When thoughts turn stale, read a book. I’m reading two at the moment, which is telling.
Patriots and Partisans by historian Ram Guha, an accessible narration of the historical roots of modern Indian national politics.
Flights by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, a work of fiction that I noticed because of its beautiful cover and then for its compelling blurb: part musings, part storytelling, on the connections between human anatomy and travelling.
I picked both these books up at the Bangalore airport after noticing an ad for Peps mattresses, and how – per the brand’s claim – it “cures jet lag”. What nonsense.
I fished my phone out of the pocket, took a picture of the banner and began to blog… noticing a couple lines later that it’s just more of the same.
Then I remembered some quote I’d read somewhere by someone famous that you can’t hope to produce good work without reading good writing. Possibly more so for someone who expresses the entirety of his creative potential through words.
So the books. Both of them are gripping – no surprises with Guha and lots of surprises with Tokarczuk. Flights‘ is an intriguing premise, you must admit. Let’s see how they go.
Oh, I also remembered a recent oped in The Hindu by Mini Kapoor, about how reading on the internet has likely diminished literate humans’ capacity for reading large texts and letting complex ideas ferment in the mind instead, as usually happens, of flitting between shorter texts and constantly recycling (allegedly original) opinions.
This isn’t an original argument. I myself have felt that Twitter – as a microblog – has probably made blogging harder.
According to Biplab Deb, the chief minister of Tripura, the oxygen content of water will increase if ducks swim in it. [Satire begins here] This is a sensational new discovery that has drastic implications for Earth’s future. The lawmaker’s thinking suggests it might have something to do with duck-farts.
There are thousands of water bodies around the world where masses of ducks have been swimming for tens of millions of years, and which could now be flush with oxygen. As a result, our planet now appears to be due for major bio-ecological changes as the abundance of oxygen is likely to spur cascading evolutionary effects.
In fact, it is being speculated that, in the aftermath of Deb’s confirmation, the sixth extinction of the Anthropocene epoch might just be halted in its tracks and forced to do a volte face; all it will take is lots of ducks. This might explain why oil companies in Texas are confident that their proposal to have the government erect a $12-billion ‘sea wall’ to protect their coastal facilities against rising water levels will be taken seriously.
At the same time, there also appears to be growing public resentment against scientists, with people wondering whether supposed researchers spending tax dollars might have kept this simple solution away from governments in an effort to maintain their self-importance. Major news publications like OneOp are reporting that this could be an urban naxal conspiracy and that a concerned ministry is expected to conduct raids soon. IndiaIndiaIndia reported that there’s a joke somewhere in here about going quack.
According to Indian Express, it appears Deb had also discovered that the ducks would recycle the oxygen in the water and prevent its molecules from going to waste. Thankfully for the minister as well as for the rest of us, oxygen molecules don’t affect the pH value of water, or we would also be confronted with a major acidity/salinity catastrophe. In all, it’s good news for everyone, including the people who will supply the 50,000 ducklings Deb says he will distribute among Tripura’s fisherfolk.
A senior scientist who didn’t wish to be named expressed surprise at the finding, and said he had applied for a grant to study the molecular chemistry of duck-farts. “I expect to hear back in five years,” he said. The same individual also expressed regret later. “We all had a chance to find this out before but we did not. It’s because we didn’t study the Vedas as thoroughly as we should have. Hopefully we will learn from this mistake. Om.”
There’s only one absolute zero but there are multiple absolute ‘hots’, depending on the temperature at which various theories of physics break down. This is an interesting conception because, while absolute zero is very well-defined and perfectly understood, absolute hot simply stands for the exact opposite not in a physical sense but in an epistemological one: it is the temperature at which the object of study resembles something not understood at all. According to the short Wikipedia article on it, there are two well-known absolute hots:
Planck temperature – when the force of gravity becomes as strong as the other fundamental forces, leading to a system describable only by theories of quantum gravity, which don’t exist yet
Hagedorn temperature – when the system’s energy becomes so large that instead of heating up further, it begins to produce hadrons (particles made up of quarks and gluons, like protons and neutrons) or turns into a quark-gluon plasma
Over drinks yesterday with the physicist known as The Soufflé, he provided the example of a black hole. Thermodynamics stipulates that there is an upper limit to the amount of energy that can be packed into a given volume of space-time. So if you keep heating this volume even after it has breached its energy threshold, then it will transform into a black hole (by the rules of general relativity). For this system, its absolute hot will have been reached, and from the epistemological point of view, we don’t know the microscopic structure of black holes. So there.
