Social media and science communication

The following article was originally intended for an Indian publication but I withdrew from the commission because I couldn’t rework the piece according to changes they required, mostly for lack of focus. I thank Karnika Kohli and Shruti Muralidhar for their inputs.

Since the mid-20th century, the news-publishing industry has wielded the most influence on people’s perception of what science is, what its responsibilities and goals are, and what scientists do. The internet changed this by disrupting how news-publishers made money.

In 2012, The Hindu used to sell a copy of its newspaper in Chennai for Rs 4.50 (or so) while it used to cost the publisher Rs 24 to print each copy. The publisher would make up the deficit by soliciting and printing ads from advertisers in different parts of the newspaper. The first major change in this regard was Google and the new centrality of its search engine to exploring the internet. Sites were keen to have their pages ‘rank’ better on search results and began to modify their content according to what Google wanted, giving rise to the industry of search-engine optimisation.

Second, Google AdSense allowed websites to run ads as well as advertisers to target specific users in line with which websites they visited and their content consumption patterns. Third, once Google News started becoming a major news aggregator, news sites re-tailored their content according to its specific needs, including reinterpreting the news in terms of the preferences of Google News and its users.

Fourth, bandwidth became cheaper around the world but especially in India, reducing the cost of accessing the internet and bringing more people online. In response, social media platforms — especially Facebook — began to set up walled gardens to keep these users from leaving the platform and consuming the news elsewhere. And when traffic to sites plummeted, their ads-based revenue came crashing down.

The effect of these ‘gardens’ has become so pronounced that recently, a paper in the journal Experimental Economics found that college students who went off Facebook consumed less news. This conclusion suffixes the belief that most people, especially in the 18-24 age group, consume the news on social media platforms with the notion that they don’t consume news anywhere else.

In another instance, Google at long last become a walled garden proper in August 2019: the fraction of its users who consumed the news on the site itself instead of following a link through to the publisher’s site had breached the 50% mark.

Finally, because the social media made it so easy to share information, citizen-journalism became more appealing, even lucrative. At the same time, social media platforms, which constantly evolve to accommodate their users’ aspirations, began to chip away at the need for public-spirited journalism. As a result, the amount of ‘bad information’ in the public domain exploded even as people become more unwilling to acknowledge that this was all the more reason society needed good journalists.

Obviously all of this is bound to have profound implications for how social media users perceive science. But while this isn’t easy to gauge without a dedicated, long-term study, it is possible to extrapolate based on what we know from anecdotal experiences. Through this exercise, let’s also move beyond the logistics of using the social media well and spotlight the virtues of getting on these platforms that so many people love to hate.

Broadly, social media allows users to organise information in a fixed number of ways but doesn’t give users control over how they are displayed. This limitation is good because the platform sidesteps the paradox of choice and forces users to focus only on what they are saying. But it is also bad because the limitation eliminates diversity of presentation, sometimes forcing users to shoehorn an idea into a note or image when a longer article or an interactive graphic would work better.

Second, social media platforms incentivise some user behaviours over others, which then constrains how users can present scientific results.

These two arcs are united by the fact that these platforms have socialised the consumption of news (and the production as well to some extent). That is, users discover a lot of news these days in social settings, such as in conversation with other users or in the timelines of accounts they follow. Such discovery happens after the news has been filtered through the lenses of others’ interests, encouraging users to follow users whose tastes they like and views they endorse, and stay away from others. This tendency is psychologically rewarding because it contributes to building the echo chamber, which is then economically rewarding for the platform’s owners.

All together, the social media — comprising platforms whose motive is profit and not social and psychological wellbeing — are populist by design. They privilege popularity over accuracy and logical value. In this regard, it would be hubristic to assume that the public perception of science has been separately or distinctly affected by general social-media use patterns.

Then again, these patterns have also helped mature the old idea that public debates aren’t won or lost on the back of strong scientific evidence or clever logical arguments. More generally, science communication in India is becoming more popular at the same time Indians are becoming more aware of the socio-political consequences of our digital lives and worlds. This simultaneity has the potential to birthe a generation of more conscientious and social-media-savvy science communicators that can devise clever ways to work around apparent barriers.

For example, scientists can adapt an app that has been designed to communicate speed, say by allowing users to rapidly compose and share text, pictures or videos, to meaningfully convey changes in that speed. They could highlight how different parts of a long experiment can proceed at different paces: sluggishly when growing a bacterial culture overnight and rapidly when some chemical reactions with it produce results in seconds.

Communicators can also ‘hack’ social-media echo chambers by setting up small, homogenous online communities. According to one 2018 study, such groups can “maximise the amount of information available to an individual” according to their preferences. The study argues that such “homophilic segregation can be efficient and even Pareto-optimal for society”.

Finally, the limits on how users can organise and present information has in fact incentivised those who had stayed away from communicating science for lack of time and/or resources to sign up. Maintaining a blog or writing articles for newspapers can be laborious. Additionally, writing for the press — the historically most common way to communicate scientific knowledge outside of journals — also means using at least a few hundred words to set readers up before the author can introduce her idea.

But if you discover that a paper has made a mistake or that you want to explain how something works, you post a few threaded tweets on Twitter in a matter of minutes and you are done. A Facebook note wouldn’t take much longer. Instagram even gives you the added benefit of using a large visual prompt to grab users’ attention. WhatsApp introduced the power to do all of this from your smartphone.

One remarkable subset of this group is traditionally underprivileged science workers (to use a broader term that encompasses scientists, postdoctoral scholars and lab assistants). While journalists are typically expected to be objective in their assessment, they — like almost everyone else — have been fattened on a diet of upper-caste men as scientists. So in the course of shortening the distance between a communicator and her audience, social media platforms empower less privileged groups otherwise trapped in a vicious media cycle, which renders them more obscure, to become visible.

