Reading a Nature report titled ‘Step aside CERN: There’s a cheaper way to break open physics‘ (January 10, 2018) brought to mind something G. Rajasekaran, former head of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, told me once: that the future – as the Nature report also touts – belongs to tabletop particle accelerators.

Rajaji (as he is known) said he believed so because of the simple realisation that particle accelerators could only get so big before they’d have to get much, much bigger to tell us anything more. On the other hand, tabletop setups based on laser wakefield acceleration, which could accelerate electrons to higher energies across just a few centimetres, would allow us to perform slightly different experiments such that their outcomes will guide future research.

The question of size is an interesting one (and almost personal: I’m 6’4” tall and somewhat heavy, which means I’ve to start by moving away from seeming intimidating in almost all new relationships). For most of history, humans’ ideas of better included something becoming bigger. From what I can see – which isn’t really much – the impetus for this is founded in five things:

1. The laws of classical physics: They are, and were, multiplicative. To do more or to do better (which for a long time meant doing more), the laws had to be summoned in larger magnitudes and in more locations. This has been true from the machines of industrialisation to scientific instruments to various modes of construction and transportation. Some laws also foster inverse relationships that straightforwardly encourage devices to be bigger to be better.

2. Capitalism, rather commerce in general: Notwithstanding social necessities, bigger often implied better the same way a sphere of volume 4 units has a smaller surface area than four spheres of volume 1 unit each. So if your expenditure is pegged to the surface area – and it often is – then it’s better to pack 400 people on one airplane instead of flying four airplanes with 100 people in each.

3. Sense of self: A sense of our own size and place in the universe, as seemingly diminutive creatures living their lives out under the perennial gaze of the vast heavens. From such a point of view, a show of power and authority would obviously have meant transcending the limitations of our dimensions and demonstrating to others that we’re capable of devising ‘ultrastructures’ that magnify our will, to take us places we only thought the gods could go and achieve simultaneity of effect only the gods could achieve. (And, of course, for heads of state to swing longer dicks at each other.)

4. Politics: Engineers building a tabletop detector and engineers building a detector weighing 50,000 tonnes will obviously run into different kinds of obstacles. Moreover, big things are easier to stake claims over, to discuss, dispute or dislodge. It affects more people even before it has produced its first results.

5. Natural advantages: An example that comes immediately to mind is social networks – not Facebook or Twitter but the offline ones that define cultures and civilisations. Such networks afford people an extra degree of adaptability and improve chances of survival by allowing people to access resources (including information/knowledge) that originated elsewhere. This can be as simple as a barter system where people exchange food for gold, or as complex as a bashful Tamilian staving off alienation in California by relying on the support of the Tamil community there.

(The inevitable sixth impetus is tradition. For example, its equation with growth has given bigness pride of place in business culture, so much so that many managers I’ve met wanted to set up bigger media houses even when it might have been more appropriate to go smaller.)

Against this backdrop of impetuses working together, Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes – a book about how our biological experience of reality is mediated by microbes – becomes a saga of reconciliation with a world much smaller, not bigger, yet more consequential. To me, that’s an idea as unintuitive as, say, being able to engineer materials with fantastical properties by sporadically introducing contaminants into their atomic lattice. It’s the sort of smallness whose individual parts amount to very close to nothing, whose sum amounts to something, but the human experience of which is simply monumental.

And when we find that such smallness is able to move mountains, so to speak, it disrupts our conception of what it means to be big. This is as true of microbes as it is of quantum mechanics, as true of elementary particles as it is of nano-electromechanical systems. This is one of the more understated revolutions that happened in the 20th century: the decoupling of bigger and better, a sort of virtualisation of betterment that separated it from additive scale and led to the proliferation of ‘trons’.

I like to imagine what gave us tabletop accelerators also gave us containerised software and a pan-industrial trend towards personalisation – although this would be philosophy, not history, because it’s a trend we compose in hindsight. But in the same vein, both hardware (to run software) and accelerators first became big, riding on the back of the classical and additive laws of physics, then hit some sort of technological upper limit (imposed by finite funds and logistical limitations) and then bounced back down when humankind developed tools to manipulate nature at the mesoscopic scale.

