Mad Mike: Foolish Road

On Sunday, an American thrill-seeker named Mike Hughes died after attempting to launch himself to an altitude of 5,000 feet on a homemade steam-powered rocket. A video of the accident is available because a crew of the Science Channel filmed the incident as part of a programme called ‘Homemade Astronauts’. On February 23, Science Channel tweeted condolences to his loved ones, and said Hughes had died trying to fulfil his dream. But in fact he had died for no reason at all.

Hughes believed Earth was flat and had hoped to ‘prove’ it by flying himself to space, which makes Science Channel’s conduct irresponsible if not entirely reckless. I assume here that the Science Channel knows Earth is an oblate spheroid in shape as well as knows how such knowledge was obtained. But it still decided to capitalise on the ignorance of another person, presumably in the names of objectivity and balance, and let them put themselves in danger (with airtime on the Science Channel as an incentive).

For his part, Hughes wasn’t very smart either: aside from thinking Earth is flat, he could never have proven, or disproven, his claim by flying to 5,000 feet. Millions of people routinely fly on airplanes that cruise at 35,000 feet and have access to windows. Even at this altitude, Earth’s curvature is not apparent because the field of view is not wide enough. Hughes likely would have had some success (or failure, depending on your PoV) if he had been able to reach, say, 40,000 feet on a cloud-free day.

But even then, the Kármán line – the region beyond which is denoted space – lies 328,000 feet up. So by flying to a height of 5,000 feet, Hughes was never going to be an astronaut in any sense of the term nor was he going to learn anything new, except of course finding new reasons to persist with his ignorance. On the other hand, a TV channel called ‘Science’ quite likely knew all this and let Hughes carry on anyway – instead of, say, taking him to a beach and asking him to watch ships rise as if from under the horizon.

Distracting from the peer-review problem

From an article entitled ‘The risks of swiftly spreading coronavirus research‘ published by Reuters:

A Reuters analysis found that at least 153 studies – including epidemiological papers, genetic analyses and clinical reports – examining every aspect of the disease, now called COVID-19 – have been posted or published since the start of the outbreak. These involved 675 researchers from around the globe. …

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet group of science and medical journals, says he’s instituted “surge capacity” staffing to sift through a flood of 30 to 40 submissions of scientific research a day to his group alone.

… much of [this work] is raw. With most fresh science being posted online without being peer-reviewed, some of the material lacks scientific rigour, experts say, and some has already been exposed as flawed, or plain wrong, and has been withdrawn.

“The public will not benefit from early findings if they are flawed or hyped,” said Tom Sheldon, a science communications specialist at Britain’s non-profit Science Media Centre. …

Preprints allow their authors to contribute to the scientific debate and can foster collaboration, but they can also bring researchers almost instant, international media and public attention.

“Some of the material that’s been put out – on pre-print servers for example – clearly has been… unhelpful,” said The Lancet’s Horton.

“Whether it’s fake news or misinformation or rumour-mongering, it’s certainly contributed to fear and panic.” …

Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature, said her group of journals, like The Lancet’s, was working hard to “select and filter” submitted manuscripts. “We will never compromise the rigour of our peer review, and papers will only be accepted once … they have been thoroughly assessed,” she said.

When Horton or Sheldon say some of the preprints have been “unhelpful” and that they cause panic among the people – which people do they mean? No non-expert person is hitting up bioRxiv looking for COVID-19 papers. They mean some lazy journalists and some irresponsible scientists are spreading misinformation, and frankly their habits represent a more responsible problem to solve instead of pointing fingers at preprints.

The Reuters analysis also says nothing about how well preprint repositories as well as scientists on social media platforms are conducting open peer-review, instead cherry-picking reasons to compose a lopsided argument against greater transparency in the knowledge economy. Indeed, crisis situations like the COVID-19 outbreak often seem to become ground zero for contemplating the need for preprints but really, no one seems to want to discuss “peer-reviewed” disasters like the one recently publicised by Elisabeth Bik. To quote from The Wire (emphasis added),

[Elisabeth] Bik, @SmutClyde, @mortenoxe and @TigerBB8 (all Twitter handles of unidentified persons), report – as written by Bik in a blog post – that “the Western blot bands in all 400+ papers are all very regularly spaced and have a smooth appearance in the shape of a dumbbell or tadpole, without any of the usual smudges or stains. All bands are placed on similar looking backgrounds, suggesting they were copy-pasted from other sources or computer generated.”

Bik also notes that most of the papers, though not all, were published in only six journals: Artificial Cells Nanomedicine and BiotechnologyJournal of Cellular BiochemistryBiomedicine & PharmacotherapyExperimental and Molecular PathologyJournal of Cellular Physiology, and Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry, all maintained reputed publishers and – importantly – all of them peer-reviewed.

Peter Higgs, self-promoter

I was randomly rewatching The Big Bang Theory on Netflix today when I spotted this gem:

Okay, maybe less a gem and more a shiny stone, but still. The screenshot, taken from the third episode of the sixth season, shows Sheldon Cooper mansplaining to Penny the work of Peter Higgs, whose name is most famously associated with the scalar boson the Large Hadron Collider collaboration announced the discovery of to great fanfare in 2012.

My fascination pertains to Sheldon’s description of Higgs as an “accomplished self-promoter”. Higgs, in real life, is extremely reclusive and self-effacing and journalists have found him notoriously hard to catch for an interview, or even a quote. His fellow discoverers of the Higgs boson, including François Englert, the Belgian physicist with whom Higgs won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2013, have been much less media-shy. Higgs has even been known to suggest that a mechanism in particle physics involving the Higgs boson should really be called the ABEGHHK’tH mechanism, include the names of everyone who hit upon its theoretical idea in the 1960s (Philip Warren Anderson, Robert Brout, Englert, Gerald Guralnik, C.R. Hagen, Higgs, Tom Kibble and Gerardus ‘t Hooft) instead of just as the Higgs mechanism.

