October 9, 2013

General Info Session


Hello All,

Today, we will be holding  general information session about joining both the Public Sphere Journal or the Off the Spectrum blog. We encourage all those interested to attend, despite past experience with editing. We have positions open relating to events, web design as well as traditional positions such as writing and editing.

The meeting will be held at 5:30pm in the CLM 1.02.

We look forward to seeing you there!

September 5, 2013

Obscuring Context in the Name of Research

Written by Natasha Somji

For some time now, I have been debating whether or not to stay within the world of academia. While I love theories and conducting analysis, there is a sense of discomfort I feel whenever I consider pursuing a PhD that is not entirely captured by the monumental monetary costs or confusion about what I want to study. Much of this squeamishness has to do with questioning whether I buy into the mainstream version of academia: a field that uses theories and models to predict outcomes and then validates these predictions through quantitative studies. I find myself sometimes doubting the purpose of academia and how it is executed. If models were constructed with a particular audience in mind and studies are run on certain samples, how can these be generalisable to new contexts? Can studies that employ quantitative techniques – widely hailed as being more credible in substantiating results – really capture the subjectivity of the human experience?

Much of academia relies on using numbers to validate theories and models. The problem comes in when these same studies view people as mere numbers and do not consider more qualitative aspects of an individual or the culture in which models are operating. After all, is humanity not about emotions and subjective experiences and is not every individual unique? Yes, we may be able to measure how social benefits reduce employment rates, but how do we measure the loss to human dignity? Unfortunately, studies that are considered ‘credible’ require a quantitative component; however, it is just as important to recognise that the subjective experience of being human often cannot and should not be quantified. Of course numbers are important in substantiating results, but perhaps it is time to add humanity to our analysis by considering how qualitative factors impact or are impacted by results.

A recent article in The Christian Science Monitor titled Immigration: Assimilation and the measure of an American discussed how difficult it is to measure the nebulous concept of assimilation. One quantitative study attempted to compile civic, cultural, and economic indices by examining statistics such as marital status, number of children, citizenship, homeownership, etc. Looking at these variables only inform us of how the immigrant population compares to the native born in a narrowly defined way; it tells us absolutely nothing about how immigrants themselves view their assimilation into society. By attempting to be ‘objective’ we drown out the personal stories that are so important in understanding the holistic nature of the immigrant experience. In the name of research, we begin to look at people solely as numbers; we begin to disengage with humanity and lose the bigger context of how our research can contribute toward a better future.

In addition, many research studies attempt to identify causal relationships between two variables but rarely consider the impact of one variable on other outcomes. Many of these studies do not have the necessary funding to examine long-term trends or to consider the impact of a program or intervention on multiple facets of an individual’s experience. For instance, suppose that an intervention was found to have a positive effect on its desired outcome, and, as result, was scaled up. Now suppose in the long-term this same intervention had adverse health effects that were not measured both because of the short duration of the study, but also because they were not part of the researcher’s variable of interest. Imagine another such study that had adverse impacts on a concept as intangible as self-esteem, a concept that is incredibly difficult to quantify. While the intervention may be hailed as a success, by not considering these elements, we may be doing more harm than good.

Models, too, have their own set of problems. So much of research builds upon axioms, but rarely do we critically analyse this knowledge base. We must question the very foundations of our models and the assumptions that go into building them. A recent article by Ethan Watters in The Pacific Standard titled We Aren’t the World talks about Joe Henrich’s research on the problem of using models created in the West to generalise to populations in different cultures. When Henrich tried to apply game theory in diverse settings around the world, he found that the rules of the game were difficult to explain and results were markedly different from the same experiments conducted in the West. Indeed, the very foundations of the models, largely constructed in the developed world, failed to apply in the same manner worldwide. How many more of these kinds of models is research built upon and how problematic are they?

All of this is not to say that there is no value in numbers and models. Indeed, both are tools that can simplify an argument and leave the masses with a clear understanding of the main takeaways of a paper, in some ways making information more accessible. Numbers can help us with establishing clearly defined goals, and models can assist with framing ideas to generate greater debate and dialogue. But, in engaging with research, we must always be cognizant of the context within which we are operating and remember to never put ourselves before the grander goal, all in the name of ‘rigorous’ research.

May 6, 2013

The Lost Meaning of Models

Written By: Rebecca Gu

Harmless Economics

Economics has rightfully earned a reputation for being abstract to the point of obscurity.  Theoretical physics and mathematics also practice this same level of abstraction, but unlike economics, those fields also do not arrogantly claim that their usefulness lies in their applicability to real life.  It is this combination of both asserting relevance and simultaneously reducing complexity of real applications that leads to some dangerous assumptions about how the world should work.  For example, my research thus far;

The Many Facets of Carbon Emissions

Global climate change is an economic puzzle in that it involves a lot of different elements, that relate back to concepts of fairness and unfairness.