However, it seems not all physical systems behave this way, i.e. become something unrecognisable beyond their absolute hot temperature. Quantum thermodynamics describes such systems as having negative temperatures on the kelvin scale. You are probably thinking it is simply colder than absolute zero – a forbidden state in classical thermodynamics – but this is not it. There seems to be a paradox here but it is more a cognitive illusion. That is, the paradox comes undone when you acknowledge the difference between energy and entropy.
The energy of a system is the theoretically maximum capacity it has to perform work. The entropy of the system is the amount of energy that cannot be used to do work, also interpreted as a degree of disorderliness. When a ‘conventional’ system is heated, its energy and entropy both increase. In a system with negative temperature, heating increases its energy while bringing its entropy down. In other words, a system with negative temperature becomes more energetic as well as is able to dedicate a larger fraction of that energy towards work at highertemperatures.
Such a system is believed to exist only when it can access quantum phenomena. More fundamentally, such a system is possible only if the number of high energy states it has are limited. In classical systems, which is anything that you can observe in your daily life, such as a pot of tea, objects can be heated as high a temperature as needed. But in the quantum realm, akin to what classical thermodynamics says about the birth of black holes – that its energy density became so high that space-time wrapped around the system – systems of elementary particles are often allowed to have possess only certain energies. As a result, even if the system is heated beyond its absolute hot, its energy can’t change, or at least there will be nothing to show for it.
While it was a monumentally drab subject in college, thermodynamics – as I have learnt since – can be endlessly fascinating the same way, say, the study of financial instruments can illuminate the pulse of capitalism. This is because thermodynamics – as in the study of heat, energy and entropy – encapsulates the physical pulse of the natural universe. You simply need to go where its laws take you to piece together many things about reality.
Of course, a thermodynamic view of the world may not always be the most useful way to study it. At the same time, there will almost always be a way to translate some theory of the world into thermodynamic equivalents. In that sense, the laws and rules of thermodynamics allow its practitioners to speak a kind of universal language the way Douglas Adams’s Babel fish does.
The most famous example of this in the popular conception of scientific research is the work of Stephen Hawking. Together with Jacob Bekenstein and others, Hawking used thermodynamic calculations to show (on paper) that black holes were mortal and in fact emitted radiation out into the universe, instead of sucking everything in. He also found that the total entropy contained inside a black hole – its overall disorderliness – was closely related to its surface area. This was in the 1970s, but the idea that there are opportunities to understand the insides of a black hole by studying its outsides is as profound today as it was then.
I asked a friend earlier today if he would be interested in explaining the observation of Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen to an audience of high-schoolers.But will high-schoolers ever be able to understand what Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen are? In other words, when will 17-year-olds ever be expected to know this?
They won’t. Not knowing what Lyman-alpha lines are or what anti-hydrogen is isn’t going to cost them anything, and knowing it is not going to be decidedly useful.
The education system is already mindful of this. This is why calculus is not taught to 10-year-olds and irrational numbers to two-year-olds.
However, what could set high-schoolers apart from two- or 10-year-olds is that, by the time they are 17, they usually know all of the first principles necessary for the study of most of science by then.
Nonetheless, why should we make an effort to communicate Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen to high-schoolers? What could the fundamental rationale be?
Assume here that “because it is possible” is not a valid reason because the reason must encapsulate need, not possibility.
One I can think of is that we could use the example of Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen to illustrate more elementary concepts, their connection with real applications and the critical thinking necessary to elucidate such relationships.
Simultaneously, we could also elucidate how these concepts can be understood with the same things that the students are learning in school, in effect exposing the richness of what they are learning.
Why would we pick Lyman-alpha lines for this? Because it is in the news.
But excluding the third reason, the first two are compatible with an insightful distinction Raghavendra Gadagkar provided at the recent #SciMedia workshop at Matscience.
When news breaks of a discovery, for example, it is wartime science journalism.
When science journalists write about a scientific idea or object that is not in the news such that it leads to a more informed viewership, it is peacetime journalism.
Wartime journalism often has little time for anything other than, as Nithyanand Rao put it at the same workshop, event-based stories.
Peacetime journalism, by virtue of not being in a rush, can afford process-based stories more.