No doubt Sheldon thinks Higgs did right by choosing not to appear in interviews for the public or not writing articles in the press himself, considering such extreme self-effacement is also Sheldon’s modus of choice. At the same time, Higgs might have lucked out and be recognised for work he conducted 50 years prior probably because he’s white and from an affluent country, both of which attributes nearly guarantee fewer – if any – systemic barriers to international success. Self-promotion is an important part of the modern scientific endeavour, as it is with most modern endeavours, even if one is an accomplished scientist.

All this said, it is notable that Higgs was also a conscientious person. When he was awarded the Wolf Prize in 2004 – a prestigious award in the field of physics – he refused to receive it in person in Jerusalem because it was a state function and he has protested Israel’s war against Palestine. He was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament until the group extended its opposition to nuclear power as well; then he resigned. He also stopped supporting Greenpeace after they become opposed to genetic modification. If it is for these actions that Sheldon deemed Higgs an “accomplished self-promoter”, then I stand corrected.

Featured image: A portrait of Peter Higgs by Lucinda Mackay hanging at the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, Edinburgh. Caption and credit: FF-UK/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Review: 'Parasite' (2019)

In 2011, the Dalit rights scholar and activist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (then only Kancha Ilaiah) addressed a room of 150 or so students of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. In the first 20 minutes of his speech, he spoke about how there would be a lower-caste revolution one day when upper-caste people – including most students in the room – would be summoned out of their houses into the streets, where they would be separated of all their wealth and their homes, have their jobs taken away and generally rendered entirely powerless in a new social order.

The whole room was visibly shaken. I, and perhaps many others as well, quietly groped for any excuse for a defence, to reassure ourselves that perhaps everyone else would be rendered powerless but surely not me, not my family. Obviously I haven’t managed to find this exculpatory reason.

Some days after that lecture, rumours emerged around campus that one of the other lecturers had given Ilaiah the idea to get us to sit up and pay attention, presumably instead of treating with political thought as an exercise in the abstract. Irrespective of its truth value, I tend to think Ilaiah was right: even if his imagined social order isn’t imminent, it has often seemed like the most plausible social endgame and certainly the only one it makes sense to work towards. It was also what was playing through my mind as I watched Parasite, the Korean hit film about class aspirations, especially the second half.

The advent of right-wing nationalism in India and its unabashed criminalisation of Muslim and Dalit identities (most visible in the spate of lynch-mob deaths) may have amplified the plight of minority groups in the country and the need to stand up for them, as well as rendered their demand for better social conditions and rights more pronounced. But at the same time, one thing is clear: as the Hindutva juggernaut bears on and continues to disempower non-Hindu, non-upper-class citizens, members of the minority communities are finding themselves increasingly at the mercy of the powers that be to ensure they continue leading peaceful, dignified lives.

Without the favour and benevolence of those who already wield power in our increasingly Hinduised India, without collective social action such as is happening in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh but at much larger scale, and with the capitalist nexus between state, industry and the media, it’s silly to assume the ‘revolution’ in whatever form is only a matter of time. In its caricature of – but not necessarily fictionalised – need and its consequences, Parasite brings the more discomfiting side of this truth home: it’s easy to keep the poor and marginalised down and forgotten by keeping them fighting each other for food and survival.

SPOILERS AHEAD

No other scenes in the film highlight this better than two: when Kim Ki-woo (a.k.a. Kevin) stops on the stairs leading down to his semi-basement home to notice, as if for the first time, the amount of water washing through the streets under the downpour; and his father Kim Ki-taek’s reaction to seeing Nathan Park close his nose in disgust as the latter tries to retrieve his car keys from under the skewered body of Geun-sae.

The fragility of poverty is often under-appreciated as a threat to one’s wellbeing as well as to one’s ability to capitalise on chances. Being wealthier, especially in third-world nations, often simply means being able to suffer multiple accidents without loss of income or opportunity. A daily-wage earner falling prey to something as mundane as the common cold means losing a day or two’s worth of money as well as making do with even less – minus medicines if necessary – for the rest of the month. As Parasite demonstrates, living in a ‘imperfect’ house means losing all your important possessions to a single night’s rain.

Some people also believe the poor are poor because they make bad decisions, but a groundbreaking study published in August 2013 reported that ‘poverty impedes cognitive function’, introducing stresses related to the unpredictability of rewards. As Ki-taek says to his son Ki-woo when they wake up the following morning in a gym crowded with hundreds of other people rendered homeless by the rain, “The only plan that works is no plan at all”: to take things as they come, to live in the short-term. To quote Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic,

As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty’s stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short-term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. … What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually “the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes,” he wrote.

Where in this mess is the time, energy and freedom to rise in protest?

Recognising how little can derail one’s daily-life has to my mind been the surest argument in favour of quotas in education and government for members of minority groups and marginalised communities: when inhabiting an existential condition in which things could swiftly go irrevocably wrong, reservation ensures fewer things need to go right to ensure individual betterment and preserve chances for course correction.

As if also an example of seemingly alien psychologies, the other scene that captures the gross imbalance of power between the haves and the have-nots is when Ki-taek notices Nathan Park, his boss and patriarch of the wealthy Park family, repulsed by the sight of Geun-sae’s blood smearing his keys. Ki-taek is enraged by Park’s reaction; and in that flash of a moment, you discover Parasite‘s story has been sneering at its pejorative title all along, and seems to animate Ki-taek to pick up a knife and stab Park through the heart.

Neither Park nor his family is likely to understand how an ostensibly natural gesture (to hold one’s nostrils) could have led to murder but Parasite lives entirely for that moment: the élite’s seemingly inadvertent creation of insectile creatures (that director Bong Joon-ho makes impossible to miss with his depiction of Geun-sae crawling through the subterranean tunnel like a cockroach) that scuttle deferentially out of sight once their work is done, and the élite’s own parasitism – to bank on the poor to do their dishes, cook their food, organise their parties, clean their trash and, of course, wash the blood off their hands.

Once Ki-taek realises his mistake, he runs out into the street only to see a panicked crowd running away from the scene of the massacre. He is not sure what to do until he turns to see the garage: “I knew what I had to do then,” he thinks to himself, and locks himself in the secret bunker under the house where Geun-sae had been living for many years. What he thought he had to do was stay out of sight – a rational decision whose logic many of us may not understand until we inhabit his exoskeleton, until we look out on life through little cracks in the wall with no knowledge of how and when the acche din will come.

