Authority, authoritarianism and a scicomm paradox

I received a sharp reminder to better distinguish between activists and experts irrespective of how right the activists appear to be with the case of Ustad, that tiger shifted from its original habitat in Ranthambore sanctuary to Sajjangarh Zoo in 2015 after it killed three people. Local officials were in favour of the relocation to make life easier for villagers whose livelihoods depended on the forest whereas activists wanted Ustad to be brought back to Ranthambore, citing procedural irregularities, poor living conditions and presuming to know what was best for the animal.

One vocal activist at the agitation’s forefront and to whose suggestions I had deferred when covering this story turned out to be a dentist in Mumbai, far removed from the rural reality that Ustad and the villagers co-habited as well as the opinions and priorities of conservationists about how Ustad should be handled. As I would later find out, almost all experts (excluding the two or three I’d spoken to) agreed Ustad had to be relocated and that doing so wasn’t as big a deal as the activists made it out to be, notwithstanding the irregularities.

I have never treated activists as experts since but many other publications continue to make the same mistake. There are many problems with this false equivalence, including the equation of expertise with amplitude, insofar as it pertains to scientific activity, for example conservation, climate change, etc. Another issue is that activists – especially those who live and work in a different area and who haven’t accrued the day-to-day experiences of those whose rights they’re shouting for – tend to make decisions on principle and disfavour choices motivated by pragmatic thinking.

Second, when some experts join forces with activists to render themselves or their possibly controversial opinions more visible, the journalist’s – and by extension the people’s – road to the truth becomes even more convoluted than it should be. Finally, of course, using activists in place of experts in a story isn’t fair to activists themselves: activism has its place in society, and it would be a disservice to depict activism as something it isn’t.

This alerts us to the challenge of maintaining a balancing act.

One of the trends of the 21st century has been the democratisation of information – to liberate it from technological and economic prisons and make it available and accessible to people who are otherwise unlikely to do so. This in turn has made many people self-proclaimed experts of this or that, from animal welfare to particle physics. And this in turn is mostly good because, in spite of faux expertise and the proliferation of fake news, democratising the availability of information (but not its production; that’s a different story) empowers people to question authority.

Indeed, it’s possible fake news is as big a problem as it is today because many governments and other organisations have deployed it as a weapon against the availability of information and distributed mechanisms to verify it. Information is wealth after all and it doesn’t bode well for authoritarian systems predicated on the centralisation of power to have the answers to most questions available one Google, Sci-Hub or Twitter search away.

The balancing act comes alive in the tension between preserving authority without imposing an authoritarian structure. That is, where do you draw the line?

For example, Eric Balfour isn’t the man you should be listening to to understand how killer whales interpret and exercise freedom (see tweet below); you should be speaking to an animal welfare expert instead. However, the question arises if the expert is hegemon here, furthering an agenda on behalf of the research community to which she belongs by delegitimising knowledge obtained from sources other than her textbooks. (Cf. scientism.)

This impression is solidified when scientists don’t speak up, choosing to remain within their ivory towers, and weakened when they do speak up. This isn’t to say all scientists should also be science communicators – that’s a strawman – but that all scientists should be okay with sharing their comments with the press with reasonable preconditions.

In India, for example, very, very few scientists engage freely with the press and the people, and even fewer speak up against the government when the latter misfires (which is often). Without dismissing the valid restrictions and reservations that some of them have – including not being able to trust many journalists to know how science works – it’s readily apparent that the number of scientists who do speak up is minuscule relative to the number of scientists who can.

An (English-speaking) animal welfare expert is probably just as easy to find in India as they might be in the US but consider palaeontologists or museologists, who are harder to find in India (sometimes you don’t realise that until you’re looking for a quote). When they don’t speak up – to journalists, even if not of their own volition – during a controversy, even as they also assert that only they can originate true expertise, the people are left trapped in a paradox, sometimes even branded fools to fall for fake news. But you can’t have it both ways, right?

These issues stem from two roots: derision and ignorance, both of science communication.

Of the scientists endowed with sufficient resources (including personal privilege and wealth): some don’t want to undertake scicomm, some don’t know enough to make a decision about whether to undertake scicomm, and some wish to undertake scicomm. Of these, scientists of the first type, who actively resist communicating research – whether theirs or others, believing it to be a lesser or even undesirable enterprise – wish to perpetuate their presumed authority and their authoritarian ‘reign’ by hoarding their knowledge. They are responsible for the derision.

These people are responsible at least in part for the emergence of Balfouresque activists: celebrity-voices that amplify issues but wrongly, with or without the support of larger organisations, often claiming to question the agenda of an unholy union of scientists and businesses, alluding to conspiracies designed to keep the general populace from asking too many questions, and ultimately secured by the belief that they’re fighting authoritarian systems and not authority itself.

Scientists of the second type, who are unaware of why science communication exists and its role in society, are obviously the ignorant.

For example, when scientists from the UK had a paper published in 2017 about the Sutlej river’s connection to the Indus Valley civilisation, I reached out to two geoscientists for comment, after having ascertained that they weren’t particularly busy or anything. Neither had replied after 48 hours, not even with a ‘no’. So I googled “fluvio-deltaic morphology”, picked the first result that was a university webpage and emailed the senior-most scientist there. This man, Maarten Kleinhans at the University of Utrecht, wrote back almost immediately and in detail. One of the two geoscientists wrote me a month later: “Please check carefully, I am not an author of the paper.”

More recently, the 2018 Young Investigators’ Meet in Guwahati included a panel discussion on science communication (of which I was part). After fielding questions from the audience – mostly from senior scientists already convinced of the need for good science communication, such as B.K. Thelma and Roop Malik – and breaking for tea, another panelist and I were mobbed by young biologists completely baffled as to why journalists wanted to interrogate scientific papers when that’s exactly why peer-review exists.

All of this is less about fighting quacks bearing little to no burden of proof and more about responding to the widespread and cheap availability of information. Like it or not, science communication is here to stay because it’s one of the more credible ways to suppress the undesirable side-effects of implementing and accessing a ‘right to information’ policy paradigm. Similarly, you can’t have a right to information together with a right to withhold information; the latter has to be defined in the form of exceptions to the former. Otherwise, prepare for activism to replace expertise.