Of course, some platforms exact a steep psychological price from users of currently or formerly marginalised groups (including women, transgender people, transsexual people, and pretty much everyone that doesn’t conform to heteronormativity) by forcing them to put up with trolls. So their continued presence on these platforms depends on the support of their institutions, other scientists and science communicators. And should they persist, the rewards range from opportunities to change users’ impression of who/what a scientist is to presenting themselves as a more socially just set of role models to aspiring scientists.

Obviously populism has downsides that are inimical to how science works and how it needs to be communicated, such as by falsely conflating brevity with conciseness and objectivity with neutrality. But it is always better to have a bunch of people using the social media to communicate science while being aware of its (arguably marginal) pitfalls than to have them avoid communicating altogether. This also seems to be the prevailing spirit among those scientists who recognise the importance of reaching the people, so to speak.

Science communication is becoming increasingly popular as an interdisciplinary field of its own right, wherein scientists and sociologists team up to determine the general principles of good communication by examining why some stories work so well among certain audiences, how psychological and linguistic techniques could play a part in establishing authority, etc.

These efforts parallel many scientists taking to Facebook and Twitter, posting updates regularly including comments on the news of the day (at least from their points of view) and offering non-scientists a glimpse of what it is like to be a working scientist in India. Easier access to their views also allows science journalists to contact scientists to understand which developments are worth covering and to solicit comments on the merits of a study or an idea.

In effect, Snehal Kadam and Karishma Kaushik wrote in IndiaBioscience, “social media discussions and opinions are playing a key role in Indian science. This is evident on multiple fronts, from increasing accessibility to administrators and enforcing policy changes to determining the way the Indian science community wants to be represented and viewed, and even breaking down silos between scientists and citizens.”

There are many resources to help scientists understand the social media and use these platforms to their advantage — whether to popularise science, find other scientists to collaborate with or debate science-related issues. I don’t want to repeat their salient suggestions (but @IndScicomm is a good place to start), plus I am not a scientist and I will let scientists decide what works for them.

That said, it is useful to remember that the social media are here to stay. As Efraín Rivera-Serrano, a cell-biology and virology researcher, wrote on PLOS, “These platforms are shaping the future of science and it is imperative for us to exploit these avenues as outreach tools to introduce, showcase, and defend science to the world.”

Ending 2019

This blog achieved multiple minor but personally enjoyable milestones in 2019:

  • It was read by people in 143 counties, the highest in a single year since 2008 (when I started blogging)
  • It was the second busiest year by traffic (after 2015)
  • It was the year with the highest post engagement (as ‘likes’ on WordPress and shares/comments on Twitter and Facebook)
  • It crossed both 1,000 and 1,100 published posts
  • The number of subscribers breached the 5,600 mark
  • 2019 was my third most productive year by total number of posts (169) and average post length (793 words)
YearPostsWords
201211981,710
20139671,096
2014163117,302
2015209182,316
20166455,206
2017135112,818
2018184144,841
2019169134,092

Some notes

1. In 2019, most of what I learnt about writing had to do with straddling the thin line between populist and heterodox writing. Where populism dictates giving the people what they want, and progressively enclosing them deeper within echo chambers, the heterodoxy here refers to giving your readers something they don’t know they want but consume once they discover it. This is harder than it sounds largely because interestingness is a vague goal. Lots of things are interesting, and most people interested in interesting things aren’t interested in all topics. So if I’ve been as productive as I have this year, it’s because I think I got better at identifying what kind of heterodox content Root Privileges‘s readers like and which I also like.

2. I hit multiple rough patches in my personal as well as professional lives this year, and experienced at least three extended periods of writers’ block brought on by an overwhelming sensation of irrelevance on one occasion, of disgust and world-weariness on the second, and a protracted period of mental illness on the third. While I resent the occurrence of these episodes, I’m also grateful and delighted for having found a way on all of them to get back to the writing habit, one way or another. So if in future I find myself stuck in a similar rut, I will have one more way to motivate myself beyond discovering the specific antidote to the circumstances: to simply tell myself I did it before so I should be able to do it again.

On that note, I hope you have a great, happier, more productive and more gainful year in 2020!

Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

At the start of 2019, The Wire Science decided to focus more on issues of science and society, and this is reflected in the year-end list of our best stories (in terms of traffic and engagement; listed below). Most of our hits don’t belong to this genre, but quite a few do – enough for us to believe that these issues aren’t as esoteric as they appear to be in day-to-day conversations.

Science communication is becoming more important in India and more people are taking to it as a career. As a result, the visibility of science stories in the press has increased. Scientists are also using Facebook and Twitter to voice their views, whether on the news of the day or to engage in debates about their field of work. If you are an English-speaker with access to the internet and a smartphone, you are quite unlikely to have missed these conversations.

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

  1. Poor Albert Einstein, His Wrong Theories and Post-Truths
  2. What Is Quantum Biology?
  3. If Scientists Don’t Speak out Today, Who Will Be Left to Defend Science Tomorrow?
  4. Why Scientists Are Confused About How Fast the Universe Is Expanding
  5. CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

Health

  1. Why Everyone Around You Seems to Be Getting Cancer
  2. MCI Finally Updates MBBS Curriculum to Include Disability Rights and Dignity
  3. PM Modi is Worried About Population Explosion, a Problem Set to Go Away in 2021
  4. Bihar: Who is Responsible for the Death of 100 Children?
  5. What’s NEXT for the NMC Bill? Confusion.