Where – again – in this mess is the time, energy and freedom to rise in protest?

SPOILERS END

I watched Parasite with a friend, and when we walked out of the movie hall at the end she asked me what I thought of the film. It struck me then that I was feeling guilty. The best I can describe it is class/caste guilt, as if I desired to be stabbed through the heart without fully understanding the inherent immorality of the act but knowing at the same time that nothing else could ameliorate what I was feeling, without properly knowing – insofar as such things can be known – if my ‘caste death’, as laughable as the idea is, would have any effect at all.

I was also feeling guilty because my friend’s question seemed to invite me to comment on a film that had, over the course of 140 minutes, effortlessly transcended its boundaries as a film and melded with a similarly painful, saddening reality. What was there for me to say?


Miscellaneous: Tamil cinema producer P.L. Thenappan is not happy that Bong Joon-ho’s script copied from the 1999 film Minsara Kanna, which Thenappan financed. If you’re not Tamilian as well as are unhappy that Parasite‘s story was plagiarised, I suggest you consult with a Tamilian who has watched the film first. Minsara Kanna is Kollywood’s usual tripe nonsense; even the alleged similarity between a part of the two stories is barely nominal.

The potential energy of being entertained

Netflix just published a report drafted by its Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, estimating – among other things – its environmental footprint for operations during the year 2019. According to the report, as The Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi writes:

Binge-watching Netflix doesn’t just fry your brain; it may also be frying the planet. The streaming service’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to a total of 451,000 megawatt hours – enough to power 40,000 average US homes for a year.

This is staggering but not surprising. Through history, the place at which energy is consumed to produce a product has been becoming less and less strongly associated with where the product is likely to be purchased. The invention of sails, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and then satellites each rapidly transformed the speed at which goods could traverse Earth’s surface as well as the speed at which consumers could make more and more informed – therefore more and more rational – choices, assisted by economic reforms like globalisation and foreign direct investment.

The most recent disruption on this front was wrought, of course, by the internet and a little later the cloud. Now, with industries like movie-making, gaming, digital publishing and even large-scale computing, nothing short of a full-planet energy-accounting exercise makes sense. At the same time economic power, inequality and effective governance remain unevenly distributed, leading to knotty problems about determining how much each consumer of a company’s product is effectively responsible for the total energy required to make all products in that batch (since scale also matters).

Such accounting exercises have become increasingly popular, as they should be; private enterprises like Netflix as well as government organisations have started counting their calories – their carbon intake, output, emissions, trade, export, etc. – as a presumable first step towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions and helping keep Earth’s surface from warming any more than is already likely (2º C by 2100).

There is a catch, of course: it’s difficult to affect or even estimate the relative contribution of one’s operations to the effort to restrict global warming without also accounting for one’s wider economic setting. For example, Netflix likely displaced the DVD rental industry as well as stole users, and their respective carbon ‘demand’, from cable. So Mahdawi’s ringing the alarm bells based on Netflix’s report alone is only meaningful in a stand-alone scenario in which the status quo is ‘memoryless’.

However, even in this contextually limited aspiration to lower emissions and its attendant benefits for human wellbeing, joy, hope and optimism don’t seem to feature as much or, in many cases, at all.

Knowing Earth is already headed for widespread devastation can certainly smother action and deflate resolve. But while journalists and researchers alike have been debating the pros and cons of using positive or negative messaging as the better way to spur climate action, their most popular examples are rooted in quantifiable tasks or objects: either “Earth is getting more screwed by the hour but you can help by segregating your trash, using public transport and quitting meat” or “Sea-levels are rising, the Arctic is melting and heat-waves are becoming more frequent and more intense”.

It seems as if happiness cannot fit into either paradigm without specifying the number of degrees by which it will move the climate action needle. So it also becomes easily excluded from conversations about climate-change adaptation and mitigation. As Mahdawi writes in her column,

Being a conscientious consumer does not mean you have to turn off your wifi or chill with the Netflix. But we should think more critically about our data consumption. Apple already delivers screen-time reports; perhaps tech services should start providing us with carbon counts. Or maybe Netflix should implement carbon warnings. Caution: this program contains nudity, graphic language and a hell of a lot of energy.

If Netflix did issue such a warning, it would no longer be a popular pastime.

One of the purposes of popular culture, beyond its ability to channel creative expression and empower artists, is entertainment. We consume the products of popular culture, nucleated as music, dance, theatre, films, TV shows, books, paintings, sculptures and other forms, among other reasons to understand and locate ourselves outside the systems of capitalist production, to identify ourselves as members of communities, groups, cities or whatever by engaging with knowledge, objects – whether a book or the commons – or experiences that we have created, to assert that we are much more than where we work or what we earn.

Without these spaces and unfettered access to them, we become less able to escape the side-effects of neoliberalism: consumerism, hyper-competitiveness, social isolation and depression. I’m not saying you are likelier to feel depressed without Netflix but that Netflix is one of many sources of cultural information, and is therefore an instrument with which people around the world gather in groups based on cultural preferences – forming, in turn, a part of the foundation on which people are inspired to have new ideas, are motivated to act, and upon which they even expand their hopes and ambitions.

Of course, Netflix is itself a product of 21st century capitalism plus the internet. Like iTunes, YouTube, Prime, Disney, etc. Netflix is a corporation that has eased access to many petabytes of entertainment data across the globe but by rendering artists and entertainers even less powerful than they were and reducing their profits (rather, limiting their profits’ growth). The oft-advanced excuse, that the company simply levies a fee in return for easing barriers to discover new audiences, doesn’t always square off properly with the always-increasing labour required to create something new. So simply asking Netflix to not display a warning about the amount of energy required to produce a show may seem like a half-measure designed to fight off all of capitalism’s monsters except one.

