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The problem of non-linearity: What Chetan Bhagat and other liberals keep getting wrong on India’s vaccination rates

Congratulations, Chetan. You now have Sadanand Dhume defending your intellectual contribution. And doing it more eloquently than you ever could.

A couple of days ago, it was Chetan Bhagat’s lucky day on social media. As India vaccinated over 13 million people in a single day, social media users dug up his old tweets suggesting that India would achieve its vaccination target only by late 2024. Chetan responded with taunts, half-quoted Hindi proverbs and internet memes, asking people to have “thoda sa brain” and the like. He was careful enough to tailor his responses only to the trolling, instead of addressing any meaningful criticism.

Earlier that day, Chetan had tweeted expressing satisfaction at how his columns contributed to drawing attention to India’s slow vaccination program back in April-May. In other words, Chetan essentially courted the trolling himself. Mission accomplished, at least some marketers would say.

Chetan has a ready defense. Did he ever say that India could not achieve its target before 2024? Not exactly. He only said that at the “slow” pace of April-May 2021, vaccinating everyone would take 3 more years. This argument is common nowadays. It comes from liberal critics left red-faced by the now searing pace of India’s vaccination program. In February, an article in The Hindu suggested that India would reach barely 15% of its July end vaccination target, or 6 crore doses instead of the 40 crore doses. That article was widely mocked when India crossed 40 crore doses in mid-July itself.

The response from the journalist who wrote that article? Their article is “valid,” because the projection was based on the vaccination rate at that time in February. He also accused people of “mindless trolling.”

Do these people actually have an excuse? In a strict technical sense, yes. But that does not change the fact that they ignored the first, most basic common sense rule of data analysis. Garbage in, garbage out. If your assumptions are garbage, your projections will be garbage. Of course, when your projections are later exposed as garbage, you can come back and give the defense that your assumptions were garbage too. Like I said, these people are technically correct. Enough to fool the “fact-checkers,” if nobody else.

Why did liberals like Chetan Bhagat make those garbage assumptions in the first place? You might say politics, or sensationalism, but there could be a deeper reason here. It is the failure of their minds to understand non-linearity. If a car travels 50 kilometers this hour and the destination is still 500 kilometers away, the journey will take 10 more hours. Our minds can process this easily. Because it’s linear. And because linear is easy, whenever we try to understand something, we decide to pretend that it must be linear.

The problem is that not everything is linear. In fact, non-linearity is all around us. How well is the sun shining in your part of the world right now? Perhaps it is night and the sun is not shining at all. In any case, if the sun continued to be the way it shines on you right now, it would lead to catastrophe. In other words, the amount of sunshine you receive varies non-linearly. That is what makes life possible as we know it.

What about the rainfall pattern? It’s non-linear too. If a child grows a foot taller between the ages of 5 and 10, does it mean they will grow to be over 17 feet tall by the ripe old age of 90 years? If you can eat 1 burger in 5 minutes, does it mean you can eat 144 burgers in a 12 hour period? What kind of a person does projections like these?

What about economic growth? It is always non-linear. What about the manufacturing of cars, typewriters, airplanes or any other successful product? It starts off slow, then increases rapidly for a time, then hits a peak and gradually goes away. You can’t assume linearity just because it is easy to multiply things on a calculator. You must account for reality as well. By the way, the pandemic itself is the best example of non-linear growth. Remember when we had the first 100 or so cases in India? I think that took almost a whole week. How did that zoom to nearly 1 lakh cases per day?

Here is an example that may hit closer home for Chetan Bhagat. If his book sells 1 lakh copies on the first day, does it mean the book will sell 365 lakh copies in a year? Or 36.5 crore copies in 10 years?

Liberals have not just failed to understand non-linear growth, they have failed to even understand what growth means. Suppose the BSE Sensex is at 50,000 on June 30, at 49,000 on July 31, at 54,000 on Aug 31, and at 53,000 on Sep 30. So, is the market rising or falling? It’s actually rising. Because you have to see the trend, not the variation. That’s how things work in the real world.

Speaking of not understanding trend growth, The Hindu absolutely embarrassed themselves the other day with an editorial titled “The virtue of consistency.” If it is so great that India hit 1 crore vaccinations in one day, then why did the numbers fall to 79 lakh the next day? This happened earlier as well. After the Center took over the vaccination program on June 21, there were nearly 87 lakh vaccinations the first day, but it dropped off to 60 lakh per day or so over the following week. What kind of mind trick is Modi trying to pull off?

Did you see what actually happened? Vaccinations suddenly rose from 20 lakh a day to 88 lakh and then “fell” to 60 lakh! Recently, it rose to 1 crore and then “fell” to 79 lakh! The peaks are higher than the previous peaks. The troughs are also higher than the previous troughs. That’s trend growth.

But the folks at The Hindu cannot understand this. Their editorial appealing for “consistency” read nearly like a cry for help from a failing student. Give us one fixed number so we can multiply and be happy. Simplify the math for us, please. Because anything above a sixth grade level is blowing our minds.

There are a number of reasons our minds are often not ready to face non-linearity. You could blame the already much maligned school education system. They spend way too much time obsessing over linear equations. There is another way, though. You could learn now. You could become a lifelong learner, and discover new things each day. That includes a bit of humility, instead of telling others to use “thoda sa brain.”

One final thing. In this article, I keep referring to Chetan Bhagat as a “liberal.” How did that come to pass? He started off as the whiz from IIT, IIM and Goldman-Sachs. Then, Chetan brought his freshness into the stuck up world of literature and changed that forever. That’s not liberalism, that’s real enterprise. But the liberals eventually got to him. They looked down on him so much, that he finally came around to wanting to be like them.

This is what liberals excel at. Making people feel inferior with their consent. Now the liberals treat Chetan as an intern, and he sucks up to them in return. Congratulations, Chetan. You now have Sadanand Dhume defending your intellectual contribution. And doing it more eloquently than you ever could. Perhaps you have finally earned your merit badge of liberalism. Go celebrate.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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