Environment

  1. Extreme Events in the Himalayan Region: Are We Prepared for the Big One?
  2. A Twist in the Tale: Electric Vehicles Will Worsen India’s Pollution Crisis
  3. How Tamil Nadu Is Fighting in the First Attempt to Save a Sinking Island
  4. Why NGT Thinks Allahabad Is on the Verge of an Epidemic After Kumbh Mela
  5. But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?

Space

  1. NASA Briefly Stopped Working With ISRO on One Count After ASAT Test
  2. Senior ISRO Scientist Criticises Sivan’s Approach After Moon Mission Setback
  3. ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
  4. Chandrayaan 2 in Limbo as ISRO Loses Contact With Lander, History on Hold
  5. ISRO Delays Chandrayaan 2 Launch Again – But How Is Beresheet Involved?

Education

  1. NCERT to Drop Chapters on Caste Struggles, Colonialism From Class 9 History Book
  2. JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University
  3. Dear Students, Here’s How You Could Have Reacted to Modi’s Mockery of Dyslexia
  4. Can a Student’s Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?
  5. NET Now Mandatory for Scheduled Caste Students to Avail Research Scholarship

Our choice

The state has become more involved with the R&D establishment, although these engagements have been frequently controversial. In such a time, with so many public institutions teetering on the brink, it is important we ensure science doesn’t become passively pressed into legitimising actions of the state but rather maintains a mutually beneficial relationship that also strengthens the democracy. It is not the prerogative of scientists alone to do this; we must all get involved because the outcomes of science belong to all of us.

To this end, we must critique science, scientists, their practices, our teachers and research administrators, forest officers, conservationists and environmental activists, doctors, nurses, surgeons and other staff, members of the medical industry, spaceflight engineers and space lawyers, rules that control prices and access, examinations and examiners, and so forth. We must question the actions and policies of everyone involved in this knowledge economy. Ultimately, we must ask if our own aspirations are in line with what we as a people expect of the world around us, and science is a part of that.

It would be remiss to not mention the commendable job some other publications have been doing vis-à-vis covering science in India, including The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Print, Mongabay, Indian Express, Dinamalar, etc. Their efforts have given us the opportunity to disengage once in a while from the more important events of the day to focus on stories that might otherwise have never been read.

This year, The Wire Science published stories that interrogated what duties academic and research institutions have towards the people whose tax-money funds them, that discussed more inclusivity and transparency because only a more diverse group of practitioners can ask more diverse questions, and that examined how, though science offers a useful way to make sense of the natural order, it doesn’t automatically justify itself nor is it entitled to the moral higher-ground.

The overarching idea was to ask questions about the natural universe without forgetting that the process of answering those questions is embedded in a wider social context that both supports and informs scientists’ practices and beliefs. There is no science without the scientists that practice it – yet most of us are not prepared to consider that science is as messy as every other human endeavour and isn’t the single-minded pursuit of truth its exponents often say it is.

In these fraught times, we shouldn’t forget that science guided only by the light of logic produces many of the reasons of state. The simplest way science communication can participate in this exercise, and not just be a mute spectator, is by injecting the scientist back into the science. This isn’t an abdication of the ideal of objectivity, even though objectivity itself has been outmoded by the advent of the irrational, majoritarian and xenophobic politics of nationalism. Instead, it is a reaffirmation that you can take science out of politics but that you can’t take politics out of science.

At the same time, the stories that emerge from this premise aren’t entirely immune to the incremental nature of scientific progress. We often have to march in step with the gentle rate at which scientists invent and/or discover things, and the similar pace at which the improvements among them are available to everyone everywhere. This fact offers one downside and one up: it is harder for our output to be noticed in the din of the news, but by staying alert to how little pieces of information from diverse lines of inquiry – both scientific and otherwise, especially from social science – can team up with significant consequence, we are better able to anticipate how stories will evolve and affect the world around them.

We hope you will continue to read, share and comment on the content published by The Wire Science. We have also been publicising articles from other publications and by bloggers we found interesting and have been reproducing (if available) on our website and on our social media platforms in an effort to create an appreciation of science stories beyond the ones we have been able to afford.

On this note: please also donate a sum comfortable to you to support our work. Even an amount as little as Rs 200 will go a long way.

The Wire
December 26, 2019

The rationalists’ eclipse

The annular solar eclipse over South India on December 26 provided sufficient cause for casual and/or inchoate rationalism to make a rare public appearance – rarer than the average person who had decided to stay indoors for the duration of the event thanks to superstitious beliefs. Scientists and science communicators organised or participated in public events where they had arranged for special (i.e. protective) viewing equipment and created enough space for multiple people to gather and socialise.

However, some of these outings, spilling over into the social media, also included actions and narratives endeavouring to counter superstitions but overreaching and stabbing at the heart of non-scientific views of the world.

The latter term – ‘non-scientific’ – has often been used pejoratively but is in fact far from deserving of derision or, worse, pity. The precepts of organised religion encompass the most prominent non-scientific worldview but more than our tragic inability to imagine that these two magisteria could exist in anything but opposition to each other, the bigger misfortune lies with presuming science and religion are all there is. The non-scientific weltanschauung includes other realms, so to speak, especially encompassing beliefs that organised religion and its political economy hegemonise. Examples include the traditions of various tribal populations around the world, especially in North America, Latin America, Africa, Central and South Asia, and Australia.

There is an obvious difference between superstitious beliefs devised to suppress a group or population and the framework of tribal beliefs within which their knowledge of the world is enmeshed. It should be possible to delegitimise the former without also delegitimising the latter. Assuming the charitable view that some find it hard to discern this boundary, the simplest way to not trip over it is to acknowledge that most scientific and non-scientific beliefs can peacefully coexist in individual minds and hearts. And that undermining this remarkably human ability is yet another kind of proselytisation.