We have a responsibility to iteratively replace the most problematic ways in which we profit from labour and generate wealth with practices that improve economic equality, social dignity, and access to education, healthcare and good living conditions. However, how do we balance this responsibility with a million people being able to watch a cautionary documentary about the rise of fascism in 1930s’ Germany, a film about the ills of plastic use or an explainer about the ways in which trees do and don’t fight global warming?

Binge-watching is bad – in terms of consuming enough energy to “power 40,000 average US homes for a year” as well as in other ways – but book-keepers seem content to insulate the act of watching itself from what is being watched, perhaps in an effort to determine the absolute worst case scenario or because it is very hard to understand, leave alone discern or even predict, the causal relationships between how we feel, how we think and how we act. However, this is also what we need: to accommodate, but at the same time without being compelled to quantify, the potential energy that arises from being entertained.

The fascist's trap

The following lines appear in the opening portion of G.S. Mudur’s report in The Telegraph about government opposition to student protests:

“The people protecting our democracy are the people in JNU. They’re taking beatings on our behalf,” K.S. Venkatesh [a professor of electrical engineering at IIT Kanpur] told the assembled group [of students and faculty members]. “We’re sitting here comfortably. Look what the people in JNU are taking — and (at) some other places too.”

Don’t these lines sound familiar?

A popular right-wing narrative in the media these days has evoked images of the precarious conditions in which India’s soldiers apparently protect the country’s borders from the Islamic hordes that would overrun us while armchair activists and journalists squander their hard-won peace with protests against their own government, thus disrespecting the soldiers themselves. This way, the fascist inverts the relationship between a country and its army: instead of soldiers existing because there is a people worth protecting, the people exist because there is a solider worth protecting.

Ultimately, the soldier’s body and the body’s war become the cause itself – the ultimate excuse to deploy whatever means necessary to maintain internal order and homogeneity. And the citizen who deviates from this is condemned and punished with social sanctions that are not privy to judicial scrutiny. The heterodox agent becomes the perfect anti-national because she has not conducted herself ‘worthy’ of the soldiers’ ‘sacrifice’. Indeed the BJP has tied such misconduct with the actions of India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan and China, and increasingly Bangladesh, to create a self-fulfilling, self-justifying prophecy.

This is why Venkatesh’s words, that “we’re sitting comfortably”, are unsettling. It’s perfectly okay to sit comfortably – at least, it should be. Yes, JNU, and Jamia and Aligarh and so many other universities and their students, are fighting and we are in solidarity with them. We will also take to the streets (and other fora), express our support as well as objection loud and clear. But we will also not do this because our compatriots and comrades in JNU are being thrashed by the police. We will do this because we want to.

Second, we will not be guilty to sit comfortably either – which, in Venkatesh’s speech, likely means students and teachers discussing in classrooms, students and teachers conducting tests in labs, students and teachers engaging in conversation and debate. It is for the right to do all of these things that we also protest, as well as the right to think peacefully, to engage in civil conversation and to enjoy the commons. If we forget this, and erect the bruised body as the motivation for individual political action, we fall into the fascist’s trap: that we must not sit comfortably because we offend our protectors (the students of JNU or whoever).

The difficulty of option 'c'

Can any journalist become a science journalist? More specifically, can any journalist become a science journalist without understanding the methods of scientific practice and administration? This is not a trivial question because not all the methods of science can be discovered or discerned from the corresponding ‘first principles’. That is, common sense and intelligence alone cannot consummate your transformation; you must access new information that you cannot derive through inductive reasoning.

For example, how would you treat the following statement: “Scientists prove that X causes Y”?

a. You could take the statement at face-value

b. You could probe how and why scientists proved that X causes Y

c. You could interrogate the claim that X causes Y, or

d. You could, of course, ignore it.

(Option (d) is the way to go for claims in the popular as well as scientific literature of the type “Scientists prove that coffee/wine/chocolate cause your heart to strengthen/weaken/etc.” unless the story you’re working on concerns the meta-narrative of these studies.)

Any way, choosing between (a), (b) and (c) is not easy, often because which option you pick depends on how much you know about how the modern scientific industry works. For example, a non-science journalist is likely to go with (a) and/or (b) because, first, they typically believe that the act of proving something is a singular event, localised in time and space, with no room for disagreement.

This is after all the picture of proof-making that ill-informed supporters of science (arguably more than even supporters of the ideal of scientism) harbour: “Scientists have proved that X causes Y, so that’s that,” in the service of silencing inconvenient claims like “human activities aren’t causing Earth’s surface to heat up” or like “climate geoengineering is bad”. I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real and that we need to consider stratospheric aerosol injections but flattening the proof-making exercise threatens to marginalise disagreements among scientists themselves, such as about the extent of warming or about the long-term effects on biodiversity.

The second reason (a) and (b) type stories are more common, but especially (a), follows from this perspective of proofs: the view that scientists are authorities, and we are not qualified to question them. As it happens, most of us will never be qualified enough, but question them we can thanks to four axioms.

First, science being deployed for the public good must be well understood in much the same way a drug that has been tested for efficacy must also be exculpated of deleterious side-effects.

Second, journalists don’t need to critique the choice of reagents, animal models, numerical methods or apparatus design to be able to uncover loopholes, inconsistencies and/or shortcomings. Instead, that oppositional role is easily performed by independent scientists whose comments a journalist can invite on the study.

Third, science is nothing without the humans that practice it, and most of the more accessible stories of science (not news reports) are really stories of the humans practising the science.

Fourth, organised science – hot take: like organised religion – is a human endeavour tied up with human structures, human politics and human foibles, which means as much of what we identify as science lies in the discovery of scientific knowledge as in the way we fund, organise, disseminate and preserve that knowledge.

These four allowances together imply that a science journalist is not a journalist familiar with advanced mathematics or who can perform a tricky experiment but is a journalist trained to write about science without requiring such knowledge.

§

Anyone familiar with India will recognise that these two principal barriers – a limited understanding of proof-making and the view of scientists as authority figures – to becoming a good science journalist are practically seeded by the inadequate school-level education system. But they are also furthered by India’s prevailing political climate, especially in the way a highly polarised society undermines the role of expertise.