Of course, some would also argue that tabletop particle accelerators wouldn’t be possible, or deemed necessary, if the city-sized ones didn’t exist first, that it was the failure of the big ones that drove the development of the small ones. And they would argue right. But as I said, that’d be history; it’s the philosophy that seems more interesting here.

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A lightning storm rages outside. The large window panes going from floor to ceiling in the living room rattle as the wind whips around, gathering dust off the ground right outside my building, spinning it up into little, but no less terrifying, tornadoes (maybe it’s the tornado-like action of the wind that’s terrifying; you never know what’s going to happen next) that reach up five or six stories high, lit up by dispassionate sodium-vapour lamps. I can see the eagle that usually leisurely stalks the skies at this hour struggling to find a current it can cruise in, instead being forced to glide along what guiderails of wind it can find.

The muffled sound of rain like white noise floats in from all sides, percolating through the walls, rising one minute and falling the next. The incessant flashes of lightning portend the next rumbling roll of thunder, lighting up the sky in ultra-bright flares of white before the heavens return to their dark pink-red, a horizon-spanning wound preparing to be cauterised once more.

It’s so wonderfully easy to sit inside during these moments and marvel at the casual but preconceived display of power all around. What must it have been like four billion years ago, when the first microbes were taking shape and suddenly the world around them was ablaze with electric discharges, the air itself on fire? What must it have been like when the first creatures with ears were assailed by thunder, when the first creatures with eyes were blinded by the light? When the first humans felt as if the sky was exploding and crashing down around them?

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that we figured out lightning was electricity – but the moment we did, we cast our now-knowing eye back into the recesses of time, looked at the first sensing lifeforms of Earth and wondered what fantasies they conjured in their laughable ignorance. Just the way after some lightning storm of the future, some slouch will look back to this night and wonder what fantasies we were mulling in the middle of a lightning storm.

Will we be going around in circles?

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

This post is a breakdown of the Pew study titled The Science People See on Social Media, published March 21, 2018. Without further ado…

In an effort to better understand the science information that social media users encounter on these platforms, Pew Research Center systematically analyzed six months’ worth of posts from 30 of the most followed science-related pages on Facebook. These science-related pages included 15 popular Facebook accounts from established “multiplatform” organizations … along with 15 popular “Facebook-primary” accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.

Is popularity the best way to judge if a Facebook page counts as a page about science? Popularity is an easy measure but it often almost exclusively represents a section of the ‘market’ skewed towards popular science. Some such pages from the Pew dataset include facebook.com/healthdigest, /mindbodygreen, /DailyHealthTips, /DavidAvocadoWolfe and /droz – all “wellness” brands that may not represent the publication of scientific content as much as, more broadly, content that panders to a sense of societal insecurity that is not restricted to science. This doesn’t limit the Pew study insofar as the study aims to elucidate what passes off as ‘science’ on Facebook but it does limit Pew’s audience-specific insights.

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… just 29% of the [6,528] Facebook posts from these pages [published in the first half of 2017] had a focus or “frame” around information about new scientific discoveries.

Not sure why the authors, Paul Hitlin and Kenneth Olmstead, think this is “just” 29% – that’s quite high! Science is not just about new research and research results, and if these pages are consciously acknowledging that on average limiting their posts about such news to three of every 10 posts, that’s fantastic. (Of course, if the reason for not sharing research results is that they’re not very marketable, that’s too bad.)

I’m also curious about what counts as research on the “wellness” pages. If their posts share research to a) dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the page authors’ worldview or b) popularise studies that are, say, pursuing a causative link between coffee consumption and cancer, then such data is useless.