Obviously this is harder to realise in what we conceive as the day-to-day responsibilities of science communication, but that doesn’t mean we must put up with a lower bar for the sort of enlightenment we want India to stand for fifty or hundred years from now. Organising public eat-a-thons during a solar eclipse, apparently to dispel the superstitious view that consuming foods when the Sun has been so occluded is bad for health, is certainly not a mature view of the problem.

In fact, such heavy-handed attempts to drive home the point that “science is right” and “whatever else you think is wrong” are effects of a distal cause: a lack of sympathetic concern for the wellbeing of a people – which is also symptomatic of a half-formed, even egotistical, rationalism entirely content with its own welfare. Rescuing people from ideas that would enslave them could temporarily empower them but transplanting them to a world where knowledgeability rules like a tyrant, unconcerned with matters he cannot describe, is only more of the same by a different name.

B.R. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, a.k.a. Periyar, wanted to dismantle organised religion because they argued that such oppressive complexes pervaded its entire body. Their ire was essentially directed against autocratic personal governance that expected obedience through faith. In India, unless you’re a scientist and/or have received a good education, and can read English well enough to access the popular and, if need be, the technical literature, science is also reduced to a system founded on received knowledge and ultimately faith.

There is a hegemony of science as well. Beyond the mythos of its own cosmology (to borrow Paul Feyerabend’s quirky turn of phrase in Against Method), there is also the matter of who controls knowledge production and utilisation. In Caliban and the Witch (1998), Sylvia Federici traces the role of the bourgeoisie in expelling beliefs in magic and witchcraft in preindustrial Europe only to prepare the worker’s body to accommodate the new rigours of labour under capitalism. She writes, “Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalisation of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. ‘Magic kills industry,’ lamented Francis Bacon…”.

To want to free another human from whatever shackles bind them is the sort of virtuous aspiration that is only weakened by momentary or superficial focus. In this setup, change – if such change is required at all costs – must be enabled from all sides, instead of simply a top-down reformatory jolt delivered by pictures of a bunch of people breaking their fast under an eclipsed Sun.

Effective science communication could change the basis on which people make behavioural decisions but to claim “all myths vanished” (as one science communicator I respect and admire put it) is disturbing. Perhaps in this one instance, the words were used in throwaway fashion, but how many people even recognise a need to moderate their support for science this way?

Myths, as narratives that harbour traditional knowledge and culturally unique perspectives on the natural universe, should not vanish but be preserved. A belief in the factuality of this or that story could become transformed by acknowledging that such stories are in fact myths and do not provide a rational basis for certain behavioural attitudes, especially ones that might serve to disempower — as well as that the use of the scientific method is a productive, maybe even gainful, way to discover the world.

But using science communication as a tool to dismantle myths, instead of tackling superstitious rituals that (to be lazily simplistic) suppress the acquisition of potentially liberating knowledge, is to create an opposition that precludes the peaceful coexistence of multiple knowledge systems. In this setting, science communication perpetuates the misguided view that science is the only useful way to acquire and organise our knowledge — which is both ahistorical and injudicious.

A personal manifesto

Many people who are unsure of how their work can help put out the various (figurative) fires ravaging the country at the moment often quickly conclude that purpose is best found at the frontlines of this battle.

The common trap here is to conflate the most obvious path with the most right path, or either of them with the only path. It’s easier to protest, violently or non-violently, than to confront the apparent uselessness of whatever it is we had been doing until that moment. We passively discourage ourselves from doing something just because we liked doing it and aspire to doing something else because it accords a stronger sense of purpose, of being useful, in this moment. Putting the fires out becomes more important than everything else.

But the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless.

What we do is worth protecting. How we enjoy the peace is what makes a people, society and culture worth protecting – not the other way around. The nationalist machine has slowly but surely turned this truism on its head, positing the protection itself, and the ethnically and religiously rooted cause legitimising it, as the end-all of our existence, and rendering the freedom of choice as constructed by various articles of the Constitution an indulgence of the selfish elite.

The fascists isolate us and make us think we’re alone. This loneliness stems from the sense either that we’re not one with the nationalists’ cause or that we’re not part of the resistance actively opposing the fascists. Resistance is necessary but the fascists score a point the moment you believe physical resistance is the sole form of valid resistance, and that the endgame is the only moment that matters. Resistive action in moments of crisis is by itself a necessary but insufficient condition that must be fulfilled to thwart our enemies.

If only we remember, for example, that we as a people are worth protecting for choosing to exercise our freedoms when the going gets tough and – to borrow Neil Gaiman’s suggestion – make good art, we are easily salvaged. We are salvaged if we have a fun evening with friends, go for an eclipse-watching picnic with the family, learn to sing or teach to dance, tip generously, water the fields, figure out a problem, walk the dog, go to school, make a good cup of tea, even watch the Sun rise.

There is a simple but persistent purpose in all of these things, little springboards from which to make giant leaps, and the politics of Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro would destroy just this foundation. Their politics represents the extremum of JFK’s exhortation to ‘ask what you can do for your country’, so it’s only natural to feel conflicted when one is seemingly forced to oppose it. But oppose it we must because the nation-state cannot make unlimited demands of the individual either.

The nationalists have further isolated us by carving science and society into distinct parts, robbing science of the moderating lessons of history and by robbing the transient present of the reassuring light of reason. They prize expertise to the point that it renders common sense dangerous, and they declare war on universities to ensure expertise is rare. They value data and facts above all else, empowering themselves to claim the virtuous pedestals of rationality and objectivity, when in fact they have weaponised the context and twisted definitions beyond recognition.