Some people will tell you that you can’t question highly trained scientists because you are not a highly trained scientist but others will say you’re entitled to question everything as a thinking, reasoning, socially engaged global citizen.

As it happens, these aren’t opposing points of view. It’s just that the left and the right have broken the idea of expertise into two pieces, taking one each for themselves, such that the political left is often comfortable with questioning facts like grinding bricks to unusable dust while the political right will treat all bricks the same irrespective of the quality of clay; the leftist will subsequently insist that quality control is all-important whereas the rightist will champion the virtues of pragmatism.

In this fracas to deprive expertise either of authority or of critique, or sometimes both, the expert becomes deconstructed to the point of nonexistence. As a result, the effective performance of science journalism, instead of trying to pander equally to the left’s and the right’s respective conceptions of the expert, converges on the attempt to reconstruct expertise as it should be: interrogated without undermining it, considered without elevating it.

Obviously, this is easier said, and more enjoyably said, than done.

A trumpet for Ramdev

The Print published an article entitled ‘Ramdev’s Patanjali does a ‘first’, its Sanskrit paper makes it to international journal’ on February 5, 2020. Excerpt:

In a first, international science journal MDPI has published a research paper in the Sanskrit language. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s FMCG firm Patanjali Ayurveda had submitted the paper. Switzerland’s Basel-based MDPI … published a paper in Sanskrit for the first time. Biomolecules, one of the peer-reviewed journals under MDPI, has carried video abstracts of the paper on a medicinal herb, but with English subtitles. … The Patanjali research paper, published on 25 January in a special issue of the journal titled ‘Pharmacology of Medicinal Plants’, is on medicinal herb ‘Withania somnifera’, commonly known as ‘ashwagandha’.

This article is painfully flawed.

1. MDPI is a publisher, not a journal. It featured on Beall’s list (with the customary caveats) and has published some obviously problematic papers. I’ve heard good things about some of its titles and bad things about others. The journalist needed to have delineated this aspect instead of taking the simpler fact of publication in a journal at face value. Even then, qualifying a journal as “peer-reviewed” doesn’t cut it anymore. In a time when peer-review can be hacked (thanks to its relative opacity) and the whole publishing process subverted for profit, all journalists writing on matters of science – as opposed to just science journalists – need to perform their own checks to certify the genealogy of a published paper, especially if the name of the journal(s) and its exercise of peer-review are being employed in the narrative as markers of authority.

2. People want to publish research in English so others can discover and build on it. A paper written in Sanskrit is a gimmick. The journalist should have clarified this point instead of letting Ramdev’s minions (among the authors of the paper) claim brownie points for their feat. It’s a waste of effort, time and resources. More importantly The Print has conjured a virtue out of thin air and broadcast asinine claims like “This is the first step towards the acceptance of ‘Sanskrit language’ in the field of research among the international community.”

3. The article has zero critique of the paper’s findings, no independent comments and no information about the study’s experimental design. This is the sort of nonsense that an unquestioning commitment to objectivity in news allows: reporters can’t just write someone said something if what they said is wrong, misleading, harmful or all three. Magnifying potentially indefensible claims relating to scientific knowledge – or knowledge that desires the authority of science’s approval – without contextualising them and fact-checking them if necessary may be objective but it is also a public bad. It pays to work with the assumption (even when it doesn’t apply) that at least 50% of your readers don’t know better. That way, even if 1% (an extremely conservative estimate for audiences in India) doesn’t know better, which can easily run into the thousands, you avoid misinforming them by not communicating enough.

4. A worryingly tendentious statement appears in the middle of the piece: “The study proves that WS seeds help reduce psoriasis,” the journalist writes, without presenting any evidence that she checked. It seems possible that the journalist believes she is simply reporting the occurrence of a localised event – in the form of the context-limited proof published in a paper – without acknowledging that the act of proving a hypothesis is a process, not an event, in that it is ongoing. This character is somewhat agnostic of the certainty of the experiment’s conclusions as well: even if one scientist has established with 100% confidence that the experiment they designed has sustained their hypothesis and published their results in a legitimate preprint repository and/or a journal, other scientists will need to replicate the test and even others are likely to have questions they’ll need answered.

5. The experiment was conducted in mice, not humans. Cf. @justsaysinmice

6. “‘We will definitely monetise the findings. We will be using the findings to launch our own products under the cosmetics and medicine category,’ Acharya [the lead author] told ThePrint.” It’s worrying to discover that the authors of the paper, and Baba Ramdev, who funded them, plan to market a product based on just one study, in mice, in a possibly questionable paper, without any independent comments about the findings’ robustness or tenability, to many humans who may not know better. But the journalist hasn’t pressed Acharya or any of the other authors on questions about the experiment or their attempt to grab eyeballs by writing and speaking in Sanskrit, or on how they plan to convince the FSSAI to certify a product for humans based on a study in mice.

The scientist as inadvertent loser

Twice this week, I’d had occasion to write about how science is an immutably human enterprise and therefore some of its loftier ideals are aspirational at best, and about how transparency is one of the chief USPs of preprint repositories and post-publication peer-review. As if on cue, I stumbled upon a strange case of extreme scientific malpractice that offered to hold up both points of view.

In an article published January 30, three editors of the Journal of Theoretical Biology (JTB) reported that one of their handling editors had engaged in the following acts:

  1. “At the first stage of the submission process, the Handling Editor on multiple occasions handled papers for which there was a potential conflict of interest. This conflict consisted of the Handling Editor handling papers of close colleagues at the Handling Editor’s own institute, which is contrary to journal policies.”
  2. “At the second stage of the submission process when reviewers are chosen, the Handling Editor on multiple occasions selected reviewers who, through our investigation, we discovered was the Handling Editor working under a pseudonym…”
  3. Many forms of reviewer coercion
  4. “In many cases, the Handling Editor was added as a co-author at the final stage of the review process, which again is contrary to journal policies.”

On the back of these acts of manipulation, this individual – whom the editors chose not to name for unknown reasons but one of whom all but identified on Twitter as a Kuo-Chen Chou (and backed up by an independent user) – proudly trumpets the following ‘achievement’ on his website:

The same webpage also declares that Chou “has published over 730 peer-reviewed scientific papers” and that “his papers have been cited more than 71,041 times”.

