Zeynep Tufekci on Metaepistomology

I know, I know.

Here’s what metaepistomology means:

“the theory of theory of knowledge”

And you should now be asking, “what does that mean?”

The latest post on her Substack (god, I can’t afford to subscribe to all the substacks I want to!) is a wonderful essay on how she learnt about the pandemic last year, and how she learnt about how to learn – but I’ll get to that in a bit.

First things first, who is Zeynep Tufekci?

Zeynep Tufekci (Turkish: Zeynep Tüfekçi; [zejˈnep tyˈfektʃi]; ZAY-nep tuu-FEK-chee) is a Turkish sociologist and writer. Her work focuses on the social implications of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and big data, as well as societal challenges such as the pandemic using complex and systems-based thinking. She has been described as “having a habit on being right on the big things” by The New York Times and as one of the most prominent academic voices on social media by The Chronicle of Higher Education.


I learnt about her for the first time when I cam across a review of her book, Twitter and Tear Gas over on Aadisht’s blog. I haven’t read it yet, but I still remember this from his review, because it resonated a fair bit:

A point this book makes often is that digital tools mean that networked protests are enabled, and that protests can spring up much quicker than they used to. But prior protests used to be much more organised, because the threshold to start a protest used to be so high that it would take a long time and lots of organisation to hit it – and that meant that there would be an organisation capable of pushing for change after the protests. The digitally fuelled protests haven’t quite figured out what change to ask for, and how to push it, yet.


(We also did a podcast about his review – and some other posts from his blog besides.)

But Zeynep’s writing reached another level altogether (both in terms of relevance and in terms of impact) during the pandemic. This, for example in the NYT (note the date!), or this from The Atlantic.

But her latest post, on the 31st of January, is worth pondering at great length. And that’s because while it speaks about the pandemic, and how she learnt about how serious it is going to be, it also contains lessons that are applicable everywhere else in life.

Please – pretty please! – read the whole post, but here are my key takeaways:

China’s attempts at downplaying human-to-human transmission and the WHO’s complicity in it are of course wrong, but this is also a good lesson in understanding why exponentials are worth learning about – if nothing else, at least because manufactured lies cannot stand up to the steep part of an exponential curve. And no matter your opinion about whether or not we underestimated the current pandemic and its impact, you should ask where else this lesson can be applied:

Let’s call this the Principle of “You Can’t Finesse the Steep Part of an Exponential,” after a Dylan H. Morris quote included in a previous article of mine trying to warn about the more transmissible variants.


Second, this sentence:

Let’s call this the “Principle of Always Pay Attention to Costly Action.” 


Principles of economics: incentives matter. Up until the point in time when Wuhan was locked down, China’s incentive was to try and suppress news about the upcoming pandemic. Wuhan being locked down was drastic action, yes, but it was also a signal. And the signal was that from here on in, China’s incentive was to warn the rest of the world about how severe and catastrophic (both in terms of health outcomes as well as economic outcomes) this virus was going to be.

Why did the incentive flip? Because the costs of downplaying the virus (in terms of being blamed for the origin, the suppression and therefore the inevitable spread) now outweighed the benefits.

Put another way, if China (if not through its statements, then through its actions) is signaling that its message has flipped, well, things must be really bad.

When it comes to political leadership, ignore what they say, and study what they do.

Political leadership doesn’t just mean governments. This applies to every single political unit, from the United Nations down until your family. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

Outrage and counter-outrage on Twitter is words. Action is action, and a far more reliable signal.

And I learnt from this post about the criterion of embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment is a type of critical analysis in which an account likely to be embarrassing to its author is presumed to be true as the author would have no reason to invent an account which might embarrass him.


If the guy giving you the bad news is embarrassing himself in the process, then the payoff from making the announcement must be more than the cost of being embarrassed.

If intellectual honesty is at a low premium today in society (and if you ask me, it has always been the case) then a leader being (or allowing others to be) honest isn’t about morality, it is about the cost calculus.

So, the thumb rule: if the leader of any kind of group fesses up, be very worried. Think of it this way: map out, consultant style, two axes about public announcements.

Is the announcement good news or bad news (that is, is the leadership that is making the announcement going to be benefit from it, or be embarrassed by it)?