They isolate us by delegitimising our fictions, and the people and labour that produce them, substituting them in the public imagination with made-up histories that have none of fiction’s potential to enlighten and empower and all of scripture’s aspiration to subdue and stifle. In this moment, there is a valuable victory to be had in celebrating homegrown writers, musicians, filmmakers and illustrators.

While the greatest trick the fascists ever pulled was in convincing us that everything we do that’s not immediately of service to the nation is useless, they have also given away what it is we feel we have lost when we begin to feel helpless and insufficient in the face of their bigotry and triumphalism. Let’s reclaim the right to enjoy anything at all that we please (as long as they abide by constitutional principles). It may not seem like much but that’s also why we shouldn’t cede it: lose it and we have no legs to stand on.

My country is burning. Why should I work?

A few days ago, I found asking myself the following question: My country is burning, why should I work? I ended up with some (admittedly inchoate) thoughts, delineated below.

I’m trying to fight off this abject helplessness I’m feeling and edit some science articles, and failing. I’m not able to justify to myself why I shouldn’t drop everything and rush to Delhi (at this time, the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia is about to peak). At the same time, deep in my heart and mind, I know there must be some reason to persevere with what one likes to do and is interested in doing instead of rushing to the frontlines at every sign of trouble.

Somewhere in this maze of thoughts, there is sure to be an illustrative story about duty and country – about the insidious diminishment of one endeavour in favour of another. Yes, we must resist the forces of tyranny and fascism, but there is less and less freedom to choose any forms of resistance other than pouring out on the streets, raising your hands and shouting slogans.

I have nothing against peaceful protest but I have everything against how other forms of protest have been rendered less useful, or entirely meaningless, largely by the same entity whose institutional violence instigated these protests in the first place. This isn’t a question of convenience but of effectiveness: If many of us are out protesting on the street, how many among us are there because other forms of resistance no longer work?

With notable exceptions, the press these days comprises organisations ranging from supine to malicious. Democratic institutions, like many lower courts, various government bodies and even the executive, have been press-ganged into the national government’s majoritarian agenda. The polarisation has become so sharp and the political opposition so negligible that it seems nearly impossible to counter India’s extreme-right politics with anything but politics of other extremes.

In such a time, what does it mean to focus on science communication? To be abundantly clear: I don’t mean focusing on science communication – or any endeavour not apparently connected to the maintenance of a democracy – instead of protesting. I mean joining a protest in the morning, and editing science articles in the evening. That is, where in your work lies the justification to do what you’re doing, simply because you’ve always liked doing it, and which empowers you the same way a resistance movement empowers its participants (at least if you believe you shouldn’t have to protest in order to express your participation and involvement in the country’s wellbeing)?

There is a terribly clichéd example from a previous era: that of starving children in Africa. But in that case, resolution was very easy to access. More recently and closer home, every time ISRO launches satellites to the Moon and Mars, some people in India complain that the country should focus on fixing smaller problems first. Here, too, the road to clarity is evident, if somewhat meandering, taking recourse through economic principles, technological opportunities and (thankfully) a bit of common sense.

However, going from science communication to resisting fascism seems more difficult than usual, although I refuse to admit it’s impossible. There must be a way.

A friend recently told me, “The onslaught on science and reason is part of the fascist agenda, too, and that must be resisted.” Indeed! This is an important perspective… but somehow it also seems insufficient because – again – the tunnel from ‘critical thinking’ to ‘healthy democracy’ has caved in. The one from ‘curious about the world’ to ‘healthy democracy’ is not even on the map, as if we are forgetting that the right to information is one of the foundational principles of a functional democracy, and that science since the early 20th century at least has been one of the dominant ways to obtain such information.

At a colloquium in August last year, Raghavendra Gadagkar, the noted ecologist at IISc, Bengaluru, described two periods that background the practice of science communication: wartime, when it is deployed with uncommon urgency and specificity of purpose, often to beat back a troublesome claim or belief, and peacetime, when it narrates various kinds of stories united only broadly in theme and often in pedagogic form.

The issue is with peacetime science communication and its perceived relevance. In India at least, the simplistic notions that the fascist narrative often reduces more nuanced arguments to present themselves to the typical reader in too many ways for scientists and its communicators to grapple by themselves. When they do, it’s most likely during wartime, and their – our – heightened effectiveness during these episodes of engagement, such as it is, could mislead us into believing science communication is effective and necessary, at least as gauged by quantitative metrics.

Our effectiveness depends on two things: the circumstances and the culture. The circumstances of communication are in our hands, such as the language, topic, presentation, etc. Subversive, small-minded politics erodes the culture, reducing the extent to which good science communication is in demand and pushing its place in the public conversation to the margins. Scicomm in this scenario becomes an esoteric specialisation treated with special gloves in the newsroom and as an optional extra by the readership.

This in turn is why if science communication, or communication of any sort, is to be effective during wartime, it must be kept up during peacetime as well. More specifically, science writers, reporters, editors and communicators of all hues should help in the fight against rhetoric that would reduce a multifaceted issue into a unidimensional one, that would flatten the necessary features of scientific progress into technological questions. We need to preserve the value of good science communication in peacetime as well. But thanks to the unfortunate sensationalist tendencies of journalism, often (but not always) motivated by commerce, such resistance will require more strength and imagination than is apparent.

One battle at a time.

Irrespective of whether you have joined the protests, you must at all other times – through your work, actions and words – keep authoritarian narratives at bay. And it’s because these modes of resistance have been annulled that a physical protest, one of whose strengths lies in numbers, which in turn renders it immutably visible, has become the most viable and thus the dominant display of opposition.

Standing in this moment and looking back at the last few years, some of us (depending on where our ideological, political and moral axes intersect) see a landscape mutilated by the slow violence of right-wing nationalism, and the Citizenship Amendment Act as the absolute last straw. I, a science communicator, am protesting every day – beyond the protests themselves – by reviving the formerly straightforward connections from curiosity and critical thinking to a plural, equitable, just and secular democracy.

