“We all learn together about the way the world is”
Telephone interview with Abhijit Banerjee following the announcement of the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel on 14 October 2019. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
By his own admission, Abhijit Banerjee is “Not an early morning person.” Having received the pre-dawn call from Stockholm, he sensibly went back to bed to catch an extra 40 minutes sleep. Abhijit Banerjee thinks that the fight to eradicate poverty is a two-way relationship, and the experimentally-validated solutions that are being developed are “an antidote to wishful thinking of all kinds.”
Adam Smith: Hello, my name’s Adam Smith, calling from the website of the Nobel Prize, Nobelprize.org in Stockholm. Many congratulations on the award of the prize.
Abhijit Banerjee: Thank you.
AS: As you may have heard from Professor Duflo, I spoke to your wife a little earlier, and she mentioned that after hearing the news from Stockholm you went back to bed!
AS: It seems a very sensible and collected thing to do.
AB: Yeah, I mean, it was early, very early in the morning. I’m not an early morning person. I figured it would be a fault of the system if I don’t continue my sleep.
AS: And you managed to sleep after hearing the news?
AB: Yeah. Not long as I kept getting calls after a while. Once the press conference happened and news spread to India and Europe I think, I had no chance But I had a 40 minute interim period when I slept.
AS: I doubt any Laureate has prepared for the day better than that. It’s a prize which recognises work focussed on the world’s poorest people, and that is very special.
AB: I agree. And it, I guess, reflects the, on the fact that somehow that while we often pay lip service to the welfare of all, this is something that not always the immediate focus of a prize like this. I think … I’m delighted that some attention was shown this way. Not that I think all the other things that they give prizes for aren’t important, but it does make people who work in this area I guess feel a little more enthused. It’s lots of people in this world of people who do real things, not people like us, who do real things, and it’s somewhat of a prize for all of them.
AS: And the lesson from all your experimental studies is really, I suppose, that you cannot impose your own rationality on others but you have to listen to what those people will teach you.
AB: That’s right. That’s certainly one lesson. And then maybe you should also … I mean, I think it’s a two-way relationship: I think you should not have too much faith in your own rationality. You should not have too much faith in the rationality of, you know, anybody else either. We all learn together about the way the world is, and I think it’s a sort of antidote to wishful thinking of all kinds.
AS: Nicely put. But the way you describe it, it makes it sound like a wonderful collaborative relationship which is very hopeful.
AB: That’s been my experience. I’ve been … I have learnt an enormous amount from talking to people on the ground. The set of people I really owe an enormous amount to is the people who are kind of … both I think the people with whom we work whose, whose lives we study in many ways. But also the people who work with them, and I think we’ve learnt just a huge amount from organisations like [unclear], for example. In my personal experience these organisations that work on a very large scale with very poor people has certainly been very important for us.
AS: I must let you go, but let me just ask you one thing, let me ask you about this rare thing that you have been awarded this prize as a married couple, I think only the fifth time that has happened in the history of the prize. It makes it special in some way?
AB: Yeah, I guess it does, in that it’s sort of been our entire family enterprise in a sense, this whole between J-PAL the research and working at MIT, you know, makes it a … You know, there’s lots of dimensions of the work, that just become much more pleasant when you do it with your partner.
AS: Nicely put. Well thank you very, very much and congratulations again.
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Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.