Real Statistics (3/4) Statistics As Rhetoric

[bit.do/azrs3] This is the 3rd part of a 4-part lecture about an online course “Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach”.  Anyone can register at any time, and complete the sequence of lessons offered at their own pace. The course is broken into independent modules, and the first module on general principles of Islamic Education is recommended for all Muslim teachers/students; to register, fill in form: Registration PIE.

Previous two parts of this lecture were Part I – Fundamental of an Islamic Approach {bit.do/azrs1} and Part II: Teachings of Statistics as an Act of Worship {bit.do/azrs2}. This part provides a new and different foundation for the entire subject. We will treat Statistics as a type of modern rhetoric, a way of persuading other people to believe in some idea using numbers as a tool for persuasion. This is radically different from the standard approach which treats statistics as an objective analysis of numbers.  Link to the original 23m Urdu lecture at Univ of Baluchistan: RS (3/4) Stats As Rhetoric (urdu).  The 21m English Video lecture is followed by a written summary:

Statistics as Rhetoric: (1900 Word Summary) Continue reading

Real Statistics (2/4) Teaching Statistics as an Act of Worship

[bit.do/azrs2] This is the second part of my talk at University of Baluchistan on Mon, 22 July 2019 (Link to Part 2 of Original Urdu Talk at UoB). The talk is about my online course, scheduled to start on Sat 27th July 2109, on Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach (RSIA). To register for the free online course, follow link in the first paragraph of “Connecting Statistics to Reality“.  The first part of the talk laid out The Fundamentals for An Islamic Approach [bit.do/azrs1]. This second part deals with the question of “How to teach statistics as an act of worship?”. The 15m video (re-recorded in English) is followed by a brief summary of main points in 1700 words.

Teaching Statistics as Worship: (1700 Word Summary) Continue reading

Real Statistics (1/4) Fundamentals of an Islamic Approach

[bit.do/azrs1] Mon 22 July 2019 – Lecture at University of Baluchistan about some fundamental principles which differentiate an Islamic approach to education from a Western approach. Original lecture was in Urdu and can viewed via: (Urdu) Real Statistics (1/4). Below, we provide a re-recording in English, and also a written summary. The central question we pose: How can a teacher teach, and a student learn, statistics, so that this is an act of worship? An online course on “Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach” was launched on Sunday 28th July 2019, and more than 200 participants registered for the course. Some preliminary motivational material for the course is given in previous post: Connecting Statistics with Reality. To accommodate the excess demand, I have converted the course into an open-enrollment self-paced course, which start at anytime, and complete lessons at their own pace. To enroll for the first module of this course, on general principles of an Islamic Education, fill the form: Registration: PIE

The full lecture,, in 4 parts, describes how an Islamic approach can revolutionize the teaching of statistics, providing an entirely new approach to the subject, which creates excellent learning outcomes, and motivates and inspires students. This first part (1/4) describes the basic ideas upon which this approach is built.

Summary of First Part of Lecture (1000 words) Continue reading

Connecting Statistics to Reality

[bit.do/azcsr] An online course entitled Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach (RSIA)- was launched on Saturday 27th July 2019. 200+ students registered for the course, which has now started. To accommodate the excess demand, I have converted the course to a self paced open enrollment course. Students can start at any time, and work through the lessons at their own pace. To register for the first module of the course (on Principles of an Islamic Education), signup on form: Registration: PIE. The 26m Video lecture below provides the motivational ideas which went into the construction of the online course. Additional relevant materials are listed in the Postscript.

Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach – (1300 Word Summary). Continue reading

From Light to Darkness

Darkness & Light: More than twenty five years ago, after I spent four months in Tableegh, I was struck by what appeared to me to be a stark contradiction between the Quran and the empirical reality – The Quran says that the believers will be led out of darkness towards the light, while the reverse will be true of those who deny the faith. My Western education showed me a world in which exactly the opposite was true; where the light of knowledge illuminated the universities of the unbelievers, while ignorance and darkness reigned supreme in the religious seminaries of the believers. One of the key elements of the work of Tableegh is to create faith in the unseen, against the visible evidence of our experience. The Quran starts with a description of believers as those who believe in the unseen; exactly the opposite of what my Western education had trained me to do: believe only in observable, empirical evidence. Faith requires us to believe that even though we see that fire burns, the reality is that all power belongs to Allah, and it is only by the will of Allah that fire burns. Allah T’aala can withdraw this power, and turn fire cool, if He so desires. The work of Tableegh had strengthened my faith sufficiently, so that I believed that the Quran was correct, and my experience and education had led me to the wrong conclusions. But, for the life of me, I could not understand how this could be true. I had learned that we must subordinate our reason to the Quran, rather than subordinating the Quran to reason (see: The Quran: Faith and Reason). I started to regularly make dua to Allah to resolve this problem by showing me the light of knowledge promised to the believers, and to make clear to me how the unbelievers were led out of the light into the darkness. Continue reading