Without transparencya and without the right incentives, the scientific process – which I use loosely to denote all activities and decisions associated with synthesising, assimilating and organising scientific knowledge – becomes just as conducive to misconduct and unscrupulousness as any other enterprise if only because it allows people with even a little more power to exploit others’ relative powerlessness.

a. Ironically, the JTB article lies behind a paywall.

In fact, Chen had also been found guilty of similar practices when working with a different journal, called Bioinformatics, and an article its editors published last year has been cited prominently in the article by JTB’s editors.

Even if the JTB and Bioinformatics cases are exceptional for their editors having failed to weed out gross misconduct shortly after its first occurrence – it’s not; but although there many such exceptional cases, they are still likely to be in the minority (an assumption on my part) – a completely transparent review process eliminates such possibilities as well as, and more importantly, naturally renders the process trustlessb. That is, you shouldn’t have to trust a reviewer to do right by your paper; the system itself should be designed such that there is no opportunity for a reviewer to do wrong.

b. As in trustlessness, not untrustworthiness.

Second, it seems Chou accrued over 71,000 citations because the number of citations has become a proxy for research excellence irrespective of whether the underlying research is actually excellent – a product of the unavoidable growth of a system in which evaluators replaced a complex combination of factors with a single number. As a result, Chou and others like him have been able to ‘hack’ the system, so to speak, and distort the scientific literature (which you might’ve seen as the stack of journals in a library representing troves of scientific knowledge).

But as long as the science is fine, no harm done, right? Wrong.

If you visualised the various authors of research papers as points and the lines connecting them to each other as citations, an inordinate number would converge on the point of Chou – and they would be wrong, led there not by Chou’s prowess as a scientist but misled there by his abilities as a credit-thief and extortionist.

This graphing exercise isn’t simply a form of visual communication. Imagine your life as a scientist as a series of opportunities, where each opportunity is contested by multiple people and the people in charge of deciding who ‘wins’ at each stage aren’t some or all of well-trained, well-compensated or well-supported. If X ‘loses’ at one of the early stages and Y ‘wins’, Y has a commensurately greater chance of winning a subsequent contest and X, lower. Such contests often determine the level of funding, access to suitable guidance and even networking possibilities, so over multiple rounds, by virtue of the evaluators at each step having more reasons to be impressed by Y‘s CV because, say, they had more citations, and fewer reasons to be impressed with X‘s, X ends up with more reasons to exit science and switch careers.

Additionally, because of the resources that Y has received opportunities to amass, they’re in a better position to conduct even more research, ascend to even more influential positions and – if they’re so inclined – accrue even more citations through means both straightforward and dubious. To me, such prejudicial biasing resembles the evolution of a Lorenz attractor: the initial conditions might appear to be the same to some approximation, but for a single trivial choice, one scientist ends up being disproportionately more successful than another.

The answer of course is many things, including better ways to evaluate and reward research, and two of them in turn have to be to eliminate the use of numbers to denote human abilities and to make the journey of a manuscript from the lab to the wild as free of opaque, and therefore potentially arbitrary, decision-making as possible.

Featured image: A still from an animation showing the divergence of nearby trajectories on a Lorenz system. Caption and credit: MicoFilós/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The chrysalis that isn't there

I wrote the following post while listening to this track. Perhaps you will enjoy reading it to the same sounds. Otherwise, please consider it a whimsical recommendation. 🙂

I should really start keeping a log of different stories in the news all of which point to the little-acknowledged but only-evident fact that science – like so many things, including people – does not embody lofty ideals as much as the aspirations to those ideals. Nature News reported on January 31 that “a language analysis of titles and abstracts in more than 100,000 scientific articles,” published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), had “found that papers with first and last authors who were both women were about 12% less likely than male-authored papers to include sensationalistic terms such as ‘unprecedented’, ‘novel’, ‘excellent’ or ‘remarkable’;” further, “The articles in each comparison were presumably of similar quality, but those with positive words in the title or abstract garnered 9% more citations overall.” The scientific literature, people!

Science is only as good as its exponents, and there is neither meaning nor advantage to assuming that there is such a thing as a science beyond, outside of and without these people. Doing so inflates science’s importance when it doesn’t deserve to be, and suppresses its shortcomings and prevents them from being addressed. For example, the BMJ study prima facie points to gender discrimination but it also describes a scientific literature that you will never find out is skewed, and therefore unrepresentative of reality, unless you acknowledge that it is constituted by papers authored by people of two genders, on a planet where one gender has maintained a social hegemony for millennia – much like you will never know Earth has an axis of rotation unless you are able to see its continents or make sense of its weather.

The scientific method describes a popular way to design experiments whose performance scientists can use to elucidate refined, and refinable, answers to increasingly complex questions. However, the method is an external object (of human construction) that only, and arguably asymptotically, mediates the relationship between the question and the answer. Everything that comes before the question and after the answer is mediated by a human consciousness undeniably shaped by social, cultural, economic and mental forces.

Even the industry that we associate with modern science – composed of people who trained to be scientists over at least 15 years of education, then went on to instruct and/or study in research institutes, universities and laboratories, being required to teach a fixed number of classes, publish a minimum number of papers and accrue citations, and/or produce X graduate students, while drafting proposals and applying for grants, participating in workshops and conferences, editing journals, possibly administering scientific work and consulting on policy – is steeped in human needs and aspirations, and is even designed to make room for them, but many of us non-scientists are frequently and successfully tempted to address the act of being a scientist as an act of transformation: characterised by an instant in time when a person changes into something else, a higher creature of sorts, like a larva enters a magical chrysalis and exits a butterfly.

But for a man to become a scientist has never meant the shedding of his identity or social stature; ultimately, to become a scientist is to terminate at some quasi-arbitrary moment the slow inculcation of well-founded knowledge crafted to serve a profitable industry. There is a science we know as simply the moment of discovery: it is the less problematic of the two kinds. The other, in the 21st century, is also funding, networking, negotiating, lobbying, travelling, fighting, communicating, introspecting and, inescapably, some suffering. Otherwise, scientific knowledge – one of the ultimate products of the modern scientific enterprise – wouldn’t be as well-organised, accessible and uplifting as it is today.

But it would be silly to think that in the process of constructing this world-machine of sorts, we baked in the best of us, locked out the worst of us, and threw the key away. Instead, like all human endeavour, science evolves with us. While it may from time to time present opportunities to realise one or two ideals, it remains for the most part a deep and truthful reflection of ourselves. This assertion isn’t morally polarised, however; as they say, it is what it is – and this is precisely why we must acknowledge failures in the practice of science instead of sweeping them under the rug.

One male scientist choosing more uninhibitedly to call his observation “unprecedented” than a female scientist might have been encouraged, among other things, by the peculiarities of a gendered scientific labour force and scientific enterprise, but many male scientists indulging just as freely in their evaluatory fantasies, such as they are, indicates a systemic corruption that transcends (but not escapes) science. The same goes for, as in another recent example, for the view that science is self-correcting. It is not because people are not, and they need to be pushed to be. In March 2019, for example, researchers uncovered at least 58 papers published in a six-week period whose authors had switched their desired outcomes between the start and end of their respective experiments to report positive, and to avoid reporting negative, results. When the researchers wrote to the authors as well as the editors of the journals that had published the problem papers, most of them denied there was an issue and refused to accept modifications.

Again, the scientific literature, people!

A science for the non-1%

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and a former US assistant secretary of labour for occupational safety and health under Barack Obama, writes in the Boston Review:

[Product defence] operations have on their payrolls—or can bring in on a moment’s notice—toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, risk assessors, and any other professionally trained, media-savvy experts deemed necessary (economists too, especially for inflating the costs and deflating the benefits of proposed regulation, as well as for antitrust issues). Much of their work involves production of scientific materials that purport to show that a product a corporation makes or uses or even discharges as air or water pollution is just not very dangerous. These useful “experts” produce impressive-looking reports and publish the results of their studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals (reviewed, of course, by peers of the hired guns writing the articles). Simply put, the product defence machine cooks the books, and if the first recipe doesn’t pan out with the desired results, they commission a new effort and try again.

Members of the corporate class have played an instrumental role in undermining trust in science in the last century, and Michaels’s exposition provides an insightful glimpse of how they work, and why what they do works. However, the narrative Michaels employs, as illustrated above, treats scientists like minions – a group of people that will follow your instructions but will not endeavour to question how their research is going to be used as long as, presumably, their own goals are met – and also excuses them for it. This is silly: the corporate class couldn’t have done what it did without help from a sliver of the scientific class that sold its expertise to the highest bidder.

Even if such actions may have been more the result of incompetence than of malice, for too long have scientists claimed vincible ignorance in their quasi-traditional tendency to prize unattached scientific progress more than scientific progress in step with societal aspirations. They need to step up, step out and participate in political programmes that deploy scientific knowledge to solve messy real-world problems, which frequently fail and just as frequently serve misguided ends (such as – but sure as hell not limited to – laundering the soiled reputation of a pedophile and convicted sex offender).

But even so, even as the scientists’ conduct typifies the problem, the buck stops with the framework of incentives that guides them.

Despite its connections with technologies that powered colonialism and war, science has somehow accrued a reputation of being clean. To want to be a scientist today is to want to make sense of the natural universe – an aspiration both simple and respectable – and to make a break from the piddling problems of here and now to the more spiritually refined omnipresent and eternal. However, this image can’t afford to maintain itself by taking the deeply human world it is embedded in for granted.

Science has become the reason for state simply because the state is busy keeping science and politics separate. No academic programme in the world today considers scientific research to be at par with public engagement and political participationa when exactly this is necessary to establish science as an exercise through which, fundamentally, people construct knowledge about the world and then ensure it is used responsibly (as well as to demote it from the lofty pedestal where it currently lords over the social sciences and humanities). Instead, we have a system that encourages only the production of knowledge, tying it up with metrics of professional success, career advancement and, most importantly, a culture of higher educationb and research that won’t brook dissent and tolerates activist-scientists as lesser creatures.

a. And it is to the government’s credit that political participation has become synonymous with electoral politics and the public expression of allegiance to political ideologies.

b. Indeed, the problem most commonly manifests as a jaundiced impression of the purpose of teaching.

The perpetuators of this structure are responsible for the formation and subsequent profitability of “the strategy of manufacturing doubt”, which Michaels writes “has worked wonders … as a public relations tool in the current debate over the use of scientific evidence in public policy. … [The] main motivation all along has been only to sow confusion and buy time, sometimes lots of time, allowing entire industries to thrive or individual companies to maintain market share while developing a new product.”

To fight the vision of these perpetuators, to at least rescue the fruits of the methods of science from inadvertent ignominy, we need publicly active scientists to be the rule, not the exceptions to the rule. We need structural incentives to change to accommodate the fact that, if they don’t, this group of people will definitely remain limited to members of the upper class and/or upper castes. We need a stronger, closer marriage of science, the social sciences, business administration and policymaking.

To be sure, I’m neither saying the mere presence of scientists in public debates will lead to swifter solutions nor that the absence of science alone in policymaking is responsible for so many of the crises of our times – but that their absence has left cracks so big, it’s quite difficult to consider if they can be sealed any other wayc. And yes, the world will slow down, the richer will become less rich and economic growth will become more halting, but these are all also excuses to maintain a status quo that has only exploited the non-1% for two centuries straight.

c. Michaels concludes his piece with a list of techniques the product-defence faction has used to sow doubt and, in the resulting moments of vulnerability, ‘sell science’ – i.e. techniques that represent the absence of guiding voices.

Of course, there’s only so much one can do if the political class isn’t receptive to one’s ideas – but we must begin somewhere, and what better place to begin than at the knowledgeable place?

Another controversy, another round of blaming preprints

On February 1, Anand Ranganathan, the molecular biologist more popular as a columnist for Swarajya, amplified a new preprint paper from scientists at IIT Delhi that (purportedly) claims the Wuhan coronavirus’s (2019 nCoV’s) DNA appears to contain some genes also found in the human immunodeficiency virus but not in any other coronaviruses. Ranganathan also chose to magnify the preprint paper’s claim that the sequences’ presence was “non-fortuitous”.

To be fair, the IIT Delhi group did not properly qualify what they meant by the use of this term, but this wouldn’t exculpate Ranganathan and others who followed him: to first amplify with alarmist language a claim that did not deserve such treatment, and then, once he discovered his mistake, to wonder out loud about whether such “non-peer reviewed studies” about “fast-moving, in-public-eye domains” should be published before scientific journals have subjected them to peer-review.

The more conservative scientist is likely to find ample room here to revive the claim that preprint papers only promote shoddy journalism, and that preprint papers that are part of the biomedical literature should be abolished entirely. This is bullshit.

The ‘print’ in ‘preprint’ refers to the act of a traditional journal printing a paper for publication after peer-review. A paper is designated ‘preprint’ if it hasn’t undergone peer-review yet, even though it may or may not have been submitted to a scientific journal for consideration. To quote from an article championing the use of preprints during a medical emergency, by three of the six cofounders of medRxiv, the preprints repository for the biomedical literature:

The advantages of preprints are that scientists can post them rapidly and receive feedback from their peers quickly, sometimes almost instantaneously. They also keep other scientists informed about what their colleagues are doing and build on that work. Preprints are archived in a way that they can be referenced and will always be available online. As the science evolves, newer versions of the paper can be posted, with older historical versions remaining available, including any associated comments made on them.

In this regard, Ranganathan’s ringing the alarm bells (with language like “oh my god”) the first time he tweeted the link to the preprint paper without sufficiently evaluating the attendant science was his decision, and not prompted by the paper’s status as a preprint. Second, the bioRxiv preprint repository where the IIT Delhi document showed up has a comments section, and it was brimming with discussion within minutes of the paper being uploaded. More broadly, preprint repositories are equipped to accommodate peer-review. So if anyone had looked in the comments section before tweeting, they wouldn’t have had reason to jump the gun.

Third, and most important: peer-review is not fool-proof. Instead, it is a legacy method employed by scientific journals to filter legitimate from illegitimate research and, more recently, higher quality from lower quality research (using ‘quality’ from the journals’ oft-twisted points of view, not as an objective standard of any kind).

This framing supports three important takeaways from this little scandal.

A. Much like preprint repositories, peer-reviewed journals also regularly publish rubbish. (Axiomatically, just as conventional journals also regularly publish the outcomes of good science, so do preprint repositories; in the case of 2019 nCoV alone, bioRxiv, medRxiv and SSRN together published at least 30 legitimate and noteworthy research articles.) It is just that conventional scientific journals conduct the peer-review before publication and preprint repositories (and research-discussion platforms like PubPeer), after. And, in fact, conducting the review after allows it to be continuous process able to respond to new information, and not a one-time event that culminates with the act of printing the paper.

But notably, preprint repositories can recreate journals’ ability to closely control the review process and ensure only experts’ comments are in the fray by enrolling a team of voluntary curators. The arXiv preprint server has been successfully using a similar team to carefully eliminate manuscripts advancing pseudoscientific claims. So as such, it is easier to make sure people are familiar with the preprint and post-publication review paradigm than to take advantage of their confusion and call for preprint papers to be eliminated altogether.

B. Those who support the idea that preprint papers are dangerous, and argue that peer-review is a better way to protect against unsupported claims, are by proxy advocating for the persistence of a knowledge hegemony. Peer-review is opaque, sustained by unpaid and overworked labour, and dispenses the same function that an open discussion often does at larger scale and with greater transparency. Indeed, the transparency represents the most important difference: since peer-review has traditionally been the demesne of journals, supporting peer-review is tantamount to designating journals as the sole and unquestionable arbiters of what knowledge enters the public domain and what doesn’t.

(Here’s one example of how such gatekeeping can have tragic consequences for society.)

C. Given these safeguards and perspectives, and as I have written before, bad journalists and bad comments will be bad irrespective of the window through which an idea has presented itself in the public domain. There is a way to cover different types of stories, and the decision to abdicate one’s responsibility to think carefully about the implications of what one is writing can never have a causal relationship with the subject matter. The Times of India and the Daily Mail will continue to publicise every new paper discussing whatever coffee, chocolate and/or wine does to the heart, and The Hindu and The Wire Science will publicise research published in preprint papers because we know how to be careful and of the risks to protect ourselves against.

By extension, ‘reputable’ scientific journals that use pre-publication peer-review will continue to publish many papers that will someday be retracted.

An ongoing scandal concerning spider biologist Jonathan Pruitt offers a useful parable – that journals don’t always publish bad science due to wilful negligence or poor peer-review alone but that such failures still do well to highlight the shortcomings of the latter. A string of papers the work on which Pruitt led were found to contain implausible data in support of some significant conclusions. Dan Bolnick, the editor of The American Naturalist, which became the first journal to retract Pruitt’s papers that it had published, wrote on his blog on January 30:

I want to emphasise that regardless of the root cause of the data problems (error or intent), these people are victims who have been harmed by trusting data that they themselves did not generate. Having spent days sifting through these data files I can also attest to the fact that the suspect patterns are often non-obvious, so we should not be blaming these victims for failing to see something that requires significant effort to uncover by examining the data in ways that are not standard for any of this. … The associate editor [who Bolnick tasked with checking more of Pruitt’s papers] went as far back as digging into some of Pruitt’s PhD work, when he was a student with Susan Riechert at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Similar problems were identified in those data… Seeking an explanation, I [emailed and then called] his PhD mentor, Susan Riechert, to discuss the biology of the spiders, his data collection habits, and his integrity. She was shocked, and disturbed, and surprised. That someone who knew him so well for many years could be unaware of this problem (and its extent), highlights for me how reasonable it is that the rest of us could be caught unaware.

Why should we expect peer-review – or any kind of review, for that matter – to be better? The only thing we can do is be honest, transparent and reflexive.