Monday, April 14, 2008

Grateful for a Handful of Seeds

It's a been a rough semester for this doctoral student. This piece about the world-transforming activities of researchers and student right across the river just gave me a shot of energy to get through the next four weeks:

IN THE NEW movie "21," a fictionalized version of how several former MIT students used mathematical skill to win big at blackjack, being "pretty good with numbers" looks like a quick way to get rich in Las Vegas. Real life at MIT may seem less glamorous, but it's actually more exciting, because our students and faculty are using their gift for numbers and analysis to change the world.

Take, for example, the problem of global poverty. Over five decades, the world has spent upwards of $2 trillion on development aid, without many lasting results. One reason is that, to a striking degree, aid funds are spent without understanding which interventions really work. It's as if a new drug could enter the market simply because some patients who take it get better. We've long understood that without a control group for comparison, there's no way to tell whether symptoms improve because of the drug or for some unrelated reason.

Today, 2.6 billion people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day. Given the magnitude of the problem, it's imperative to identify which antipoverty efforts work best. That is exactly the aim of MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, headed by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, and including a growing network of researchers at institutions around the world. The Jameel Poverty Action Lab is leading a quiet revolution. The idea is simple: to identify the most effective ways to alleviate poverty by applying the same kind of rigorous, scientific, randomized trials routinely used to test new drugs. (Read the whole thing here).

In medicine and increasingly in the social sciences, efforts like the ones at MIT are part of what is known as "evidence based practice", using the best available empirical evidence to guide policy and practices for human betterment. The following quote of 'Abdu'l-Baha has become one of my favorites:

"All blessings are divine in origin, but none can be compared with this power of intellectual investigation and research, which is an eternal gift producing fruits of unending delight. Man is ever partaking of these fruits. All other blessings are temporary; this is an everlasting possession...Therefore, you should put forward your most earnest efforts toward the acquisition of science and arts. The greater your attainment, the higher your standard in the divine purpose."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 49)

Of course, Baha'u'llah had even more inspiring things to say about knowledge:

"Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world. Unto this beareth witness the Mother Book in this conspicuous station. In truth, knowledge is a veritable treasure for man, and a source of glory, of bounty, of joy, of exaltation, of cheer and gladness unto him."
(Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 26)

What could be more delightful than spending my remaining days applying the power of social science in pursuit of social justice and human wellbeing?

"In the mirror of their minds the forms of transcendent realities are reflected, and the lamp of their inner vision derives its light from the sun of universal knowledge. They are busy by night and by day with meticulous research into such sciences as are profitable to mankind, and they devote themselves to the training of students of capacity. It is certain that to their discerning taste, the proffered treasures of kings would not compare with a single drop of the waters of knowledge, and mountains of gold and silver could not outweigh the successful solution of a difficult problem. To them, the delights that lie outside their work are only toys for children, and the cumbersome load of unnecessary possessions is only good for the ignorant and base. Content, like the birds, they give thanks for a handful of seeds, and the song of their wisdom dazzles the minds of the world's most wise."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 21)

Contemplating this gives me the strength to keep going, "When the swords flash, go forward. When the shafts fly press onward." Now if I could just figure out how to live without sleep for four years....