Underground Railroad: Path to Freedom

[bit.do/azurp] In early 19th century, slaves in South USA would escape to the North and Canada using the “Underground Railroad”, a network of meeting places, secret routes, passageways and safe houses, created to enable such escapes. In a previous talk on “Learn Who You Are!“, we discussed how a capitalist economy turns us into human resources for the production of wealth, by deceiving us about our true identities. This talk is about how we can build our own underground railroad, in order to free ourselves from the chains of thought which bind us. Just like a fish is unaware of the water in which it swims, so we are unaware of the tides of history which have shaped our lives and our ways of thinking. One effective strategy for liberation is to rise above it all, and to examine human history from a broader perspective. In this 20m English Video talk, we will look at three major historical events which have changed the lives and thoughts of everyone on the planet:

  1. The conquest of 85% of the globe by Europeans, completed by the early 20th Century.
  2. The transformation of European societies from traditional to secular, modern, market societies.
  3. The spread of Eurocentric History, and Market Ideologies throughout the globe by the means of Western education.

A brief English summary of the talk is given below. This talk, and the previous one, are English versions of the first two segments of a 1hr 30m Urdu talk at Iqra University on “Learning How to Become a Human Being, Instead of a Human Resource“.

European Colonization of the Globe: The need to justify ruthless and barbaric conquest, accompanied by uncountable massacres and genocides, required the creation of honorable cover story. To understand this, it is useful to look at the Iraq invasion. This was justified on the grounds of protecting the world from Weapons of Mass Destruction, liberating the Iraqi people from an evil dictator, and bring benefits of democracy to the people of Iraq. The reality was a complete destruction of nearly all infrastructure, killing of more than a million innocent civilians, and giving the Oil Cartel control of the vast oil reserves of Iraq. Exactly like this, the justification given for global conquest was that the Europeans had an extremely advanced civilization, and they wanted to share the benefits of their progress, science, technology, and democracy with the backwards and ignorant people living outside Europe. The reality was that massive amounts of wealth of Africans, Asians, and Americans was transferred to Europe, making them tremendously wealthy, while the rest of world became extremely poor, ignorant, and backwards, as a result of this looting and destruction. See Central Myths of Eurocentric History for more details.

The Great Transformation: The industrial revolution in England led to creation of mass overproduction. The necessity to produce excessive goods, and to market them, led to the transformation of traditional European society into a market society. A traditional society is built on social norms of cooperation, generosity, and social responsibility. However, in order to create a market society it is necessary to change these norms, so that no one is willing to help others in distress. It is only creation of need and dependency on a massive scale that permits the creation of a labor market, where major chunks of human lives are sold for money in the marketplace. When all our needs for survival must be purchased, this has a deep effect on our ways of thinking. Money becomes god, for it can buy everything – unlike traditional societies, where markets are not dominant, and the most precious things are not for sale. For more details, see “The Great Transformation“.

Western Education: In a market society, the purpose of education is to create workers for the labor market. Students are indoctrinated into thinking of themselves as human resources, commodities for sale in the labor market. the society learns to value human beings according to how much they can earn. Pursuit of Wealth becomes the purpose of life.  Student are taught to compete with other, to think of education as a means to earn money, to value grades and degrees, instead of an education which teaches us how to live our unique and precious lives to the fullest. Theories that we learn teach us to be selfish, care about money over social relationships, and to accept no moral obstacles in the path of pursuit of pleasure — “All is fair in love and war”. As even Western observers have noted, these philosophies are poisonous; see for example, Julie Nelson “Poisoning the Well: How Economic Theory Damages Moral Imagination“.

