Conspiracy theories over evidence: A review of Power and Power (2014)

Sept 01, 2014 (LBO) I was among the throngs at the launch of a book by Minister Patali Ranawaka few weeks back. The auditorium was packed. There were pyrotechnics, metaphorical and otherwise, on stage. Buying a book required skills in the avoidance of pushing and shoving. Having barely sold 500 copies of a book in Sinhala on economic strategy, I was impressed by the organizational muscle that yielded this much enthusiasm for a book on electricity, one of the six topics I had covered. What sells I heard the author proclaim with certainty that the world’s stock of oil would be over within two decades, namely by 2035. This claim was tough to locate in the book, but it was there, hidden away in the back (p. 255). I was reminded of the famous bet that Paul Ehrlich lost to Julian Simon. One can only estimate the stock of any natural resource. The estimate depends on technology, which is always in flux. If we want something enough (are willing to pay a lot for it), we will devise new ways of getting to it. When the technology changes the estimates will change too. The emphatic, unconditional statement that there will be no more oil after 2035 sells better than nuanced, qualified statements made by real experts. This could be one explanation for the success of the book. But there is perhaps a stronger explanation: The appeal to fear. The book is awash in conspiracy theories and accusations that the energy sector in Sri Lanka (and the world; this is an ambitious exercise) is bedeviled by “white-collar criminals,” “assassins,” “hit men,” “demons” and the like. The language throughout is aggressive and violent. The vilification is not limited to politicians and analysts, but extends also to government officials. Demonization exemplified The discussion of the Lakvijaya coal-fired power station in Norochcholai that is shut down, again, at the moment of writing, provides a good example. Lakvijaya was officially commissioned during the Minister’s tenure, though he uncharacteristically takes little credit for it. He provides a wealth of information about the process that led to the decision to commission the China Mechanical and Engineering Corporation (CMEC) to build it. At the conclusion of a lengthy discussion of Sri Lanka’s ill-fated efforts to include coal within our energy mix (pp. 259-78), he labels those who proposed (a) selling off the problematic power plant or (b) “giv[ing] it into other people’s hands,”or who (c) sought to “create an artificial energy crisis” as “white-collar criminals.” This caught my attention because I fall into categories (a) and (b) of white-collar criminality along with the author’s Cabinet colleague DrSarathAmunugama. Nominations for class (c) white-collar criminals are welcome. Kumar David, an electrical-engineering professor who writes widely on public policy issues (and who was, I believe, present at the book launch), falls into category (a) ( Professor David was an advocate of coal and of the Norochcholai plant ( who despaired of its perennial failures and wanted it sold for scrap. I disagree with this, as I do with most of his recommendations on policy matters. But that does not lead me to demonize him. Anyone who reads Professor David’s writings on electricitycan see that he works with evidence of a technical nature. My recommendation that Lakvijaya should be sold to CMEC and that we should simply purchase power from them, which makes me a white-collar criminal, class (a) and (b), was supported by evidence of a different kind. I based my recommendation on the best knowledge in infrastructure economics, a subject that I taught at the University of Moratuwa and at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, about apportioning risk in infrastructure projects ( Evidence should be countered by other evidence or by reason. Demonizing experts and government officials is no way to conduct a civilized discussion about critical policy choices that we have to make. Non-evidence It is not that the author abjures evidence. The book, which cries out for a good editor, is awash in facts, factoids, tables, figures, pictures and numbers. Unfortunately, most of these common artifacts of evidence-based discourse are presented without any sources. The reader is asked to take them on trust. The problem with this approach is that when that trust is betrayedwith regard to one fact, it tends to fail for all. For example, the author states that a 2010 survey revealed that 91 percent of households have TVs; 92 percent have radios; 100 percent have at least one mobile; 54 percent have wireless telephones (CDMA phones?); 27 percent have VCRs; 9.5 percent have desktop computers; 2.5 percent have laptops and 4.3 percent have cable TV (p. 233). I have no idea what this 2010 survey is or what the methodology was, but sought to verify it against theresults of the study based on the five-percent sample drawn from the 2012 Census ( The household penetration of desktop and laptop computers may well have increased by 5.6 percent and 3.3 percent respectively between 2010 and 2012. But most people would question the likelihood that significant decreases of 23 percent household penetration for radio, 12.3 percent for TV, at least 11.6 percent for fixed telephones, and 21 percent for mobiles occurred over a two-year period in a country experiencing economic growth. Most discerning people would tend to discountall the unattributed data reported throughout the book in the face of this evidence. But not all evidence is numerical. I value this book for the revelations of inside knowledge on government decision making during the author’s tenure on Cabinet and in SEMA, for example on setting fuel prices (p. 242). The principle of collective responsibility that underpins the system of Cabinet government precludes this kind of information being disclosed. In most countries, it would be unthinkable for sitting Cabinet Ministers to make the kinds of allegations made in this book. Violation of collective responsibility may be bad for the practical operation of government, but as a scholar of government, I cannot but be pleased by these disclosures. Ignoring evidence I conclude with a larger claim regarding the devaluing of evidence by the author. On pp. 205-07, the author discusses infrastructure reforms in the United Kingdom in 1984 and states: “In a very short period of time, investment in telecom doubled. Although there was a price spike at the start, competition subsequently drove down the prices dramatically. (Sri Lanka, taking a cue from Britain, privatized its own telecom institution with equally successful results).” I was surprised to find such unqualified praise in a book pervaded by statist thinking and policy recommendations. But it was, sadly, an aberration. Nowhere is there recognition that the flaws in the energy sector documented by the author could be caused by structural problems that can only be remedied by the kinds of reforms he praised in telecom. The recommendations are for more of the same failed statist nostrums. Instead ofdrawing logical conclusions from careful analysis of successful and unsuccessful infrastructure reforms, the author falls back on conspiracy theories and demonizes all who do not toe his line. This, in fact, is the greatest among the many flaws of the book. And in the case of an aspiring politician who is striving for the attention, if not the loyalty, of a sizable chunk of the intelligentsia, it points to a most worrisome trait. If he’s like this when he is on the edges of power, how will he be if he reaches the center? Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.
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