1) Historical Grudges

Given the amount of man-made emissions that have collectively been produced to date, it is arguably the currently rich countries that have benefited the most from this. Carbon emissions are a by-product of industrialisation, and industrialisation is associated with the economic development of most of the West. Thus, climate change treaties are saddled with the burden of how to distribute future obligations based on historical responsibility. Continue reading

March 12, 2013

Book Review: Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century


Nicholas Berggruen is an investor and founder of the Nicolas Berggruen Institute that studies the development of more effective systems of governance. Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of New Perspectives Quarterly, and senior advisor to the Nicolas Berggruen Institute. In Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century, Berggruen and Gardels critically compare the West’s liberal democracy and the East’s meritocracy. Can we learn from both?

Intelligent Governance For The 21st Century. Polity Press. 2013.

Reviewed by: Dennis Shen

Is there a middle way between China’s meritocratic single-party system and the United States’ multi-party liberal democracy? This is the question that authors’ Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels ask in their provocative book, Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century. Continue reading

January 29, 2013

Has the Global Economic System “Raised All Boats”?

Written By: Dennis Shen, Raktim Roy and Joséphine Gantois

The design of a global economic system that supports inclusive growth is central to today’s policy debate. The current global economic model has been in-place since the 1980s: the decade in which free market thinking revolutionized the world economy. The neoliberal system adopted since that time has engineered a world with less trade barriers, globalized markets, and minimal government intervention – based on the belief that a pro-market, anti-governance approach would support human welfare. Globalization has been an important outcome, and has re-shaped our lives.

Now, there exists an active debate on whether the neoliberal system has been a success. Proponents of globalization and free trade would say that the world is the better for it – proponents like Martin Wolf write that inequality and poverty are declining in large part due to globalization forces. But on the other end, outspoken voices like Robert Wade at the London School of Economics would say that rather than supporting lower inequality and improvements in welfare, the current system has in many ways held the rich countries up and the poor countries down. Continue reading

November 29, 2012

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology challenging the rational model of judgment and decision making, is seen by many as one of the world’s most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound impact on many fields – including business, medicine, and politics – and in Thinking, Fast and Slow he takes readers on a tour of the mind, explaining the two systems that drive the way we think and make choices. Joel Suss feels that the book should be made required reading for anyone who still holds fast to the notion that people make decisions rationally.

Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman. Allen Lane. November 2011.

Humans are hard-wired to be overconfident in their decision-making abilities, an evolutionary feature that allows us to instantaneously and comfortably make decisions and avoid the halting (and in the distant-past of human history, life-threatening) paralysis that would result from constant self-doubt. Continue reading

November 26, 2012

Call for Articles!


The Public Sphere journal team is delighted to invite IPA students and alumni to submit contributions for our newly launched policy blog ‘Off the Spectrum’ (OTS). OTS will provide an informal window for IPA students to discuss today’s most important global issues, and will complement the journal’s highly academic, research-based approach.

Authors are asked to contribute to Off the Spectrum by writing a short political or economic commentary (500 – 1,250 words) on an issue or event in today’s world. Guidelines to submission are included in the below attached “Call for Articles” PDF. We also welcome other contributions such as book reviews and interviews with leading academics and policymakers.

In addition to article submissions, we currently invite new writers to join the OTS team as regular contributors, who would work with the OTS editors and regularly write new articles to be posted on the blog.

OTS is currently only open to submissions from IPA students and alumni.

We look forward to receiving your contributions. For queries, please contact Dennis Shen (Editor), Joel Suss (Editor), or Ganga Shreedhar (Chief Editor).

The Public Sphere Team Continue reading

October 8, 2012

Growth and Inequality: Analyzing an Important Relationship

Written By: Dennis Shen

In academic circles, it has become commonly accepted that rapid economic growth can increase inequality. This has been supported by international developments in recent decades that show declining inequality between countries but increasing inequality within countries. China and the United States are just two examples. To explain the reason, some point to globalization as the natural conduit not only for high growth and inter-country convergence but also the agent for downward domestic pressures on working class payrolls, capping wage increases in response to international labor competition and resulting in intra-country divergence.  Others have argued that unregulated laissez-faire economics is both an apparatus for rapid economic advances and the natural environment for the development of a Darwinian economy (see Robert Frank’s “The Darwin Economy”) of winners and losers across an increasingly segmented income distribution, requiring a strong state to intervene and re-balance. Continue reading


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