun Fact: Speaking of counterfactuals, who knows how things would have turned out if Mahalanobis did not miss his train to enroll to the University of London! The story goes that he stayed with his friend at King’s College Chapel and was eventually convinced to attend King’s College
Cambridge instead, where among other things, he greatly enjoyed cross-country walking and river punting.
Also, here is probably the Issue of Biometrika he picked up on his journey back to India, and the one that started India’s journey in Statistics.
June 17, 2020