The curious thing about CERN’s announcement here – of the study of Lyman-alpha lines in anti-hydrogen – is that it is not war; it is at best a skirmish.
At the same time, it has a lot of underlying processes that can be discussed in greater detail because, as a subject, it has a lot of room for deductive reasoning as well as a rich history.
In a sense, this is the kind of journalism I most like undertaking. (On this occasion, I was pressed for time and had to pass the task on to a friend.)
I could describe it as a synthesis of historical survey, some historiography and mostly pedagogy.
When you criticise a person, you naturally take into account their office and assess whether you know all that you need to to come to your conclusions.
For a long time, this ‘stop and assess’ step prevented mediapersons, who generally like to be careful, from calling Donald Trump an outright liar or an incompetent bozo.
‘Stop and assess’ meant that journalists would hold back from calling a spade a spade if the spade wielded great power and influence over society, mostly in an effort to give it more credit than it actually deserved.
Matters would have had to have reached some kind of point of inflection before it would become ‘okay’ to call the American president a fool.
This delay – an offset between the people thinking him a fool and the media thinking him a fool – could fuel media distrust by giving the impression that the media isn’t going as hard as it needs to against this man.
The delay would also more directly affect newsroom decision-making if everyone present thought the president deserved more credit by virtue of being president, and that they might not be privy to all the information needed to make rational decisions.
Persisting with this idea could in the longer run result in journalists making excuses for the president and presidential behaviour.
When this happens, shit has hit the fan because these journalists will no longer be able to feel the pulse of the people, so to speak, and could miss more significant developments while following trivial ones.
A similar concern has plagued my impression of the team Narendra Modi leads in the name of the government.
His ministers, and he himself, have been saying pseudoscientific things, often substituting scientific knowledge with traditional beliefs that over-glorify the achievements of pre-Mughal India.
At the recently concluded science/media workshop at Matscience, Sowmiya Ashok of the Indian Express said that when ministers make such claims, they should specify their sources, and that these sources should be collected in one place and displayed for all to see.
This is a good idea – if we are assuming that the ministers actually believe what they are saying.
My reluctance here is not about calling a spade a spade but about calling a non-spade a non-spade.
(a) If the ministers actually believe what they are saying, they are misguided, and I have no compunctions about calling them misguided.
(b) However, what if the ministers don’t actually believe what they are saying but (i) are continuing to do so in an effort to misdirect the public and (ii) are participating in a strange FFA game where the person who makes the most casteist/classist statement promoting Hindutva superiority can draw the attention of the prime minister while feeding the supporters of his sponsor, the RSS, at the same time?
Both (a) and (b) are hypotheses that can explain the string of stupid statements by ministers and, on the downside, both (a) and (b) are yet to be falsifiable.
However, (b) has a slight edge in that it can be checked if ministers make pseudoscientific claims when there is also one other controversial issue in the media that they would like no one to focus on, a.k.a. misdirection.
Trump recently did this when he wanted the media to spend its time and energy looking up (nonexistent) discrimination against white farmers in South Africa and not focus on Michael Cohen’s volte-face against him.
(I acknowledge that (a) and (b) are not entirely mutually exclusive but they could be in terms of their underlying intentions.)
Towards supporting (b), I posit that ministers will not want to collate their sources and make it available at one location because it beats the purpose of (ii).
Yuval Noah Harari
Unlike with Modi and Trump, or perhaps more illustratively, where the ‘stop and assess’ step has been surmounted with great confidence has been in reviews of the books of Yuval Noah Harari.
Of course, Harari is no public leader like Modi or Trump, and the derision towards his books may have been incentivised by their corresponding valorisation by the Silicon Valley types.
Nonetheless it has been heartening to read laborious assessments online about Harari’s thematic reluctance to engage deeply with the subjects of his ‘analysis’.
The same is also true of the words of Steven Pinker, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Richard Dawkins, Eric Lander, Devdutt Pattanaik,
We journalists are comfortable calling these men out but give them more power and it is as if some quantum field is born that skews our bearings.
I was prompted to think of Harari, and others like him, because of this review in particular, which is of his latest book. Excerpt (edited to be brief):
So it continues, great swathes of padding followed by dinner-party observations of crushing banality. The chapters cover some big subjects – war, terrorism, nationalism, God – but since most average about fifteen pages, they fall almost comically short of providing the ‘dazzling’ insights promised on the book’s cover. One sentence literally reads, ‘Humans have bodies.’ Amazing. ‘European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it.’ Profound. Where terrorism is concerned, ‘we just cannot prepare for every eventuality’. Dazzling.