The Star Wars dynasty

The latest ‘Star Wars’ movie, The Rise of Skywalker, is worth a watch if you’re a committed fan interested in staying up to date with the franchise. Otherwise, all you’re missing is a movie unsure of what it’s supposed to do, and ends up doing too many things as a result.


MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD


One thing I found notable was Rey’s identity as Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter. Viewers had expressed some consternation when the film’s trailer was released in April this year because it seemed to suggest Rey was a descendant of the Skywalker line. To quote from an older post:

… if she turns out to be the new Skywalker, then the franchise’s writers will finally have completed their betrayal of the infinite purpose of the fantasy genre itself. They will have been utterly lazy – if not guilty of a form of creative manslaughter – if Rey turns out to be biologically related to the Skywalkers, broadcasting the message that either you’re royalty or you’re not, much like the Gandhis themselves have.

In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey turns out to be a Palpatine but identifies as a Skywalker as a token of her allegiance to the Resistance. But this isn’t very far from Rey simply being yet another Skywalker because the franchise is still seemingly preoccupied with two important families: the Skywalkers and the Palpatines. Instead of persisting with one dynasty or, better yet, abolishing the franchise’s obsession with inheritances altogether, the film’s writers have simply created another dynasty.

Perhaps the only solace is that with the end of this trilogy of trilogies have gone all of the last biological remnants of the two lines, so whatever new production starts from this point – whether a TV show or yet another film – will have a great opportunity to take the franchise in a new direction.

Poor Sanskrit

‘BJP MP Says Speaking Sanskrit Beats Diabetes, Boosts Nervous System’, The Wire, December 13, 2019:

In a debate in the Lok Sabha on December 12 about the Sanskrit University Bill, Ganesh Singh, the BJP MP from Satna, Madhya Pradesh, cited studies conducted by some American research institution to claim speaking Sanskrit every day “boosts the nervous system and keeps diabetes and cholesterol at bay”, PTI reported. He also said, “according to a [study] by US space research organisation NASA, if computer programming is done in Sanskrit, it will be flawless.”

It is ironic that a Bill mooted to improve the status of three educational institutions is accompanied by irrelevant, unsupported rhetoric, that too in the Lok Sabha.

Pratap Chandra Sarangi, the minister of state for animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries and micro, small and medium enterprises, also reportedly said during the same debate that “promotion of this ancient language will not impact any other language”, implying that there is no opportunity cost to valorising Sanskrit.

But misguided associations between Sanskrit, the Vedas and the claims therein, as well as other unfounded ideas, will only encourage low-quality scholarship that won’t preserve knowledge of Sanskrit in its proper historical context. So there is a very real, and very important, opportunity cost for Sanskrit itself.

An image of a cube-shaped structure with large steel balls at each vertex, made to wobble as if it were reflected on a water surface.

The molecule that was also a wave

According to the principles of quantum mechanics, you’re a wave – just like light is both a particle and a wave. It’s just that your wavelength is so small that your wave nature doesn’t matter, and you’re treated like a particle. The larger an object is, the smaller its wavelength, and vice versa. We’re confused about whether light is a particle or a wave because photons, the particles of light, are so small and have a measurable wavelength as a result. Scientists know that electrons, protons, neutrons, even neutrinos have the properties of a wave.

But while the math of quantum mechanics says you’re a wave, how can we know for sure if we can’t measure it? There are two ways. One, we don’t have any evidence to the contrary. Two, scientists have been checking if larger and larger particles, as far as they can go, exhibit the properties of a wave – and at every step of the way, they’ve come up with positive results. Both together, we have no reason to believe that we’re not also waves.

Such tests reaffirm the need for quantum mechanics to understand the nature of reality because the rules of classical mechanics alone don’t explain wave-particle duality.

On September 23, scientists from Austria, China, Germany and Switzerland reported that they had measured the wavelength of a group of molecules called oligoporphyrins. Specifically, they used “oligo-tetraphenylporphyrins enriched by a library of up to 60 fluoroalkylsulphanyl chains”. Altogether, they consisted “of up to 2,000 atoms”, becoming the heaviest object directly known to exhibit wave-like properties.

The molecule in question. DOI: 10.1038/s41567-019-0663-9

According to the scientists’ peer-reviewed paper, the molecules had a wavelength of around 53 femtometers, about 100,000-times smaller than the molecules themselves.

* * *

We have known since at least the 11th century, through the work of the Arab scholar Ibn al-Haytham, that light is a wave. In 1670, Isaac Newton propounded that light is made up of small particles, and spent three decades supplying evidence for his argument. His push birthed a conflict: was light wave-like or made up of particles?

The British polymath Thomas Young built on the 17th century Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens to devise an experiment in 1801 that definitively proved light was a wave. It is known widely today as the Young’s double-slit experiment. It is so simple even as its outcomes are so immutable that it has become a mainstay of modern tests of quantum mechanics. Physicists use upgraded versions of the experiment to this day to study the nature and properties matter-waves.

(If you would like to know more, I highly recommend Anil Ananthaswamy’s biography of this experiment, Through Two Doors At Once; here’s an excerpt.)

In the experiment, light from a common source – such as a candle – is allowed to pass through two fine slits separated by a short distance. A sheet of paper sufficiently behind the slits then shows a strange pattern of alternating light and dark bands instead of just two patches of light. This is because light waves passing through the two slits interfere with each other, producing the famous interference pattern. Since only waves can interfere, the experiment shows that light has to be a wave.

An illustration of the double-slit experiment from ‘Though Two Doors At Once’ (2019).