From 'The science people see on social media'. Credit: Pew Research Center
From ‘The science people see on social media’. Credit: Pew Research Center

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The volume of posts from these science-related pages has increased over the past few years, especially among multiplatform pages. On average, the 15 popular multiplatform Facebook pages have increased their production of posts by 115% since 2014, compared with a 66% increase among Facebook-primary pages over the same time period. (emphasis in the original)

The first line in italics is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not a discovery. This is because the “multiplatform organisations” chosen by Pew for analysis all need to make money, and all organisations that need to continue making money need to grow. Growth is not an option, it’s a necessity, and it often implies growth on all platforms of publication in quantity and (hopefully) quality. In fact, the “Facebook-primary” pages, by which Hitlin and Olmstead mean “accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet”, are also driven to grow for the same reason: commerce, both on Facebook and off. As the authors write,

Across the set of 30 pages, 16% of posts were promotional in nature. Several accounts aimed a majority of their posts at promoting other media and public appearances. The four prominent scientists among the Facebook-primary pages posted fewer than 200 times over the course of 2017, but when they did, a majority of their posts were promotions (79% of posts from Dr. Michio Kaku, 78% of posts from Neil deGrasse Tyson, 64% of posts from Bill Nye and 58% of posts from Stephen Hawking). Most of these were self-promotional posts related to television appearances, book signings or speeches.

A page with a few million followers is likelier than not to be a revenue-generating exercise. While this is by no means an indictment of the material shared by these pages, at least not automatically, IFL Science is my favourite example: its owner Elise Andrews was offered $30 million for the page in 2015. I suspect that might’ve been a really strong draw to continue growing, and unfortunately, many of the “Facebook-primary” pages like IFLS find this quite easy to do by sharing well-dressed click-bait.

Second, if Facebook is the primary content distribution channel, then the number of video posts will also have shown an increase in the Pew data – as it did – because publishers both small and large that’ve made this deal with the devil have to give the devil whatever it wants. If Facebook says videos are the future and that it’s going to tweak its newsfeed algorithms accordingly, publishers are going to follow suit.

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

So when Hitlin and Olmstead say, “Video was a common feature of these highly engaging posts whether they were aimed at explaining a scientific concept, highlighting new discoveries, or showcasing ways people can put science information to use in their lives”, they’re glossing over an important confounding factor: the platform itself. There’s a chance Facebook is soon going to say VR is the next big thing, and then there’s going to be a burst of posts with VR-mediated content. But that doesn’t mean the publishing houses themselves believe VR is good or bad for sharing science news.

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The average number of user interactions per post – a common indicator of audience engagement based on the total number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts. From January 2014 to June 2017, Facebook-primary pages averaged 14,730 interactions per post, compared with 4,265 for posts on multiplatform pages. This relationship held up even when controlling for the frame of the post. (emphasis in the original)

Again, Hitlin and Olmstead refuse to distinguish between ‘legitimate’ posts and trash. This would involve a lot more work on their part, sure, but it would also make their insights into science consumption on the social media that much more useful. But until then, for all I know, “the average number of user interactions per post … tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts” simply because it’s Gwyneth Paltrow wondering about what stones to shove up which orifices.

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… posts on Facebook-primary pages related to federal funding for agencies with a significant scientific research mission were particularly engaging, averaging more than 122,000 interactions per post in the first half of 2017.

Now that’s interesting and useful. Possible explanation: Trump must’ve been going nuts about something science-related. [Later in the report] Here it is: “Many of these highly engaging posts linked to stories suggesting Trump was considering a decrease in science-agency funding. For example, a Jan. 25, 2017, IFLScience post called Trump’s Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means was shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook and had 62,000 likes and other reactions.”

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Highly engaging posts among these pages did not always feature science-related information. Four of the top 15 most-engaging posts from Facebook-primary pages featured inspirational sayings or advice such as “look after your friends” or “believe in yourself.”

Does mental-health-related messaging on the back of new findings or realisations about the need for, say, speaking out on depression and anxiety count as science communication? It does to me; by all means, it’s “news I can use”.

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Three of the Facebook-primary pages belong to prominent astrophysicists. Not surprisingly, about half or more of the posts on these pages were related to astronomy or physics: Dr. Michio Kaku (58%), Stephen Hawking (58%) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (48%).

Ha! It would be interesting to find out why science’s most prominent public authority figures in the last few decades have all been physicists of some kind. I already have some ideas but that’ll be a different post.