On and on it goes. ‘With a single exception, all flags are rectangular pieces of cloth.’ Well I never. ‘A robot army would probably have strangled the French Revolution in its cradle in 1789.’ There’s a good Doctor Who story in that. ‘If the USA had had killer robots in the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre might have been prevented.’ Is this Yuval Noah Harari or Alan Partridge?
… In reality, Harari’s political observations are fantastically bland. He likes equality, he thinks we should be humble, he thinks we should reach across national boundaries, he thinks that sometimes democracy gets it wrong – oh, I can barely bring myself to write this stuff down. Does he really believe that President Erdoğan will be heartened to learn that we ought to try to ‘make the world a little bit better’? Can he really believe that all this is likely to bring a smile to Vladimir Putin’s face? The truth is that Harari’s book is far more likely to send him to sleep.
Chennai is my favourite city to land in an airplane over.
The runway at its Meenambakkam Airport is oriented such that planes often have to land after manoeuvring themselves over the Bay of Bengal, approaching the city over the Marina beach. As a result, especially at night, it becomes evident how Chennai ‘originates’ from its port, growing from there like a seed into a tumultuous urban jungle.
The port has a pair of pincer-like structures jutting into the bay, into whose folds massive container ships – anchored offshore in the dozens – wait to arrive, conduct business and depart. The Marina, a 3.5 km long stretch of beach that abuts the port to one side, is not that brightly lit and is difficult to make out as such. However, you know you’re looking at the Marina because of the Kamarajar Promenade: 4 km long, wide, from Santhome Cathedral to the University of Madras.
Being very well lit with white LED lamps, it appears like an eidolon keeping the placidity of the beach, and the pelagic deep beyond, apart from the chaos of the city. V. Sriram, Chennai historian, writes on his blog:
The road that runs parallel to the Marina has been in existence from the mid-nineteenth century. Known earlier as South Beach Road, it was renamed Kamarajar Salai, commemorating a much-loved Chief Minister of the State. On the opposite side of the Marina came up several landmark buildings and institutions – The Madras University, Senate House, Presidency College, Chepauk Palace, the PWD Buildings, the University Examination Hall, the Ice House, Lady Willingdon Institute, Queen Mary’s College, the office of the Director-General of Police and the All India Radio. This row can be termed the cradle of the Indo-Saracenic form of architecture for it was here that, beginning with Chepauk Palace (1750s), that style was conceived, and perfected with Senate House (1860s). …
The beach also became the venue for public meetings, especially during the Freedom Struggle. Remembering this, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi sculpted by DP Roy Chowdhury, then Principal of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, was erected here in the 1950s. Another of his works on the Marina is the Triumph of Labour, inspired by the landing of American troops at Iwo Jima. In 1968 the second World Tamil Conference was held in Madras. To commemorate this, the statues of several Tamil poets, writers, literary characters and scholars were put up along the Marina. Several statues also dot the pavement opposite and one of these is of Swami Vivekananda. He stayed for a week at the Ice House – the building in which, ice, a precious commodity in hot Madras, was imported from America, stored and sold, from the 1750s till 1860! It was while walking on the Marina that Vivekananda received an inner call urging him to travel to the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. Two Chief Ministers of the State, CN Annadurai and MG Ramachandran are remembered with grand memorials on the beach. K Kamaraj, is also commemorated here by way of a statue, as is Annie Besant the Irish woman who became an Indian patriot.
There are distinct roads emerging perpendicularly from the Kamarajar Promenade and taking off into the west, away from the shore. They remain discernible for a few hundred metres or so before they dissolve into the mass of buildings around them, lost completely to the bird’s eye.
They haven’t ended, however. Some parts of Chennai were planned but most of it is not. Roads exist but they aren’t easy for the eye to follow from a metal container flying at 250 km/hr a few thousand feet up in the air. They are best followed with legs as they turn this way and that, feeding all parts of an old city with people and goods.
For example, though I don’t go out much, I was able to identify at least four roads that Google Maps didn’t know were there in the few months I lived in Chennai last year.
Bangalore and Delhi, on the other hand, because they’re not coastal, offer something much less sudden and also much less sublime. The lack of sublimity is especially true of Bangalore, a city surrounded by hundreds of lakes. As you come within some 500 km of it, numerous lakes dot the land, and you know the city is about to begin when they appear to shrivel up like dried grapes. It’s an ugly sight.
Delhi is an urban sprawl that begins and ends, from the aircraft’s perspective, in the middle of nowhere. However, window-side passengers do catch a glimpse of the anaemic Yamuna to one side of the city, its surface changing from a deep blue one minute to a murky brown the next.
This isn’t to say Chennai has not uglified the land and ecosystems around it. The serenity of ships off of the Marina is a thin veil over a neritic zone ravaged by trawlers. The Adyar river is barely visible and fares worse than the Yamuna. Landfills to the north and south have destroyed marshland and almost all of the city’s south has been built over a natural drainage system.
In fact, a view of Chennai at night masks these concerns because what you see is effectively an economic map of the city – a map of what deserves to be lit at night and what is lit more brightly than others. In the 21st century, cities are conceived as economic engines, and they are exposed best when everything uncommercial around them has retired for the day.
However, Chennai was born in the 17th century. So when you land over it at night, the darkness may not be a void as much as a part of the city that has endured for almost 380 years. On my next trip, I’ll look out for those spots.
Featured image: A satellite’s view of Chennai at night. Credit: NASA.
The ISRO homepage has been hijacked by an almost-full-page banner soliciting readers’ comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech. A friend was understandably irked by this and wanted to know if it could be discussed in an article.
This is annoying for sure. The ‘Click here’ link opens another tab and loads a mygov.in webpage exhorting the reader to “let [their] ideas flow to the ramparts of the Red Fort”. The friend said that the least that could’ve been done was to ask for comments on India’s space programme that could be included in Modi’s speech.
However, I’m glad in a way that this banner is what it is. All front-facing websites of the Government of India are maintained by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY). ISRO’s is perhaps among the most visited homepages of them all but popularity shouldn’t have to determine how important they are to DEITY, or in fact to those tasked with updating those pages.
In this context, it is simply ludicrous that a majority of government websites – including those of centrally funded universities and research institutions – do not carry an SSL certificate (i.e. the domain loads on an http connection instead of on an https connection). This is the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology website, for example:
Second: ISRO’s homepage itself is often outdated. The organisation is notorious for its lack of outreach. Its press releases section does not discuss anything but successful launches for the most part. The latest item on the homepage carousel at 4.37 pm on August 11 was the launch of the IRNSS 1I satellite, which happened on April 18. On top of all this, the CSS is non-uniform. This is what one of the slides looked like:
… and the next slide looked like this:
What the hell is a reader supposed to expect?
In light of these issues, seeing the banner about Modi’s Independence Day speech doesn’t seem out of the ordinary at all: I click ‘close’ and get more nonsense from the website itself. I’m glad that the DEITY or the PMO or whoever decided to deface the ISRO homepage the way they have because one hopes that, at least this way, the readers and anyone else using the website – including ISRO itself – will take their corresponding digital residence more seriously, treating it and securing it the way it should be.
We are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.
Normally this kind of comment would be a platitude. In fact, it still is except for the fact that there’s quite a bit here that can be interpreted differently according to the changing times. This comment, rather quote, was tweeted by ISRO on August 10 and attributed to its founding scientist, Vikram Sarabhai. (The text looks like it was copied and pasted from a PDF – or maybe it was intended as a poem.)
#TimelessThoughts#VikramSarabhai We are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society. — Dr Vikram A Sarabhai pic.twitter.com/XvzexIMxYn
The following terms are subjective: “meaningful role”, “advanced technologies” and “real problems”. From ISRO’s POV, they likely stand for the commitment of space technologies towards resolving day-to-day issues faced by terrestrial enterprises. More specifically, to use space-borne assets to assist safety and rescue, mapping resources, tracking animals as well as land-use, forecasting the weather, etc. Moreover, the terms are also somewhat dangerous because Sarabhai doesn’t specify who decides what they mean. 😉
For example, the BJP government at the Centre believes “real problems” are technological problems, not scientific ones, and has in fact discouraged small-scale exploratory efforts. M.S. Santhanam penned an article in The Hindu when this year’s Economic Survey was released discussing this issue. I do not think the article received as much attention as it deserved, and is worth bookmarking.
Given that Sarabhai’s words seem to lend themselves to various other, and broader, contexts, it would seem disingenuous of ISRO to expect to be judged on its existing efforts and not for ones that it is failing at. For one, I choose to interpret the tweet as an admission of failure on ISRO’s part to play a “meaningful role” in communicating its research and dispelling the attendant fake news, a “real problem” by any yardstick, using “advanced technologies” like Twitter and Facebook, which allow scientists to take charge of the narrative from their desks, lab benches or wherever.
To this end, Sarabhai’s quote well illustrates a battle – joined in the realms of language and memory – that few pay attention to. For a government bent on normalising majoritarian authority, we need to fight and reclaim what “real problems” and “meaningful roles” mean, or can mean, wrenching them away from the justification of “what most people think” and towards “what is justified by reason”, and not abandon the latter just because it is harder to do.
TL;DR – Journalists are already more accountable than the publishers of scientific journals are. If scientists find journalistic review of the scientific literature to be lacking, help them improve instead of completely disabling them from doing it.
The recent conversation about preprints, motivated by Tom Sheldon’s article in Nature News, focused on whether access to preprint manuscripts is precipitating bad or wrong articles in the popular science journalism press. The crux of Sheldon’s argument was that preprints aren’t peer-reviewed, which leaves journalists with the onerous task of validating their results when, in fact, that has been the traditional responsibility of independent scientists hired by journals to which the papers have been submitted. I contested this view because it is in essence a power struggle, with the scientific journal assuming the role of a knowledge-hegemon.
An interesting example surfaced in relation to this debate quite recently, when two researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, uploaded a preprint paper to the arXiv repository claiming they had detected signs of superconductivity at room temperature in a silver-gold nanostructure. They simultaneously submitted their paper to Nature, where it remains under embargo; in the meantime, public discussions of the paper’s results have been centred on information available in the preprint. Science journalists around the world have been reserved in their coverage of this development, sensational though it seems to be, likely because, as Sheldon noted, it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet.
At the same time, The Hindu published an atypically uninquisitive article highlighting the study. For its part, The Wire (i.e. I) commissioned an article – since published here on August 6 – discussing the preprint paper in greater detail, with comments from various materials scientists around the country. The article’s overwhelming conclusion seemed to be that the results look neat to theorists but need more work to experimentalists, and that we should wait for Nature‘s ‘verdict’ before passing judgment. Nonetheless, the article found it fit, and rightly so based on the people quoted, to be optimistic.
Earlier today, there emerged a twist in the plot. Brian Skinner, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uploaded a public comment to the arXiv repository discussing, in brief, a curious feature of the IISc preprint. He had found that two plots representing independent measurements displayed in the manuscript showed very similar, if not exact, noise patterns. Noise is supposed to be random; if two measurements are really independent, their respective noise patterns cannot, must not, look the same. However, the IISc preprint showed the exact opposite. To Skinner – or in fact to any observer engaged in experimental studies – this suggests that the data in one of the two plots, or both, was fabricated.
This is obviously a serious allegation. Skinner himself has not attempted to reach any conclusion and has stopped at pointing out the anomaly. At this juncture, let’s reintroduce the science journalist: what should she do?
In a world without preprints, this paper would not have fed a story until after a legitimate journal had published the paper, and in which case the science journalist’s article’s legitimacy would bank on the peer-reviewers’ word. More importantly, in a world without preprints, this would have been a single story – à la the discovery of the Higgs boson or gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars. In a world with preprints, this has become an evolving story even though, excluding the “has been submitted to a journal for review” component, the study itself is not dynamic. (Contrast this for example to the search for dark matter: it is ongoing, etc.)
Against this context, the arguments Sheldon et al have put forth assumes a new clarity. What they’re saying is that the story is not supposed to be evolving, and that science journalists forced to write their stories based only on peer-reviewed papers would have produced a single narrative of an event fixed at one point in space and time. Overall, that if journalists could have waited for the paper to be peer-reviewed, they would have been able to deliver to the people a more finished tale, and whose substance and contours enjoy greater consensus within the scientific community.
This may seem like a compelling reason to not allow journalists to write articles based on preprints until you stop to consider some implicit assumptions that favour peer-review.
First off, peer-review is always viewed as a monolithic institution whereas the people quoted in an article are viewed as individuals – despite the fact that both groups are (supposed to be) composed of peers acting independently. As a result, the former appears to be indemnified. In The Wire article, the people quoted were Vijay Shenoy, T.V. Ramakrishnan, Ganapathy Baskaran, Pushan Ayyub and an unnamed experimentalist. The author, R. Ramachandran, also cited multiple studies and historical events for the necessary context and reminded the reader on two occasions that the analysis was preliminary. What the people get out of peer-review, on the other hand, is a ‘yes’/’no’ answer that, in the journal’s interests, are to be consider final.
In fact, should review – peer- or journalistic – fail, journalism affords various ways to deal with the fallout. The scientists quoted may have spoken on the record, and their contact details will be easily findable; the publication’s editor can be contacted and a correction or retraction asked for; in some cases (including The Wire‘s), a reader’s editor* acting independently of the editorial staff can be petitioned to set the public record straight. With a journal, however, the peer-reviewers are protected behind a curtain of secrecy, and the people and the scientists alike will have to await a decision that is often difficult to negotiate with. The numerous articles published by Retraction Watch are ready examples.
Second, it is believed that peer-reviewers perform checks that science journalists never can. But where do you draw the line? Do peer-reviewers check for all potential problems with a paper before green-flagging it? More pertinently, are they always more thorough in their checks than good science journalists can be? In fact, there is another group of actors here that science journalists can depend on: scientists who are publicly critiquing studies on their Twitter or Facebook pages and their blogs. I mention this here to quote the examples of Katie Mack, Adam Falkowski, Emily Lakdawalla, etc. – and, most of all, of Elizabeth Bik, a microbiologist. Bik has been carefully documenting the incidence of duplicated or manipulated images in published papers.
Circling back to peer-review’s being viewed as a monolith: many of the papers Bik has identified were published by journals after they were declared ‘good to go’ by review panels. So by casting their verdict as final, by describing each scientific paper as being fixed at a point in time and space, journals are effectively proclaiming that what they have published need not be revisited or revised. This is a questionable position. On the other hand, by casting the journalistic enterprise as the documentation of a present that is being constantly reshaped, journalists have access to a storytelling space that many scientific journals don’t afford the very scientists that they profit from.
Where this enterprise turns risky, or even potentially unreliable, is when it becomes dishonest about its intentions – rather, isn’t explicitly honest enough. That is, to effect change in what journalism stands for, we also have to change a little bit of how journalism does what it does. For example, in The Wire‘s article, Ramachandran was careful to note that (i) only the paper’s publication (or rejection) can answer some questions and perhaps even settle the ongoing debate, (ii) some crucial details of the IISc experiment are missing from the preprint (and likely will be from the submitted manuscript as well), (iii) the article’s discussion is based on conversations with materials scientists in India and (iv) the paper’s original authors have refused to speak until they have heard from Nature. Most of all, the article itself does not editorialise.
These elements, together with an informed readership, are necessary to stave off hype cycles – unnecessary news cycles typically composed of two stories, one making a mountain of a molehill and the next declaring that the matter at hand has been found to be a molehill. The simplest way to sidestep this fallacy, at least in my mind, is to remember at all stages of the editorial process that all stories will evolve irrespective of what those promoting it have to say. Of course, facts don’t evolve, but what conclusion a collection of facts lends itself to will. And so will opinions, implications, suggestions and whatnot. This is why attempting to call out science journalists who respect these terms of their enterprise will not work – because doing so also passively condones hype. What will work is to knock on the doors of those unquestioning journalists who pander to hype above all else.
This prescription is tied to one for ourselves: as much as science journalists want to reform the depiction of the scientific enterprise, moving it away from the idea that scientists find remarkable results with 100% confidence all the time (which is the impression journals give), they – rather, we – should also work towards reforming what journalism stands for in the people’s eyes. Inasmuch as science as well as journalism are bound by the pursuit of truth(s), it is important for all stakeholders to remember, and to be reminded, that – to adapt what historian of science Patrick McCray saidtweeted – it’s about consensus, not certainty. Should they have a problem with journalists running a story based on a preprint instead of a published paper, journals can provide a way out (for reasons described here) by being more open about peer-review, what kind of issues reviewers check for and how journalists can perform the same checks.
*The Wire’s reader’s editor is Pamela Philipose, reachable at publiceditor at thewire.in.
Featured image credit: Verena Yunita Yapi/Unsplash.