The particulate nature of light would get its proper due only in 1900, when Max Planck stumbled upon a mathematical inconsistency that forced him to conclude light had to be made up of smaller packets of energy. It was the birth of quantum mechanics.

* * *

The international group’s test went roughly as follows: the scientists pulsed a laser onto a glass plate coated with the oligoporphyrins to release a stream of the molecules; collected them into a beam using collimators; randomly chopped the beam into smaller bits; passed each bit through diffraction gratings to split it up; then had the two little beams interfere with each other. Finally, they counted the number of molecules striking the detector while the detector registered the interference pattern.

They had insulated the whole device, about 2m long, from extremely small disturbances, like vibrations, to prevent the results from being corrupted. In their paper, the scientists even write that the final interference pattern was blurred thanks to Earth’s rotation, and which they were able to “compensate for” using effects due to Earth’s gravity.

A schematic diagram of the experimental setup. The oligoporphyrins move from left to right as the experiment progresses. The results of the counter are visible in a diagram above the right-most component. DOI: 10.1038/s41567-019-0663-9

To ascertain that the pattern they were seeing on the detector was in fact due to interference, the scientists performed a variety of checks each of which established a relationship between the shapes on the detector with the properties of the components of the interferometer according to the rules of quantum mechanics. They were also able to rule out alternative, i.e. classical, explanations this way.

For example, the scientists fired a laser through the cloud of molecules post-interference. Each molecule split the laser light into two separate beams, which recombined to produce an interference pattern of their own. This way, scientists could elicit the molecules’ interference pattern by studying the laser’s interference pattern. As they varied the laser power, they found that the visibility distribution of the molecules more closely matched with quantum mechanical models than with classical models, confirming interference.

The solid blue line indicates the quantum mechanical model and the dashed red line is a classical model, both scaled vertically by a factor of 0.93. The shaded areas on the curves represent uncertainty in the model parameters, and the dotted lines indicate unscaled theory curves. DOI: 10.1038/s41567-019-0663-9

What these scientists have achieved isn’t only a feat of measurement. Their findings also help refine the border between the classical and the quantum. The force of gravity governs the laws of classical mechanics, which deals with macroscopic objects, while the electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear forces rule the microscopic world. Although macroscopic and microscopic objects occupy the same universe, physicists haven’t yet understood how classical and quantum mechanics can be combined into a single theory.

One of the problems standing in the way of this union is knowing where – and how – the macroscopic world ends and the microscopic world begins. So by observing quantum mechanical effects at the scale of thousands of atoms, scientists have quite literally pushed the boundaries of what we know about how the universe works.

Colourful dresses hanging on successive hangers from a rod at a clothing store.

A why of how we wear what we wear

There are many major industries operating around the world commonly perceived to be big drivers of climate change. Plastic, steel and concrete manufacturing come immediately to mind – but fashion doesn’t, even though, materially speaking, its many inefficiencies represent something increasingly worse than an indulgence in times so fraught by economic inequality and the dividends of extractive capitalism.

And even then, details like ‘making one cotton t-shirt requires 3,900 litres of water’ (source) spring first into our consciousness before less apparent, and more subtle, issues like the label itself. Why is the fashion industry called so? I recently read somewhere – an article, or maybe a tweet (in any case the thought isn’t original) – that the term ‘fashion’ implies an endless seasonality, a habit of periodically discarding designs, and the clothes they inhabit, only to invent and manufacture new garments.

The persistence of fashion trends also presents social problems. Consider, for example, the following paragraph, copied from a press release issued by Princeton University:

People perceive a person’s competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person’s clothing, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour by Princeton University. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds, and are very hard to avoid. … Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.

Let’s assume that the study is robust as well as that the press release is faithful to the study’s conclusions (verifying which would require a lot more work than I am willing to spare for this post – but you’ve been warned!). Getting rid of fashion trends will do little, or even nothing, to render our societies more equitable. But it merits observing that they also participate in, possibly are even predicated on, maintaining ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, demarcated by the awareness of dressing trends, ability to purchase the corresponding garments and familiarity with the prevailing ways to use them in order to incentivise certain outcomes over others on behalf of people who adhere to similar sartorial protocols.

(Aside: Such behaviour usually favours members of the elite but it’s not entirely absent outside the corresponding sociopolitical context. For example, and as a tangential case of enclothed cognition, the titular character in the 2016 Tamil film Kabali insists on wearing a blazer at all times simply because his upper-caste antagonists use their clothing to indicate their social status and, consequently, power.)

Obviously, the social and climatic facets of fashion design aren’t entirely separable. The ebb-and-flow of design trends drives consumer spending and, well, consumption whereas the stratification of individual competence – at least according to the study; certainly of likability based on status signals – sets up dressing choices as a socially acceptable proxy to substitute seemingly less prejudicial modes of evaluation. (And far from being a syllogism, many of our social ills actively promote the neoliberal consumer culture at the heart of the climate crisis.)

Then again, proxies in general are not always actively deployed. There are numerous examples from science administration as well as other walks of life. This is also one of the reasons I’m not too worried about not interrogating the study: it rings true (to the point of rendering the study itself moot if didn’t come to any other conclusions).

People considering a scientist for, say, career advancement often judge the quality of their work based on which journals they were published in, even though it’s quite well-known that this practice is flawed. But the use of proxies is justified for pragmatic reasons: when universities are understaffed and/or staff are underpaid, proxies accelerate decision-making, especially if they also have a low error-rate and the decision isn’t likely to have dire consequences for any candidate. If the resource-crunch is more pronounced, it’s quite possible that pragmatic considerations altogether originate the use of proxies instead of simply legitimising them.