The Underground Railroad: Three major historical events have shaped our thoughts. When we become aware of these trends, then it becomes possible to see where these ideas came from, and it becomes possible to imagine alternative ways of thinking and acting. In this process, Islam provides us with substantial guidance regarding revolutionary alternatives which can transform our personalities, and change the world. The pathway to liberation is the same as it was 1400 years ago; see “Islamic Knowledge: Still Revolutionary after 1440 Years

The Forest and Tree Principle

In a previous post, “My Journey from Theory to Reality“, I explained how converting my ‘worldly’ profession of teaching economics to an act of worship required working on intentions: (both mine and the students). I made the intention to study “useful” knowledge, in order to provide service to the creation of God, for the sake of the love of God. I also asked my students to make the same intention.

Our Prophet Mohammad SAW made dua for beneficial knowledge, and also made dua for protection from useless knowledge. This distinction does not exist in Western epistemology. In fact, there is an explicit argument made that there is no such distinction. Apparently useless knowledge we acquire today (for example about how bats navigate without eyes) may become useful tomorrow (as in the discovery of the sonar). It is clear that Islam does make a distinction, and so  it became necessary for me to make the effort to find out the nature of “useful” knowledge. At the outset, I defined the term solely in terms of the ability to use this knowledge in order to solve some real world problem. Later, I learned much more about ‘useful’ knowledge. In this post, I will describe some basic and elementary facts that became clear to me in my search for useful knowledge to teach my students.

My first introduction to the huge gap between theory and practice came when I wrote my first book: “Statistical Foundations for Econometric Techniques“. When I submitted the first draft to Academic Press in 1990, one of the reviewers wrote that the author is an expert on theory, but has no grasp of real world problems. The theory of knowledge that we had absorbed in Graduate School taught us that applications were trivial. We took our theoretical models, and plugged in real data sets to get the results. So I was irritated by this criticism; I decided to add one real world application to each chapter of my book. To my great surprise, this process took six years, delaying the publication of the book to 1996! I ran into great difficulties when I tried to find serious and realistic applications of the theory I was describing in the book. It was not a matter of just plugging in data and producing results. Most data did not fit the assumptions made in our theoretical models.  Eventually, I did manage to add a lot of realistic examples, almost one per chapter as I had decided. But in the process I learned a lot about the gap between theory and practice in Econometrics. I could find real examples only by choosing the very few realistic problems which provided a rough match to the theoretical assumptions. I learned that the vast majority of complex real world problems did not fit the simplified assumptions we used to set up our theoretical models.

As one example, Chapter 5 of my textbook was an introduction to robust regression techniques. When I surveyed the literature, I found more than 25 different techniques had been suggested in the theoretical literature. This was too many to cover in one chapter.  While trying to decide what to cover, I decided to look at techniques which had actually been applied to the analysis of real world data sets. That immediately reduced the number under consideration to only 5 or so, which was possible to cover. This was just one among many examples which showed me the great divide between theory and practice. Theoreticians would happily work out solutions to problems which never occur in practice, making assumptions which lead to nice mathematical solutions. In contrast, real world problems would have structures which were too complex to express in elegant mathematical forms, and hence were never dealt with by the theoreticians.

The simple idea of converting the theoretical knowledge that I had been taught, into practical ideas which were relevant to solution of real world problems, made my life an exciting process of continuous discovery — every abstract theoretical idea acquired new life when it was translated into the context of a real world application. Many theories and skills that I had been taught died a natural death — I learned that they could not be applied. For example, I discovered that the mathematical theorems and proofs that I had spent years learning had no practical real world applications. The few theories that could be applied acquired new meanings, depth, and complexity, when viewed in the light of real world applications. This led me to what I have called the ‘forest and tree’ principle. The forest is a theory about how a collection of trees can be grouped together — this collectivity exists in minds, and is subjective. At the same time, the trees are out there, and an objective part of external reality. Understanding the world requires simultaneous work on the theories which organized the complex external reality into simple patterns (the forest) , and on the objects (trees) which have been collected into a pattern by ignoring a huge amount of details regarding the particulars (like size, type, distances from other trees, age, etc.). The forest and tree principle involves looking together at the forest and trees: the general and abstract theories, and the particular and special trees. I found this principle of great importance in developing “useful knowledge”.

The Forest and Tree principle: Any abstract theory, philosophy, or concept, can only be understood in context of its application to a particular, specialized, concrete, and unique real world problem. The converse is also true: we cannot understand particular, special, and unique real world problems without the help of abstract theories.

