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Bad math — big blunders

Pervez HoodbhoyUpdated June 15, 2019

The writer teaches physics and math in Lahore and Islamabad

NOW that the hype and hysteria he helped create is fading, recently retired chief justice Saqib Nisar deserves to wear a pointed dunce cap on his head as he, with the most powerful men in Pakistan today behind him, walks slowly through the Hall of Shame. Had they understood from schooldays the importance of a few innocent-looking zeros to the left of a decimal point, they’d recognise a million from a billion. We might have then been spared the deep national embarrassment everyone now wants to forget — the Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand dams.

From yesterday (Friday) morning here’s the math: The Supreme Court websiteshows Rs10,669,728,001 in the dam fund with inflows starting July 6, 2018. Looks huge, eh? In US dollars that’s just $0.07bn. Worse, since February the graph is flat because salaried people are fighting against more forced deductions. Still worse: the un-invested fund has lost Rs10m a day in interest (the recent decision to invest this by June 20 is way overdue). Now compare the measly $0.07bn with the whopping $14bn needed for Diamer-Bhasha alone (2013 estimate). In July 2018 the intrepid Khurram Husain calculated that 199 years of donations were needed to achieve this. With reduced inflows, that time rockets up to 600-700 years.

Favourite excuses: overseas Pakistanis didn’t deliver their $1,000 per person as Imran Khan imagined they would; local Pakistanis were stingy despite prods and nudges and hourly exhortations over establishment-controlled radio and TV; the trillions of looted money supposedly returning to Pakistan somehow got lost on the way; and the dollar went through the roof. All predictable but to foresee something you need brains, not just eyes.

Mathematics is all about reason but reason in Pakistan appears to have dried up in recent times.

In a mathematically savvy country no major project — civil works, manufacturing, or health — is approved without a full fiscal and cost/benefit analysis, detailed supply chain management, and logistics connecting the nodes. Teams of technical experts guide political leaders through the maze. But for Pakistani decision-makers, whim suffices.


Question: why so few genuine Pakistani experts and why is math illiteracy so rampant? We have good soldiers but not a single top-level Pakistani mathematician anywhere in the world — even those recently decorated with Pakistan’s highest national awards for mathematics would probably flunk undergrad math exams at places like MIT. Why is the math taught in our schools and universities ridiculously bad?

The answer has two parts. First, most people confuse math with arithmetic and with cut-and-dried formulas. But it’s not that! Mathematics is the music of reason whose rich melodies need good tutoring and hard work to understand. Second, math matters much but only if you think the laws of physics, expressed mathematically, actually govern the physical universe. Where Inshallah holds sway, math based predictions are easily overridden. Precise planning then becomes useless or secondary; math skills are unneeded.

Case in point: some geniuses in Gen Musharraf’s cabinet one day decided to substitute CNG for petrol. They priced CNG so low that poor taxi drivers and land cruiser owners alike rushed to buy a CNG conversion kit costing Rs20,000 or more. Millions saved and scrimped to buy one but the net savings were still good. Then one day: poof! As gas started petering out, queues became impossibly long. Thousands of CNG stations closed down and millions of kits were thrown away.

Again, bad math! Computer modeling of supply and demand, with the model’s output actually determining policy, is normal elsewhere. Did our experts and Supreme Court think that divine intervention would bring back the gas? It didn’t and so everything collapsed.

Listing every such bungle could fill countless thick volumes. But there’s a mega-bungle deserving inclusion in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Since it’s from the backwaters of Sindh, almost no one knows about it.

Way back in 1989 a brand new campus was acquired for Shah Abdul Latif University near the shrine of Shadi Shaheed some 25 kilometres from Khairpur city. Spread over 900 acres, construction proceeded until 1995. And then before the first class was held it was abandoned forever. Thirty years later, there’s talk about converting the campus to a date plantation — but that’s if they can find water.

Colleagues in Khairpur invited me there in 1997 for physics lectures but insisted I also tour the new campus. Driving over an un-metalled road in the blazing desert heat brought us to 30-odd buildings standing silently in the backdrop of barren hills. It was like visiting a town after an earthquake except there had been no earthquake. After it rained in 1995 the ground settled unevenly and some buildings lost roofs, others leaned to one side. The only occupants I encountered were desert lizards and stray dogs.

Bad math, bad soil engineering! Nevertheless, the accused pleaded in court that “this incident should be seen as an act of God which mere mortals could do little to prevent” and argued that unseasonal rains were due to Him. It worked: no one was ever punished.

Math illiteracy also means ‘exponential growth’ is not understood. The consequences of this are graver than anything imaginable. Pakistan currently has a ‘small’ net population growth rate of 2.1 per cent. This means every 33 years the population will double, and then double again and again. If continued, by this century’s end Pakistan’s population will exceed that of Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand combined. This shocking piece of math is something that no government or its minders dare discuss; the ministry of population planning was abolished years ago.

A silver lining, howsoever slight: Fawad Chaudhry, the current minister of science and technology, is pushing an Islamic calendar. Four hundred years ago, after he invented infinitesimal calculus, Isaac Newton found that gravity and inertia alone determine lunar and planetary orbits. Unlike what had been imagined in mediaeval times, it wasn’t teams of harnessed angels that were pulling them around. Today we know to within half an inch where the moon will be 1,000 years hence. Will Chaudhry and his new scientific almanac succeed in convincing us when the next Eid-ul-Fitr will be? Let’s wish him luck.

The writer teaches physics and math in Lahore and Islamabad

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2019


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