Could similar decision-making pathways have interfered with the study? I hope not, or they would have strongly confounded the study’s findings. In this scenario, where scientists presented a group of decision-makers with visual information based on which the latter had to make some specific decisions without worrying about any lack of resources, we’re once again faced with yet another prompt to change the way we behave, and that’s a tall order.

The gaudy-hued beast

When you wake up in the morning to news of four people who allegedly raped a woman having been shot to death by the police, it’s hard not to ask yourself what kind of country this is. It’s even harder when you see political leaders and celebrities publicly applauding this extra-judicial killing, sparing no thought for their passive rejection of the country’s justice system and endorsement of populist politics at its most abject.

As a journalist with a news organisation where impact is just as important as reach, if not more, and where conviction (rooted in facts and certain cultural sensibilities) is our coin, I also couldn’t help internalise a bit of failure for not having been able to effect change. After a team of two dozen people (on average), plus thousands of reporters and freelancers, spent nearly five years of labour and crores of rupees trying – among various things – to infuse more faith in democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, the breadth of episodes like the present one really highlight, in gaudy colours, the giant beast that confronts us.

Of course, this is somewhat self-aggrandising: some newspapers as well as numerous public and private institutions have been trying to improve the way people think for over a century. (I’m sure the idea that society simply awaits instructions on how to conduct itself is also very flawed, but I hope you know that’s not what I mean in this text.) Different people glimpse the true avatar of the challenges they face in different ways, and I glimpsed mine after starting at The Wire.

Anyway, as such disappointing episodes pile up, quickly surpassing the Ghaziabad landfill in volume as well as stench, the sensation of having failed is bound to become your best friend, and whose presence is easily compounded if your beat is not as eye-catching as politics or political economics. It affects your ability to think straight, encouraging you to accommodate misanthropic sentiments in your evaluation of other people and their words or actions, and interferes with the reward mechanisms that used to make you feel good every time you finished writing a story.

I don’t want to delineate how people deal with such emotions because, and after insisting that that there are ways to deal with such emotions, I think there is very little acknowledgment in the first place that such an issue even exists. Organisations (at least English-language newsrooms in India) that employ journalists don’t openly discuss the sort of mental make-up a person needs to remain resilient, confident and productive at once, to be able to retain enough of their conviction and strength in the face of repeated setbacks. As far as I know, there are no institutional mechanisms of redressal either.

The bit about confidence is particularly important if only because a journalism of pessimism, an endeavour utterly incapable of imagining a better future, can only be corrosive to society, and it bodes even worse for a journalist on the job to spiral into cynicism as a result of their work. So as I have no doubt that the gaudy-hued beast that looms in front of us is only going to get bigger and badder if India’s socio-political culture continues to stagnate in its current form, I also hope that people – especially, but not only, employers – recognise that not everyone can be a healthy journalist all the time. And when they’re not, it would be great, for starters, to talk about it.

Featured image credit: Donovan Reeves/Unsplash. Effects: PHOTOMOSH.

A windier world

A new paper in Nature Climate Change reports a reversal in “terrestrial stilling” since 2010 – i.e. global wind speeds, thought to be in decline thanks to deforestation and real estate development, actually stopped slowing around 2010 and have been climbing since.

The paper’s authors, a group of researchers from China, France, Singapore, Spain, the UK and the US, argue that the result can be explained by “decadal ocean-atmosphere oscillations” and conclude with further analysis that the increase “has increased potential wind energy by 17 ± 2% for 2010 to 2017, boosting the US wind power capacity factor by ~2.5% and explains half the increase in the US wind capacity factor since 2010.”

Now that we have some data to support the theory that both terrestrial and oceanic processes affect wind speeds and to what extent, the authors propose building models to predict wind speeds in advance and engineer wind turbines accordingly to maximise power generation.

This seems like a silver lining but it isn’t.

Global heating does seem to be influencing wind speeds. To quote from the paper again: “The ocean-atmosphere oscillations, characterised as the decadal variations in [mainly three climate indices] can therefore explain the decadal variation in wind speed (that is, the long-term stilling and the recent reversal).” This in turn empowers wind turbines to produce more energy and correspondingly lowers demand from non-renewable sources.

DOI: 10.1038/s41558-019-0622-6

However, three of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions are concrete, plastics and steel manufacturing – and all three materials are required in not insubstantial quantities to build a wind turbine. So far from being a happy outcome of global heating, the increase in average regional wind speed – which the authors say could last for up to a decade – could drive the construction of more or, significantly, different turbines which in turn causes more greenhouses gases to be released into the atmosphere.

Finally, while the authors estimate the “global mean annual wind speed” increased from 3.13 m/s in 2010 to 3.3 m/s in 2017, the increase in the amount of energy entering a wind turbine is distributed unevenly by location: “22 ± 2% for North America, 22 ± 4% for Europe and 11 ± 4% for Asia”. Assuming these calculations are reliable, the figures suggest industrialised nations have a stronger incentive to capitalise on the newfound stilling reversal (from the same paper: “We find that the capacity factor for wind generation in the US is highly and significantly correlated with the variation in the cube of regional-average wind speed”).

On the other hand Asia, which still has a weaker incentive, will continue to bear a disproportionate brunt of the climate crisis. To quote from an article published in The Wire Science today,

… as it happens, the idea that ‘green technology’ can help save the environment is dangerous because it glosses over the alternatives’ ills. In a bid to reduce the extraction of hydrocarbons for fuel as well as to manufacture components for more efficient electronic and mechanical systems, industrialists around the world have been extracting a wide array of minerals and metals, destroying entire ecosystems and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. It’s as if one injustice has replaced another.

Godwin Vasanth Bosco, The Wire Science, December 2, 2019