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Useful takeaways for me as science editor, The Wire:

  1. Pages that stick to a narrower range of topics do better than those that cover all areas of science
  2. Controversial topics such as GMOs “didn’t appear often” on the 30 pages surveyed – this is surprising because you’d think divisive issues would attract more audience engagement. However, I also imagine the pages’ owners might not want to post on those issues to avoid flame wars (😐), stay away from inconclusive evidence (😄), not have to take a stand that might hurt them (🤔) or because issue-specific nuances make an issue a hard-sell (🙄).
  3. Most posts that shared discoveries were focused on “energy and environment, geology, and archeology”; half of all posts about physics and astronomy were about discoveries

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series exhibited a rabid yet desirable iconoclasm, through which its author Steven Erikson elucidated every trope of epic fantasy and then shit on it. I came out of reading the series feeling like nothing could surprise me anymore except some other Erikson fare. The man himself might not be appreciative of this outcome; the 10-book series was, and is, more like a drug to me than anything else.

At the start of any book you implicitly enter into a covenant with the author that you’ll the read the book in return for being allowed to expect that it will entertain you. This is because books are not allowed to disappoint you – an expectation that’s actually true of every form of art that’s produced for public consumption. The experience of disappointment, even though it’s a common emotion, is not an aspiration. There’s no market nor the (mainstream) aesthetic for it.

At some level, what Erikson ruined for me was the ability to expect to be surprised or entertained by whatever was coming. This is a remarkable thing for the consumption of fantasy to achieve because fantasy is an evacuation from our reality unto a different one more suited to making the author’s point while also not being too contrived (although that’s a hyper-reductive definition). And for millions of people around the world, including myself, the doorway to realising how good fantasy could be was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lord of the Rings didn’t succeed by being too whimsical – a trait many simpleminded folk conflate with the fantasy genre – but in fact the opposite. It was tightly knit, gorgeously situated, described and narrated, in a world somewhat different from our own. Its success lay in its storytelling as much as in its seminal nature: Lord of the Rings, for many of us, was the first. It has had and will continue to have a certain quality of primacy associated with readers’ memories of it.

It set many readers’ expectations in terms of what they could expect from the fantasy genre: not frolicking cartoons for children but goddamned epics. The Malazan series took this premise and bled it to death in a beautiful, beautiful way. If Lord of the Rings was the gateway drug for realising, and acknowledging, the potential of fantasy to be assessed in the same league as mainstream literature, the Malazan series is the Manitoba shlimbo.

I’m sure you recognise this post has been a roundabout way of saying Malazan ruined me for other books, and you’re probably wondering, “What a hubristic schmuck.” What a hubristic schmuck indeed. One of the more amazing components of the reading experience that regular book-readers take for granted is the ability to clench your teeth and grind through the more boring parts of a book – a sort of restrained deferment to the idea that though the book may not be entertaining now, entertainment remains in the offing. That’s what I miss being able to do, and that’s the whole difference between plodding slowly through a book and giving up at p. 15 and throwing it away.

Yes, we’re allowed to stop reading books that are boring, but we, especially I, get bored very easily – and I’m almost proud of it because it’s a skill I’ve honed to allow me to quickly spot, and correct, dull news reports. I also need to relearn what it means to make a small cluster of points over 250 pages or more. Reacquiring a habit like reading isn’t easy, particularly if you lost it for the reasons specified above. So to make it easier for me to get back on that wagon, I’m going to start with obviously popular books – often written by white men; first on the list is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

So far so good.

Happy Lord of the Rings Day! Quoting verbatim from last year’s post on the same date:

March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring.

Watch the films, read the books, talk about it, read about it, write about it. Do whatever it takes you to remember the potential of fantasy fiction to be a legitimate way to survive and cherish our realities.

Featured image credit: aitoff/pixabay.

ISRO chairman K. Sivan is free to worship and worship any deity he bloody well wants ; that’s his right. But it’s not entirely comforting when you think back about all the chairpersons ISRO has had – all men, all Hindus – who have made offerings at temples to “take ISRO to new heights” or similar.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the people’s right to any religion but Article 51AH, which asks people to cultivate a scientific temper, calls into question why those who are leaders of a national space industry have reason to leave anything about the missions they are responsible for in the hands of an “almighty” being.

Another thing that bothers me about ISRO’s supplicants-in-chief is also something that bothers me about the day-to-day practice of theism: attributing successes to the work of a deity instead of to the hard work and convictions of regular, whether or not particularly skilled, people (and elements of the natural universe). In the same vein, every time Sivan, K. Radhakrishnan, G. Madhavan Nair or K. Kasturirangan visited a temple – and all of them have – one felt as if ‘their ISRO’ itself was subject to the benevolence of a deity.

… and what has thus far only been upper-caste Hindu deities, an indictment of the lack of diversity at ISRO, in turn an echo of the lack of diversity within the space sector. Call me a cynic but I’m sure the RSS and its ilk would have given a more outrageous fuck had the chairperson been Muslim/Christian or of a lower caste. And I’m sure sections of the media would’ve lapped this up with extortionate delight.

But what irks me most of all is that these men are leaders. Millions of people look up to them, whether for guidance or for inspiration. Many of them are children – and a part of what they’re hearing is that some things at ISRO work out only if a god deigns it.

Irrespective of their being public figures, ISRO’s chairpersons are, “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part” … “equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion” . But because they are also public figures, which allows me to be concerned about what they’re up to, ISRO’s leaders who pay temple visits to “pray for ISRO” also have a duty to openly clarify the following:

  1. Why they are praying “for ISRO”
  2. If smart, hard and/or ethical work is a component of ISRO’s success
  3. Whether they or their beliefs have been the source of any discomfort within the organisation…

… every time they make a temple visit and then speak to the press.

Public displays of Hinduism, signalling ISRO as an organisation benefiting from Hindu benevolence, and shifting the focus away from hard scientific labour to the blessing of gods – all of these are messages with potential for malevolence, and public figures like ISRO chiefs have been legitimising them by communicating them.

Like I said before, Sivan can follow any religion he bloody well wants, but in a politico-religious climate like ours, people – whether public figures or not – must interrogate the meaning of various forms of public participation more before engaging with them. They need to be smarter about what they say and how they act in public. It’s not rocket science.

Featured image source: YouTube.

Did some back-of-the-envelope calculations about the Meerut mahayagya, where a bunch of Hindu priests are burning 50 tonnes of mango wood and approx. 10 million tablespoons of ghee in a mega-ritual to “purify the air”, over nine days. Can’t make this stuff up.

So 50 tonnes of hardwood releases 8.25 x 1011 joules and 10 million tablespoons of ghee releases 4.6 x 1012 joules of heat.

The slow and fast pyrolysis of hard wood also releases carbon monoxide/dioxide, methane, aldehydes, ketenes, epoxides and other fatty acids and hydrocarbons.

The priests believe that “holy ghee” produces large quantities of oxygen when it burns. Not sure where this claim originated by we all know this isn’t possible: as a triglyceride, ghee can’t do that when it burns, let alone “10 grams producing one tonne”.

There’s another “yagya” of greater magnitude happening in Delhi, where priests are coming together for seven days for the ritual to enhance “national security”.

There’s been a bit of literature – scientific and journalistic – in the recent past about whether or not climate change may be driving, rather encouraging, human conflicts by endangering quantities of and access to shared resources (chiefly water).

Now, without getting into silly lines of thought like “which religion has the cleanest rituals” (unanswerable for numerous reasons), it might be wise for believers to acknowledge that whatever their religion is, their rituals need to become more conscious of climatic needs.

The wise men and women who instituted rituals eons ago may not have seen the end of the world creep upon us in the form of a warming Earth but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

As someone brought up in an orthodox Hindu household, and someone living in a country whose ruling party wants to transform the whole place into one orthodox Hindu household, I can safely say that the way we acknowledge the pride of place we accord to fire in our worldview needs an overhaul.

I’m sure various other rituals outside of Hinduism will need to be questioned as well.