Second: Is the news real and credible, or is it straight out of Narnia territory? (Detecting this is a skill, and we should all possess it)

That leads us to this chart:

Three things that you need to keep in mind:

  1. The upper left quadrant will rarely be an announcement. That is why one should study what leaders do, not what they say
  2. If what the leadership is doing (or saying) matches up with our assessment of how bad things really are, get really worried, and start preparing accordingly.
  3. The third is the second last sentence in Zeynep’s post: “Everything we needed to know to act was right there in front of us, but it required not just knowledge, but a theory of knowledge to turn it into actionable, timely information.”

And that, my friends, is the point of metaepistomology.

On Conducting Examinations, Especially in 2020

This is less a blogpost, and more of a rant. Consider yourself warned! 🙂

This past Saturday, I cam across a most excellent Twitter thread:

The author, Carl Bergstrom (Wikipedia article here, University profile here) makes a detailed, reasoned argument against online proctoring of examinations, especially in 2020. In my blogpost, I’m going to riff on this Twitter thread, and some related points, and build an argument against the way we conduct examinations in Indian Universities.

To begin, watch this Sugata Mitra TED talk about education:

Just the first five minutes or so is enough for the argument I will be making today, but you really should watch the full thing. There was, as it turns out, a case for rote memorization at one point of time. But today, as Mitra says in the video, it is the computers that are the clerks. They do (and to be fair to them, they do it much better than we ever could) the job of remembering everything, so that we don’t have to.

To every single professor reading this blogpost: when was the last time you yourself spent a day working without looking up something on the internet? When was the last time you researched something, wrote something, without using your computer, or the internet on some device?

Then why do we insist on examining our students for their ability to do so, when we ourselves don’t do it? And for those of our students who are not going to get into academia, they wouldn’t last in their organizations for even an hour if they tried to work without using computers and the internet.

They would (should!) be fired for being Luddites!

And yet, to land up in that firm, they must spend the last week of their lives as a college student cooped up for three hours in a classroom without a computer, without the internet, and use pen and paper to write out the important features of xyz in abc lines.

I can’t possibly be the only one that spots the incongruity, surely?

Here, from the Twitter thread I spoke about earlier, is a picture of Bloom’s taxonomy:


Read the Wikipedia article about Bloom’s taxonomy, or look carefully at the picture above. At best – and I think I am being charitable here – our question papers in higher education in India reach the evaluate stage, but certainly not create. And even that is a stretch.

Moreover, even if we somehow agree that we do indeed reach the evaluate stage, we are effectively asking students to evaluate based on their memory alone. Why?

One, won’t students write a better evaluation of whatever theory we are asking them to write about if we give them the ability to research while writing? Second – and I know this is repetitive, but still – are they ever going to write an evaluation without having access to to the internet?

In plain simple English: We train students for 25 years to get awesome at memorizing stuff, and then expect them to do well in a world which doesn’t value this skill at all.

(To be clear, some things you should remember, of course. Think of it as a spectrum – and I am not suggesting that we move to the end of the spectrum where no memorization is required. I am suggesting, however, that we are at the end of the spectrum where only memorization is required. Close enough, at any rate).

Coming specifically to this year, the year of online examinations, here’s a tweet that was quoted in Bergstrom’s thread:

There really isn’t much to say, is there? All universities the world over have sent out variations of this nightmare this year, and in some cases, repeatedly. It’s the whole null hypothesis argument all over again – we assume all students to be guilty until proven otherwise. That is, we assume everybody will cheat, and therefore force everybody to comply with ridiculously onerous rules – so as to prevent the few who might actually cheat.

And cheating, of course, being looking up stuff on the internet. The argument itself is pointless, as I have explained above, and we go to eye-popping lengths to enforce the logical outcome of this pointless argument.

Prof. Bergstrom makes the same points himself in the Twitter thread, of course:

This year, especially, is a good opportunity to turn what is otherwise a disaster of a situation into meaningful reform of the way we conduct examinations.

Students, parents – indeed society at large – will spot the incongruity of learning online, but being examined offline. If we, in higher education in India do not spot this incongruity and work towards changing it – well then, we will have failed.

And finally, the last tweet in the thread is something we would all do well to remember: