A Q&A with blinders

The following comment grates on multiple levels:

Here’s Mohandas Pai, a Hindutva fanatic known to have a pH of 1, issuing a ridiculous comment against The Hindu, which was simply reporting a statement issued by a Hindu organisation. And then there’s V. Vinay, a far gentler mathematician and entrepreneur, choosing to make a teaching moment of Pai’s question, as if it had been asked with honesty and/or carried any legitimacy.

Pai is deriding The Hindu and calling it a hypocrite for consuming wood to create its newspapers as much as the people quoted in its report are requesting the temple in Puri to stop consuming wood to construct chariots for its famous annual procession. Inasmuch as there is some sense in both groups tempering their requests with considerations about the importance of newspapers and of religion and their respective potential to offset the downsides of environmental degradation (such as by promoting collective action against wanton degradation or by providing a moral crutch against which to seek support in a dangerous world), Pai’s response is rhetorical, and rabid. Vinay’s quote-tweet, in turn, exposes this rabidity to 8,500 more people without making any additional attempt to characterise it as witless and trollish.

In fact, his tone-deaf response – to estimate the amount of wood one copy of The Hindu requires to print – clothes Pai’s comment in the dress of legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. And at the end of his purely academic exercise, Vinay wonders if people should be reading newspapers at all, with no thought for their ability to galvanise different sections of society, especially the lower ones whose members still access the news offline, in support of or in protest against common causes. Indeed, I would have expected anyone else other than Pai to have considered similar arguments (as opposed to judgments) in favour of organising the rath yatra before disgorging reactionary nonsense and attempting to shut a newspaper up. But that’s been his style.

If Vinay intended his exercise to teach his audience anything, it is that partial answers can sometimes be worse than completely wrong ones (and that less socially conscious scientists are prone to them, although Vinay has never seemed like one). He has simply homed in on a question, unmindful of the context in which it was presented, and answered it without giving any thought to why it was asked, what answering it would mean, and in fact if there might have been a choate way to answer it if only one had looked beyond the insular logics of material economics.