Burning 50 tonnes of mango wood to “purify the air” is moronic. The wood was cut down and transported to Delhi from some other place. The carbon footprint of such deforestation and transportation takes the damage far beyond the 825 GJ mentioned above, and makes it more multifarious, too.

Public assertions of religious privilege and caste hegemony already sow dark seeds of conflict. But uprooting trees from one place is a form of violence perpetrated against that place; as the world warms further, the brutality of it will only be perceived more strongly.

To take the wood to another place to be burnt… that’s some very distended sense of entitlement.

Featured image credit: hschmider/pixabay.

Just the other day, I’d mentioned to a friend that Steven Pinker was one of those rare people whose ideas couldn’t be appreciated by proxy, such as through the opinions of other authority figures, but had to be processed individually. This is because Pinker has found as much support as he has detraction – from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True on the one hand to P.Z. Myers’s Pharyngula on the other. As an aspiring rationalist, it’s hard for me to place Pinker on the genius-lunatic circle because it’s hard to see how his own ideas are self-consistent, or how all of his ideas sit on a common plane of reason.

2013 article Pinker wrote in The New Republic only added to this dilemma. The article argued that science was not an enemy of the humanities, with Pinker trying to denounce whatever he thought others thought “scientism” stood for. He argued that ‘scientism’ was not the idea that “everything is about science”, rather a commitment to two ideals: intelligibility and that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard”. This is a reasonable elucidation necessary to redefine the role and place of science in today’s jingoistic societies.

However, Pinker manages to mangle the rest of the article with what I hope (but can’t really believe to be) was pure carelessness – even though this is also difficult to believe because we all seem to have this fixation at the back of our minds that Pinker is a smart man. He manages to define everything he thinks is in this world worth defining from the POV of natural science alone. Consider these lines:

Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Pinker has completely left out subjects like sociology and anthropology in his definition of the world and the values its people harbour. Though he acknowledges that “scientific facts don’t by themselves dictate values”, he’s also pompous enough to claim scientific reasoning alone has undermined human sacrifice, witch hunts, etc. Then why is it that senior ISRO officials, who are well-educated rocket scientists, offer rocket models at temples before upcoming launches? Why is it that IT employees who migrate from Chennai and Bangalore to California still believe that the caste system is an idea worth respecting?

He continues:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

This seems to make logical sense… until you pause and wonder if that’s how people actually think. Did we decide to take control of our own welfare because “the laws governing the universe lack purpose”? Of course not. I’m actually tempted to argue that the laws governing the universe have been stripped of the ability to govern anthropic matters because we decided to take control of our welfare.

In fact, Pinker imputes the humanities and social sciences with intentions most institutions that study them likely don’t have. He also appropriates the ideas of pre-18th-century thinkers into the fold of science when it would’ve been wrong to do so: Hume, Leibniz and Kant (to pick only those philosophers whose work I’m familiar with) were not scientists. In fact, somehow, the one person who would’ve been useful to appropriate for the purposes of Pinker’s argument was left out: Roger Bacon. Then, deeper into the piece, there’s this:

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

With sweeping statements like these, Pinker leaves his head vulnerable to being bitten off (like here). At the same time, his conception of “scientism” burns bright like a gemstone lying in the gutter. Why can’t you be more clear cut like the gem, Pinker, and make it easier for all of us to get the hang of you? Can I trust in your definition of ‘scientism’ or should I wonder how you came upon it given the other silly things you believe? (Consider this: “The definitional vacuum [of what ‘scientism’ means] allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” When was ‘queer’ ever a pejorative among gender/sexuality rights activists?) Oh, why are you making me think!

As I languished in the midst of this quandary and contemplated doing some actual work to get to the bottom of the Pinker puzzle, I came upon a review of his book Enlightenment Now (2018) authored by George Monbiot, whom I’ve always wholeheartedly agreed with. Here we go, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed: Monbiot takes a clear position. In a bristling piece for The Guardian, Monbiot accuses Pinker of cherry-picking data and, in a few instances, misrepresenting facts to reach conclusions more favourable to his worldview, as a result coming off as an inadvertent apologist for capitalism. Excerpt:

Pinker suggests that the environmental impact of nations follows the same trajectory, claiming that the “environmental Kuznets Curve” shows they become cleaner as they get richer. To support this point, he compares Nordic countries with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is true that they do better on indicators such as air and water quality, as long as you disregard their impacts overseas. But when you look at the whole picture, including carbon emissions, you discover the opposite. The ecological footprints of Afghanistan and Bangladesh (namely the area required to provide the resources they use) are, respectively, 0.9 and 0.7 hectares per person. Norway’s is 5.8, Sweden’s is 6.5 and Finland, that paragon of environmental virtue, comes in at 6.7.

Pinker seems unaware of the controversies surrounding the Kuznets Curve, and the large body of data that appears to undermine it. The same applies to the other grand claims with which he sweeps through this subject. He relies on highly tendentious interlocutors to interpret this alien field for him. If you are going to use people like US ecomodernist Stewart Brand and the former head of Northern Rock Matt Ridley as your sources, you need to double-check their assertions. Pinker insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.

To make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, I went through all of Coyne’s posts written in support of Pinker. It would seem that while there’s much to admire in his words, especially those concerning his area of expertise – psycholinguistics – Pinker either falls short when articulating his worldview or, more likely, the moment he steps out of his comfort zone and begins addressing the humanities, goes cuckoo. Coyne repeatedly asserts that Pinker is a classic progressive liberal who’s constantly misunderstood because he refuses to gloss over matters of political correctness that the authoritarian left doesn’t want you to discuss. But it’s really hard to stand by him when – like Monbiot says about Enlightenment Now – he’s accused of misrepresenting rape statistics in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

Anyway, the Princeton historian David Bell also joined in with a scathing review for The Nation, where he called Enlightenment Now a 20-hour TED talk pushing history as having been “just so” instead of acknowledging the many people’s movements and struggles that deliberately made it so.

Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.

Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted.

It seems Pinker may not be playing as fast and loose with facts, philosophy and the future as sci-fi writers like Yuval Noah Harari (whose Homo Deus is the reason I’ve not read historical surveys since; I recommend John Sexton’s takedown) have, but he’s probably just as bad for riding a cult of personality that has brought, and continues to bring, him an audience that will listen to him even though he’s a psycholinguist monologuing about Enlightenment philosophy. And what’s more, all the reviews I can find of Enlightenment Now have different versions of the same complaints Monbiot and Bell have made.

So I’m going to wilfully succumb to two of the cognitive biases Pinker says blinkers our worldview and makes things seem more hopeless than they are – availability and negativity – and kick Enlightenment Now off my todo list.

In sum: what keeps Pinker au courant is his optimism. If only it weren’t so misinformed in its fundamentals…

Hat-tip to Omair Ahmad for flagging the New Republic article. Featured image: Steven Pinker. Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

So, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Chandrayaan 2 mission to the Moon has been pushed to October from April. Delays of this sort are to be expected for missions of this scale, although I’ve also heard that ISRO often does a poor job of setting realistic launch dates for its missions in general.

The actual launch window for Chandrayaan 2 had been April-November, but recent reports in the media quoting ISRO officials had created the impression that people were confident April would be it.

But now, with the announcement of delay, officials’ confidence on display earlier this year that the launch would happen in April is now in serious question. The most recent media report I can find that quotes a senior official saying Chandrayaan 2 will be launched in April is dated February 16, 2018. The primary Google search result still says “April 2018”.

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I also find it curious that the mission’s delay was announced barely 30 or so days before it was slated to launch instead of much earlier. For missions of this size, delays can be anticipated sooner… unless something unexpected has happened. Has it? No clue. Is it because of the probe itself or the launcher, a GSLV Mk II? Again, no clue.

So we do what we always have: wait.

Mission readiness is one thing but setting realistic launch dates, communicating them to the public in a timely manner and keeping all stakeholders – including the people – informed of the reasons for delay are quite another.

Featured image credit: fernandozhiminaicela/pixabay.