We all learn Western epistemology (theory of knowledge), not because we take courses in philosophy, but by on-the-job training that an apprentice receives. The courses we take in chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, history, economics, etc. etc. etc. define for us the nature of knowledge — knowledge is what we learn in our courses. Because it is never mentioned, we are taught that learning how to live, discovering the purpose of life, learning codes of conduct for our personal, family, and social lives — these are NOT part of knowledge. As I understood much later, real knowledge is about learning how to realize the potential for excellence that all human beings are born with. Knowledge of our internal world, which is required for this, is not part of the Western syllabus, but plays a central role in the teachings of Islam. The Forest and Tree principle applies to the knowledge of the external world, which is the sole focus of Western knowledge.  But even when it comes to the study of the external world, Western theories of knowledge are seriously mistaken. This is especially surprising in view of the tremendous success these theories have achieved in terms of technological and scientific progress. The errors arise from the effort to prove that scientific theories are objective facts about external realities, when in fact they are subjective ways of organizing collections of facts into meaningful patterns. To understand this, it is useful to think more deeply about the forest and the trees.

Even though there is an external reality which is objective, out-there, and same for all, our only access to this reality is through our subjective senses. When we call an object in the external reality a “tree” – we have already added a lot of subjective information to the external reality. We have ignored a huge amount of information — how many branches, leaves, colors, wood density, age, molecular composition, roots, etc. etc. — in arriving at this classification. Philosophers of science have realized that observations are theory-laden. The tree is not an external reality out there; it is a product of our classification system which says that many details about the external Tree-object can be ignored, while certain special aspects must be taken into account. If we really took all details into account, then every tree would be a particular unique type of object which would have no other similar objects elsewhere. A fact of the type: there is an object O, at time T, which has characteristics C1, C2, …  is not very useful because we cannot use it to say anything about the world in general. In order to learn from observations, it is NECESSARY to introduce THEORIES – These theories tell us what facts should be considered as important, and which ones can be ignored. It is after ignoring particular details of the tree, that we can create a collection of trees which share similarities, and are located in the same place. Thus the FOREST is a subjective meta-theory – it is theory which is built on top of our theories regarding what a tree is.

In general, whenever we collect an objective set of observations about the external reality, it is necessary to find some patterns in them, in order to learn something more about the real world. If we have a collection of facts F1, F2, F3, … these facts tell us nothing more than what they are themselves, UNLESS we construct a theory based on these facts. The theory is what allows us to LEARN from the facts, but the theory is ALWAYS subjective — it is based on our own judgments about how to organize the trees into a forest.

One very important implication of this way of understanding the world is that we DO NOT LEARN from EXPERIENCE. Experience is just a collection of facts that we observe in the process of engaging with the world. Learning comes from applying a THEORY to organize this experience. To give a very simple example, consider someone who struggles to achieve some goal, and fails 100 times. What can he learn from this experience? He may apply the theory that the goal is too difficult, that his capabilities are too limited, or some other similar lesson, which says that he should give up. Alternatively, he could apply the theory that his failure represents incomplete effort and insufficient experience, and therefore he should try harder, and learn more, in order to succeed. It is interesting that both theories can prove themselves by further experience. The one who gives up will say that yes, my theory is correct, and a 100 examples prove it. I have no need of further experimentation to prove my theory. The one who keeps trying may experience success on the 150th trial, can also conclude that his theory was correct. Identical people with identical experiences may apply different theories and learn different things from the same experience.

Let me summarize the key lessons of the forest and trees. Theories about the external world are based on collections of facts, but always involve subjective elements — theories are patterns in our mind which have some reflections in external realities as well. All facts are also theory-laden, which means that arriving at a “fact” always involves discarding large amounts of information as being irrelevant, and focusing on some small set of observables as being relevant — this classification is based on our theories about what matters and what does not matter. It is our higher level theories — like the forest — which determine how we define a tree (so as to fit into a collection of trees). So what we observe in the real world is based on the theories we use to look at the world. This is how our theories like “forest” can only be understood by looking at external realities represented by the “tree”. But also, the external reality can only be understood by applying theories which allow us to abstract from the particular and unique features, and put our experience in terms which can be shared across individuals because of the commonalities.

POSTSCRIPT: For a list of relevant posts to the project of creating new foundations for the study of statistics (and all subjects) see “Connecting Statistics to Reality“. Also, I recently saw a quote from Kant, which very succinctly summarized the essence of the Forest and Tree Principle: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their unison can knowledge arise.” One must combine sense data (we see the tree) with the thought (forest) to create knowledge.